Griffith Renews Old Promises – By Kenneth Macgowan (Motion Picture Classic – 1919)

Motion Picture Classic – August 1919 Vol. VIII No.6

Griffith Renews Old Promises

By Kenneth Macgowan

The blight of “The Birth of a Nation”—the evil effect of that great photoplay on its director and on the whole t motion picture art—has only been made evident to the more critical among the fans by the artistic and financial success of Griffith’s masterpiece of brutality, “Broken Blossoms.”

print of a scene from D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919) with Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows and Richard Barthelmess as the Chinaman Cheng Huan
print of a scene from D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) with Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows and Richard Barthelmess as the Chinaman Cheng Huan

Because of Griffith’s immense success with “The Birth of a Nation,” no director of motion pictures has yet received exact and full credit for his work—Griffith least of all. The character and magnitude of that photodrama led critics astray on the genuinely best qualities of its producer, and the immensity of its success drew Griffith himself for many years into the pursuit of false photographic gods. We are only just beginning to realize this as we watch him now matching his talents in hour-long, five-reel entertainments against the eighty or a hundred routine directors who turn out a dozen of these “short” films each week. Literally immense was the first effect of Griffith’s work for the screen—his invention of “close-up” and “cut-back” in the days when he made two-reelers for the Biograph, dreaming only of four- and five-reel productions, never of the twelve reels of “The Birth of a Nation.” His effect on the American form of photoplay when he began to make films of the present popular and almost universal length—five reels—was also extraordinary. Out of the possibilities that he demonstrated in films like “The Escape,” and the rivalry he aroused in men like Thomas H. Ince, arose the present type of photoplay. But the effect on himself and on the movie world of the two films of his next stage was still more powerful. Its influence—and in many ways, its harm—cannot be overestimated. Thru the failure of the best film he ever made, “The Avenging Conscience,” and the success of “The Birth of a Nation,” Griffith and a large part of the motion picture industry were turned into by-paths whose unprofitable ends this great director and his audiences have only begun to see.

Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms

Unquestionably that extraordinarily exciting Civil War film did a great deal for the movies. Its unapproachable fame brought new audiences to the screen and spurred on producers. But it brought audiences to a screen unable to satisfy them, and it spurred producers to types of production that only disillusioned these audiences. It gave producers the idea that spending a great deal of money, hiring a great many people and trying to tell a three-hour story should result in satisfactory screen entertainments. The mistake as to the money and the mobs might have been inevitable, but at least it should have been easy to observe that “The Birth of a Nation” was really two distinct stories about the same people, hitched more or less neatly together. As a matter of fact, nobody saw, and Ince spent hundreds of thousands on “Civilization,” Brenon on “A Daughter of the Gods.” De Mille on “Joan the Woman,” Dixon on “The Fall of a Nation,” all to no artistic or financial profit. It was Ince’s modest “Coward,” De Mille’s “Cheat” and other almost forgotten five-reelers that really advanced screen art from the place that Griffith had got it to in “The Escape.”

The_Girl_Who_Stayed_at_Home_(1919)
The Girl Who Stayed at Home (1919)

Nobody knows whether the success of “The Birth of a Nation” had more effect on its producer than the failure of “The Avenging Conscience,” his shorter but much more artistic mixture of Poe’s “Annabel Lee” and “The Telltale Heart.” Anyway, he went off making “million-dollar movies,” like the rest of the producers. Indeed, he made nothing but big pictures for three years. Fortunately, he lost a great deal of money as well as time on “Intolerance,” and so he was forced to sign up for a number of five-reelers while he made another spectacle, “Hearts of the World.” And tho that battle-mad juggernaut was financially successful, we are now enjoying a number of shorter and more consistent and characterful films by the unquestioned master of the screen. In the interim we have lost a good deal. For one thing, Griffith has made only eight films of his own in about five years. Even in footage shown on the screen, they do not equal a third of the work of the average director. More important still. Griffith abandoned until very recently the promise of fine, restrained effects, real characterization, psychological action, found in “The Avenging Conscience.” When that finer production failed and the obvious melodrama of “The Birth” made money—and fame—Griffith turned from the hard and dangerous business of character study and psychological action to the sure-fire recipe of a riot, a race and a rescue. That was the plot for three parts of “Intolerance” and all of “Hearts of the World.”

The Great Love, Lillian Gish and Henry Walthall
The Great Love, Lillian Gish and Henry Walthall

His first short film, “The Great Love,” was the same sort of thing; indeed, it seemed just a pared-down version of a twelve-reel Griffith war picture, with all the loose ends and dangling characters that such a process would produce. Admirers of Griffith were a doleful lot when they came out from seeing his first five-reeler in four years the film that was going to show the routine directors what the master could do in their medium. But since then have come “The Greatest Thing in Life,” “A Romance of Happy Valley,” “The Girl Who Stayed at Home” and finally “Broken Blossoms.” While the first three have lots of the old sure-fire tricks —races, rescues, robberies, sudden business failures—there is a smooth, consistent finish to them, there is power without pretentiousness, and there is more and more of the human. “Broken Blossoms” is a remarkable rule unto itself.

Lillian Gish - The Greatest Thing in Life
The Greatest Thing in Life

None except “Broken Blossoms” has —or even attempts—that economical close-cut technique which Ince and Neilan and Tucker have made characteristic of the best in the photoplay. But they all have the Griffith quality of weaving a vast number of threads into a single design, and in three or four spots they have some things that mean much for the art of the movies. These have nothing to do with Griffith’s genius as a coach, as an inventor of business, or as a remarkable senser of the popular taste. One is a matter of characterization, the other of technique. In “The Greatest Thing in Life,” Griffith gave desperate and disillusioned admirers of the screen the hope that characterization might compete with plot.

A Romance of The Happy Valley - Lillian Gish
A Romance of The Happy Valley – Lillian Gish

There he won his audience not half so much by the brilliant battle scenes as by the interesting picture of a rich young snob falling in love with a “common little girl” and admitting her commonness along with his love. In “A Romance of Happy Valley” he got clear away from “long shots” and thousands of actors and enriched his canvas with portraits of small-town people, including a young gawk for a hero and a potential old maid for a heroine. He couldn’t trust his audiences- to love this as they actually did, and he gave the story a melodramatic “trick” ending; but he did characterize, and he did the same thing to a certain extent in his next, “The Girl Who Stayed at Home.”

Far more interesting and far more important was Griffith’s introduction of the “soft- focus” of art photography, first in “The Greatest Thing in Life.” Griffith is always experimenting with new technical effects. He tried color in “Intolerance,” blacked-out horizons in “Hearts of the World,” night photography in “The Great Love” and a translucent screen lit from behind in “Broken Blossoms.” Most of these departures, however good, have not been worth the trouble, because of the contrast between the new treatment and the old which Griffith has been content to permit in juxtaposed scenes. There was something of this same contrast, a great deal, in fact, in his “soft focus” close-ups in “The Girl Who Stayed at Home,” but the effect was only to point the splendid possibilities in the new method. There were a dozen really beautiful close-ups in this film. The composition and the lighting, as well as the softened treatment, made those mastodonic faces, for the first time, something besides offensive or merely exciting. At one point the soft-focus was used, however, not so much to give beauty as to heighten emotion, and the result was astonishing. A soldier was parting from a little cabaret dancer, just before he sailed. She was entertaining him at supper in her room, and we looked across the table at her, as he was doing. We saw more than he did, of course, for in this strange, soft, almost vague view of her thru the new lens we caught both the frail, ephemeral quality of the girl and hysterical, nervous fervor with which she loved, the flame of desperate devotion that had been set burning in her. It is an almost impossible thing to describe, but the emotion of that face was many times more keen and visible because of its removal from the exact reality of ordinary, sharp motion picture photography. The realization of this became a dreadful certainty when the brief close-up was over and we flashed to both figures. All we found was the stupid, harsh reality of the physical man and the physical girl and all the hundred details of the room and food and clothes. Suddenly we saw again that close-up, its emotion—and its possibilities. These possibilities Griffith has plumbed almost to their depths in “Broken Blossoms.” The result is the only fundamental and important contribution to the advance of the photoplay made in four years.

Rays from the moon (Broken Blossoms)
Rays from the moon (Broken Blossoms)

Even in “Broken Blossoms,” however, Griffith has almost succeeded in getting us off the trail of his best work by a lot of elaborate tricks of presentation which are largely specious and certainly have nothing to do with the two fundamental virtues of the film—its photographic departures and its simple and tragic characterization. A great deal of bosh has been written about Griffith’s trick of staining shadows blue or pink by throwing a light from the back of a translucent screen. It is interesting enough. It gives a tinting and toning with living light far more striking than any attained by dyes. But it creates, in my opinion, no permanent values greater than the beauties of Mr. Bitzer’s own photographic shadows, and it has the same failing as Griffith’s other attempts to use color in parts of “Intolerance” and night photography in parts of “The Great Love.” The scenes thus treated stand out as if they were in another medium and lose all proper structural relationship to episodes in the same settings projected in the ordinary manner. There is an emotion in light-tinted scenes which Griffith manifestly aims at, but there is an emotional and intellectual contrast far greater than smoothness of story can permit. Moreover, the brilliant blue of the shadows distracts the eye from what should be the center of attention, the high lights of the human faces. But the failure or virtue of this trick is nothing compared to the splendid experiments—almost all strikingly successful—which “Broken Blossoms” makes in the realm of “art photography.”

Cheng Huan's temptation (Broken Blossoms)
Cheng Huan’s temptation (Broken Blossoms)

The soft focus is used with great beauty in the close-ups of the Chinaman, and with immense emotion effect in those of the girl. It reaches a staggering power when the tortured thing is twisting and turning and flinging desperately about in the closet while her father beats on the door. The effect of mad terror is shattering. Only—did you catch the disillusioning contrast when Griffith flashed to a longer shot and let you see for an instant a sharply defined and comparatively emotionless glimpse of her face?

Obviously it is necessary to handle transitions in and out of the soft-focus with tremendous care. In “Broken Blossoms,” Griffith carries the soft-focus, his newest and in some ways his greatest contribution to screen technique, even farther. He uses it in a number of long shots, such as scenes in the temple, on the Chinese river and in the opium den. In every case it is beautifully successful. Not only does it emphasize the qualities of light and composition, but it gives much more of character to these scenes, much more of the sort of emotion which we would get from paintings or etchings of the episodes. The future use of this departure by other directors will make very interesting watching.

Of course, behind and above all the tricks and technical improvements of “Broken Blossoms” is the manner in which the story is arranged and acted. This is faultless, absolutely faultless.

The narrative flows smoothly and convincingly, without distortion and with entire emotion directness and clarity. So far as loyalty to character and story go, Griffith and a few other directors could have done this long ago—if they had had the courage or the foresight to believe in true art instead of specious entertainment. Griffith now believes again, as he believed in the days of “The Avenging Conscience,” and this time the answer of the public is favorable. Consistency is indeed a jewel, and truth a thing of rare price. But there is something more to be said about Griffith on the score of “Broken Blossoms,” and it is not so easy to say.

Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms

Unquestionably it is a terrible, brutal, almost sadistic photoplay. It wrings your heart with pity for the abused child, but the physical and spiritual cruelties to which it makes you witness are so terrible that somehow you leave the theater with a feeling that the moving picture is in perilous danger of becoming the Roman Coliseum of the twentieth century. The art of Griffith is immense, undeniable and unapproachable. But are these horrors, these brutalities, the physical and spiritual tortures, which stretch thru his plays from “The Escape” onward a temperamental weakness in a great artist, or the ultimate, inevitable goal of the wordless art of pictures? The problem is a grave one indeed for the future of the screen.

Motion Picture Classic (Aug 1919) Griffith Promises
Motion Picture Classic (Aug 1919) Griffith Promises

Back to Lillian Gish Home page