THE DECLINE OF A MANDARIN
by Peter John Dyer
Sight and Sound – January, 1959 – London, England
TO ANYONE WHO BELIEVES in the cinema’s living past, there will always be certain vital factors- a film (A Woman of Paris), a career (Rex Ingram, Rowland Brown) or a stage in a career (von Sternberg)-missing from his consideration of the cinema as a whole. There are plenty of text books to remind him of these factors. Otherwise, he must depend on his own faulty recollections of the original releases always assuming he was born in time to see them; and above all on the archives, booking agencies and film societies, who may or may not share his belief in the need of a sound sense of historical perspective. With the reclamation of von Stroheim in this country five years ago, only three main fields in the early American cinema seemed to remain in abeyance: the short career of Thomas lnce, who by 1916 was running Hollywood’s finest studios at Culver City, and whose prodigious output included dramas (The Wrath of the Gods, The Typhoon, The Coward) once regarded more highly than Griffith’s; the foreign invasion in the ‘twenties (Lubitsch, Leni, Sjostrom); and Griffith’s work during the same period. The National Film Theatre has recently gone some way towards repairing these deficiencies with its showings of Way Down East, Orphans of the Storm, Isn’t Life Wonderful?, Abraham Lincoln; and (during the M-G-M season) Victor Sjostrom’s The Scarlet Letter. It’s an exciting experience, after some thirty years of controversy over D. W. Griffith’s alleged decline, to come fresh to so much first-hand evidence. Did he decline? Well of course . . . in certain respects. No director can be expected to go on erecting monuments to mankind as patently sincere and exhausting as The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance: and if, just for argument, we cite Broken Blossoms (1919) as his third masterpiece, it is worth mentioning that it is also his 415th film. In the circumstances it is both unreal and unreasonable to blame Griffith for failing to maintain, in the ‘twenties, the same innovatory influence that he had throughout the previous decade.
Lillian Gish, Donald Crisp and Richard Barthelmess in “Broken Blossoms”
There is no reason why loss of influence should be the corollary of artistic decline; and surely nothing unusual in the overtaking of an older, established talent by younger ones (von Stroheim, Henry King). Griffith, in fact, has had rather a raw deal, and his decline is obviously not as prolonged, steady and uncomplicated as Lewis Jacobs makes out in his Rise of the American Film. For one thing, the two later films just shown in London (Isn‘t Life Wonderful?, Abraham Lincoln) are better than the earlier Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm. And for another, it does seem a trifle precipitate to start plotting the downward graph as early as 1916, when there is such a good argument to be made in favour of the lyricism and dramatic unity of a quickie like True Heart Susie (1919) as opposed to the dubious metaphysics and lumbering bulk of Intolerance.
Lillian Gish and Robert Harron in “True Heart Susie”
Admittedly, though, there no longer seems much of value, apart from Lillian Gish’s strong emotional projection, to justify the time, trouble and $175,000 in rights expended on Way Down East (1920), ‘elaborated’ by Griffith from Lottie Blair Parker’s rheumaticky melodrama about an innocent girl tricked into a mock marriage by a wealthy farmer and then abandoned, pregnant. The elaboration consists mainly of a spectacular blizzard and the celebrated ice floe sequence. And here it is difficult to take Lillian Gish’s predicament entirely seriously once one has noticed that the ice blocks speeding her to her doom belong to one river, while the waterfall awaiting her belongs quite clearly to another. A slightly earlier lapse in continuity concerns the seducer, whose distinctive high-boots stamp up the Bartletts’ front steps, change into trouser legs on entrance, and change inexplicably back again when he takes his leave. That one notices such minor distractions is some measure of the film’s shortcomings. A familiar expression of Griffith’s passionate social feeling, its dramatic validity is quickly undermined by characterisation as fiat as the photography, depressingly low comedy relief and a generally bungled coaching of actors. Lowell Sherman’s potentially able performance is cramped by the imposition of that hard-dying tradition whereby seducers carry on like female impersonators; and even Richard Barthelmess is made to pirouette. As usual, the best episodes are those giving gentler scope to Griffith’s response to human affections: Lillian, Madonna-like, baptising her dying baby; Lillian, listening to one man confess his betrayal and another his love; Lillian in the parlour alcove, quietly sewing near a roaring fire, in the only scene shot with real depth and intimacy.
Lillian Gish, Lowell Sherman, Richard Barthelmess, Burr Mackintosh and Kate bruce under direction of D.W. Griffith in “Way Down East”
After making Dream Street, a minor pot-boiler, Griffith returned to the kind of large-scale costume film that appealed to audiences through tried and trusted narrative devices, while assuaging his own frustrated longings to be taken seriously as a philosopher. He decided on another old play- already filmed twice, latterly as a Theda Bara vehicle and changed the title to Orphans of the Storm (1921 ). The film begins as a fairly straight adaptation, with the two devoted sisters setting out for Paris by stagecoach to seek a cure for Louise (Dorothy Gish), who is blind. Instead she is kidnapped by a fierce old woman and made to beg in the streets, while Henriette (Lillian Gish) finds herself in a palace garden, at the mercy of the decadent Marquis de Praille, during one of his orgies (ladies jumping through fountains and casting oeillades at the camera). Her rescue, and final reunion with Louise, is brought about through the love of a handsome Chevalier (Joseph Schildkraut), though not before she has spent what seems like ages stretched prone beneath a guillotine-blade. The film’s strength is Griffith’s indisputable showmanship, at its keenest in the reunion scene, with the blind girl singing in the street, and Henriette in a room above, absorbed in the Countess’s story, hearing and gradually recognising her sister’s voice, then finding herself prevented from reaching her.
Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Joseph Schildkraut in – “Orphans of the Storm”
Again one is struck by the sheer impudence of Griffith’s suspense draughtsmanship, and amazed at the degree of cumulative impact in all that laborious cross-cutting, solely concerned as it is with covering the same small area of plot development without showing the least inclination to advance or resolve it. If Stroheim’s interest in a fire could most characteristically express itself through detailed investigation of the fire brigade’s activities, then Griffith’s would centre with equal concentration on every possible gesture of horrified incredulity that there is a fire. Unfortunately Griffith’s political moralising, though at no time impairing his innate showmanship, is a good deal less rewarding. Carlyle is invoked, Danton becomes “the Abraham Lincoln of France,” while hysterical warnings against the menace of Bolshevism betray a familiar note of xenophobia. Like several contemporary German films, in fact, Orphans of the Storm is disfigured by its spineless attitude to the French revolution. But where they have a striking surface accuracy, lending an even uglier tone to their basically nihilistic content, Griffith’s approach is so lacking in verisimilitude, taste and reticence as to be quite innocuous.
Captions describe the aristocrats as ” kingly bosses”, and the nearest we get to a sense of democratic upheaval is “Exultant! The Revolution Almost Ready!” as if it were a milk pudding.
D.W. Griffith’s – “Isn‘t Life Wonderful? “
After a murder mystery, One Exciting Night, and the seduction of Mae Marsh by Ivor Novello in The White Rose (the stills look pretty, especially one of fireside romance), Griffith returned to the epic form with America. Whether or not this was inspired, as Lewis Jacobs says, by the phenomenal success of Cruze’s The Covered Wagon, it becomes increasingly difficult to follow a line of argument that cites Griffith’s next film, Isn’t Life Wonderful? (1924), as further evidence of his “lack of touch with the times.” There is, on the contrary, something distinctly brave and encouraging in Griffith’s decision to go to Germany and make a film described by Jacobs as “simple to the point of bareness (which) appeared drab and out of place beside the films of glamour and elegance then in vogue.”
Acutely felt and finely expressed, Isn‘t Life Wonderful? describes the struggle for existence of a family of Polish refugees in post-war Germany. Historically it is important as the rounded summation of all Griffith’s earlier social exposes, beginning with A Corner in Wheat in 1909; and in its anticipation, at a time when Germany still weltered exclusively in expressionism of new trends to be indicated a year later in Pabst’s Joyless Street. Griffith’s approach is quite dissimilar, of course, being sad and romantic rather than detached and clinical; but- apart from that operetta finale in a cosy little cottage- there is an almost documentary force in his portrayal of starvation and squalor. Perhaps he is apt to make his points with newsreel brusqueness, inserting authentic battlefront scenes and haunting shots of sullen, emaciated children in something like his old tableau vivant manner. But when he does manage to assimilate this location material into the mainstream of dramatic continuity, the results are memorable. The meat queue sequence in particular, with prices soaring after every customer is served, and the girl’s growing apprehension as she keeps counting her money and studying the blackboard, is intensely moving. Actually, a lot of the film’s quality derives from its acting, and the outstanding performance of Carol Dempster, a hunted, intense little creature of touching poignancy. As her boy friend, a gassed ex-soldier, Neil Hamilton is more virile and gauntly mature than the usual run of Griffith heroes, and the restraint of his sick-bed scene carries great conviction. Best of their scenes together is the climactic pursuit through a forest at dusk, with the frightened couple mistaken for profiteers by a surly gang of labourers, she begging in vain to be allowed to keep their winter stock of precious potatoes, and finally both sinking to the ground, a year’s work wasted, their spirit momentarily broken, while the nearby river flows symbolically on.
D.W. Griffith’s “Abraham Lincoln”
Inevitably, in a dropsical year that laboured and brought forth Monsieur Beaucaire, Beau Brummel and Dante’s Inferno, Griffith’s reproachful little pieta meant nothing at the box-office. Six minor films followed before he returned to independent production and congenial subject-matter with Abraham Lincoln (1930). His first talkie and his last available work (The Struggle, made a year later, was withdrawn after a few performances), it offers little conclusive evidence of Griffith’s potentialities as a sound film director. Admittedly it is episodic af!d often static, but this has always been Hollywood’s traditional approach to the sober, burning-the-midnight-oil school of biography. Jacobs pounces unerringly on the two blatant examples of Griffith’s weakness for pathos: the death of Ann Rutledge, played quite appallingly by Una Merkel as a simpering nanny-goat, and Lincoln’s pardon of a condemned boy soldier, glassy-eyed from his visitation by a ‘boyhood chum’. Yet .he makes no mention of all the good things: Walter Huston’s unique impersonation of Lincoln, the impeccable playing of briefly seen historical figures, Hobart Bosworth’s tragic nobility as General Lee. The crowd scenes are magnificent; there are one or two vast, busy shots of battle preparation as authentically Brady-ish as any in The Red Badge of Courage; above all, there is the assassination of Lincoln, the rightness of its off-hand, prosaic view of violence quickly brought home by the absurd figure of John Wilkes Booth popping on and off the stage ill a feeble burst of gratified exhibitionism. Griffith could be surprisingly perceptive on occasion. He could also be maddeningly obtuse. Voted the director of the year for Abraham,Lincoln, he retorted that it would have been a far better film had he not been compelled to make it “all dry history with no thread of romance.” Yet it is in his writings that one most clearly observes the hint of megalomania that contributed to his downfall. There is something of Citizen Kane about this exiled mandarin, expressing disappointment in Europe’s war damage and finding it, “viewed as drama,” less impressive than his sets for Intolerance; or railing against income tax as the path to Bolshevism; or planning to film Faust (till Lillian Gish stopped him) in 72 reels. On his own ground as a liberal, 19th century humanist, Griffith played an inestimable role in the cinema’s development. But away from his own fireside and into an earlier or a later century, the result at best was a flawed and compromised minor masterpiece (Isn’t Life Wonderful?); at worst, an outmoded soap-opera (Way Down East) or a rabid, reactionary apologia (Orphans of the Storm).
Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Henry B Walthall, Karl Dane – The Scarlet Letter
Throughout his career, Griffith’s artistic development was notoriously handicapped by his ominously strong penchant for stories concerned with the rape or general maltreatment of defenceless girls, and it is interesting to speculate on the results had he, instead of Sjostrom, been chosen to direct Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1926). Its classic line and interior conflict between austere repression and elemental law might have produced a notable extension to Griffith’s talents: for Sjostrom such a subject could only be a variation on a theme expressed many times previously in such works as Ingmar’s Sons and Love’s Crucible. None the less, Sjostrom approached the assignment with fresh sympathy and thorough professional skill, and today his film seems the most artistically satisfying of the five discussed here. His achievement is the more remarkable when one considers the talents employed on it. Frances Marion, previously Mary Pickford’s screenwriter, refined the novel into a simple, traditional folk-tale about an innocent little seamstress, Hester Prynne, in Puritan New England, her loyal devotion through years of persecution to the minister, Dimmesdale, who is the secret father of her child, and the ultimate cruelty of fate, personified by the Ibsenish figure of her long-lost husband. The isolation of the main characters is emphasised by the stylised but flexible photography of Hendrik Sartov, Griffith’s one-time cameraman, who framed his lovers within brightly lit foregrounds behind which the backdrops washed eerily away. Impressive as the New England atmosphere is-and all re-created on a Culver City lot-it is equalled by the performances.
Lars Hansen, though somewhat too rigidly open-mouthed in the middle scenes·of anguished guilt, brings welcome humour to his early embarrassment in the face of Hester’s bird-like curiosity, and real power to his final breast-beating self-denunciation on the scaffold. Henry B. Walthall as Prynne, and Joyce Coad as the child, are both perfect. But when all is said and done, it is Lillian Gish’s Hester that gives The Scarlet Letter its depth, its impact, its final touch of greatness. Sjostrom is very much an actress’s director, and from the earliest scenes of Hester’s mercurial innocence, thoughtlessly “running and playing on ye Sabbath” or leaving a forbidden scrap of laundry draped shockingly over a currant bush, to the pathos of the doom-laden finale, Lillian Gish plays with a maturity and unforced, natural eloquence denied her throughout her apprenticeship with Griffith.
Like the young Bette Davis, whom she here uncannily resembles, Lillian Gish has a surprising physical and mental toughness, an intensity in repose and an inexhaustible spirit of psychological enquiry all alien to Griffith’s narrow and arbitrary ideal of femininity. This fresh discovery allows us one last, inescapable conclusion: it was in reality Griffith, and never Sjostrom, whose acting school was one of repression.