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Griffith billed Way Down East as "A Simple Story Of Plain People," but this modest summation fails to convey the scale and significance of one of the director's most ambitious works. At the time, it was the most expensive challenge Griffith had ever undertaken, and it proved to be, next to The Birth Of A Nation, his most successful.
Lillian Gish stars as Anna Moore, a poor New England girl who moves in with her wealthy cousins. There, she falls under the gaze of the cavalier Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), who wants Anna so badly that he stages a mock wedding and convinces her they're married just to have his way with her. But when she becomes pregnant, Sanderson is quick to abandon her. In the small town of Bartlett, Anna finds temporary solace from her woes and falls in love with a wealthy, yet humble, squire (Richard Barthelmess). However, she cannot escape her scandalous past and is once more thrust into emotional torment.
Griffith provided engaging bits of small-town Americana to balance the film, acting as comic relief from the dramatization of Anna's intense despair, which reaches its climax -- in a sequence that has become screen legend -- in a winter's storm on a floe of ice, moving unstoppably toward certain death.
With Way Down East, Griffith sought to unveil the ultimate melodrama. He freely expanded upon Lottie Blair Parker's successful play, filling the plot with what he considered the most dramatic elements of other classic melodramas (such as the ice floe and the poignant baptism of Anna's baby) and improved upon it with two elements that could never be matched on the stage: his deft use of montage, particularly effective during the tension-filled climax, and his innovative use of natural locations, ranging from the lush and luxuriant to the bitter and treacherous, providing the perfect enhancement to a highly accomplished piece of filmmaking.