- Griffith and the Rise of Hollywood
- By Paul O’Dell (with the assistance of Anthony Slide)
- First published in 1970
- A.S. Barnes & Co. Inc. Castle Books – New York
David Wark Griffith has tended to become in recent years, a figure in cinema history attributed with innovation in film technique; the close-up, the flashback, cross-cutting have all appeared in connection with his name. And so it is that he is now in danger of achieving a widespread reputation merely as technician: an inventor of cinematography. This does justice neither to Griffith himself nor to his work. It may very well be that he did “invent” all these ideas of pictorial presentation – but there is much evidence to suggest that he did not – and if he did not, then he certainly developed their use to startling effect. But these ideas, these techniques were for him only a means towards an end; never the ultimate distinguishing factor of his pictures. Nor was he dependent on these techniques in order to produce a film which stood above all contemporary works. Many of his early pictures contain no close-ups, no flashbacks, no camera movement, no complicated editing techniques, and no innovations. But nevertheless they are indisputably films of high artistic quality. Many post-Intolerance films also contain few, if any, of the “innovations” attributed to Griffith, and yet they are outstanding works nonetheless.
It is unfortunate – indeed it could be tragic – that a man who strove so hard to perfect the cinema as a medium for the stimulation of ideas should also have been the one who recognized the real potential of an embryo art form. The fact remains that while the technical achievements of D.W. Griffith have become the main reason for his importance in film history, his purely artistic achievements, the very reason why he ever made films at all, have tended to become relatively obscured.
The work of an artist is a door to his soul; whatever we see written about the artist, we will never get closer to the man himself than through his work. David Wark Griffith produced a tremendous volume of work during the twenty-three years he spent making motion pictures. It is via these films – those that remain – that we can come to a real understanding of Griffith, because in these films he poured all his ideas.
6. Into the Twenties: Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm
In terms of cinema history, Griffith was the man who fired the starting-pistol. It was he who gave the medium what it required to develop and expand. There came a time when he inevitably appeared to have “left behind,” a “non-starter.” It was to happen that he would be attacked again and again for his refusal to participate in the race. “Your refusal to face the world,” wrote one critic, “is making you more and more a sentimentalist. You see passion in terms of cooing doves or the falling of a rose petal … your lack of contact with life makes you deficient in humor. In other words, your splendid unsophistication is a menace to you – and to pictures.” Thus wrote James Quirk in 1924, cruelly cutting down the man who had virtually furnished him with a job (inasmuch as Griffith had given to the movies what no other individual had ever come near to possessing). What Quirk failed to recognize was that Griffith was not a man to be swept along in the tide of fashion. Why should he follow others? How could he follow others, when in effect they were following his precepts? ***
Way Down East
It was Griffith’s longest picture since Intolerance, and ran for more than three hours. In terms of construction, it relies on finely interwoven detail rather than the more instantly recognizable cross-cutting that distinguished his early work. In the opening sequences for example, when Anna is tricked into an illegal marriage to Sanderson, the ceremony itself is full of visual commentary, with the ring falling to the floor, cutting to Bartlett (played by Richard Barthelmess) waking suddenly from a nightmare – and this before any knowledge on anyone’s part of their two fates and the way they will eventually come together.
Lillian Gish as Anna has received much deserved praise for her work in this picture, especially for her superhuman feats among the ice-floes in the climatic sequences of the picture. The manner she receives the news of her false marriage, in the knowledge that she is pregnant, is yet another triumph for her ability under Griffith. The scene in which she baptizes her own child as it is dying also comes close to being one of Griffith’s supreme cinematic achievements. She also adds a sense of frightening realism to the scene in which she is told that her baby is dead. For a second or two she stares blankly into space, then slowly begins to shake her head from side to side. Suddenly, as if the news strikes her like some physical blow, she throws her head back, and, as if going into an epileptic fit, her whole body stiffens and she sits choking and screaming.
Anna eventually recovers and goes away to a town in which no one (she believes) can possibly be aware of her tragic situation, a situation which will also be regarded as shameful. She meets David Bartlett (Richard Barthelmess) and he, like many other characters in Griffith pictures, is here identified with doves in one sequence. The truth will be out however, and especially in a small town. Unknown to Anna, Sanderson is to reappear, and her secret is to become common knowledge. Bartlett is undeterred, although the rest of the town immediately brand her an evil woman. The scene in which Anna is ordered out of the house by the Squire has been excused by some who explain that it needs dialogue for its effectiveness. On the contrary, this scene is of great emotional intensity, and this intensity is achieved simply by Griffith’s editing technique. Once again, he uses visual commentary on the basic situation to replace long sequences where there should be dialogue.
Anna is sent out into the blizzard, and David runs after her. There follows some really remarkable photography, shots in which Anna’s cape seems to vanish and reappear behind trees and snowdrifts, close-ups of Anna, whose eyelashes seem to have icicles on them, and this sequence leads directly to the chase on the ice-floes.
Orphans of the Storm
It appears, looking at Orphans of the Storm today, that once more Griffith was having to work within imposed conditions. However, as in the case of the Biographs, this does not make Orphans of the Storm an imperfect picture, and here again can be seen Griffith’s faultless gift for re-creating a period, a gift that goes back to Judith of Bethulia and beyond.
The sequences that seem the most successful are those in which the poverty of the age is most obvious. Griffith’s sense of social justice is here given in the perfect setting of course, and as Wagenknecht observes, “like Dickens, Griffith approved of the French Revolution but deplored its excesses, and he could not resist telling us, in long subtitles … that while the French Revolution rightly overthrew a bad government, we must exercise care not to exchange our good government for “Bolshevism and license.”
The familiar “Last Minute Rescue” towards the end of reel twelve is as exciting and as beautifully executed as we have by now come to expect from Griffith. Cutting between the guillotine and Henriette (Lillian Gish) and Danton (Monte Blue) racing on horseback with her pardon, the sequence is a perfect example of “stretched action,” in which the time taken for Lillian Gish to walk three paces, for example, in the completed sequence, now intercut with other action, takes twice or maybe three times as long. This serves to build the suspense inasmuch as it creates an almost unbearable sense of impatience.
The crowd scenes have been likened to those of The Birth of a Nation, and the emotional effect they create is certainly valid.
*** “Determined to solve this mystery of obliteration, I went at once to the files of Photoplay magazine. Its editor, James Quirk, seems to have wept and raged, danced and exulted, with every heartbeat of the MGM executives. And I found that the last kindness Photoplay howed Lillian Gish, until after she left the MGM studio, appeared in a caption under her photograph in the October 1924 issue. In time I became such a good Quirk student that, after the completion of “The Temptress” when Garbo’s power and demands were beginning to tell on MGM, I predicted the beginning of her nasty publicity in the July 1926 issue. And sure enough, the first threat of the only thing Garbo feared – deportation- was conveyed to her in one of those “why don’t they go back where they came from” articles titled “The Foreign Legion in Hollywood.” Will Hays’ friends in the Department of Immigration were coming in handy for something besides getting the producers’ relations into the country. Sixteen years were to pass between the public execution of Lillian Gish and the bloodless exile of Greta Garbo. Hollywood producers were left with their babes and a backwash of old men stars, watching the lights go out in one picture house after another across the country.” – “The Executive War on Stars” (Louise Brooks – 1959)