“Good, or even inspired in many of its aspects, it was simply not the sort of picture everyone had come to expect of Griffith,” was the prevailing sentiment over D.W. Griffith’s drama The Mother and the Law. Starring Bobby Harron and Mae Marsh, it told the tragic tale of a young couple whose lives are torn apart by circumstance and unjust authority. With its low budget and intimate storyline it had more in common with Griffith’s one- to three-reel Biograph “potboilers” than the “prestige pictures” that were now associated with his name. Originally filmed in 1914, after The Birth of a Nation‘s success it was shelved, eventually taken out again and tinkered with, used as a humble kickoff point for Griffith’s mega-epic Intolerance (1916), and finally tinkered with some more before being released in 1919 as a standalone film.
Bobby and Mae’s scenes are some of my favorite parts of Intolerance, so I was excited to finally watch The Mother and the Law recently. Most of it was familiar footage, but I found myself unprepared for some of Marsh’s scenes that didn’t make it into Intolerance (or perhaps they were added later). Lillian Gish once said of Marsh that “she was the only actress of whom I was ever jealous.” I always thought that was nice and gracious of her–Marsh was very good. But after seeing The Mother and the Law, boy oh boy, now I understand exactly what Gish meant.
In my Way Down East article I included a quote from a D.W. Griffith essay explaining his reasoning behind spending a fortune on the rights. I thought y’all might like to see the essay in full–it’s not super long, but it’s pretty thoughtful. Without further ado, here’s “Why I Paid $175,000 For Way Down East, published in Picture-Play Magazine, May 1920.
Art and money have little in common; but, unfortunately money has become a kind of standard these days. We are accustomed to hear on all sides, “How much did it cost?” When we have been acquainted with the price paid, we very often base our judgment of values accordingly, and if we purchase it we value it all the more, because it cost so much.
Now there is a certain justification for all this. We have been taught from childhood to regard more highly those things upon which the greatest money value has been placed. The finest candies in the corner store always brought the biggest price; the doll that had the lovely hair and the eyes that opened and closed, always seemed to be just beyond the reach of mother’s or father’s pocketbook, and the little baseball that fitted so snugly into the palm of our hand cost so much more than the large, loosely wound one that could be had for a nickel. When we became older and went to the circus or to the theater, the best seats always cost so much more than the others, and the costly seats were always the best ones.
And so, when I was asked the quite natural question: “Why did you pay $175,000 for ‘Way Down East,'” I realized that the value of the little I am able to accomplish in the world of the motion picture may, after all, be judged by the money invested or the money expended, rather than in the more lasting reward of accomplishment.
While $175,000 is in itself a small fortune…it is the least significant feature in connection with my desire to immortalize this classic of the American stage, to immortalize it in so far as immortality can be established by the motion picture.
As the years pass by, there is a phase of American life that is rapidly disappearing. In but a very few years now we will have passed beyond that most delightful “rural America” which, even to-day, is but a remnant of what it used to be in our grandfather’s time. The passing of “Old Dobbin” and the one-horse shay in favor of the more modern motor car is removing one of the most treasured of American customs. In but a few years there will be no “Way Down East” and “Way Down South,” no deep-tangled wildwood and no old oaken bucket. Instead, we will become quite modernized, and the old log fire will have given place to the electric heater or the old steam radiator. Even to-day the farm hand has about been replaced by machinery, and the milkmaid finds her occupation gone through the introduction of the electrical milking machine, the old oaken bucket has been thrown into the discard, and filtered water runs through modern pipe right into the farmhouse.
Rural life in America is a sacred memory. It should never be forgotten.
For many years I have received innumerable requests for a production that would recreate those “good old days down on the farm.” I believe, in selecting “Way Down East,” I have come upon the most representative story. It will be a work of pleasure and love to place it upon the screen, and for the realization of that opportunity the cost does not matter.
The day of the “show” came. The courts adjourned. Stores closed, the blacksmith dropped his tongs, and school “let out” at noon. The people went in droves, even the ministers and their wives…The opera house was packed, with an eager, expectant and mystified audience. The house was darkened, and suddenly a glimmering light began to play on a canvas dropped like a curtain across the stage. And the first moving scene “thrown” was one of a lazy policeman trying to hurry an old man and a crippled mare across a street. The town wag let out a whoop, everybody caught the spirit–the moving pictures were a go!
–Reminisces about an 1897 small town motion picture show, Conestoga Magazine, 1907.
Could cinema have been invented at a more fortunate time? Once an impressive novelty viewed for a few cents a pop, it also inadvertently documented intriguing glimpses of the “old,” traditional way of life. And those glimpses were something more than the general, exciting changeover from horse-drawn buggies to automobiles, or how the cities slowly lit up with electric lights. It was the passing of using those horses to plow fields, the end of drawing water by hand from a well, the dwindling away of kerosene lamps and flickering candles. It all happened in the mere span of a generation or two.
By the time the Roaring Twenties dawned, D.W. Griffith was well-established as a Filmmaker of Renown. Rising to acclaim with his Biograph shorts and becoming an industry giant with his epics The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), he reached new heights of artistry with Broken Blossoms (1919) and even managed to transform an old-fashioned stage melodrama into the mega-hit Way Down East (1920). With a new decade before him and the ever-changing film industry gaining new directors and stars every day, he must’ve wondered how to keep up the pace. What should his next big project be? Could he keep that level of acclaim high?
Reportedly at Lillian Gish’s suggestion, Griffith decided to adapt another old-fashioned stage melodrama to the big screen: The Two Orphans, about the plight of two sisters who are separated in 18th century Paris. In keeping with his love for the Epic and Emotional, he shifted the setting to the violent heart of the French Revolution.
Was it a success? It was respectably well-recieved at the time, but doesn’t seem to have made much of a splash. Watching it today with Griffith’s other Epic Emotional films in mind, I think I can see why. And yet…I find myself popping it into my Blu-ray player at least once a year.