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Way Down East (1920)
Until last night, I hadn't seen Way Down East in one sitting since I think, the mid-1980s, and having recommended it as the Richard Barthelmess movie to see, I thought I should take my own advice and hope I was right.
I was. I was. I was.
The film opens with young Anna Moore (Lillian Gish), the poor country relation of the wealthy Tremont Family, sent by her mother to visit her city cousins to see if they can lend her poor family a buck or two. Once she arrives, Anna is too embarrassed to ask for money and decides to just visit a while. The Tremonts would rather send her packing, but believe they will impress their "eccentric, but enormously rich aunt" (Florence Short, sporting the best 1920s lesbian outfit ever) if they pretend to be kind to Anna and let her stay. At a society ball, Anna's delicate, guileless beauty attracts every man in the room, particularly society cad Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), who literally charms the pants off her.
Sanderson, knowing Anna won't go to bed with him unless they're married, gets her to agree to a "secret" marriage, which he arranges by asking a buddy of his to pretend to be a preacher. He then sets her up in a secret cottage where he secretly visits her from time to time until she not so secretly gets pregnant, at which point he lets her in on the secret and dumps her. Anna is forced to move to a new town to have the baby, whom she names "Trust Lennox" (good one), and dodges questions about her husband as long as she can. The baby sickens and dies (a very affecting scene) and Anna, the victim of scandal and rumor, is out in the cold again.
This time she makes her way to Bartlett Village to start a new life and gets hired at the estate of Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh) as a domestic servant. Bartlett's son, David (Richard Barthelmess), a strapping young fellow, falls in love with Anna in spite of the family's wishes that he marry his cousin Kate (Barthelmess's eventual first wife, Mary Hay). Who should come sniffing after Kate, but that wretch Lennox Sanderson, out visiting his country estate in Bartlett Village!
Anna and Skeevy McLiarson meet, of course, and he tells he she must go, because for Pete's sake, he lives right next door and it would never do. Anna says, "Seriously, a**hole? That's what you lead with? Your baby's dead, by the way." Not really, but that's how good an actress Lillian Gish is. Anna stays with the family, becoming very dear to all of them, and never lets on that she knows Sanderson. David eventually declares his love, but Anna, ashamed of her past and not wanting to ruin his life, refuses him.
Eventually, the pious landlady who kicked Anna out of her house after the baby died shows up at the Bartlett sewing circle and clues in the town busybody that Anna has a checkered past. The gossip skips gleefully over to the squire's place to spread the good news, which she does, and Anna spends a horrible day making cakes, cleaning house, and setting the table knowing what's coming while the squire confirms the rumor. She is summarily tossed out on her ear, but not before pointing a just finger at Sanderson, the man who wronged her.
Snowstorm! Ice floes! Deadly waterful! Stalwart hero!
Oh my. You know Lillian Gish lived to be 99, but I defy you not to hold your breath during the final eighteen minutes of this film wondering whether she'll be saved.
I'm happy to report that I'd remembered the essential excellence of the story and cinematography, so, phew, but I'd forgotten or had not taken proper notice of the following:
All of these good points make it easier to overlook the wretched bits of comedy relief that punctuate the harsher, heartbreaking story. You get why they're there, but it's all yokel jokes and slapstick. Still. Those scenes don't last long.
See it. Love it. Marvel at the eternal, ethereal beauty of Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess.
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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