Historical revisionism tends to cast Griffith in a bad light. These days, more often than not, the father of narrative cinema is portrayed as the racist son of a Confederate Colonel who dared film a notorious book called The Klansmen which cast the Ku Klux Klan in a heroic light. Yes Virginia, those claims are indeed true. Griffith was a prudish Victorian and a casual bigot and these tendencies no doubt clouded his world view. Since his all of his films brim with brave and brainy heroines, who carry the world on their shoulders, one can more easily forgive Griffith’s gentlemanly condescension towards the females of the species.
Still, it’s difficult to overlook the colossal psychic and social damage The Birth of a Nation did to blacks and other minorities struggling to survive in the tumultuous melting pot of America during the early years of the 20th century. But, I am here to praise Griffith, not bury him. So, if you can bear with me, I’d like to lay out a case for his greatness. But first, let’s sketch out a little history…
Griffith was born to middle-aged parents in the struggling, Reconstructionist South. Young David Wark strongly identified with his father Jacob, an adventurer on a grand scale who left his family for two years to prospect for gold in California then later on fight for four brutal years at the front in the Civil War. Whether the rough and tumble Jacob was cut out for parenting was another story, but his unexpected death was an enormous blow to the ten-year-old David.
Griffith’s upbringing was left to his reserved mother Mary and some over-protective older sisters. With his father’s heroic influence guiding the way the adolescent David became a self-styled maverick, fighting bullies at school while trying to impress the ethereal local beauties. The family’s finances took a hit when it was revealed the late Jacob had occurred outstanding gambling debts, so Mary sold the family’s country house and moved the Griffiths to Louisville. After the death of beloved older sister Mattie from tuberculosis, teenage David began to spend his evenings picking up odd jobs to help the family get by.
These dire circumstances didn’t discourage the curious boy. Indeed, he began to spend what free time he had reading literature and frequenting plays and musicals in the thriving Louisville theatrical circuit. After toiling at a local bookstore, Griffith took the plunge and went on an extended tour with a group of local players. The aspiring thespian spent the next few years gaining valuable experience playing modern and classic roles in theatres across the Midwest. When Griffith wasn’t onstage he got plenty of important backstage advice from director and mentor Oscar Eagle and when David finally returned to Louisville in 1900, the seasoned vet felt he was ready for to take a shot at the big time, New York City.
Taking the stage name of Lawrence Griffith, the young man pounded the Broadway pavement in search of plum roles but few were to be found, so he spent the next few years again touring the Midwest in acting troupes, ultimately ending up in San Francisco. The City by the Bay had a steadying influence on Griffith and it would be there where he would meet his future first wife, actress Linda Arvidson Johnson, and get more substantial roles in the town’s excellent theatre circuit. Griffith was something of a florid actor but given a meaty role he could rise to the occasion. He also began to write plays, mostly melodramas aimed to please middlebrow tastes.
Griffith continued to tour with troupes across the country and it would be in Boston where he finally summoned Linda to meet him so they could marry. The Griffiths next moved to New York City where they planned on resuming their stage careers. Griifith toured briefly in a play written by Klansmen author Thomas Dixon and he struck up a casual friendship with popular writer-orator. Then with the help of Linda, Griffith wrote and sold a play, A Fool and a Girl which had an unsuccessful run leaving the Griffiths once again destitute in the big city. The need for keeping a roof over their heads made Griffith accept work in a medium looked down upon by respectable theatre folk, the flickers.
Griffith made his film debut as the stalwart hero in the bland Rescued From the Eagle’s Nest for Edison studios. In search of more acting jobs he soon migrated to New York’s Biograph Studios. By 1908, the once mighty Biograph had shrunk into a second class outfit and distributors were only grudgingly accepting the studio’s lackluster product. Though the studio had good technicians and plenty of professional actors at their beck and call, decent scenarists were a rarity and Biograph’s directors were expected to organize the actors rather than interpret the material.
A hopeless mediocrity in the theatre, Griffith began to flourish in roles with more responsibility at Biograph. Given the time restrictions in film storytelling, scenarist and director Griffith whittled away his windy extravagances and get to the heart of the story. He would have to learn fast, for in 1908 alone, he would act, write, and direct (often simultaneously) over sixty films at Biograph. By the next year, he would be the studio’s prize talent and well on the road to immortality.
Over the next decade Griffith laid much of the groundwork for how movies became a narrative art. Before him, the flickers were filmed transcriptions of hoary old stage plays or small sketches performed without subtext. The camera sat bolted on the soundstage while the actors, who were busy hitting their marks and trying to get their point across through hair-pulling histrionics, ended up being mostly responsible for the mise-en-scene. With few exceptions these early examples of cinema look static to the eye and seem grotesque to any modern sensibility. By his second year at Biograph, Griffith was top man on the totem pole and he began to recruit a superb ensemble of young players and form a professional relationship with the studio’s brilliant visual muse (Billy Bitzer) to photograph his melodramatic stories.
The novice filmmaker honed his art by giving these shorts an actual storytelling arc and he and Bitzer moved the action along at a brisk pace. It also didn’t hurt that Griffith’s work appealed to the emotions and his clear preference for heroines brought women (and their husbands and boyfriends) into Nickelodeons by the scores. Indeed, these early audiences clearly preferred the films with the Biograph crest because they knew they would get a whale of a show. Distributors noticed, too, and the demand for Biograph films grew precipitously.
This newfound success led the studio to give Griffith free reign to experiment with his new medium. Within the next five years Griffith haggled his bosses into letting him introduce such revolutionary measures as mid-shots (filming actors from waist-up, creating intimacy and dynamism), close-ups (creating psychological depth) and cross-cutting from two, three, four different story threads, giving this new art a throbbing heartbeat and creating a vast arena for subtext—all in one fell swoop.
By 1913, Griffith had few true peers as directors in Europe or America. Most money hungry producers dabbling in the movies were still hiring ancient icons like Sarah Bernhardt to mimic stage-bound performances for the camera. Around this time several important theatre Broadway actors (most notably Lionel Barrymore), who had never lowered their standards to work in the “pictures”, took note of the quality of these Biograph films and began working for Griffith between jobs…anonymously, of course.
Though his sentimental style has been the object of derision, the themes in Griffith films were refreshingly modern to pre-war audiences. The gentlemanly director would make very sharp social criticism of ruthless Robber Barons in A Corner in Wheat, racial prejudice in His Trust, small town prejudice in The New York Hat, small-minded hypocrisy in One Is Business, the Other Crime, and small-time hoods in The Musketeers of Pig Alley.
Griffith would also establish himself as the first great director of women, making stars out of the talented teenagers Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish. The first major star of the movies, Pickford was a limited but very charming actress, driven by a ruthless stage mom. But, the Pickfords came to balk at Griffith’s choices, especially when the results wreaked havoc with Mary’s carefully crafted girl next door persona. When it was clear the controlling director and the ego-maniacal mama could not co-exist together, Mary left Biograph to strike out on her own, creating a cottage film industry for herself as the feisty virgin with a heart of gold well into her thirties.
By 1914, Griffith was anxious to make feature length films like Italy’s wildly successful Quo Vadis (1913). Against Biograph’s wishes Griffith went ahead and shot the hour-long Judith of Bethulia, a Biblical epic starring Blanche Sweet. Griffith introduces several complex storytelling threads to the story, but the ambitious film is mostly slow-going and pales next to his best short films. Griffith soon left Biograph to become an independent producer and in the next year he would craft his perfect storm, the ever-controversial song of the south,The Birth of a Nation.
Sociological baggage aside, Birth is a masterful achievement. The whopping three hour twelve minute film had an unprecedented sense of sprawl and sweep and it can still hold its own against most modern attempts at epic filmmaking. Cutting deftly between the political hotbed of Washington D.C., the killing fields of war, and the havoc wreaked on the South Carolina home front, Griffith shows a flare for full scale grandeur, lazy southern lyricism and tender intimacy. It was a story close to his heart.
The controversial second part of the film which sharply criticizes Northern meddling in the Reconstruction of the Southern states is impossible to defend. Griffith made the then-innocuous choice of casting blacks and white actors in blackface to play the freed slaves. These “blacks” are portrayed as lazy and directionless, mere puppets whose strings are pulled by abolitionist politicians. Here, due in a large part to the director’s storytelling prowess, the film picks up a crazy momentum that is chilling in its vitriol. Yet, scenes of the minstrel actors chasing the white young damsels are ludicrous and actually weaken the intended impact of the Ku Klux Klan riding in to save the day.
Still, the wounds inflicted upon the black community by the lynch mobs were far too deep to dismiss. After being given a seal of approval from the Virginia-born President Woodrow Wilson (“It is like writing history with lightning”), The Birth of a Nation was attacked and boycotted by the NAACP.
Living in the cocoon of his movie studio, Griffith was genuinely hurt and concerned by such negative reaction. Like many a Southern gentlemen, his relations with black people had always been friendly and condescendingly benign. He was not a political man, but he did subscribe to a Democratic platform in support of the little man against big government. But The Birth of a Nation struck a nerve with reactionary white Populists and the significant growth in Klan membership over the next ten years has, rightly or wrongly, been attributed to Griffith’s film.
Looking to make amends and once again raise the cinematic bar, Griffith cleaned out his bank account to film Intolerance, an ambitious, magisterial epic that chronicled injustice through the ages. The director inter-cut four separate stories (a furious and debauched tale of old Babylon, Christ’s final days in Judea, a bloody 16th century saga of the French Huguenots and a thoroughly modern potboiler of a young couple’s descent into poverty and crime) all linked by Lillian Gish rocking her child’s cradle. The final product turned out to be a filmmaking advance over The Birth of a Nation.
Each story is laid out with sprawl, but it is clear the ritualistic sex and brutality of the Babylonian scenes and the social hypocrisy of the contemporary story are what interested Griffith the most. As each sequence picks up in urgency Griffith, the innovator, throws all caution to the wind and cuts on the action, transforming what had been a studied, classical story to a more chaotic canvas. Essentially an epic about mob rule, the sets and casts grow in size and intensity, the scenes are compressed and the mise-en-scene becomes more jagged and chaotic. Violence is abundant in Intolerance. An elaborately staged scene of execution, some gruesome decapitations and the director’s jarring application of close-ups had to have captured the warped fancies of such aspiring filmmakers as Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, Sergei Eisenstein, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles.
The results are breathtaking and while Intolerance doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of his intimate Lillian Gish films it is truly a stunning technical achievement, a decade ahead of its time. It’s also not a stretch to say, through the use of his ingenious editing, Griffith invented sound bite culture. Bewildered movie audiences stayed away from Intolerance and the film took a bath at the box office. This disaster turned out to be a mixed blessing for Griffith who now had to find to find a way to survive in the film industry he was so instrumental in inventing.
Griffith quickly switched gears to make several exquisite films with his feminine alter-ego, the ethereal yet steely Lillian Gish. It is these works the director made the transformation from great innovator to great artist. Gish’s intelligence, winsome looks and delicate screen presence were perfect compliments to her mentor’s classic visual style, Romantic point of view and Victorian sensibility—leading to one of the most poetic collaborations in the cinema.
That said, the first major Griffith-Gish feature Hearts of the World is anything but a small film. This sweeping WWI epic about a French village trying to survive the onslaught of the German army gave Gish a substantial role as Marie Stephenson, a local girl engaged to the handsome Douglas (Robert Narron), who has gone off to war. Marie labors under the impression Douglas has died on the battlefield when in reality he is entrenched with his unit as the last line of defense against the Huns. Aside from some propagandistic smearing of Germans, the film is riveting stuff with Griffith handling the battle scenes with great aplomb and Gish setting aside her rarified airs to play a strong woman of faith and grit.
In True Heart Susie Gish is the small-town girl Susie Mae Trueheart who has the misfortune to be hopelessly in love with a poor local golden boy William (Robert Harron). When William is unexpectedly admitted to college he believes his secret benefactor is a rich stranger, but in reality the Good Samaritan is the schoolgirl whose initials he once carved into a tree. William graduates and becomes a minister but when he decides marry he passes Susie over for Betty Hopkins (Claire Seymour), a cynical floozy from Chicago.
Alas, Betty runs around behind William’s back, but Susie prefers to keep her old beau in the dark rather than giving him alarm. When Betty’s shenanigans cause her premature death, Susie’s aunt meets with the mourning minister and finally reveals the depth of her niece’s devotion to him. What begins as a charming rural comedy slowly evolves into a near full scale tragedy as Susie’s poor heart is continually tread upon by the well-meaning but utterly oblivious William.
A brutal and heartbreaking tale set on the harsh Limehouse district in London, Broken Blossoms (based on the novel The Chink and the Child by Thomas Burke) is the story of the timid Cockney girl Lucy Burrows (Gish) whose father, the vicious prizefighter Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp), treats her like a punching bag. After a particularly nasty beating, Lucy staggers out of their apartment and collapses in a shop owned by Cheng Haun (Richard Barthelmess), a disillusioned Chinese missionary who has given up trying to preach Buddha’s gentle philosophy to rough and tumble Londoners.
In several scenes of exceptional beauty and feeling, the smitten Haun gives up his opium pipe to shower great tenderness on the angelic girl, all the while nursing her back to health. But, when a friend of Burrows finds Lucy in the Chinaman’s bed, he rats them out to the racist boxer sending the dreadful man into an apocalyptic tailspin. Burrows corners Lucy and takes her home where he ends up beating his only daughter to death. The devastated Haun tracks the drunken Burrows down and kills him then, with the police at his door, he takes his own life. Both Gish and Barthelmess give sensitive, extraordinary performances in a timeless jewel that may well be Griffith’s most perfect film.
Based on a creaky, turn of the century play by Lottie Blair Parker, Way Down East would become the signature collaboration between Griffith and Gish. Here Lillian plays Anna Moore a struggling young woman who finds herself swept off her feet by the charming but caddish Lenox Sanderson (future Hollywood director Lowell Sherman). Anna and Sanderson marry, but when she announces she is pregnant he drops the bombshell their faux wedding is not binding and leaves the naïve girl high and dry. Anna has the baby but after the sickly child dies, she is thrown out of her boarding house by a sanctimonious landlord. Anna manages to find work at a local farm and she soon catches the eye of the owner’s virtuous son David Bartlett (Richard Barthelmess).
Though David is engaged to a local girl his heart belongs to Anna, but when Lenox Sanderson moves in next door Anna’s new life is turned upside down. Lenox demands Anna leave town but such an action becomes a moot point when her old landlord makes an unexpected appearance at a dinner and exposes Anna in front of the family. The wounded girl promptly accuses Sanderson for her downfall and makes a mad dash through a blinding blizzard to an icy river where she is saved from tumbling over the falls by the Herculean efforts of David.
In Way Down East Griffith deftly blends blood and thunder melodrama with privileged moments of tenderness and charm. The wintry on-locale shooting in Long Island Sound, Connecticut and Vermont and the inspired casting of character actors Emily Fitzroy, Edgar Nelson, Creighton Hale, George Neville and Florence Short gave the film a rural edge making the small town narrow-mindedness all the more real. But, Way Down East truly belongs to Gish who turns in a haunting performance as the fragile young mother haunted by death of her child and her first lover’s treacherous betrayal.
By the time Orphans of the Storm was made two years later both Griffith and Gish had moved on with their personal and professional dealings, but their last collaboration still turned out to be a magical composite of personal and epic filmmaking. Gish plays Henriette Girard, an orphaned citizen of France who hopes to get an operation for her sister Louise (Dorothy Gish) to cure her blindness. It is Henriette’s misfortune to venture into Paris just as the Revolution is about to break out. The pretty young woman is kidnapped by a wealthy libertine leaving the helpless Louise in the “care” of local white slavers.
The sympathetic Chevalier de Vaudrey (Joseph Schildkraut) helps free Henriette, but their vain search for Louise and some innocent consorting with the aristocracy only leads to suspicion, arrest and a date with fate before the people’s tribunal. Boasting splendid set design (Charles Kirk), vivid cinematography (Bitzer with Hendrik Sartov) and several wonderful performances, Orphans of the Storm builds to a frenzied climax in which the ill-fated Danton (Monte Blue) bucks the revolutionary guard and bloodthirsty throng to save Henriette from the blade of the guillotine.
By the early 1920s, Griffith had joined forces with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford to form United Artists, Hollywood’s first major independent studio where the talent would have full reign over control over the budgets, shooting, editing and distribution of their films. Unfortunately, the exorbitant cost of Griffith’s previous productions had left him financially in arrears and he would always be the corporation’s weak sister. Pushed into a corner, the father of narrative film took a pass on pushing the artistic envelope in order to get some movies made.
Due to an unfortunate set of circumstances Griffith gradually lost autonomy over his work, leaving film critics and historians to render the films of this era as an example of his decline. But, a fresh look at many of these films indicate Griifth managed to hold its own against many of the rising young lions in the industry like protégés Raoul Walsh & John Ford, as well as Erich Von Stroheim, King Vidor, Frank Borzage and Josef Von Sternberg.
Griffith was also burdened by what gossipmongers exclaimed to be an inexplicable crush on the young dancer Carol Dempster. When Dempster began to inherit the roles previously filled by the more talented Lillian Gish, Griffith’s reputation took a massive beating within the industry and at the box office.
Based on another novel by Thomas Burke, the atmospheric Dream Street returns to the rough and tumble London Limehouse district where dance hall girl Gypsy Fair (Dempster) has won the affections of three men, Spike (Ralph Graves), a bully with a mellifluous baritone, his creepy, composer brother Billy (Charles Emmett Mack) and the powerful local underworld figure, Chinaman Swan Way (Edward Peel). Gypsy is repelled, yet tempted by the handsome Spike and she teases the smitten Billy by letting it drop she has no interest his brother. Meanwhile, the diabolical Swan Way tries to intimidate Gypsy by blackballing her ailing father. A shocking crime in the neighborhood leads to Billy’s anguished confession and Spike’s hard-won redemption.
Overlong and overripe, Dream Street seems more a pastiche of several moody short films than one coherent effort. Still, the film’s celestial cinematography (Hendrik Sartov and the uncredited Billy Bitzer) and elaborate set design (Charles Kirk) anticipates the luminous poetic realism of Jean Vigo, Jean Renoir and Marcel Carne. Dempster’s frail and nervous heroines have been universally bashed for some ninety years now, but her lack of training often added a fetching vulnerability to her performances.
In 1924 Griffith returned to epic filmmaking to make America, a flawed but entertaining saga about two American families whose loyalties collide during the Revolutionary War. He made the curious choice of having the film’s Southern family take sides with the Tories until the brutality of the renegade Brit Captain Walter Butler (Lionel Barrymore) makes them see the error of their ways. Overlong and historically inaccurate, America still takes pains to present a full picture of the occupied colonies under siege and a real case can still be made for it being the best film about the real birth of the nation.
Griffith’s last independent project, Isn’t Life Wonderful, is a sober and riveting saga about a family of refugees struggling to survive in post WWI Germany. Carol Dempster plays Inga, an orphan brought up by a poor Polish family living in Berlin. As the terrible post-war economy wreaks devastation on the city, the conscientious girl finds herself in the unusual position of being a breadwinner for the family. But, her plans of helping out are dashed when she is continually being duped and pushed aside at stores and bakeries. Inga is in love with their son Paul (Neil Hamilton) who pins his future hopes on a small potato farm he has bought in the country.
The young couple surprises everybody by having an excellent harvest, but when they bring the potatoes to the city they are accused of being poachers then mugged by an unruly mob. Paul is beaten and dragged away leaving Inga in despair of ever finding her beloved again. Griffith shot several scenes in and around Berlin to give the film its gritty, realistic look.
A simple and poignant story Isn’t Life Wonderful turned out to be the director’s most personal film since Way Down East. But, jazz age audiences weren’t in the mood for downbeat movies and the expensive production turned out to be a huge flop. Now, unable to find funding for new projects, Griffith signed on with Paramount Studios as a contract director. Under the guise of cost-conscious mogul Adolph Zukor, Griffith had to learn to curb costs or he’d be out of work.
Griffith changed gears with Sally Of The Sawdust, a sweet rural comedy which owes to the slapstick comedy of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Dempster plays Sally, an orphan girl being brought up by a veteran of the carnival circuit, Professor Eustance McGargle (W.C. Fields). The pair leads a hardscrabble existence but Sally doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, she shows great devotion to her “father” whose shady past is beginning to catch up with him. When the couple pulls into the town where Sally’s mother is buried, a group of rich locals try to legally pry the young woman from the loathsome McGargle. The Professor sends a shockwave through the court room when he is finally forced to reveal his daughter’s blue blood lineage.
Sally of the Sawdust is a pleasant diversion, but it lacks the pace and invention of the era’s best comedies. Griffith gave the great vaudevillian plenty of room to do his marvelous slow-burn shtick and, indeed, Sally contains Fields’ finest performance in silent film. Fields would later reprise the same story in the disappointing Poppy (1936).
Based on a hugely popular, blood and thunder novel by Marie Corelli, The Sorrows of Satan presented Griffith with a huge challenge. Originally intended as a project for Paramount’s director of fire and brimstone blockbusters, Cecil B. DeMille, Griffith took on Sorrows against his better judgment. He knew Corelli’s religious crusading and moral grandstanding was out of touch with 1926 audiences, so he threw emphasis on the book’s Faustian storyline instead.
Set in a heartless big city, tenement dweller Geoffrey Tempest (Ricardo Cortez) struggles to make the rent as a poet and review writer. He is in love with his neighbor Mavis Claire (Carol Dempster), another unsuccessful writer who sneaks food to Geoffrey when he uses all loose change for rent. When Geoffrey despairs of ever making it on his own, he chastises God unaware of a stranger in his midst. The debonair Prince Lucio de Rimanez (Adolphe Menjou) brings Geoffrey the out of the blue news of a huge inheritance. The Prince sweeps the writer out of the tenement and shows him the good life where wine and women are available at the snap of his fingers. After a disastrous marriage to the debauched Princess Olga Godowsky (Lya de Putti), Geoffrey wants to break with de Rimanez and return to his beloved Mavis. The Prince reveals himself as the Devil and warns Geoffrey it is too late to back out of his bargain.
Taking a page from the German Expressionists, Griifith employed plenty of weird camera angles, clever special effects and miniatures, to create a sleek and sinister world where the forces of good and evil battle for Geoffrey’s soul. Far too arty and ambiguously European for both fans of the book and the movie reviewers of the day, The Sorrows of Satan died a quick, undeserved, death at the box office.
As Griffith’s fortunes continued to slide his choice of appealing projects grew slim. He soldiered on with Battle Of The Sexes, a risqué comic-melodrama that looks better as the years go by. After overhearing a conversation in a barber shop, Marie (Phyllis Haver), a cynical blonde bombshell alerts her suave low-life lover Babe (Don Alvarado) the recent great fortunes of J.C. Judson (Jean Hersholt), an uptown Manhattan real estate mogul. The two conspire to shakedown the gullible Judson, using sex and ultimately blackmail to seal the deal. Marie seduces the conservative family man with surprising ease.
They take their affair public and are soon spotted at a nightclub by Judson’s wife and children. The stunned Mrs. Judson (Belle Bennett) becomes suicidal and daughter Ruth (Sally O’Neil) takes matters into her own hands by threatening Marie with a gun. Lacking the fortitude to follow through with her threat, Ruth does the best next thing by declaring Babe is her lover. The jealous Phyllis drops Judson like a hot potato, giving the foolish financier the opportunity to patch things up with his hypocrite family. Having suffered humiliating experiences by courting a much young woman (Carol Dempster) Griffith brings a surprising amount of ballsy self-righteousness to Judson’s autumnal fling.
After being forced out at Paramount, Griffith signed with former United Artists CEO Joseph Schenck. Liberated from the restrictions of the studio system the revitalized Griffith chose to make Lady of the Pavements, a silent with sound sequences starring the zesty Lupe Velez as a night club singer who masquerades as a good girl in order to fool a German diplomat.
When Count Karl Von Arnim (William Boyd) confronts his cheating girlfriend, the Countess Diane des Granges (Jetta Goudal) over her infidelity and suggests he’d be better off with a street tramp the humiliated woman hires the notorious chanteuse Nanon del Rayon (Velez) to pull off the charade. Inspired by the attentions of the dashing aristocrat the raunchy Nanon transforms into an elegant swan until the jealous Countess forces the “convent girl” to confess about her sordid past to her smitten boyfriend. Velez shines as the good bad girl in a sophisticated Continental romance which anticipates the risque work of both Sternberg and Ophuls.
After having turned-out all these adult-themed dramas, it seemed surprising Griffith would take on Abraham Lincoln for his first sound film. Told in an impressionistic, yet bold, fashion, Griffith manages to squeeze the first fifty years of Lincoln’s life into the first half hour.
Walter Huston’s Lincoln is an ornery cuss who, after the death of the great love of his life Ann Rutledge (Una Merkel), mellows into the wise and iconic figure who will do what’s necessary to preserve the Union. Prodded by his ambitious wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Kay Hammond), the President locks horns with his cabinet and field generals who, despite having greater resources, are losing every battle. If not the most reliable source on Lincoln, Griffith’s lyrical take on the 16th U.S. President captures the essence of the great man’s dogged nature and selfless nobility.
Unbeknownst to Griffith his next film The Struggle would be his swan song. Straying from the lofty climes of Pennsylvania Avenue, this harrowing story of a man’s battle with alcoholism is set in the speakeasies and streets of New York City. Jimmie Wilson (Hal Skelly), a local good-time Charlie, decides to stop drinking bathtub gin and go on the up and up when he marries Florrie (Zita Johann), the girl of his dreams. Life is swell for a while but pressures at work and the responsibilities of fatherhood drive him back to the local bars. Jimmie’s fortunes take a downward spiral. His binge drinking leads to the loss of his job and his making a fool out of himself in front of friends and family. Humiliated, Jimmie takes to the streets to panhandle. But, after a harrowing encounter in a dingy apartment with his frightened daughter, Jimmie vows to reclaim his life.
Years ahead of its time, grim morality tales like The Struggle couldn’t help but be extremely unpopular with audiences already dealing with the Great Depression. An alcoholic of no little repute, Griffith brought plenty of personal baggage to one man’s descent into hell. The film’s awkwardness is often attributed to the primitive technology of early talkies, but one can also make a case for much of the stiffness evolving from Jimmie’s (and Griffith’s) alienation from a “normal” family existence.
Like J.C. Judson, the liberated Jimmie is more alive and genuine than the man who stalwartly provides for his family. But unlike the anti-hero of The Battle of the Sexes, this wayward father is punished for his sins leading to an apocalyptic humiliation. Jimmie’s meltdown into madness and depravity is truly frightening. Confronted by his young daughter in his grimy flat, Jimmie is a cornered rat with no way out. Torn to shreds by critics in its day, The Struggle still has a horrible reputation. One can only guess the sheer nakedness of the film continues to make audiences feel uncomfortable.
After 1931 Griffith made no more movies. The day of the Star (Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Charlie Chaplin, etc.) and Director as the supreme auteur was over as the role of the Producer grew leaps and bounds within the studio system. Griffith’s recent track record was bad and he was out of touch with audiences looking for escapism from the Great Depression. With no new contract or prospects, Griffith became a sad figure in Hollywood. He offered his services to the Studios at bargain prices, but finding few nibbles (the notable exception his ghost-direction on Hal Roach’s One Million B.C.).
In his long and bitter “retirement” (which lasted nearly as long as his directing career) Griffith took too much comfort in alcohol. Still, the father of narrative film was able to take some solace in the innumerable tributes paid to him by the icons in Hollywood (John Ford, Orson Welles) and world cinema (Eisenstein) who did their best to carry on the master’s artistic legacy.
Books on Griffith:
D.W. Griffith: An American Life – Richard Schickel ****1/2 Schickel’s massive and impeccably researched biography on the master filmmaker is an essential bookend to the Lillian Gish book. The author provides plenty of superb insight on Griffith’s worship of his ne’er-do-well father, his complex take on racial issues, and his rich and varied working relationships with all those who helped him invent the cinema as we know it.
Movies, Mister Griffith and Me – Lillian Gish **** Ms. Gish dishes the plain truth about the early days of her working relationship with Griffith. Though told through slightly rose-colored glasses it’s an often amazing story of a great collaboration between two of the silent era’s most important artists and remains a quintessential book about Griffith. Out of print.
Focus on D. W. Griffith – Harry M. Geduld (ed.) **** This very fine collection of essays about film’s earliest master also includes several rare interviews with Griffith who eloquently ruminates on the art of filmmaking. Don’t be put off by the piecemeal editing, this is as close to an autobiography of Griffith as we’re likely to get. Out of print.
D.W. Griffith: The Years at Biograph – Robert M. Henderson **** Like Schickel’s authoritative tome, this meticulous take on director’s early career is a true labor of love and an essential read for all cineastes. Out of print.
Feature Films by Griffith:
1913 Judith of Bethulia ***1/2
1914 Home Sweet Home ***
1915 The Birth of a Nation ****1/2
1916 Intolerance *****
1918 Hearts of the World ****
1919 True Heart Susie ****1/2
1919 Broken Blossoms ****1/2
1919 The Greatest Question ****
1920 Way Down East *****
1921 Dream Street ****
1922 Orphans of the Storm ****
1924 America ***1/2
1924 Isn’t Life Wonderful? ****1/2
1925 Sally of the Sawdust ***1/2
1926 The Sorrows of Satan ****
1928 The Battle of the Sexes ***1/2
1929 Lady of the Pavements ***1/2
1930 Abraham Lincoln ****
1931 The Struggle ****
Short Films by Griffith
1908 Money Mad ***
1909 Those Awful Hats ***
1909 Cardinal’s Conspiracy ***
1909 The Fascinating Mrs. Francis ***
1909 The Call ***
1909 Pippa Passes ***
1909 What Drink Did ***
1909 The Light That Came ***
1909 The Sealed Room ***
1909 A Corner in Wheat ***1/2
1909 Choosing a Husband ***
1909 Two Memories ***
1909 The Restoration ***
1909 The Mountaineer’s Honor ***1/2
1910 The Call to Arms ***
1910 The Unchanging Sea ***1/2
1910 An Arcadia Maid ***
1910 A Flash of Light ***
1910 A Plain Song ***
1910 A Child’s Impulse ***1/2
1911 His Trust ***
1911 As A Boy Dreams ***
1911 The Lonedale Operator ***
1912 The New York Hat ***1/2
1912 The Musketeers of Pig Alley ***1/2
1912 The Burglar’s Dilemma ***1/2
1912 The Sunbeam ***1/2
1912 The Painted Lady ***1/2
1912 One Is Business, The Other Crime ***1/2
1912 Death’s Marathon ***1/2
1912 An Unseen Enemy ***1/2
1912 Beasts at Bay ***1/2
1913 The Mothering Heart ***1/2
1913 The Battle at Elderbush Gulch ***1/2