Film Reviews

100 Years Ago: Way Down East

Published April 2, 2020
Anna gets shown the door

Few movies have been more rapturously received than D.W.Griffith’s Way Down East. For the Boston Post it became the subject of a heavily italicised editorial on 21 September, 1920: “This remarkable film should be seen by everyone; it is clean, sweet and beautiful; enlivened by humour and thrilling beyond description. When this art reaches so high a standard the Post deems it a duty to publicly commend it.”

The Chicago Daily News was equally enthusiastic: “He has woven a glorious symphony; he has made a tumultuous rhapsody out of an uncouth strain of melody.”

One hundred years ago the movies came with an intermission and a printed souvenir program. The evening might begin with a chorus of Home, Sweet Home before the curtain was raised, and end in thunderous applause. This was the reception given to Griffith’s melodrama about an innocent girl from the country who is seduced and abandoned by a wealthy cad. Way Down East was a box office sensation that cost more than US$800,000 to make, but grossed US$4.5 million. The second highest earner  of 1920 was Harry Millarde’s Over the Hill to the Poorhouse, at US$3 million.

The opening year of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ was one of considerable social, economic and technological progress. American women got the vote and began to benefit from a new range of labour-saving devices. Automobiles multiplied exponentially, led by the Model-T Ford. Perhaps the most influential of all innovations was the commencement of commercial radio broadcasting. It was a boom period for the movies, which outstripped all other forms of popular entertainment.

On the other hand, 1920 saw the beginning of Prohibition which would last until 1933, lowering rates of cirrhosis and abetting a golden age of organised crime. The gangster years in turn inspired countless Hollywood movies, making careers for figures such as Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson.

Looking back one can see a dramatic disconnect between the social advancement of the period and a moral code that remained stuck in the Victorian era. Of course it could be argued the same contradictions exist today, in America’s perpetual tug o’ war between libertarians and wowsers, but in 1920 leading filmmakers felt obliged to comply with Christian values.

Lennox charms impressionable Anna

Well, they did and they didn’t. D.W.Griffith, widely celebrated as “the father of film”, saw the potential of the medium for “mass enlightenment,” but while his intertitles moralised in lofty tones Griffith’s characters took a different course. In Way Down East, Anna Moore, played by Lillian Gish, is swept off her feet by a scheming, playboy, Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), and lured into a sham marriage that leaves her alone and pregnant. In the second half of the film Anna suffers the stigma of the single mother. Her baby dies and she looks for work in a country town. Her manner is resigned and saintly. She has resolved that her life is ruined, accepting that no decent man will overlook her fall from grace.

She doesn’t reveal her background to the family that takes her on as a kitchen help. The Bartletts are devotees of the Scriptures, with the patriarch, Squire Bartlett, taking the Old Testament view, while his wife is the forgiving, New Testament type. Their handsome son, David (Richard Barthelmess), has the hots for Anna from Day One. David “is thrilled with the thought that she is the virginal white flower of his dreams.” By the end of the story he has managed to overcome this thoroughly bourgeois expectation.

Way Down East is chiefly remembered today for its stunning conclusion, when an unconscious Anna is swept downstream on an ice floe while David comes to the rescue, leaping from one hunk of ice to the next. The real surprise is that Gish and Barthelmess did their own stunts, getting half frozen to death in the process.

Expiring on the ice, but help is on its way

Yet the sensational ending shouldn’t obscure Griffith’s central theme that women such as Anna should be viewed compassionately, as victims, not as social pariahs. He appeals to the Christian charity of his viewers, exposing the narrowness of the fundamentalist viewpoint.

Way Down East began life in 1897 as a popular stage play by Lottie Blair Parker. By the time Griffith picked it up it was already a minor classic but he had no intentions of leaving the narrative untouched. For the first 71 minutes we get a detailed backstory that never appeared in the theatre. He changes Lennox from a football star into a decadent fop living parasitically off his father’s money.

The film contrasts the goodness of country folk with the personal viciousness of the wealthy, fashionable city-dwellers. Lennox is a particularly nasty piece of work, a leech who thinks only of his pleasures.

Griffith tells us: “Sanderson belongs to a class which, if it cannot get what it wants in one way, it will go to any length to get it in another.” The prize is Anna’s virginity, and the stratagem is a secret marriage in which the priest and witnesses are paid stooges. It’s notable that this dirty trick is ascribed not just to a louse, but a class. The film is intended – and was undoubtedly received – as an indictment of a leisured upper crust that knew nothing of everyday toil.

In stories of earlier times villainy was supplied by a corrupt aristocracy. In America, at the dawn of the jazz age, the villain was the offspring of a rampant, voracious capitalism. It would be interesting to look for movies that feature good capitalists. One suspects it’d be a short list.

It’s clear that in times of rapid social change a few people become prosperous while many fall further behind. As a mass spectacle the cinema’s audience was dominated by the lower classes – a fact made clear by Griffith’s subtitle: A Simple Story of Plain People.

The second biggest film of 1920, Over the Hill to the Poorhouse, is a melodrama about a woman named Ma Benton who has six children, most of them self-centred and ungrateful. When Ma finds herself consigned to the poorhouse she is rescued by the son once considered the black sheep of the family, a man who has bettered himself by his own energy and intitative.

And so the message of the two biggest films of 1920 is the same: extolling the virtues of honest labour and compassion. It’s not the kind of thing that would fire the emotions of today’s audiences. What we might view as heavy-handed moralising was greeted as profundity. The acting, which we would call over-acting, was universally admired. Hollywood star, John Barrymore, wrote to the director, proclaiming Lilllian Gish’s performance “the most superlatively exquisite and poignantly enchanting thing that I have ever seen in my life.”

Perhaps the greatest contrast with today is that Griffith was so often praised as an “artist”, his shots of the landscape compared to paintings by the Old Masters and Corot. Call any contemporary director an artist and it’s unlikely that he or she will ever get to make the runaway box office hit of the year.


Way Down East

Directed by D.W.Griffith

Written by Antony Paul Kelly & D.W.Griffith, after a play by Lottie Blair Parker

Starring Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Lowell Sherman, Burr McIntosh, Kate Bruce, Vivia Ogden, Porter Strong, Creighton Hale, Mary Hale, George Neville

USA, 145 mins


Published in the Australian Financial Review, 4 April, 2020