D.W. Griffith's WAY DOWN EAST : After the box office success with the interracial romantic tragedy BROKEN BLOSSOMS , director D.W. Griffith need another film that would bring in profit at the box office. But since it was the start of the 1920's Griffith need to appeal to a changing audience, the answer laded in the 1890's play WAY DOWN EAST. Griffith was to have his frequent star Lillian Gish in the lead role of Anna Moore, (who was hot off her performance in BROKEN BLOSSOMS ). Now unlike previous Griffith films there was no need for stunning sets, costumes, dramatic battle sequences, and other things. What the play did have was "A Simple Story of Simple People" and a moving melodramatic narrative which resulted in a climatic rescue at the end.
WAY DOWN EAST  when on to be one of the most profitable films for Griffith and the forth highest grossing film of the 1920's. The film had a constant road show revival until 1928 when Silent films were giving way to new "Talkie" movies like THE JAZZ SINGER . Now days this film would seem like a very dated silent melodrama to the casual film buff but to the film enthusiasts who like or love silent cinema would find this film form the one of the important pioneers of cinema, director D.W .Griffith quite brilliant.
The plotline of WAY DOWN EAST: This so called story of simple people is set back in the 1890's about one young woman's tragic life. The story involves a young, poor and naive New England woman called Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) and her mother who are living in utter poverty. The mother asks Anna to go to Boston and ask for financial help from her wealthy cousin. When Anna arrives in Boston she becomes the latest obsession for local playboy Lenox Sanderson (who as one of the title card declares has only three expertises ladies, Ladies and LADIES!), Sanderson sets out to seduce the naive country Girl by wooing her. As time goes by Lenox hatches a plan for a fake wedding to bed Anna (unknown to her) and asks her to keep the wedding a secret due to him "marring" beneath his class ( also Lenox can still live out of his father's back pocket ). But when Anna reviles that she is expecting Lenox, he tells her the truth and heartlessly abandons her with his child. Now with the shame of having conceived a child out of wedlock, her kind mother protects Anna from any vicious scorn until her Mother dies and Anna is sent out to wander.
A while later Anna gives birth to her child in a boarding house in a small town but the new born is very ill and after the doctor leaves Anna's cold land lady ask her where is her Husband. Anna lies for the time being and the landlady reminds her that if the baby is to die, God will never accepted its soul if it hasn't been baptized. So all alone in her room Anna baptizes her child and when the doctor returns, he reviles the soul crushing news to Anna that her child has died. Things go much worse later on when Anna's cold-hearted landlady throws her out on the suspicion that there is no husband and that she gave birth to a bastard child. Anna then goes off wandering in a state of grief in search of a new home, which leads her into the country side and to the farm of Squire Bartlett.
Although Squire Bartlett is a god fearing man and suspicious of Anna when she ask for a job, the Squires wife and son David convince him to take her on as a house hand. In return Anna gets some much need stability in her life and shelter. In the meantime David falls deeply in love with Anna, but Anna still to traumatize cannot bring herself to love David. Trouble brews when an unwelcome neighbour shows up from the wealthy Sanderson estate nearby turns out to be a regular visitor much to Anna's shock and horror, the man that betrayed and harmed her, Lenox Sanderson a family friend of the Bartlett's. When Lenox sees her working on the farm he threatens to get rid of her but Anna in return threatens to revile the truth if he tries to do so.
The seasons pass by, winter arrives and Anna has become close to the Bartlett's and has managed to steer clear of Lenox ,but her new found security is destroyed when one of the ones close to the Bartlett's meets Anna's old landlady and finds out half of the story which is relayed to the godly Squire Bartlett. The Squire over dinner one night in the middle of a major snow storm and demands that she is to leave his house, Anna then tells the whole truth and reviles Lenox (who is having dinner with the Bartlett's) to be the one who took advantage of her. In a heartbroken sate Anna runs out into the ragging blizzard and passes out on a frozen river. David runs after her and is there in time when the ice starts to breaks up which results in one of the most amazing sequence in silent cinema, a rescue from the ice on a real frozen and moving river.
Overall the direction is solid from D. W .Griffith (why wouldn't it be from one of cinemas key directors), the cinema -photography from G. W Blitzer is great and the acting from the cast is very good, especially from Lillian Gish who gave a very moving performance in this role. But the real show stealer in this film is the daring resuce from the breaking Ice.
Now apparently Griffith wanted to shoot the Ice sequence in a studio but for various reasons he couldn't do this so it had to be done on a real frozen river with Lillian Gish upon a huge chunk of ice. Gish apparently during the shoot had to cope with lying still on that sheet of ice with the tips of her hair in the freezing river while the river was moving rapidly. This stunt alone had so much risk, it would have been easy that Gish could of been killed doing this stunt and at one point on screen she shivers (which I'm not sure is acting or actually genuine). Even during the shoot camera man G. W Blitzer had to light a fire under his camera just to keep it working in the cold climate, it's no wonder why many cast members (including Griffith) caught Pneumonia thanks to this sequence. In fact this stunt alone is just as dangerous as some of the major stunts Buster Keaton performed in THE GENERAL  with the risk involved. Now days in an age where CGI eliminates so much risk to all the stunt personal and actors, it makes these near neck breaking stunts in most silent films more amazing to view in the second decade of the 21st century.
My Final thoughts on D.W. Griffith's WAY DOWN EAST : It's a moving silent melodrama with an amazing stunt at the end which works well thanks to Griffith's direction and Lillian Gish's performance. My rating for this simple, but slightly heat touching silent film is a rating of 80%.