“The Greatest Question” – By Frederick James Smith (Motion Picture Classic – February 1920)

Motion Picture Classic – February 1920

The Celluloid Critic

By Frederick James Smith

“The Greatest Question”

(The Newest Photoplays in Review)

By all odds the most significant photoplay of our screen month was David Wark Griffith’s “The Great Question,” (First National) Not because it is a good screen drama. It isn’t. But it has tremendous idea buried beneath its melodrama.

Robert Harron and Lillian Gish while shooting The Greatest Question
Robert Harron and Lillian Gish while shooting The Greatest Question

A wave of interest in spiritualism has been sweeping the world since the days of the great war. Does after life exist? Can dear one across the Great Beyond exert an influence over earthly destinies? What is the answer to the eternal problem of death ? Griffith had all these questions in mind when he started to screen “The Greatest Question.”

Robert Harron and Lillian Gish - The Greatest Question

Then something happened. The exhibitor—that monster reared by producers themselves—stood menacingly upon the horizon. Would the exhibitor accept a stern and grim drama dealing with death and the spirit world? We can imagine Griffith meditating—and then giving way to the exhibitor and his beloved melodrama.

The Greatest Question - cover Lillian Gish

So the vital theme of “The Great Question” was carefully buried beneath “action” at “punch.” It became the story of a little waif in the hands of a murderously brutal farmers couple, her love for a neighboring boy and the subsequent finding of oil—with its attendant avalanche of wealth. The whole is gilded with the philosophy that a simple faith meet and overcomes all obstacles.

The Greatest Question - Submarine C

Griffith came nearer giving the world another “Broken Blossoms” in “The Great Question” than in anything he has done since the epic of Limehouse. “The Great Question might easily have been a notable contribution to screen thought. There is one big scene where the spirit of a young sailor, lost from submarine, comes home to his aged parents.

The Greatest Question - Ghost C

Lillian Gish and Bobbie Harron are the bucolic lovers, but the best work is done by Eugenie Besserer as the bereaved mother and Tom Wilson as a lazy negro servitor.

Lillian Gish, Tom Wilson and Robert Harron - The Greatest Question1919 promotional photo
Lillian Gish, Tom Wilson and Robert Harron – The Greatest Question1919 promotional photo

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