“Why I Paid $175,000 For Way Down East”

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.

It even includes a picture of the check, in case you couldn’t believe it!

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.

Picture-Play included a photo of an old Way Down East stage production, which featured John Bunny.

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.

Way Down East (September 3, 1920 - USA) - Lillian Gish
Publicity still for Way Down East.

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.

D.W. Griffith | Biography, Films, Intolerance, & Facts | Britannica