THE SILENT SCREEN – Richard Dyer MacCann
Essays in honor of American executives, directors,
stars, comedians and films, 1896-1926
The Birth of a Nation was unquestionably the greatest and most influential film ever made up to 1915. In it D.W. Griffith brought to bear everything he had learned of dramatic and cinematic art, and that was what made the message so power- ful. But art is not innocent, and criticism is not confined to style. To treat this motion picture, in the classroom or any- where else, simply as an expression of cinematic skills is to ignore the vital difference between those arts which are abstract (like music) or nontemporal (like painting), and those which, like literature and drama, act out human relationships and social implications. Film criticism that pretends to be “purely aesthetic” is vacuous as well as irresponsible. If art is blinding in its brilliance, this does not excuse but rather intensifies the deadly effects of violence and hatred.
What were those people in the audience in Los Angeles cheering and yelling about? Did they stand up and stamp and cheer because their critical judgment told them they had seen a great work of cinema? Or were they responding to the bold, naive appeal this movie made to underlying instincts of fear, ignorance, and racial superiority through the visual impact of that “Anglo-Saxon Niagara”? This is the Birth of a Nation problem, and we cannot avoid it if we honestly study film as a part of American life. Whether we call ourselves critics or historians, we cannot ignore the power of the motion picture for good and for evil.
If Griffith was riding high after The Birth of a Nation—prosperous and praised for his skill in a new medium—he had also committed a form of social libel by drama, a condemnation of a whole group in American society as barbarians and primitives.
There was a riot in Boston. A group of black people tried to buy tickets for the movie. Several hundred protesters rallied behind them. Two hundred policemen promptly appeared to prevent it. During the show someone threw a rotten egg at the screen, and stink bombs were dropped from the balcony. Showings were stopped for one day. In newspapers throughout the country the message of the film was attacked and Griffith’s right to speak defended. Newly formed black groups—the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—gained strength in confronting this inflammatory film.
At different times and for different periods, The Birth of a Nation was banned in Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, Topeka, and San Antonio, and in the states of Ohio, Illinois, and Michi- gan. Censors made cuts in the film in New York, Boston, Dallas, Baltimore, and San Francisco. One of the first cuts was a fantastic tableau which showed the whole black population of the United States lined up at a harbor to be deported back to Africa. Tom Dixon, author of The Clansman, told one editor that this deportation represented his main interest in writing the novel and encouraging the making of the film.
What was Griffith’s reaction to all this uproar? For the time being he remained the supremely confident movie magician. He never seemed to feel he was at fault in any way. He defended himself against every attack—and also helped make necessary cuts in the film. He issued a pamphlet stoutly claiming that the motion picture was a part of the free expression protected by the first amendment to the Constitution. (This rather persuasive position had just been contradicted by the Supreme Court in the Mutual Film case, not to be overturned until 1952.)
Then he turned to his own medium for further defense. He had already completed The Mother and the Law, a modern story of a boy falsely accused of murder. He took this modest film and combined it with a grand spectacle on the fall of Babylon, inflating both of them by intercutting two other stories in a historical extravaganza. He called the whole daring, innovative, rather indigestible concoction. Intolerance. He was busily attacking age-old prejudices, but not the racist barriers of the American North or South. Above all, he was attacking his critics. And with this rather unstable motivation, he brought forth a strange, violent picture intended to oppose hatred and violence.
Critics and academicians down through the years have looked at Griffith’s creative intentions—especially his unique endeavor to intercut four different stories all the way through the film—and they have found Intolerance to be monumental, complicated, brilliant, and therefore exciting. Ordinary audiences have looked directly at the film and found it confusing and boring. Griffith himself later admitted that a single spectacle would have worked better. He recut the Babylonian and the modern stories separately and reissued them, but the total effort remained a financial failure.
Did D. W. Griffith go into a decline after Intolerance? This is the view of Lewis Jacobs in The Rise of the American Film, but it is a view bound to the aesthetic notion that montage is the highest form of cinematic art. His later films are simply different in purpose and therefore in style, and Blake Lucas has eloquently argued that “his more intimate and subtle works are often superior” because he sought to describe “the infinite shadings of human emotion and interaction.”
It could also be proposed that Griffith simply closed the door for a while on his obsessive epic impulse—and on social controversy. He did make a grandiose film supporting the Brit- ish cause in World War I, and he was exhilarated by the praise and honors heaped on him while he was in England and France. Then for quite a while he moved with confidence in a more comfortable range of subjects. His style tended to be more congruent with the simpler subjects he chose, more self-effacing, less flashy in terms of editing, with more long takes and continuity editing—more realistic, in fact, or at least ranging in the area between realism and romanticism where he was most at home.
In True Heart Susie, for example, Lillian Gish plays one of her most subtle roles, a farm girl who sells a cow so she can secretly support her childhood sweetheart through college. It takes her gawky neighbor (played by Robert Harron) a very long while to appreciate her, but there is finally a subdued and happy ending in this most rural of all possible worlds.
Broken Blossoms (1919) is another world altogether—the depressing atmosphere of the Limehouse district in London. A Chinese youth (played by Richard Barthelmess) comes to the violent Western world on an errand of mercy: to teach the peaceful ways of Buddha. He meets and loves a pitiful girl (Lillian Gish) who is in constant dread of being beaten to death by her father. He finally kills the father for doing exactly that, then kills himself—an ironic end to his mission.
A short, powerful film. Broken Blossoms stunned the critics. Photoplay called it “the first genuine tragedy of the movies.” The public, too, surprised theater owners by supporting at the boxoffice the integrity of this film and its consistent mood, so perfectly achieved by the dim backgrounds and the tense, controlled performances of the two young actors.
Broken Blossoms is certainly the film which most clearly extends the Griffith range and persuades us of two things: He was an artist of the screen, and he was truly versatile. He was not merely an inventive pioneer to be studied for historical reasons. He was a creator of works of permanent value.
Another film also invalidates the theory of “‘decline”after Intolerance. Way Down East (1920) was enormously popular and profitable. It was a melodrama, one which had been touring the states since the turn of the century. A story of an innocent woman tricked into a fake marriage, pregnant, abandoned, mourning her dead child, wandering into the country—it is climaxed by a denunciation of her seducer, an expulsion from the household, and a rescue by the young son who loves her. The rescue takes place in a blizzard, and required Lillian Gish to ride a block of ice down the river.
It sounds both bizarre and banal, and critics then and since have often discounted the story as unworthy of a serious director’s attention. But Griffith knew there were basic human val- ues in it and he trusted his actress to bring them out. All the emotional high points are presented with intense conviction, and the love story, so long delayed, is heightened instead of overwhelmed by the hazardous chase on the ice.
The fascinating thing about this old-fashioned story is how modern its moral is. Of course Griffith takes the opportunity to put down the supercilious rich city people in the early scenes, but he also turns us against the farm folk, so ignorant and sanctimonious. We yearn to help this frail outcast woman, and when she is rescued, we realize it is not accomplished by her return to rural life, but by the younger generation.
Here is an early version of many similar situations in later Hollywood films (made by John Ford and others) in which our sympathy is with the sinner and not with the Pharisees of society. The melodrama of Way Down East not only looks back. It also looks forward and prepares the way for a time when women will be able to tell their own story and claim some kind of independence in a more sympathetic world. This is the secret of the film’s appeal to audiences in the 1920s and the 1980s: we always know we are for Lillian and against the cruel condem- nation of an unfeeling, outmoded moral code.
It is a curious and noteworthy fact that Griffith had already encouraged Lillian Gish in real life to direct one of the Dorothy Gish comedies he was responsible for as executive producer. Such a decision reflected good judgment as to his star’s gifts and strengths. But it also was some kind of sign of an awkward move toward more liberal positions, socially if not politically. Griffith had tried in a small way to make up for the racism in The Birth of a Nation when he had a white Southern soldier kiss a dying black soldier in a film now lost. The Greatest Thing in Life. He had earlier shown rather consistent respect for native Americans in several early one-reelers that presented them as not only noble but exploited by the white man. He had made further points about prejudice, of course, with Broken Blossoms.
As usual, he didn’t quite know what he was doing: he was not a literary man, an intellectual, or a trained historian. He was a dealer in myths and emotions, not theories and logic. But can we propose that Griffith was subconsciously trying in Way Down East to catch up with the world? It was a world which was barely beginning, long after reconstruction days, to value equality of rights almost as much as freedom for the strong to get ahead. Did he know that it was time to give up some of the cruder claims of Darwinism—perhaps even some of the traditions of caste, the old Southern proprieties he had always praised?
Although Griffith never found it possible to consider members of the black race equally entitled to power and position— and in that stubborn opinion was joined by many white Americans from that day to this—he nevertheless seemed to have a strong attachment to certain basic ideals of democracy. The poor and the underdogs were often his heroes. The selfish capitalist who managed momentarily to gain monopoly power in A Corner in Wheat fell to his death in his own grain bin. Rich dowagers who dabble in organized charity (in Intoler- ance) and wealthy ladies who lack sympathy for their poor honest relations (in Way Down East) got harsh treatment at his hands. During those early “productive years when he felt so close to his audience—and was making two or three pictures a week— Griffith took up the conflict between rich and poor as often as he thought it was wise. Tom Gunning in his analysis of parallel editing, finds carefully worked out visual contrasts of this sort in The Song of the Shirt (1908), The Usurer (1910), and One Is Business, the Other Crime. In 1911, along with the usual romantic triangles, costume pictures, Mexican stories, and civil war dramas, there was an outcropping of seven stories with slum backgrounds.
The last film Griffith was free to make on his own -— before he gave up his independence to work on assignment for Paramount and United Artists — was a disturbing semi-documentary about the economic desolation of postwar Germany. “Isn’t Life Wonderful” (1924) left its sad young couple, at the end, grateful just to be alive (as the title indicated), but near starvation after their precious hoard of potatoes is stolen.
This does not mean Griffith was any sort of political radical. The violent conflict between capital and labor in the modern story of Intolerance is supposed to have induced Lenin (according to Lillian Gish) to offer Griffith a position in charge of Soviet film production. Lenin certainly had the wrong man. Griffith’s old aristocratic loyalties together with his developing democratic creed would have put him doubly at odds with the authoritarian system of leveling going on under the Communist regime. His inner conflict was the same one that has troubled Americans for so long, the dual Jeffersonian ideal which says everyone deserves an equal opportunity to participate and learn but the able and talented few deserve special rewards.
Rising from obscurity and poverty, Griffith drove toward fame and power as an individual. Yet in his films, he struggled with issues of class relations, economic hardship, unchecked personal domination, nationalism, and war. Even his gentlest romances often posed the question of a woman’s role in family or in society. Like King Vidor in later years, he responded with earnest, untutored warmth to the currents of thought around him.
Essays in honor of American executives, directors, stars, comedians and films, 1896-1926
THE SILENT SCREEN – RICHARD DYER MACCANN