Way Down East


Way Down East is a 1920 American silent romantic drama film directed by D. W. Griffith and starring Lillian Gish. It is one of four film adaptations of the melodramatic 19th century play Way Down East by Lottie Blair Parker. There were two earlier silent versions and one sound version in 1935 starring Henry Fonda.[2] Griffith's version is particularly remembered for its climax in which Lillian Gish's character is rescued from doom on an icy river.

Way Down East
Theatrical release poster
Directed byD. W. Griffith
Written by
  • Anthony Paul Kelly
  • D. W. Griffith (uncredited)
  • Joseph R. Grismer (adaptation)
Based onWay Down East
by Lottie Blair Parker
Produced byD. W. Griffith (uncredited)
Edited by
Music by
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • September 3, 1920 (1920-09-03)
Running time
145 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageSilent (English intertitles)
Box office$4,500,000[1]
PLAY full film; runtime 02:27:58


Anna (Lillian Gish) is a poor country girl whom handsome man-about-town Lennox (Lowell Sherman) tricks into a fake wedding. When she becomes pregnant, he leaves her. She has the baby, named Trust Lennox, on her own.

When the baby dies she wanders until she gets a job with Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh). David (Richard Barthelmess), Squire Bartlett's son, falls for her, but she rejects him due to her past. Lennox then shows up lusting for another local girl, Kate. Seeing Anna, he tries to get her to leave, but she refuses to go, although she promises to say nothing about his past.

Finally, Squire Bartlett learns of Anna's past from Martha, the town gossip. In his anger, he tosses Anna out into a snow storm. Before she goes, she names the respected Lennox as her despoiler and the father of her dead baby. She becomes lost in the raging storm while David leads a search party. In the climax, the unconscious Anna floats on an ice floe down a river towards a waterfall, until rescued at the last moment by David, who marries her in the final scene.

Subplots relate the romances and eventual marriages of some of the picaresque characters inhabiting the village.



Billy Bitzer (behind Pathé camera) with Griffith on location
Gish in famous ice-floe scene

D. W. Griffith bought the film rights to the story, originally a stage play by Lottie Blair Parker that was elaborated by Joseph R. Grismer. Grismer's wife, the Welsh actress Phoebe Davies, became identified with the play beginning in 1897 and starred in over 4,000 performances of it by 1909, making it one of the most popular plays in the United States. Davies died in 1912, having toured the play for well over ten years. The play, an old-fashioned story that espoused nineteenth-century American and Victorian ideals, was considered outdated by the time of its cinematic production in 1920.[3]

Although it was Griffith's most expensive film to date, it was also one of his most commercially successful. Way Down East is the fourth-highest grossing silent film in cinema history, taking in more than $4.5 million at the box office in 1920.[4] Some sources, quoting newspaper ads of the time, say a sequence was filmed in an early color process, possibly Technicolor or Prizmacolor.[5][6]

Clarine Seymour, who had appeared in four previous Griffith films, was hired to play Kate, the squire's niece. However, when Seymour died after surgery, her role was given to Mary Hay, and Seymour's footage was reshot.

The famous ice-floe sequence was filmed in White River Junction, Vermont. An actual waterfall was used, though it was only a few feet high; the long shot where a large drop is shown was filmed at Niagara Falls. The ice needed to be sawed or dynamited before filming could be done. During filming, a small fire had to be kept burning beneath the camera to keep the oil from freezing. At one point, Griffith was frostbitten on one side of his face. No stunt doubles were used at the time, so Gish and Barthelmess performed the stunts themselves. Gish's hair froze, and she lost feeling in her hand from the cold.[7][8] It was her idea to put her hand and hair in the water, an image which would become iconic. Her right hand would be somewhat impaired for the remainder of her life. The shot where the ice floes are filmed going over the waterfall was filmed out of season, so those ice floes are actually wooden. Cinematographically, the ice floe scene is an early example of parallel action.


Similar to other Griffith productions, Way Down East was subjected to censorship by some American state film censor boards. For example, the Pennsylvania film board required over 60 cuts in the film, removing the mock marriage and honeymoon between Lennox and Anna as well as any hints of her pregnancy, effectively destroying the film's integral conflict.[9] The resulting film may have surprised viewers in that state when a child suddenly appears shortly before its death. Other cuts removed scenes where society women smoke cigarettes and an intertitle with the euphemism "wild oats."[9]

Scene with Barthelmess and Gish


Box officeEdit

The film earned $1 million in profit.[10]

Later assessments of the filmEdit

After viewing the drama at a public screening in 1994, film critic Mark Adamo of The Washington Post was especially impressed with Gish's performance and with Griffith's highly innovative "cinematic style":

What's astounding about the film is not that the rickety conventions of 1890s stage melodrama dog its every frame. (Even the film's seeming pioneering of feminism is hoary: the Leviticus-style titles would have us believe that Lillian Gish's tremulous ingenue fallen prey to a heavily mascaraed roue is "the story of Woman.") What's amazing is that so much of Gish's tough, funny, intuitive performance, particularly in the film's middle section as she bears her illegitimate child, transcends time, place and technology. Equally amazing is Griffith's mighty striving, with his arty location shots, quirky close-ups and riskily staged set pieces, to forge a new and expressly cinematic style.[11]

Later, in 2007, in his comparison of this production to other works by Griffith, film reviewer Paul Brenner judged it to be one of the director's better, less "preachy" screen presentations:

Many of Griffith's features suffer from sententious moralizing, a sense of God speaking to the masses, and outright racism. But Way Down East highlights the greatness of Griffith without having to sit through the Sermon on the Mount or the Ride of The Klan. In Way Down East, Griffith's psychotic nuttiness, for once, didn't get in the way of a good film.[3]


  1. ^ Box office of Way Down East at IMDB accessed January 27, 2017
  2. ^ Way Down East at IMDb.
  3. ^ a b Brenner, Paul (2007). "Way Down East Movie Review". FilmCritic. Archived from the original on November 23, 2008. Retrieved April 16, 2020.
  4. ^ Dirks, Tim. The Greatest Films, film review, 1996-2008. Last accessed: February 24, 2008.
  5. ^ Way Down East at SilentEra.com
  6. ^ eMoviePoster.com
  7. ^ James L. Neibaur (2012). "Way Down East (Web Exclusive)". Cineaste.com. Cineaste Magazine. Retrieved June 4, 2014.
  8. ^ "Making Movies, 1920". www.eyewitnesstohistory.com. EyeWitness to History. 2002. Retrieved June 4, 2014.
  9. ^ a b Smith, Frederick James (October 1922). "Foolish Censors". Photoplay. New York. 22 (5): 39, 41. Retrieved December 3, 2013.
  10. ^ Balio, Tino (2009). United Artists: The Company Built by the Stars. University of Wisconsin Press. p. 39. ISBN 978-0-299-23004-3.
  11. ^ Adamo, Mark (July 18, 1994). "Way Down East". The Washington Post. Retrieved September 3, 2013.

External linksEdit

  • Way Down East at IMDb
  • Way Down East at the TCM Movie Database
  • Way Down East at SilentEra.com
  • Way Down East at The Greatest Films by Tim Dirks
  • Way Down East film on YouTube
  • Way Down East is available for free download at the Internet Archive