David Wark Llewelyn Griffith …
- HOLLYWOOD in The Twenties (1968)
- by David Robinson
Between 1908 and 1914 Griffith gave the cinema its syntax practically complete. He developed Porter’s innovation of cross-cutting. He introduced cutting within the scene as a standard practice. He introduced realistic and expressive lighting. He used masks and irises to make the very shape of the screen an instrument for dramatic expression. He increased the range of the camera’s vision —used close-ups, which enabled actors to work more subtly and detail to be more immediately revealing, and long-shots which emancipated the film from the stall’s-eye view of earlier cinema drama. He released the screen image from a simply two-dimensional movement and gave it perspective, foreground and background. He used the moving camera (actually a familiar, if disorganised device from the earliest days) for dramatic purposes. From the theatre he brought concepts of pace and timing.
He also recruited a new kind of actor—fresh youngsters whose smooth faces could stand up to close-ups, and whose acting styles were still innocent of the heavy and mannered habits of the Victorian stage. Among the talents first introduced into the studios by Griffith were Pickford, the Gish sisters, Bessie Love, Blanche Sweet, Richard Barthelmess, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh. Griffith not only enlarged the cinema’s language but also its range of subjects. The Song of the Shirt and A Corner in Wheat attempted social questions, even if at a simple level. He embarked on his first historico-philosophical spectacles, such as Judith of Bethulia. To suit more sophisticated subjects he made films in greater length than had hitherto been customary. At four reels, Judith of Bethulia was the longest film made until that time.
In five years Griffith had made himself the unchallenged master of the medium that he had made over. In late 1913 he left Biograph for Reliance Majestic, releasing through Mutual. Although Griffith made four preliminary pictures there, his whole attention was concentrated on The Birth of a Nation (1915), in which, absolutely deliberately and consciously, he set out to create “the greatest picture ever made”. It was so; and it remains the most important and influential in film history, introducing audiences as it did to experiences they had never known before, compelling acceptance of the motion pictures as an unparalleled means of communication, and a genuine form of art.
The immense profits from The Birth of a Nation were poured into his next film Intolerance (1916), in which Griffith had “conferred both magnitude and complexity as well as expressiveness on the motion pictures” (Iris Barry: “D. W. Griffith: American Film Master”, N.Y., Museum of Modern Art). A film of immense formative importance in the history of the cinema, Intolerance was never a commercial success; and Griffith spent many years painfully restoring debts the film had incurred. In 1917 he had gone to Europe to make Hearts of the World, a film intended originally to help bring America into the war, but which appeared only a few months before the Armistice in 1918. One more film, now entirely lost, The Great Love, about the galvanising of pre-war social butterflies into the war effort, completed his war-time activity.
In the meantime he had become a successful producer of, among other films, the series of light comedies starring Dorothy Gish. It is worth recalling Griffith’s past career at this length in order to assess his stock at the end of the war. He had enjoyed an international prestige equalled by no one else in the cinema. He had created his own artistic mediumthe paramount means of expression of the twentieth century. He had created the cinema’s first universally recognized masterpieces. At the same time he was no business man and he was burdened with the debts incurred by Intolerance (the Wark Producing Company was to go bankrupt in 1921). He was, at bottom, inseparably wedded to the nineteenth century—its literature, its drama, its tastes and its morals. He was on the verge of being overtaken by the cinema which he had done so much to create, by the post-war world in which at first he stood as a giant. His situation is summed up by Mrs. Eileen Bowser in her supplement to the Museum of Modern Art’s monograph: “Brought up in poverty and without adequate education, Griffith had aspirations to be a great writer, in particular a great playwright.
Now he was hailed as the Shakespeare of the screen and he walked with the great of his time, the wealthy and the socially prominent, Although he knew that he had poured his heart into The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, he must have been a bit bewildered to have achieved such success in the medium he had originally despised. His was an intuitive genius, and fame made him self-conscious. His deliberate striving for artistic excellence or for popularity in his later films led him at times to descend into mannerism.
The financial failure of Intolerance made him painfully aware of the need to cater more to popular taste, yet he was never sure of what popular taste was.” But for the moment he had confidence, prestige and a great actress, Lillian Gish. A Romance of Happy Valley, Griffith’s first post-war release, was evidently a relaxation, a return to the simple anecdotes of Biograph days and to the Kentucky of his boyhood memory.
No copy of this film or his next, The Greatest Thing in Life (1918) exist, unfortunately, today. Lillian Gish has said that it is impossible to evaluate Griffith without knowing this latter film. The climactic scene in which a white boy kisses a dying negro soldier (on the lips, according to Miss Gish, though Mrs. Bowser says on the cheek) appears to have been unfailingly startling to all who saw it, and a striking refutation of ideas on Griffith’s racism. (The racist aspect of his work accords uncomfortably with other aspects of Griffith’s personality. It undeniably exists in The Birth of a Nation and in hints elsewhere in the work. At best it can be written off as being the effect of inherited habits of thought, innocently unquestioned, rather than positive and maliciously maintained opinion.)
Both The Greatest Thing in Life and The Girl Who Stayed at Home (1919) seem to have been undertaken as government propaganda films. Griffith was at this time working off a contract with Zukor’s Artcraft Company, and his next two films were made quickly, though conscientiously.
True Heart Susie (1919) was another sentimental retreat to rural America, with a sweet performance by Lillian Gish, but it was hopelessly outmoded in the year that saw the release of DeMille’s Don’t Change Your Husband. A Western, Scarlet Days (1919), starring Richard Barthelmess, sounds attractive, but all prints of it have disappeared. Even now Griffith had masterpieces in him. Broken Blossoms (1919), adapted from a short story in Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights, was, incredibly, made in eighteen days (though Griffith’s method called for a lot of prior rehearsal—a method which Miss Gish long maintained after she had left Griffith). However much the techniques which Griffith pioneered in this film were abused by later film-makers, his success in producing richly evocative and poetic atmosphere and imagery is undeniable.
The soft-focus photography, the eerie studio-manufactured London fogs still work upon the spectator, and are a tribute to Billy Bitzer’s endlessly resourceful camerawork for Griffith. The performances of Gish as the little slum girl, Donald Crisp as her brutal father and Richard Barthelmess as the spiritual Chinese boy who falls in lovewith her and tries to save her are still as compelling as any surviving silent screen performances.
Griffith was working at full pressure to re-establish his commercial independence and to build his new studios at Mamaroneck. Broken Blossoms was released through United Artists, which had been founded in 1919; but The Greatest Question (1919), a drama about spiritualism, and The Idol Dancer and The Love Flower, both exotic melodramas, were made for First National. For the first time in these films, Griffith seems to have been repeating himself, working with a slackened enthusiasm and inspiration. He recovered his forces completely however for Way Down East (1920) which is, perhaps, the masterpiece among the later films, still completely valid despite the anachronism of the subject — perhaps indeed by the very reason of Griffith’s fidelity to a period which was already past but which was essentially his own. His purchase of the rights of Lottie Blair Parker’s creaky old play at a cost of $175,000 was a matter of incredulity and ridicule at the time; but the film proved more popular than any Griffith work since The Birth of a Nation. At risk of the life and limb of every member of the unit (but particularly poor Lillian Gish who had to be defrosted constantly after exposure on the ice floes) Griffith shot the film with startling realism, the exteriors being filmed on the frozen Connecticut River. This, together with the integrity of the performances of Barthelmess and the incomparable Gish (the baptism of the dying child is still one of the most moving episodes in the history of the cinema) explain the lasting success of the film.
Still Griffith was borne on the tide of success. Dream Street (1921), an attempt to repeat the success of Broken Blossoms with two more Burke stories, was a failure on all counts, despite some precocious experiments with synchronised sound. But Orphans of the Storm (1921) was a critical success and one of the best American costume spectacles of the era—rivalling those of Lubitschwhich were at that time being imported from Germany with considerable prestige.
The performances of the Gish girls are legendary. Mrs. Bowser relates that many spectators actually thought they heard Dorothy singing, so vivid was Lillian’s acting in the scene where, searching for her blind sister, she at last hears her voice, distantly singing in the streets. The cost of the film had, however, been immense. Griffith proceeded with the same extravagance as on Intolerance: the sets of revolutionary Paris covered thirteen acres. It was impossible for the film to recoup such a cost. After this, no Griffith film ever made a profit.
It seemed as if Griffith’s luck turned when Lillian Gish left him, to be replaced by Carol Dempster, a much less accountable actress who nevertheless seemed to exert a fascination over Griffith. One Exciting Night (1922) did as well commercially as any of the later films, and is memorable as a pioneer murder-mystery drama. It was followed by The White Rose (1923), a sentimental piece with little but pretty camerawork and a good performance by Mae Marsh to recommend it.
It would be interesting to see America ( 1924), in which Griffith returned to the theme of American history, which had intrigued him since The Massacre (1912). He himself felt that the film suffered because the history was insufficiently leavened with personalised stories. Later critics have felt the contrary, that the sentimental intrigues involving Carol Dempster and Neil Hamilton get in the way of the sweep of spectacle, for which Griffith evidently still kept his talent. Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924) is considered by those who have seen it to be one of Griffith’s most mature works. Made on location in Germany, on the theme of the effects of war’s aftermath upon ordinary human beings, it can, says Mrs. Bowser, be compared with Italian neo-realism of the immediate post-World War Two years —and this despite a tacked-on happy ending. She adds, “For Griffith it was to be the last great film, after which he gave up his long fought-for independence and went to work as an employee of Adolph Zukor.”