Halliwell’s filmgoer’s and video viewer’s companion (Ninth Edition). Copyright © 1988
By LESLIE HALLIWELL
Foreword to the First Edition (1965) by Alfred Hitchcock
Thirty or forty years ago, when the idea of the cinema as an art form was new, people started to write highbrow treatises about it. Unfortunately, few of the books seemed to have much connection with what one saw at the local picture house. Even earlier began the still-continuing deluge of fan magazines and annuals, full of exotic photographs but short on solid information. We film-makers had our own reference books, but these were often incomprehensible to the layman and gave him more undigested facts than he needed. Nobody wrote for the sensible middlebrow picturegoer who was keenly interested in the craft of the cinema without wanting to make a religion of it. The volume you hold in your hand aims to be the first comprehensive reference book in English for that numerous but neglected audience. I feel sure it will be welcome, for audiences are taking an increasingly serious interest in their films these days – even in the flippant ones. A concise guide to film matters past and present is obviously a good thing to have on a handy shelf, especially when the best of the old films are constantly cropping up on TV. I hope it will prove possible to bring out revised and corrected editions on a regular basis. Not that many glaring errors will be discovered: the author has done his homework rather better than the villains in my films, who always seem to get found out sooner or later. Speaking personally, I don’t know whether it is more flattering or disturbing to find oneself pinned down like a butterfly in a book which recounts all the macabre details of one’s career. But being a stickler for detail myself. I must, and do. submit; and I wish the enterprise well.
It suited D. W. Griffith’s rather Victorian outlook to film Thomas Burke’s The Chink and the Child, a sentimental tale of a gentle Chinaman and an innocent waif in a highly imaginary Limehouse, and his 1919 version, being played for every last tear by Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish, was a great success. In 1936 Griffith was assigned to do a British remake with Emlyn Williams and Dolly Haas, but he resigned during preparation and Hans (John) Brahm took over. By now the tale was too outmoded for popular success, but it was interestingly done in the arty manner.
Griffith, D. W. (David Wark) (1874-1948).
American film pioneer, the industry’s first major producer-director; he improved the cinema’s prestige, developed many aspects of technique, created a score of stars, and was only flawed by his sentimental Victorian outlook, which in the materialistic twenties put him prematurely out of vogue and in the thirties out of business. Best book about him: The Movies, Mr Griffith, and Me, by Lillian Gish.
‘It is time D. W. Griffith was rescued from the pedestal of an outmoded pioneer. The cinema of Griffith, after all, is no more outmoded than the drama of Aeschylus.’ — Andrew Sarris, 1968
For enduring the fate of most monuments, and for deserving the tribute in the first place, despite being a personality with clearly unlikeable aspects.
He was the first to photograph thought, said Cecil B. De Mille. It was quite a compliment. But Griffith was full of contradictions. His brain was progressive, his emotions Victorian. For a few years the two aspects were able to join in public favour, but he could not adapt himself to the brisker pace of the twenties, when he made many such blinkered and stubborn pronouncements as: We do not want now and we never shall want the human voice with our films. When the inevitable happened in 1928 he declared: We have taken beauty and exchanged it for stilted voices.
He could be tactless too, as when in 1918 he commented: Viewed as drama, the war is somewhat disappointing.
Yet this was the man of whom Gene Fowler could say: He articulated the mechanics of cinema and bent them to his flair.
Lillian Gish, a great admirer of Griffith, said: He inspired in us his belief that we were working in a medium that was powerful enough to influence the whole world.
To Mack Sennett:
He was my day school, my adult education program, my university . . . (but) he was an extremely difficult man to know.
He said himself:
The task I’m trying to achieve above all is to make you see . . .
He knew his own value, as many an actor found when asking for a rise: It’s worth a lot more than money to be working for me!
This was true enough up to the time of The Birth of a Nation, which President Wilson described as: Like writing history with lightning. But it became less so after the box-office flop of Intolerance, which Gene Fowler called: The greatest commercial anticlimax in film history. He became an embarrassment to Hollywood because his ideas seemed outmoded; in the thirties he scarcely worked at all. When he died in 1948 Hedda Hopper, recalling the marks made by stars in the wet cement at Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre, said: Griffith’s footprints were never asked for, yet no one has ever filled his shoes . . .
And James Agee added:
There is not a man working in movies, nor a man who cares for them, who does not owe Griffith more than he owes anyone else.
Ezra Goodman commented:
At Griffith’s funeral, the sacred cows of Hollywood gathered to pay him homage. A week before, he probably could not have gotten any of them on the telephone.
It is sad indeed that death had to come before such tributes as Frank Capra’s: Since Griffith there has been no major improvement in the art of film direction.
And Carmel Myers’: He was the umbrella that shaded us all.
And John Simon’s: Griffith did for film what Sackville and Norton, the authors of Goborduc, did for drama. He did what he did genuinely, and straight from the heart. His best films are passionate and tender, terrifying and pregnant, works of art certainly, and products too of an imagination far ahead of its time.
Paul O’Dell – It’s about time that DWG was rescued from the pedestal of an outmoded pioneer.
The cinema of Griffith is no more outmoded, after all, than the drama of Aeschylus. – Andrew Sarris
D.W.G.: Remember how small the world was before I came along. I brought it all to life: I moved the whole world onto a 20-foot screen.