Selected Film Criticism
THE GREATEST QUESTION (Griffith/First National, 1919)
Burns Mantle in Photoplay, Vol. 17, No. 4 (March 1920), page 64.
I was still hoping that Mr. Griffith had seen the light when I went to see The Greatest Question. Here, I said, is a fine theme, and a big one. Here will be a story of that mystical never never land with which the world is just now trying to establish communication. And it will be a clean and wholesome picture with a sweep of sympathetic drama such as always surrounds the theme. But, I was wrong. There again was the beating of Lillian Gish by the degenerate old woman so well played by Josephine Crowell that you wanted to throw an orchestra chair at her. There was another attempted assault upon a young girl by a vicious, licentious, ugly old man, and a brutal murder to top off the excess of violence.
Why, in the name of all things reasonable? Why? If the story was to be based on that boundless love between sympathetic souls on earth that cannot be broken by death, as apparently it was the original intention to base it, why not let it be the logical development of that theme through the experiences of the young man who, called to war, still kept in touch spiritually with his mother and returned to her in the spirit after he had been swept into the sea from the deck of a submerging submarine?
The brute redeemed did not necessarily have to be the particular type of brute that preys upon innocence. His character would have been much more logical, much more convincing if he were just an easily recognizable kind of everyday brute, cruel and hard, selfish and ignorant. But, no, Mr. Griffith, with this obsession for scenes of assault and beating, must needs take both him and his degenerate wife out of character and exaggerate them out of all semblance to any but mentally unsound patients of a psychopathic ward in a hospital.
Dramatically, too, I believe this leading director is on the wrong track. He is shooting birdshot in place of bullets. And as a result he is scattering his dramas so full of incidental scenes that he loses all contact with his main story. The only connection between theme and title in The Greatest Question is found in the brief reappearance in the spirit of the dead boy, with whom the audience is not permitted to become sufficiently acquainted to feel more than a passing interest in whether he lives or dies.
Otherwise, it is the story of a little girl who, reared by gypsies, was witness to the murder of a young woman “who trusted too much.” Grown up, she is adopted by poor but worthy people, seeks work in a neighboring farm house that she may earn something to help her benefactors, discovers in her new employers the brutal pair before mentioned, and finally recognizes in them the perpetrators of the deed that had been stamped upon her infantile mind. Now, having that much off my heaving chest, I can say some nice things. The pictures themselves, as pictures, are beautiful.
There is a fine sense of location in the Griffith equipment. He finds the truest backgrounds for his scenes of any director with whose work I am familiar, and once they are found, the admirable G. W. Bitzer, his camera man extraordinary, employs them to perfect advantage. The countryside pictured in The Greatest Question, the gypsy camp, the tumble-down farms, are intelligently chosen locations, and in composition the pictures are charmingly atmospheric. There is a real thrill, too, in the submerging submarine that leaves a man in the sea. Griffith also has an impressive sense of character (which is probably one reason I dislike his brutal types so heartily) and each individual is convincingly visioned on the screen. Even his exaggerations of character have point, in that they carry home to dull minds what he intends they should. Lillian Gish is again a charmingly wholesome innocent, Robert Harron an upstanding boyish hero, and Eugene Besserer, Josephine Crowell, George Fawcett and Tom Wilson all splendidly vivid.
–Burns Mantle in Photoplay, Vol. 17, No. 4 (March 1920), page 64.