In dire need of money, Anna Moore (Lillian Gish), a young, sheltered girl from the country, is sent by her mother to visit her wealthy family members in the big city and ask for money. Once she arrives, her snobby cousins are hardly thrilled to have their lower-class relative hanging around. But Anna does catch the eye of Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), a rich playboy who loves nothing more than a beautiful girl. Anna is thrilled to be getting attention from someone like Lennox and it’s her first real romantic infatuation.
Lennox will stop at nothing to win over a girl he’s after and when it becomes clear that Anna is the type of girl who wants marriage, he proposes to her, but tells her to keep their engagement a secret. The reason for this is because he doesn’t plan to actually marry her; he’s arranged a phony marriage to make Anna think they’re married. But when Anna ends up pregnant, Lennox reveals the truth, leaving her completely devastated. Her mother dies shortly afterward, leaving poor Anna completely alone in the world.
Anna leaves town and gets a room in a boarding house. She gives birth to a baby boy, but it isn’t long before he becomes ill and dies. The owners of the boarding house and the other tenants are not happy to have an unwed mother staying in the house and once again, Anna is forced to find another place to stay. She makes her way to Squire Barltett’s (Burr McIntosh) farm and gets a job working there. Squire’s son David (Richard Barthlemess) immediately falls in love with Anna, but he’s supposed to be marrying Kate (Mary Hay) and Anna is afraid that David would reject her because of her past.
Much to Anna’s dismay, she finds out Lennox is in town and living close to the Bartlett’s farm. He’s there in pursuit of Kate and wants Anna to leave, but she refuses and agrees not to say anything about their past. Unfortunately, when a gossipy woman in town finds out the truth about Anna’s past, it isn’t long before Squire hears about it. He kicks her out of the house in the middle of a blizzard, leaving her to wander in the woods. She becomes unconscious and falls onto an ice floe floating down the river. David rushes out to find her and rescues her just in the nick of time before she goes over a waterfall.
Like most D.W. Griffith movies, Way Down East is a bit overly long and very heavy on the drama. But despite being about 15-20 minutes too long, I still consider it my favorite feature-length D.W. Griffith movie. Way Down East‘s runtime of 2 hours and 25 minutes is pretty taut compared to Intolerance‘s three hours, it’s not wildly offensive like The Birth of a Nation, and it’s an example of how good of a storyteller Griffith could be without being bogged down by larger than life sets and controversy. The famous ice floe scene wasn’t part of the original play the movie was based on and it was a good way to interject just enough of the action and drama that’s synonymous that Griffith was famous for. Plus, it’s an excellent vehicle for Lillian Gish, who is simply incredible as Anna.