Pictures and Picturegoer – August 1925
The Greatness of Griffith
By W.B. Turner
Griffith is a Movie Universal Stores. That is the secret of his greatness.
A strange contradiction is D.W.G. A producer of world famous spectacles—he, it is said, loses money on every one of his productions; an epic portrayer of history—an exponent of black-faced comedy; a glorifier of ancient Babylon—and of potatoes. A veritable Proteus amongst producers.
Griffith first made the film-world sit up and take notice with his production of The Birth of a Nation. Here were two ” sure-fire ” box office appeals; the epic sweep of History to please the ” highbrow ” and the pathetic war experiences of a Southern family to attract the others.
Next came Intolerance, switching backward and forward with callous disregard of chronological well-being from modern America to ancient Babylon and from early Judea to the France of Catherine de Medici. But behind all these mental gymnastics was a very fine idea, and all the episodes were excellently presented. The Babylonian sequence is still a criterion amongst lavish settings.
A war story Hearts of the World followed, with Dorothy Gish stealing the acting honours. But Griffith painted on a large canvas for a’ that. Followed Orphans of the Storm, an epic of the French Revolution with mobs mobbing, Madame Guillotine working overtime, and aristocrats going nobly to their deaths. Yet throughout the frail and pathetic figures of the two orphans caught in the maelstrom shining out like two silver threads.
Last—or rather, I hope, latest—in his gallery of epics comes Love and Sacrifice, a tale of the War of Independence. Here again, although we see skirmishes and battles and are introduced to many historical notabilities, the love story is intended, and does claim the major portion of our attention. Griffith so evidently wants to preach Humanity rather than depict History and to practice Simplicity in lieu of Subtlety, but, like the excellent showman he is, he recognises the value of an attractive setting’ for his simple stories, therefore he encloses his miniatures in the huge gilt frames of history. Sometimes, however, it is the story alone ; as for instance in the film which in my opinion is his masterpiece — Broken Blossoms.
Here were no empires tottering to ruin; here no titanic struggles of world powers; no mob revolting against their oppressors. Here was a brutal, beer-swilling pugilist, a frail child of the gutter, an idealistic yellow man and a story from Limehonse Nights. With this material, David Wark Griffith made a film, whose sordid surroundings and Zola-esque climax could not rob of a queer arresting beauty, a beauty which I shall not attempt to analyse because no one can dissect gossamer. Here is the secret of Griffith’s greatness. He is a Movie Universal Stores. Do you like historical spectacle? D.W.G. has it. Do you consider that “kind hearts” and ” simple lives ” are more than “coronets” and “Norman blood”? So does D.W.G. Do you roar with laughter at the spectacle of a negro’s comical terror? D.W.G. shows it. Do you long to sit tight and gasp at the ride to the rescue? D.W.G. shows it in every picture. He has something for everybody. (W. B. Turner.)