SCREENING OUT THE PAST By LARY MAY (1980)

The Birth of Mass Culture and the Motion Picture Industry

By LARY MAY

The University of Chicago Press – Chicago and London 1980

Recent social historians have used innovative methods to show that there was a measurable change in morals among the urban middle classes between 1900 and 1920. Yet the convergence of that change with issues of power remained obscure. For example, the active communications and close relationship maintained between civic leaders and filmmakers, specifically with regard to the sexual revolution, was overlooked. Fearing that the rise of industrial empires threatened the traditional moral order, each believed that it was necessary to combat that threat. Nevertheless, by the 1920s urbanites had forged a new culture, a culture that was supported by all the modern institutions of leisure, sports, nightclubs, popular music, amusement parks, including the movies, to regenerate popular visions of progress and middle-class success. The result was that a profound alteration in American identity was first born at the turn of the century. Movies were a key element in that transformation, helping to foster the shift from a producer’s to a consumer’s democracy. Centered in the large cities, the cultural revolution had an independent life. Of course, elites tried to control that process, but in spite of their efforts, filmmakers helped to reorient democratic individualism in an organized age and created models for a leisure realm that helped ease fears of social disruption. Though the promise of a richer life was often distorted in the tension, the strongest urge was to generate private fulfillment to counter an often alienating, bureaucratic society. Precisely because consumerism supplied ideals for the political economy, producers tried to link their product to the democratic tradition by having politicians serve in the industry. Political leaders often accepted, hoping to link their programs to popular aspirations carried by the media, its leisure institutions and personalities. Much of that symbiosis has been a shadowy element, but it became overt in 1980. In the presidential campaign of that year Ronald Reagan promised to regenerate the modern American dream of consumption and economic growth, a dream that he dramatized on and off the screen for more than twenty years as a movie star. The political and artistic reality behind that synthesis has often eluded us, but this Study suggests that it has been a powerful and permanent part of our culture since the turn of the century.

DW Griffith in 1943
DW Griffith in 1943

Chapter Four

APOCALYPTIC CINEMA:

D. W. GRIFFITH AND THE AESTHETICS OF REFORM

 

Do you know that we are playing to the world? What we film tomorrow will strike the hearts of the world. And they will know what we are saying. We’ve gone beyond Babel, beyond words. We’ve found a universal language — a power that can make men brothers and end wars forever. Remember that, remember that when you go before the camera.

DAVID WARK GRIFFITH, 1914

Griffith believed that no film could be a success without that “pleasing presentation for which all men yearn.” We are not likely to understand the tremendous artistry Griffith poured into this vision if we forget the sources of Griffith’s emotional stance toward women. He idealized his family, especially his mother; and this admiration infused his attitude toward the female characters in his photoplays. Although he never found a woman “to duplicate the memories of perfection we all have within us,” there was one woman whom mankind might love without thoughts of sensuality. “We all know that the beauty of our mothers is no myth.” In seeking to revive that memory on the screen, heroines were less objects of passion than reminders of all the spiritual values embodied in the family. No wonder the player who portrayed this type in numerous Griffith films, Lillian Gish, confessed that her mentor was an essentially lonely man who loved his screen images but feared real women. Consequently, his female players were not the “buxom, voluptuous form popular with the Oriental mind,” but the frail, innocent girl who was the “very essence of virginity.” It was not just Griffith’s camera but the entire environment of film making that infused his heroines with the proper purity. He started by making his studio a Victorian home writ large. Running it like a “stern father,” he never allowed his players long hours or even the “taint of scandal.” He dismissed potential female players who did not look “clean,” or those who had blemishes on their faces, since these skin defects indicated jealousy, greed, or sexual vice. Heroines were usually chaperoned on the set, forbidden to have men in their dressing rooms, and prevented from actually kissing during love scenes. When a passionate embrace did appear in a Griffith film, he suggested that a caption explain that the girl’s mother was present. His favorite actress, the thin and frail Lillian Gish, was perfectly cast for this female ideal. As a girl in the Midwest, she lived in a convent and hoped to become a nun. When working for Griffith, she and her sister Dorothy remained constantly supervised by their mother. She recalled that her director had a “mania” for cleanliness and a body free of germs, and lectured to his cast that “women aren’t meant for promiscuity. If you’re going to be promiscuous, you will end up with some disease.”

Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith, R Harron CloseUp 1914 hjk

Griffith used film to make his ideal of saintly womanhood come alive. Whatever taints of the earthly that remained after Griffith’s vigorous efforts and exhortations had to be eradicated by the camera itself. First came “exercise, cosmetics, self-denial” and the “right kind of thinking.” Then women faced screen tests which magnified the actress’s face “twenty times” until he found the look of “perfect health.” Through a series of cinematic techniques, this heroine finally became a heavenly vision on the screen. One of the most famous Griffith innovations was “hazy photography,” caused by a white sheet beneath the player’s feet. A powerful bright light from above would illuminate the body. “We must erase imperfections,” he recalled, “and it was in doing this that I invented the hazy photography … the camera is a great beauty doctor.” With all human imperfections removed, Griffith would then film a scene over and over until he achieved just the right effect. The resulting close-up became one of his most famous technical triumphs. Griffith explained that the goal was a face where the skin radiated a smooth soft outline. So with the eyes. . . . Every other physical characteristic is of insignificance compared with the eves. If they are the window to your soul, your soul must have a window it could see through. The farther the motion picture art progresses, the more important does this become. At the heart of Griffith’s drama was the struggle of mankind to protect this female ideal. He highlighted this tension through a series of masterful editing techniques. In making over three hundred films, he learned that the way in which strips of celluloid were arranged could determine the emotional rhythms of the audience.

DW Griffith and Lillian Gish
DW Griffith and Lillian Gish

By alternating between characters lighted “like archangels or devils,” the director would personalize the good and evil at work in the world. Building his story around these contrasts, he might arouse the audience to identify with righteousness. Then the director showed the heroine suddenly threatened by men who embodied greed, lust, or tyranny. The climax of his films was the rescue. Cutting back and forth from evil pursuer to endangered innocence, the director built a crescendo of fear and hope as the hero rushes to save her. In one great finale, virtue and sin would struggle in the “battle of human ethics common to all consciousness.” As the hero triumphs, the audience sees the “consummation of all romantic and adventurous dreams.” To reach this emotional explosion, Griffith explained, the pace must be quickened from beginning to end. That is not however a steady ascent. The action must quicken to a height in a minor climax which should be faster than the first, and retard again and build to the third w hich should be faster than the second, and on to the final climax where the pace should be the fastest. Through all the big moments of the story, the pace should build like an excited pulse. Ultimately, Griffith saw the struggle between virtue and vice infusing the major political and moral reforms of the day. He did not see his techniques as serving the designs of a master mover manipulating the minds of the lowly. Rather, he identified deeply with his audience, believing that in expressing his own feelings, he expressed theirs as well. Unlike the Republican reformers who had censored the movies, early viewers were workers and small property owners who generally belonged to the Democratic party so dear to Griffith. The director, too, was only one step removed from the experiences of his patrons. He had been a former worker, and an independent businessman, sharing with the movie goers a hostility to monopolists who thwarted economic autonomy. Although his films were not explicitly political, they did express a broad cultural outlook which appealed to the “producers” of all classes and backgrounds. As Griffith explained, “No matter how contorted, one way or another, the soul may be, the man is still a man, and with recognizable traits common to all men . . . tramps, artists, iron workers, writers, all of us are alike in our souls.”

D W Griffith late 1890s
D W Griffith late 1890s

Transcending any artificial barriers was the ability of all peoples to realize the morals embodied in the Victorian home. Griffith used his aesthetics to carry this faith in his films. They were of two general types: lessons and warnings. Either heroes triumphed, or they were destroyed by their failure to live up to the ideal. A typical warning film was The Avenging Conscience (1914). It opens on a father insisting that his son prepare himself for a “great career.” Yet the boy likes a girl the father calls “common,” and finds himself attracted to the amusements of Italian immigrants, who are portrayed as having less restrained sexual habits. The patriarch forbids such behavior. In his rage, the boy contemplates patricide. Despite an apparition of Christ warning of damnation, the youth kills his father. The act is seen by an Italian who blackmails the boy and turns him over to the police. In prison he goes insane, and his girlfriend commits suicide. Yet the film has a happy ending: it is all only a dream. Nevertheless, the warning is clear: men cannot deviate from the work ethic, or indulge in what are perceived as immigrant vices, lest they forsake the goals of progress passed on by the fathers. From this parental code came the deeds of his heroes who carried out a specific historical mission—that of the Anglo-Saxon peoples. This was demonstrated in a classic lesson film, Mans Genesis (1912). Dramatizing the eternal struggles that face the human being, Griffith took his audience to the beginning of time. Amid a desolate landscape, a caveman, “Weak Hands,” loves a pure girl, “Lily White.” But their spiritual union is endangered by an older, lusty villain, “Brute Force.” In response, the youth invents mankind’s first tool, a club, with which he conquers the villain. He then marries his sweetheart, and they create a community grounded in fa milial harmony. The hero is the leader of a classless tribe where love transcends all selfish interests. Hut the “producers” must strive continually, for Brute Force returns with a mob armed with stolen clubs. To put down this threat to their women, Weak I lands invents an even better weapon, a bow and arrow. Victory once again restores the peaceful community. In the triumph of reason over animality, success is not achieved for money or pleasure, but to elevate society above lust and tyranny.

Home Sweet Home
Home Sweet Home

Following creation, this battle informed the dynamics of world history as well. In his films of the French and American Revolutions, westward expansion, and Biblical epics, “Brute Force” is incarnated in aristocrats, monopolists, or the unruly mob. The struggle is carried into the present, in films of industrial conflict. A Corner on Wheat (1909) shows a grain speculator hoarding wheat to increase the price while workers, farmers, and small shopkeepers starve. The Song of the Shirt (1908) shows a poor girl suffering at a sewing machine in a sweatshop, while her boss takes the fruits of her labor to live a decadent life. These films condemned the immoral rich; but others condemned the unruly poor. The Voice of the Violin (1909) portrays a rich man forbidding his daughter to marry a poor boy. But when the boy turns to a “revolutionary group imbued with the false principles of Karl Marx, the promoter of the communist principles of socialism which in time and under the control of intemperate minds becomes absolute anarchy,” he learns that his comrades w ant to rape his sweetheart and burn her fathers factory. In response, he turns against these evil doers, and for his efforts wins the hand of the girl he loves. At the same time, the dominant motif for films set in the modern era echoed the beliefs of the vice crusaders: women were in danger and had to be protected. In Griffith’s films, heroines moved around the city unchaperoned, working in new tasks as clerks, telephone operators, and laborers. This did not mean they had “fallen.” Rather, as heroes guarded them in the public realm, these men were even more inspired to conquer the forces of vice.

Home Sweet Home
Home Sweet Home

A film such as Home Sweet Home (1914) shows a hero drinking and going to dance halls. When he falls to Hell, his sweetheart becomes an angel with wings and flies into Hades to rescue him, and carries him up to Heaven. On earth, such heroines would not be tempted by saloons, foreigners, or men who offer them empires. Rather than submit, women are willing to die. In several climactic Griffith scenes, heroes, believing that villains are about to overtake them, hold guns to the heads of their pure women—final efforts to protect them from a fate literally worse than death. Final shots of rescue are filled with religious images, such as Christ hovering above the characters. By 1913, Griffith’s art and popularity signaled that the hopes of reformers were at high tide. Instead of movies and mass culture eroding Victorianism, the most advanced film maker of the day had reoriented the industry toward social reform. His films depicted historical events and current life, exposing viewers to an expanded realm of experience. At the same time, Anglo-Saxon culture was portrayed as eternal truth. With its values spreading to a growing audience, motion pictures could inspire the population to unite in a crusade against evil. Women might occupy new positions outside the home without losing their virtue; challenges of modern life would spur them on to uphold motherhood and virginity, and inspire men to protect women and liberate themselves from lusty monopolists, vice lords, and corrupt politicians. Griffith gave this historical dynamic power and passion through innovative techniques, and made it seem as though all parties and groups could unite to transform modern society, without a great social upheaval. It appeared that reformers of all persuasions could still come together around this battle for a classless and blessed order. Ironically, the first crack in this consensus came as the result of Griffith’s greatest success, the making of his masterpiece and the most popular film of the era,

the_birth_of_a_nation

The Birth of a Nation (1915). This epic film began when Griffith left Biograph, and Aitken brought him The Clansman (1905), a novel which had been made into a hit Broadway play in 1908. The story was written by Thomas Dixon, a former Democratic politician who became a Baptist minister and then quit the clergy for the “wider pulpit” of popular art. The Clansman, however, was hardly an original conception. It merely put into story form the Democratic party ideology of the Civil War era. The plot condemns the Radical Republicans who during Reconstruction imposed a corrupt regime on Dixie. Using the freed slaves’ voting power, they disenfranchised the white citizens and unleashed a reign of terror. 36 While none of these events actually took place, they did express Southerners’ fears of what would hap pen when the corrupt industrial North aligned with Southern blacks.  In fact, Griffith’s own family included politicians who believed this and doubtless used the same rhetoric to mobilize the South against Northern tyranny in the 1870s. As Griffith meticulously recreated the atmosphere of the Civil War years, he wrote, Stronger and stronger came to me the traditions I had learned as a child, all that my father had told me. That sword I told you about became a flashing vision. Gradually came back to my memory the stories one Thurston Griffith had told me of the ku Klux Klan and the regional impulse that comes to men from the earth where they had their beings stirred. It had all the decisive emotionalism of the highest patriotic sentiment.

 

The Birth of a Nation 1915 1The film began its official run at the Liberty Theater in New York, and quickly became an enormous financial and critical success. Every crisis of the film revolved around threats to the family. In the opening scenes, Griffith portrays the ideal domestic life on the Cameron plantation. Shot in a soft haze, these scenes show a perfect laissez-faire world. As harmony envelops parents, children, and slaves, neither the state nor hierarchical religions are needed. The Civil War comes, disrupting this ordered paradise. During Reconstruction, a Northern white Radical, Senator Stoneham, lives with his mulatto mistress, and she spurs him to unleash his lust for gain on the defeated South. He gives the vote to former slaves, who use their power against the good white people of the South. Stripped of their property and political rights, the whites watch helplessly as rowdy blacks pass intermarriage laws. When this culminates in the attempted rape of the Cameron women, the brothers form the Ku Klux Klan, uniting Southerners of all classes. As they ride to the rescue of their “Aryan birthright,” the screen comes alive with Griffith’s perfected editing techniques. After the climactic battle, the South is liberated. And even the Northerners recognize the folly of miscegenation. Symbolizing the return to unity, the Cameron son marries Stoneham’s daughter. Now the familial bonds restore order to the stricken land, and Christ rises in the sky to announce the beginning of the millennium in America.

Lillian Gish Promotional Hartsook - The Clansman (The Birth of a Nation)
Lillian Gish Promotional Hartsook – The Clansman (The Birth of a Nation)

The Birth of a Nation touched a sensitive political nerve. In its message, the film called for an alliance of the common folk from the formerly warring sections to overthrow a tyranny based on North ern commercial corruption. This was indeed a relevant theme for the Democratic constituency in 1914. As the film was made, the first Southern Democratic president since the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson, had united the various elements of the party—Northern workers, Southerners, small farmers, and property owners—into a crusade for a “New Freedom.” These were the same groups that had mobilized against leaders of Radical Reconstruction in 1876. In contrast to the defeated ex-president, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson promised to break up trusts and restore the open economy. True to this spirit, Griffith filled the film with quotations from Wilson’s historical writings. No doubt this was done to give credence to the events on the screen. But it was also done to make history relevant to the present. Here was shown what would happen to whites who let monopolists strip them of their property and corrupt the political process. As they fell from grace, they would become vulnerable to tyranny from above and below. Giving power to this metaphor, Thomas Dixon used his friendship with Woodrow Wilson to have the film shown at the White House. Whether or not the President approved of the film, there was no question in Dixon’s mind that it would make Northerners “Democrats for life.” As Dixon later recalled, I told him I had a great motion picture he should see not merely because his classmate had written the story, but because this picture made clear for the first time that a universal language had been invented. That in fact was a process of reasoning which could overwhelm the will with conviction.  Not everyone shared this acclaim, however. In fact, the film generated such a fierce controversy that it practically crippled the National Board of Review, and shattered the consensus of reformers who had hailed movies as a beneficial medium. Although people like Jane Addams and Frederic Howe shared Griffith’s sentiments about the Victorian home, they could not tolerate his racial attitudes. Unlike Griffith, most of his critics were heirs to an abolitionist tradition. Mounting a fierce protest, they joined with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and convinced the National Board of Review to cut key racist sections of the film. But this did not solve the problem. Frederic Howe was so disturbed by the movie, even after it was censored, that he resigned as president of the Board. 44 And Griffith attacked his critics, arguing that he was not a racist, and pointing out that loyal black servants were portrayed heroically whereas others had been corrupted by Northern Radicals.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation

He also correctly pointed out that none of his previous works had been anti-Negro, and that his family had always cared for them as “children.” Nevertheless, it was clear that Griffith was heir to the white racist beliefs of the South. Although his black characters did not have a monopoly on evil traits—plenty of w hites were lustful as well—Negroes were seen as innately dangerous: in spite of their potential for noble deeds, they could never really be trusted. Griffith thus forbid any “black blood” among the players who might have to touch white actresses. Those actors were always whites in blackface. Likewise, when the NAACP condemned the film, Griffith attacked them in the press as a “pro-intermarriage” group, bent on repealing miscegenation laws. In Griffith’s mind, however, the racial controversy was less important than the economic issue. A common loyalty to domestic values could not overcome this gulf either. The fact that the Board that censored The Birth of a Nation included Republican reformers was not lost on Griffith or his audience. Sitting conspicuously in judgment were those very rulers who were often condemned in his films: puritanical paternalists of New England, and industrialists who threatened to make whites into propertyless, dependent men, no better than blacks. Now the evils of Reconstruction had invaded the North, and Griffith saw himself as a chief victim, for the censors were “malignant pygmies” who had grown into “black Calibans” and denied him his rights of free speech and property. Before the people knew it, claimed Griffith, they would lay their hands on “Miss Liberty” and thwart his creativity even further: You could not even portray the drama of the days of 49 to ’70 in the golden west. If you tell the story of this period, you must show the atrocities committed by the Indians against the whites. Some public seeking fanatic would protest that it was an injustice to the Indians and might raise feelings against them. . . . These people revel in objections.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation 5

In order to defeat these forces, Griffith felt he had to inspire the masses once again. Using his most powerful weapon, film, he now poured all the money he had made on The Birth of a Nation into making the most elaborate and expensive film of his career. His extravaganza coincided with the 1916 election, and espoused the ideology that would presumably help Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats defeat the Republicans.

Intolerance (1916) was a new creation, “from my own head,” as the director phrased it. This “sun play of the ages” would carry quotes from Wilson, Emerson, and Mill, relating them to a “universal theme running through the various eras of the race’s history . . . events are to flash through the mind seeking to parallel the life of different ages and today. Through all the eras, time brings forth the same passions, the same joys and anxieties.” To show this, Griffith alternated three ancient tales which depicted the Medici who ruled sixteenth-century France, the Priests of Baal in Babylon, and the Pharisees of Jerusalem in the time of Christ as greedy men who tyrannized the innocent. In France the Medicis unleashed terror against the Huguenot families, in Jerusalem the Pharisees crucify Christ, in Babylon the priests destroy Balthazar’s benevolent state. Griffith does not condemn power per se> for Balthazar is shown as a good ruler. He did not inherit his kingdom, nor did he maintain it through privilege. Gaining the loyalty of the people solely through his military prowess, he abolished religious establishments and protected economic independence. Eventually his own spiritual family life radiated through the polity, creating unity. But the priests conspired with a foreign prince and destroyed the kingdom. Although Griffith believed in progress, the portion of Intolerance set in the modern era showed that the sins of the past had been reborn with the “autocratic industrial lords” and their social-worker allies. In scenes designed to duplicate the environs of the New York “Four Hundred,”

Griffith shows a wealthy manufacturer and his reformer wife policing the innocent amusements of the workers. At the same time, the industrialist cuts wages and uses the proceeds to hold an elaborate “charity ball.” In protest, the laborers go out on strike. Now the screen fills with labor management battles modeled on the great strike at Lawrence, Massachusetts. Yet since the rich have the support of the government, they used the national guard to quell the outburst. With the poor impoverished and their families destroyed, the heroic “boy” and “girl,” unbeknownst to each other, head for new opportunity in the city. But they find the opposite of their dreams. With few jobs available, the “boy” goes to work in a vice den for a “musketeer of the slums, ” clearly a machine politician. Although he is attracted to “loose women” and the hist life, redemption comes when he meets the “girl.” As they fall in love and marry, the hero quits his old job and begins to “go straight,” in the path of upward mobility. Yet the good home is still not free from evil authorities. His old boss corrupts the judiciary and sends him to jail for a crime he did not commit. As the villain then tries to seduce the hero’s wife, social workers attempt to take away her child. Finally the “girl” secures a confession from the real criminal, and the stage is set for Griffith’s greatest climactic scene. In accelerating parallel shots, the girl chases after the governor’s train with the new evidence. Quickly the director interjects scenes depicting the fall of Babylon, the crucifixion of Christ, and the slaughter of the Huguenots. Over and over again, these patterns force the audience to ask, will innocence be crucified again? Is progress doomed to fail? No, for the girl catches the governor, just as the noose is being put around the boy’s head. With the governor’s swift pardon, the audience learns that in modern America, law is on the side of the good citizen. The state has proved effective in saving the home. Although the industrial system remains intact, the hero is free to transcend it through individual effort and social mobility.

Intolerance - The End Scene
Intolerance – The End Scene

And as he had done in The Birth of a Nation, Griffith again hails the millennium with a vision of Christ rising in the sky. In this elaborate, multi-layered film, we can see the full implications of Griffith’s art. The hero and heroine were clearly cast as Irish laborers. Yet their universality was not tied to any class or ethnic group. Never were they connected to the Catholic Church or the pre-industrial culture protected by the urban machine. Nor does Griffith’s assault on the industrialists contain a criticism of capitalism. His heroes do not advocate class conflict, unions, or labor parties. Rather, they are in rebellion against selfishness in high places. Presumably, if a self-made man like Balthazar rules, the force of his personality would encourage class harmony and open opportunity. In the modern story, the democratic state serves as this just and benevolent ruler, not by overthrowing the factory owners or “moral paternalists,” but by saving the virtuous individual. Free labor was not a myth for Griffith, but a living reality. In his commitment to autonomy, during the making of the film he aligned himself with Los Angeles reformers to ban unions from the studios. Symbolic of his entire outlook, when the actor who had played Christ was arrested and deported for sexual misconduct, Griffith struck his name from the credits of Intolerance. The film’s reception was a great disappointment, for it was Griffith’s first critical and financial failure. This was in part due to the fact that it was four hours long and contained four different stories all mixed together. As one critic remarked, viewing was a “real task and the person who tries to find meaning must feel something like dramatic indigestion after seeing the picture.” But it was more than this. The tremendous success of The Birth of a Nation brought movies squarely into the middle-class market. It was crucial to draw this affluent audience to recoup the enormous financial investment Griffith had poured into Intolerance. These new viewers may have liked the opulence displayed on the screen, the magnificent sets, and the historical themes, but they were not receptive to the antagonism toward the rich that the film portrayed. They did not want to see that the “poor are oppressed, and forced into an environment which ruins their lives, and this merely for the purpose of producing additional funds for the wealthy, which the latter uses to advertise themselves as reformers of the poor, who in actuality they repress.” As this Philadelphia critic concluded, the “interest of the community will be served by our friends staying away from the theaters where Intolerance is shown.” Ironically, Griffith recalled being labeled a “communist” for making the film. Obviously, Griffith was no communist. In fact, as Heywood Broun of the New Republic correctly observed, the film advocated “laissez faire,” the “battle cry of a lost cause.” Broun suggested that with the failure of Intolerance Griffith’s career may have been doomed. While that prediction was premature, the events surrounding the making of the film shattered the reformist unity.

Never again would Griffith produce a film that advocated the transformation of the industrial system through a mass movement. Nor would the National Board of Review, composed of his former allies, have the same strength to impose its will on mass culture. Several members had resigned in the wake of censoring The Birth of a Nation. Now the remaining prominent members of the Board realized they had lost power; few would agree to serve on its executive committee. Soon other motion picture producers would find it unnecessary to have films sent to the Board for its seal, for now that the movies had been legitimized, that seal was no longer needed. As the weakening of the Board was reported in the press, the consensus that had existed in the industry prior to 1914 lay in ruins. Yet the coming of World War I gave rise to a temporary revival. Under the threat of outside attack, reformers called the nation to unite in a crusade which was seen as the peak rather than the end, of Progressivism. The state drafted the movies into the war effort, making the industry at last a full-fledged partner in patriotism. This allowed Griffith to make a flurry of patriotic films that kept him in the limelight for a few more years. Hearts of the World (1918), for example, was a successful propaganda film for the Allies, which he personally dedicated to Woodrow Wilson. This film earned him an invitation to London’s 10 Downing Street to meet Prime Minister Lloyd George. Later, when Russia was in Communist hands and strikes erupted all over America, Griffith made Orphans of the Storm (1921).

Using the French Revolution as a metaphor for the modern danger of Bolshevism, this film portrays Reds as lustful and violent, similar to the Huns and blacks of earlier films. This highly political film was shown at Harding’s White House. As Griffith said of its message, A similar condition exists in Russia today. It is also a great lesson for our own government. Recently here in the United States we find that a small but aggressive minority seems to be able to get almost any kind of laws passed they desire. It is well for us to keep our eyes open, as it is not impossible that we may lose our democratic form of government, just as the people in France did at the time, and come under the tyranny of small but aggressive parties that could hold all government and run things for themselves, while the rest of the people are asleep. Afterwards, Griffith’s worst fears materialized in his own life. But the threat did not come from the political world. Industrialists in the post-War period associated Reds with the labor strikes spreading over the country. As the Wilson administration deported radicals and suppressed labor unrest, motion picture producers broke strikes in their own companies.

David Wark Griffith Isn't Life Wonderful 1924
David Wark Griffith Isn’t Life Wonderful 1924

Griffith supported these measures, but this boost to business expansion also paved the way tor consolidation. Gradually, eight large firms began to absorb the smaller companies. Griffith tried to resist by establishing his own studio in long Island, and financing his own films. But by the mid-twenties, he too was forced to sell out and come to Los Angeles, a city he hated for its “dissipating” atmosphere. Part of that dislike was due to the fact that Griffith had finally joined what he always fought against, a large firm where access to the top was closed and employees had to punch a time clock.

No longer was the great director autonomous, an artist who supervised his labor force, hired and fired players, and wrote many of his own films. His loyal cameraman Billy Bitzer echoing Griffith’s sentiments, explained what it was like:

Neither Griffith nor I could be his own man. Everything was taken over by efficiency. We belonged to the corporation, the very thing we had fought at Biograph, and the reason we had left there.

The business office was on top again. Not too surprisingly, the master’s later films reveal a deepening pessimism. Starting with True Heart Susie (1919) and Broken Blossoms (1919), the “boy” and “girl” become defenseless against brutal men and women, or they succumb to the temptations of urban nightclubs and sexual allure.

Carol Dempster in 'Dream Street' (D.W. Griffith, 1921)
Carol Dempster in ‘Dream Street’ (D.W. Griffith, 1921)

In Dream Street (1921), a seductive jazz musician rips off his mask to reveal himself as the Devil Lucifer. Now that the spirit of reform had waned, Griffith no longer maintained faith that the evil forces could be conquered. Heroes and heroines in these films had to retreat to small town life for salvation. His last film reveals the source of the problem.

The Struggle - DW Griffith
The Struggle – DW Griffith

The Struggle ( 1931 ) portrays a man trapped on an automobile assembly line, often out of work and destroying himself and his family by drink and decadence. These themes were not popular in the 1920s; and Griffith had lost his talent for making successful films. This was not so much the result of declining abilities as the fact that he had outlived his era. Explaining why studios no longer hired the great director, one critic noted:

Mr. Griffith you have reached the point w here your abilities are at a standstill. . . . You cannot be the evangelist of the screen. You refuse to face the world as it is. . . . I’m not recommending that you acquire a set of puttees or a squad of Jap valets. Yet if I had my own way, I would imprison you with Cecil B. DeMille and loan you all of his Hollywood trappings, each and every one of them. Let someone else take charge of your soul for a while.

The Struggle - D.W. Griffith
The Struggle – D.W. Griffith

Needless to say, Griffith never did. The man who dressed like a plain businessman and continually poured profits back into his own works was alienated from the “mad influx of post-War foreign influences.” Equally hostile to the political world, he wrote letters to newspapers and politicians arguing that mobility was thwarted by the income tax which confiscated the earnings of the “producing classes,” while the rich remained untouched. 57 By the thirties and forties, he appeared as a lonely wanderer often seen inebriated in the bars of Hollywood, presenting roses to female acquaintances. Occasionally, he revived the old spirit. During the thirties, he finally divorced and then married a young Kentucky woman in the old Mount Tabor Church. He tried his hand at land speculation in Los Angeles. Then in 1934 he built a large marble monument over his parents’ graves. On the enormous marker, he inscribed a memorial to his father’s Civil War heroism and his mother’s service while her husband was in battle. In a remarkable statement, the great director wrote, “I take more pride in this than in anything I have done or as far as I am concerned, anything anyone else has done.” In essence, Griffith remained loyal to the past. That familial loyalty generated his earlier creativity; but it ultimately proved to be his cage. When he, too, was buried in that same Methodist cemetery, an old colleague remarked, “You could tell Mr. Griffith by his conversation. Everything he lived and breathed was his pictures. He was in touch with his times . . . but the box office receipts were indicative of the popularity of his films. They were the things people wanted to see at that particular time. He realized that, and by the same token that may have been his downfall. . . . He pursued that course to where it was no longer popular. At that time he was perhaps outmoded.

D W Griffith
circa 1925: David Wark Griffith (1875 – 1948), American film director. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Griffith, however, was not the only one who was outmoded. By the 1920s, almost all the early independents and their cinematic themes had disappeared. Yet from 1908 to 1914, Griffith’s artistry had expressed the aesthetics and social goals of a great movement, hoping to include elite reformers, an expanding urban audience, and independent Protestant film makers. Holding these strange bedfellows together and sparking Griffith’s great creativity was a commitment to saving Victorianism in the face of major external threats. In Griffith’s hands, this common belief in individualism and family harmony fit his commitment to Wilsonian Progressivism. At the same time, it also legitimized movies, bringing the former pariah institution into the American mainstream. However, because the defense of the old culture, particularly sexual ethics, was so strong, it precluded any questioning of nineteenth-century  values. What entrepreneurs like Griffith needed was an alliance with other groups who shared their hostility to big business. But Griffith’s art suggests that their antagonism to workers, blacks, or foreigners, who represented group power and sexual chaos, prevented this coalition. Thus Griffith and others who were committed to ascetic individualism watched helplessly as the corporate order emerged in the nation as well as in the motion picture industry.

Such was the real tragedy of D. W. Griffith’s life. As the world view of the early film makers collapsed, something new was already emerging to take its place.

Screening out the past the birth of mass culture and the motion - 1980
Screening out the past the birth of mass culture and the motion – 1980

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Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish at Griffith's Memorial Lagrange Kentucky May 14, 1950
Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish at Griffith’s Memorial Lagrange Kentucky May 14, 1950

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