Susan Marie Molloy

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Book and Movie Reviews: “‘Way Down East”

It’s a play!  It’s a book!  It’s a silent!  It’s a talkie!

The other evening, my beau and I had a few spare hours to research something to watch in the way of a film. We came across one I never heard of, “’Way Down East,” with Richard Barthelmess, Lilian Gish, Mary Hay, et al. This is a 1920 production by D.W. Griffith (145 minutes running time).

The bare bones plot: The film opens with Anna Moore, a poor rural relation to her rich Boston family, getting ready to visit them in hopes of borrowing a few dollars to keep her and her sick mother afloat. At a party, Anna meets the nefarious Lennox Sanderson, who tricks her into a phony marriage (he’s hot for her; no love), and she quickly finds herself alone with a baby (out of wedlock) on the way and deserted by Lennox. The sick baby passes away, Anna gets a job with Squire Bartlett on his farm, David (the squire’s son) falls for Anna, but because of the guilt of her past, she rejects him. Town Gossip Martha spreads rumors, Anna runs off, only to be caught on an ice floe headed for the falls, and David rescues her from sure death. The films ends with a triple wedding, and life is happy.

Lillian Gish in the famous ice floe scene! (1920 silent film version)

For a Griffith film, this is an outstanding work. I didn’t see anything that was Griffith-esque, that is, racially distasteful. and the like.


Rochelle Hudson and Henry Fonda in the 1935 soundie.


Curious, I looked around for any other possible film interpretations. There is a 1935 sound version (80 minutes running time) with Henry Fonda, Rochelle Hudson, Andy Devine, Margaret Hamilton, et al. This version starts with the character Anna Moore looking for a job at the squire’s farm. All else in her past is woven into the present story. This version doesn’t end with a wedding, but here, Lennox dies, and life is happy nonetheless.

There’s a book, too. but first, before any of the above, there is the play. It was written by Charlotte Blair Parker in 1897 and first called “Annie Laurie.” It seems it was a big, long-running hit before Griffith purchased it to make his 1920 silent. As of this writing, I haven’t found a copy the play to read.

However, I did find the book, which is a rewritten work of the story by playwright, actor, and director Joseph Rhode Grismer and published in 1900 as, “’Way Down East: A Romance of New England Life”. This version begins – not with Anna Moore getting ready to visit her rich city family, nor with her interviewing for a job with the squire – but with a football game between Harvard and Yale. There is where Anna meets the nefarious Lennox, and the rest of the story follows, with David and Anna marrying at the end, and Gossip Martha intimating Lennox was a scoundrel (as if she wasn’t!).

No matter which version of the story you read or watch, it is a good tale of trust, guilt, gossip, evil, and good.

As always, I feel like I hit a goldmine when I find books and plays that precede the movie. I hit the motherlode here.

To watch the 1920 silent: Way Down East
To watch the 1935 talkie: Way Down East
To read the book: ‘Way Down East: A Romance of New England by Joseph Rhode Grismer
To read the play: still looking for it

©Susan Marie Molloy and all works within.