"This man -- an honored
guest at your table -- why
don't you find out what HIS
life has been?"

"For HE is the man who
betrayed me!"

Way Down East was a play, then a movie about an orphan girl named Anna who is seduced and abandoned by a cynical lothario, and who subsequently seeks refuge with a farm family. She suffers when her scandalous past is revealed, and is ultimately saved by the love of a sympathetic, brave, and forgiving young man.

The story was written by Lottie Blair Parker and first produced in Newport, Rhode Island in 1897. The play made it to Broadway in 1898, with revivals in 1903 and 1905. The story was popular for years with regional theater companies. It was first made as a movie in 1908, with remakes in 1914, 1920, and 1935. The 1920 version is by far the most famous, as it was a D. W. Griffith production starring Lillian Gish, but the 1935 film is also significant, as it starred a young Henry Fonda.

"Anna's lost in the storm
-- get out your men --
quick!"

The 1920 film is remembered both because of the continuing popularity of Griffith and Gish, and also because of a climactic sequence in which Anna almost perishes, lying helpless on a block of ice that floats downstream towards crushing waterfalls (a sequence subsequently borrowed by other filmmakers, including Vsevolod Pudovkin in his 1926 Soviet classic, Mother).

This scene is convincing in part because Griffith actually had Gish lie on a block of ice in a river near River Junction, Vermont, for the filming, a demand that left her sister, Dorothy, threatening to kill Griffith if Lillian died of exposure.

The rights to the story for the 1920 version were sold to Griffith for a then-stunning $175,000. This was twice as much as he had paid for the rights to The Birth of a Nation, and Way Down East was ultimately second only to Nation in Griffith's list of commercial hits.

The film's humor is extremely crude, and unlikely to appeal to modern audiences. However the story otherwise works pretty well. Gish is convincing in her despair and helplessness after she has been betrayed. This makes the resolution of the story satisfying, when she is finally accepted and her betrayer is revealed and punished.

The one man for
the one woman,
Between them the
Sacramental bond --
Life's cleanest and sweetest.

Could it be remade today? Not without significant changes; premarital sex and being a single mother are just not as scandalous as they used to be.

The term "way down east" apparently used to be an idiomatic expression meaning the far-eastern part of Maine.


Sources:
Internet Broadway Database
Blackhawk Films
Film in Context (http://www.thecontext.com/docs/2622.html)
Classic Video Club (http://www.classicvideo.ch/FilmSheet.cfm?ID=3712)
Robert B. Connelly, The Silents

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