The Griffith Project 10
I film realizzati nel 1919-1920 / Films produced 1919-1920

Schede film/Film notes

Lilllian Gish (Anna Moore) & Richard Barthelmess (David Bartlett); da sinistra/from left: George Neville (Rube Whipple), Edgar Nelson (Hi Holler), Kate Bruce (Mrs. Bartlett), Burr McIntosh (Squire Bartlett), Mary Hay (Kate Brewster), Creighton Hale (Professor Sterling), Vivia Ogden (Martha Perkins) e Porter Strong (Seth Holcomb).

(Fondo Martin Sopocy - La Cineteca del Friuli)


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The Griffith Project, 10: I film prodotti dal 1919 al 1920
La carriera di Griffith conobbe la sua ultima stagione d’oro negli anni che seguirono la prima guerra mondiale – un’epoca di grandi trasformazioni nella società americana, nei costumi, nella moda, nei divertimenti. Griffith, che insieme con le sue star Lillian e Dorothy Gish, era all’apice della popolarità, consolidava il proprio successo inaugurando i lavori del grandioso complesso di edifici del nuovo studio di Mamaroneck, situato a nord di New York, sul Long Island Sound. Contemporaneamente dirigeva film per la Artcraft Pictures – tra questi, un idillio campestre che può a buon diritto essere annoverato tra i suoi capolavori, True Heart Susie (1919), edito in Italia con il titolo di Amore sulle labbra – e produceva commedie a grosso budget confezionate su misura per Dorothy Gish.
The Greatest Question (Il grande problema), The Love Flower (Il fiore dell’isola) e Scarlet Days (Per la figlia) furono accolti freddamente dalla stampa. Ma intanto si profilava all’orizzonte un’altra clamorosa affermazione commerciale che avrebbe riportato Griffith sulla cresta dell’onda. Nei primi mesi del 1919, egli faceva notizia riconquistando l’indipendenza creativa co-fondando con il triumvirato di superstar hollywoodiane formato da Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks e Charlie Chaplin una nuova società di produzione e distribuzione denominata United Artists. La prima grande produzione dello studio di Mamaroneck targata United Artists fu Way Down East (1920), un melodramma sentimentale (celebre in Italia con il titolo di Agonia sui ghiacci) il cui trionfale esito al botteghino resterà superato solo da quello di The Birth of a Nation. Sfortunatamente, però, gli incassi record di Way Down East non bastarono a ripagare i costi di lavorazione del film, né le spese sostenute negli gli anni immediatamente successivi per la gestione degli impianti di Mamaroneck: si accelerò così quella crisi finanziaria che avrebbe finito col compromettere l’indipendenza creativa del cineasta.
I film diretti da Griffith tra il 1919 e il 1920 definiscono i parametri della decima parte del nostro pluriennale progetto di ricerca e analisi della sua opera. Le schede che seguono riproducono in parte i materiali del decimo volume del Griffith Project, pubblicato in collaborazione con il British Film Institute e disponibile qui alle Giornate. – PAOLO CHERCHI USAI



The Griffith Project, 10: Films produced 1919-1920
The last golden era in Griffith’s career begins with the years following World War I, a period of great change in American society, mores, fashion, and entertainment. Griffith was at the peak of his popularity, along with his stars Lillian and Dorothy Gish, as he consolidated his success by beginning to build his own grand studio complex in Mamaroneck, north of New York City on Long Island Sound.  In the meantime, he directed films for Artcraft Pictures, including a rural romance that must be counted among his masterpieces, True Heart Susie (1919), while producing a string of high-budget comedy vehicles for Dorothy Gish.
The Greatest Question, The Love Flower, and Scarlet Days were poorly received by the press.  But another major commercial success was in the offing, which would put Griffith back on top.  With great fanfare, in early 1919 Griffith regained creative independence by joining the starry Hollywood triumvirate of Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin in the creation of a production-distribution consortium called United Artists.  His first big Mamaroneck production under the United Artists banner was Way Down East (1920), a sentimental melodrama whose box-office triumph was second only to The Birth of a Nation.  Unfortunately, the record-breaking grosses of Way Down East were not enough to offset the production and maintenance costs of running the Mamaroneck operation over the next few years, thus precipitating a financial crisis that would eventually compromise Griffith’s creative independence.
The films directed by Griffith between 1919 and 1920 define the parameters of this year’s program, the tenth instalment of our multi-year research project involving the analysis of D.W. Griffith’s work.  The texts and credits reproduced in this catalogue are excerpts from Volume 10 of
The Griffith Project, presented in cooperation with BFI Publishing and available at the festival. - PAOLO CHERCHI USAI



Prog. 1

[SIGNING OF UNITED ARTISTS CONTRACT OF INCORPORATION] (United Artists? / Charles Chaplin Studio for United Artists?, US 1919)
Marshall Neilan (interiors), Rollie Totheroh? (exteriors); f./ph: Jack Wilson; cast: Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Marshall Neilan, Rollie Totheroh, Dennis O’Brien, Oscar Price, Albert H.T. Banzhaf?, Tom Wilson?; 35mm, 283 ft., 4’ (20 fps), Association Chaplin / Photoplay Productions. Senza didascalie / No intertitles.

This short news film was made to commemorate a pivotal event in motion picture history: the decisive move by the four top names in the American film industry to take control of their careers. As such it’s a fascinating document in its own right, capturing Griffith, Pickford, Chaplin, and Fairbanks at a moment of triumph. Griffith maintains his dignity, absenting himself from the exuberant clowning of the other three, but it’s clear that he, too, is relaxed, happy, and relishing the moment. We know from hindsight that career setbacks will come all too soon, but in this brief appearance we can see D.W. Griffith on top of the world, enjoying the success he has worked so hard to achieve.
Along with the historical significance of the event, this short film has acquired an interest of its own through a mystery behind its production – a mystery that has attracted the attention of two of our foremost silent-film historians, Kevin Brownlow and David Robinson. In correspondence with each other and with Griffith Project director Paolo Cherchi Usai, Brownlow and Robinson have compared their observations. They have agreed that, whereas the actual signing of the United Artists agreement took place on 5 February 1919, this film was shot the following day to reenact and commemorate the event for newsreel cameras (and, clearly, many cameras were present; numerous takes of the same action, taken from slightly different angles, survive in various archives). Brownlow points out that the first part was photographed, not in a real office, but in a studio set: “The scene of the signing was lit as for a feature . . . you can see in the ‘office’ that the lighting is very high – you can’t get lights like that in a regular room because of the ceiling” (Kevin Brownlow to Paolo Cherchi Usai, 3 October 2003). But in which studio was the film shot?
The two candidates are the Griffith (Fine Arts) studio and the Chaplin studio. Brownlow notes that the film itself makes a case for the Griffith studio. He points to a small sign on the exterior of one building: “Positively no admittance except to employees of D.W. Griffith Co.”, and to other physical details of the setting: “The buildings do not resemble those on the Chaplin lot and look a lot scruffier, having been up for a few years longer, since [the days of] the old Kinemacolor Company. You will notice that at [the studio’s] centre is a large wooden stage, the equivalent of two or three storeys. There was no similar structure on the Chaplin lot that I am aware of – they were all single-storey buildings. You can see this big stage in the background when Chaplin is being hoisted aloft by Fairbanks and the camera tilts up” (Kevin Brownlow to Paolo Cherchi Usai, 13 December 2003).
On the other hand, Robinson – a Chaplin specialist and author of the definitive Chaplin biography – finds evidence that the film was shot at the Chaplin studio instead. He points out that the Chaplin studio’s daily report for 6 February reads “400 ft of film used for special scenes of Artists’ Combine”; that Chaplin’s chief cameraman, Rollie Totheroh, appears before the camera “directing” the horseplay between Chaplin and Fairbanks; that the daily report makes no mention of  the trip to the Fine Arts studio (“Normally the studio reports were very specific if any shooting was done on location or outside the studio” – David Robinson to Paolo Cherchi Usai, 10 December 2003); and that Tom Wilson, who can be glimpsed briefly in one shot, is recorded in the Chaplin studio log as having worked that day. In addition, Chaplin appears in street clothes for the “signing”, but is then seen outside in his Tramp costume and makeup – a change that would have been facilitated by access to his own dressing room.
The answer seems to be that parts of this film were shot at both studios. Brownlow suggests a possible scenario: “Could it be that, having filmed the first scene at the Chaplin studio, everyone piled into their touring cars and drove the three miles to the Fine Arts studio, where all the press had gathered? I can imagine that Chaplin flinched from having all those cameras peering into his property” (Kevin Brownlow to Catherine Surowiec, 26 January 2006). This may well have been the case, but there remains the question of why the stars and their entourage indulged in this roundabout exercise – and, indeed, whether all of this film really was shot on the same day. (Inconclusive evidence suggests that the “Big Four” may have gathered on another later occasion for a filming or photo session.)
We may never resolve the exact logistics of the making of this little film. As Griffith and his fellow United Artists declare their independence, impishly thumbing their noses at Adolph Zukor and the other studio heads, they may also be mocking the attempts of future historians to understand just when and where the filming took place. – J.B. KAUFMAN [DWG Project # 578]

D.W. Griffith; cast: Adolphe Lestina, Carol Dempster, Frances Parks, Richard Barthelmess, Syn De Conde, Robert Harron, George Fawcett, Kate Bruce, Edward Peil, Clarine Seymour, Tully Marshall, David Butler; 35mm, 6202 ft., 92’ (18 fps).
Didascalie in inglese / English intertitles.

The Girl Who Stayed at Home was a war propaganda film, the last of Griffith’s war films and an attempt to popularize the selective draft amendment. Full government cooperation was extended: sequences or scenes were shot in the House of Representatives, at a local California draft board, and in the training camps. Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, Provost-Marshal Enoch H. Crowder, and other officials posed for the camera. Production began in the fall of 1918, when Griffith went to Washington, D.C., to film the House of Representatives in session for a proposed government propaganda film, but is unlikely to have been continuous through the winter: the production of Broken Blossoms intervened. The production records describe The Girl Who Stayed at Home as the “official government war picture”, but the film as it exists today does not credit government help. Nevertheless, a special showing was arranged for congressmen in March 1919, a few days before the New York premiere. Long before film production really got underway, the armistice had been declared. Griffith’s propaganda efforts, as with Hearts of the World, were once more overtaken by events. He had also produced a one-reel film for the Liberty Loan Appeal in September 1918 featuring Lillian Gish, Carol Dempster, and Kate Bruce.
The atrocities, the horrors, and the hatred in Hearts of the World are toned down considerably for The Girl Who Stayed at Home, a more light-hearted film, despite its violence. This time, a “good German” named Johann August Kant is included. He is already sympathetic from his first appearance, when he leaves his dear old mother at home to go to battle. In the cultural terms of the silent film, no young man who loves his old mother could be all bad. When Johann ends up at the chateau, seriously wounded, Mlle. France takes care of him. When the German captain threatens Mlle. France with rape, Johann rouses himself from his deathbed to enjoin him with “FIGHT MEN – NOT WOMEN”, and then shoots the captain when his admonition is ignored. The portrayal of a sympathetic German looks forward to reconciliation and peace, though Griffith received some criticism for him from an embittered post-war public. Further reconciliation is represented by the stubborn Confederate, the American Monsieur France, who has set up residence in his father’s chateau in France, unable to accept the defeat of the South in the War Between the States. He insists on flying the Confederate flag and calls himself a citizen of the Confederate States. Then, moved by the arrival of the heroic American troops to rescue them from the Germans, he capitulates, and raises the flag of the United States. Thus the World War reconciles the divisions of the Civil War.
Three other characters are transformed by the war. The father of the American family is a pacifist. He attempts to get his younger son deferred after the older one enlists without his consent. He tells the draft board that his son is essential to the war effort, working in a shipyard, although we can see that the boy is only aimlessly shuffling time cards. The son is drafted anyway, and by the end of the film, the old man is proud and boastful of his two hero sons: “I TOLD YOU WE COME OF FIGHTING STOCK”. The younger son, a college-educated LOUNGE LIZARD known as THE OILY PERIL with a KILLING STANCE and a light-hearted attitude toward the female sex, becomes a real man, standing straight and tall, disciplined, and in love with the girl he was flirting with before the transformation effected by army training. The training is exemplified by young men doing calisthenics at an army camp. Young Bobby Harron is utterly charming, if not really believable, in his role as the lounge lizard, round-shouldered, limp-wristed, looking as though he had a permanent cramp in his stomach. The irony is that Griffith’s intervention saved Bobby Harron from the draft – for the purpose of making official war pictures.
The third character to be transformed is his girlfriend, Cutie Beautiful, played by Clarine Seymour, who thinks of nothing but dancing and flirting until she falls for the new manly Bobby Harron, back from training camp. She turns into a faithful woman waiting at home, a nurturer, knitting for the boys overseas. Harron and Seymour provide the comedy scenes, and, in fact, they dominate the film, even though Carol Dempster and Richard Barthelmess are the apparent leads, given their early introduction. The main title awards the chief significance to Seymour’s character, who stayed at home. Mlle. France was Carol Dempster’s first lead role for Griffith. She and Barthelmess are stereotypical and bland lovers, with no big love scenes: they are apart during most of the film’s events. Both Clarine Seymour and Carol Dempster were professional dancers who studied with Ruth St. Denis and briefly toured with her dance company. They performed in a live prologue, together with Rodolfo Di Valantina (Rudolph Valentino), for the showing of Griffith’s The Greatest Thing in Life in December 1918 at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles. Undoubtedly Griffith played the two young women against each other as rivals for his attention, as he did with his actresses in Biograph days. Seymour is shown here with jazzy feet that won’t keep still even after she has reformed. Dempster, however, has a solo dance sequence, an artistic dance in the moonlight, to entertain her guests at the chateau, and to enchant the older Grey boy. Tragedy for the promising young actors in The Girl Who Stayed at Home came in the next year. Clarine Seymour died in the spring of 1920 following an emergency operation, and Bobby Harron died in the summer of the same year from a self-inflicted gunshot wound (strangely, in the Hotel Seymour in New York, although there is no hint of a Harron-Seymour real-life romance), on the eve of the premiere of Way Down East.
While the completion of the production may have been perfunctory, now that the war was over, The Girl Who Stayed at Home does not show it. It has a lot of charm, captivating characters, a clever script, and some absorbing episodes of documented reality of its times. – EILEEN BOWSER [DWG Project # 580]


Prog. 2

TRUE HEART SUSIE (D.W. Griffith; Griffith’s Short Story Series, US 1919)
D.W. Griffith; cast: Lillian Gish, Loyola O’Connor, Robert Harron, Walter Higby [Wilbur Higby?], Clarine Seymour, Kate Bruce, Raymond Cannon, Carol Dempster, George Fawcett; 35mm, 5602 ft., 84’ (18 fps)
Didascalie in inglese / English intertitles.

There are those of us who consider True Heart Susie to be Griffith’s masterpiece. A claim like this demonstrates perhaps the only reason for using terms like “masterpiece” in this era so suspicious of canons, and even of critical evaluations. Such a claim must be polemical, an incitement to discussion and argument, rather than reinforcing the received judgment of generations. But more importantly, in its superlative claim to value, it indicates that such a discussion must involve an emotional investment (read: passion) on the part of the critic, as much as analytical demonstration. To be devoted to a film like True Heart Susie has nothing to do with the institutional and long-term support of cultural apparatuses that render literary canons suspect. But it does involve narrative structure and point of view, as well as the fine details of performance, framing, and even the use of intertitles that makes a seemingly modest film such as this appear nearly incandescent in its confessional and emotional power.
Sergei Eisenstein analyzed D.W. Griffith as a divided artist, accenting a split between the modern, urban, fast-paced Griffith, and the traditional, rural, and pastoral Griffith. True Heart Susie certainly belongs in the latter group, but like all of Griffith’s pastoral features, the barrier between a traditional and a modern world – and especially an urban and rural world – has been breached, and this contamination supplies part of the drama and tension of the film. As in Way Down East, A Romance of Happy Valley, or even The White Rose, movement from the city to the country and back carries tragic consequences for characters, as the two worlds come into conflict in such a way that our heroes no longer feel sure of the model of behavior they should follow. Interestingly in all these films, characters (and the drama) must return to the country (the time characters spend in the city in most of the films remains rather brief in terms of screen time – although enormous in their consequences).
But we might better characterize Griffith’s stylistics through a contrast not simply between urban and rural, but between the epic and the intimate (John Belton, in his insightful essay “True Heart Susie” (1983), describes this split as between the epic and the lyrical; William Rothman, in his fine essay “True Heart Griffith” (1988), makes a distinction between epic and “intimate drama”). In my discussion of Intolerance in volume 9 of The Griffith Project, I related these two modes of Griffith’s narratives to the visual contrast between long shot and close-up. Although this poses a great simplification of his narrative devices, I think it reveals attitudes motivating Griffith’s framing. Received opinion often (falsely) characterized Griffith as the father of the close-up. In his own myth-making through the advertisement he placed in trade journals when leaving the Biograph Company in late 1913, Griffith emphasized that he introduced not only “large or close-up figures” but also “distant views”. From the Biograph films on, Griffith used a variety of distant framings to capture broad sweeps of action (Indian raids, Civil War battles, Sherman’s March to the Sea, the Siege of Babylon), endowing his films with an epic dimension. Close-ups, on the other hand, initially provided dramatic emphasis in Biograph films, emphasizing small objects such as the bar of soap with hidden jewels in Betrayed by a Handprint (1908) and the monkey wrench in The Lonedale Operator (1911). But in his feature films close-ups began to play more complex roles than magnification of crucial small objects.
This sense of intimacy in Griffith does not derive only from close-ups, but also from performances that make use of the close-ups. In True Heart Susie, Lillian Gish’s face becomes a battleground of emotions, expressing not simply a single essential emotion or reaction, but staging complete and progressive dramas of realization, recognition, and despair. Consider Gish’s close-up as Susie sees William and Bettina embracing after Bettina accepts his proposal of marriage. Description in words can only demonstrate the ungainly quality of language when posed against the natural expressivity of the face, but, in the interest of directing the viewer’s attention (or memory) to the moment, I will risk the offense. Gish first appears thoughtful: her eyes focused down as her hand mounts to her ear, which she fingers almost abstractly as if considering an intellectual puzzle. Then she laughs a bit, perhaps recognizing the absurdity of her long-term unspoken love, or perhaps momentarily convinced she has mistaken what she has seen. She looks off toward the couple briefly, then her eyes widen and her little finger begins to play with her lower lip as her smiles fades. She looks off left again more intently, her finger now in her mouth. Then her head wavers uncertainly, her eyes widen as she looks towards the camera, as if on the verge of fainting.
Throughout True Heart Susie performance, editing, and narration create a point of view through which we profoundly share the experiences of the characters. However, this sharing involves more (or less) than strict identification. For Griffith, sharing an intimacy also means being aware of a certain distance, which occasionally we can cross into an emotional nearness. Thus, in True Heart Susie we profoundly share Susie’s story and indeed become very close to her, a bit in the way Susie must become close to Bettina when she lets her share her bed in spite of her anger at her for deceiving William, in spite of her envy of her for possessing the one thing Susie loves and not valuing it. Nearness and intimacy mean overcoming a distance that one is fully aware of.
Thus, although we share Susie’s story and care about her heartbreak, we do not share her naïveté. We are always one jump ahead of her, realizing all the things she doesn’t: William’s vanity and lack of insight into the world around him, Susie’s own lack of forthrightness in claiming what should be hers. The illusions both she and William have about the way the world operates – often referred to in the intertitles as their “faith” – reflecting a peculiarly American foolish expectation that their desires will be met, simply because they are earnest and intense. The film makes it clear that such “faith” must be broken in the end, if they are to find any fulfillment at all. – TOM GUNNING [DWG Project # 583]


Prog. 3

D.W. Griffith; cast: Lillian Gish, George Fawcett, Eugenie Besserer, Robert Harron, Ralph Graves, George Nicholls, Josephine Crowell, Tom Wilson; 35mm, 5449 ft., 81’ (18 fps), The Museum of Modern Art.
Didascalie in inglese / English intertitles.

The Greatest Question remains one of Griffith’s most undeservedly neglected feature films. It was one of several films that Griffith made quickly in 1919 to fulfill contractual obligations, and it lacks the big budget of Way Down East, the artistic trappings and publicity accorded to Broken Blossoms, and most certainly, the epic historical ambitions of The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, or Orphans of the Storm. It decidedly belongs to the intimate and pastoral Griffith, but unlike True Heart Susie or even The White Rose, it has never garnered passionate partisans. Although the main reason for its neglect lies in the lack of publicity build-up Griffith himself accorded it, I would have to confess The Greatest Question does not show the psychological complexity and formal perfection of narrative found in the two other modest Griffith masterpieces, True Heart Susie and The White Rose.
In contrast to the sustained tragedy of woman’s martyrdom found in these films and Way Down East, The Greatest Question seems more like a pastiche, very much in the 19th century melodramatic tradition, with stock characters and situations, and alternations of low comedy and high drama, and Griffith resolves it with the most hackneyed of happy endings. This complaint may sound strange coming from a defender of the value of melodrama like myself, but whereas Griffith uses these elements in the other films to create social critique and nuanced characters, here one senses them using him, as the film veers along with an almost dream-like logic. But this is not all loss: if the film seems out of control at points, sometimes that dropping of logic or consistency of tone seems to lead Griffith into moments of intense experimentation, direct anticipations of the art cinema of the 1920s of Germany and the Soviet Union. For all its weaknesses, The Greatest Question offers some of Griffith’s boldest moments in the exploration of the portrayal of memory and cinematic metaphor, even as the film confronts its eponymous “greatest question” – the barrier between life and death.
But perhaps the strongest case for this film as a minor masterpiece manqué comes from its richly visual pastoral style. Griffith and Bitzer never achieved more rapturous imagery of winding summer lanes, rail fences, sun-dappled rural brooks, bountiful orchards and fields – the “beauty of the wind in the trees” that Griffith saw as central to cinematic style – than in this film. True Heart Susie portrays the lonely desolation of small-town life, while the rural imagery of Way Down East often teeters into the monumental (the ice floes and cataract climax). Recalling their best work at Biograph, in The Greatest Question Bitzer and Griffith capture a truly idyllic landscape in such scenes as Gish (playing Nellie Jarvis) fording a stream in her peddler’s wagon, or Gish and Bobby Harron (as Jimmy Hilton) cavorting like an archetypal innocent couple, whose dawning awareness of sexuality gives them energy and delight, rather than neuroses. (Contrast the aggressive first smooch between Harron and Gish in The Greatest Question, or the warm and truly affectionate embrace and kiss they share as Nellie goes off into service, with the same actors’ agonized inability to kiss in True Heart Susie, and the different tone of each film becomes obvious.) Bitzer uses masterfully composed long shots frequently, nesting his characters into this gentle landscape, and framing for carefully composed background even in character-oriented medium shots (such as Nellie’s farewell). Bitzer also carefully threads the heavily symbolic stream through as many shots as possible, setting up a compositional as well as symbolic motif that flows through the film.
If part of Griffith’s creativity lay in renewing melodramatic tradition cinematically, The Greatest Question walks the line between simply swallowing the clichés and bringing new perspectives to the old material. The survival and transmutation of melodrama in the 20th century owes a great deal to psychoanalysis, which seems to interiorize the Manichean duality that melodrama projects onto the world. Griffith’s knowledge of Freud at this point is uncertain (if not outright unlikely), but in his approach to melodrama he anticipated Freud’s sense of the contending powers of sexuality and repression.
In The Greatest Question Griffith confronted (some claim exploited) the renewed interest in the great American metaphysical movement of Spiritualism, which was having a resurgence after World War I due to the desire to communicate with the war dead. Although Griffith continues to pose the possibility of communication with the dead as a question, I do not believe his tendency towards a positive answer indicates only an opportunistic interest in capitalizing on current fashions (although Griffith was undoubtedly doing that as well). Although more elaborate than previous examples, the Spiritualist sequences in The Greatest Question rework devices that play central roles in Griffith’s narrative style and editing technique from the beginning. The relation in early psychoanalysis between depth psychology, the discovery of the unconscious, repressed memories, and the Spiritualist phenomenon appears as well in Griffith’s film, indicating his theme of Spirit communication should not be seen as simply reviving old-fashioned superstition, but as actively engaging with current issues of psychology.
Although the happy ending(s) of The Greatest Question have a certain naïve charm, I can’t find Griffith at his best in the film’s finale. That this story of transcendence resolves itself into a celebration of material goods has a certain typically American irony. Michael Allen draws a nice relation between the uncovering of riches from the earth (the oil which lies beneath the Hilton farm) and the theme of burying and disinterring throughout the film (the murdered servant girl, John’s drowning and reappearance, Nellie’s submerged memory), but the resolution of sudden wealth too closely recalls the Beverly Hillbillies for me to take it seriously.
Finally, although Lillian Gish does not reach the depths of acting here that she does in Broken Blossoms or True Heart Susie, her charm and beauty have never been more vivid. As “Little Miss Yes’m”, with her ringlets and broad-brimmed hat, Gish projects precisely the innocence and resilience the role calls for. In the soft focus, backlit close-ups that serve, with their darkened surroundings, as vignetted portraits of the actress, Griffith (and Bitzer – or are these soft focus shots the work of an uncredited Hendrick Sartov?) creates one of our most enduring images of this child/woman, erotic and tender, sweet yet strong. – TOM GUNNING [DWG Project # 588]


Prog. 4

SCARLET DAYS (D.W. Griffith, US 1919)
D.W. Griffith; cast: Richard Barthelmess, Clarine Seymour, Eugenie Besserer, Carol Dempster, Ralph Graves, Walter Long, George Fawcett, Kate Bruce, Rhea Haines, Adolphe Lestina, Herbert Sutch, J. Wesley Warner; 35mm, 5708 ft., 85’ (18 fps), The Museum of Modern Art.
Didascalie in inglese ricostruite / Reconstructed English intertitles.

Long considered a lost film, Scarlet Days was recovered by the Museum of Modern Art from the Soviet film archive, Gosfilmofond, in the early 1970s. The original English titles were restored from title sheets marked “corrected” and dated 19 September 1919, in the D.W. Griffith Collection at the museum, but were not printed in an appropriate typeface or even in a large enough size. To this date, the restoration of Scarlet Days remains incomplete.
Some of the sources for Scarlet Days are provided by an introductory title: “This story corroborates the old saying that truth is stranger than fiction – incidents being taken from actual episodes of those stirring days. We refer you to ‘Reminiscences of a Ranger’ by Horace Bell, H.C. Merwin’s ‘Bret Harte’, or Hittell’s ‘History of California’.” Although not acknowledged in the credits, the story is also based in part on the real-life adventures or myths of an actual Western outlaw, known as a sort of Robin Hood, Joaquin Murieta.
In the response to one of those claims of plagiarism that constantly trouble the movie industry, the author of the scenario for Scarlet Days, Stanner E.V. Taylor, wrote a letter (dated December 1919) that sheds some light on how Griffith’s scripts were prepared: “About a year ago, Mr. Griffith told me he wanted a Western story, but made no suggestions about plot, locale or characters. Two weeks later.... I outlined the plot I had conceived verbally to him.... This plot was the same as that presented on the screen with these exceptions. The locale was not California, but Arizona, the time was not 1849, but 1875.... Later, when Mr. Griffith began to prepare for his production, the location and time of the story was changed, the bandit was altered to assume the aspects of Joaquin Murietta [sic] and three or four historic incidents were introduced.... If [the studio scenarist] made any suggestions about Murietta and early California these came from his own mind and were the result of his study of and interest in the history of early California.”
The intertitles of Scarlet Days equate the romance of the old West with the age of medieval chivalry, which accounts for some of the fanciful character names, such as The Wandering Knight, Lady Fair, and Sir Whiteheart. Another intertitle introduces “THESE SIR KNIGHTS OF THE GOLDEN WEST”. This is a long way from the gritty one-reel western melodramas that Griffith made at Biograph, such as The Last Drop of Water (1911), Under Burning Skies (1912), The Female of the Species (1912), or Man’s Lust for Gold (1912), among many others: they portrayed authentic aspects of the harsh existence of the gold miners and the hardships of the early settlers of the West, the dust, the hot sun, and the spacious landscapes of the West. In Scarlet Days, the Western as genre has become an exercise in nostalgia and romance.
Eugenie Besserer was much admired for her acting in the role of Rosie Nell by Frances Agnew, the critic for the Morning Telegraph (16 November 1919), who called it “a dramatic performance seldom seen on the screen”. The role embodies a popular theme in melodrama, in which the mother works at a disreputable profession in order to provide a respectable upbringing for her daughter. It was not an original idea, but a change from the saintly white-haired mothers found in so many other silent films. As Rosie Nell, Besserer rocks an imaginary baby in her arms, and keeps a costume of respectable mother-type clothes deep in her closet that she can wear when meeting her daughter. She fights fiercely against another woman, Spasm Sal, to protect her savings because they mean a hope for a decent life for her and her daughter. She is the good-bad woman. For all her praise for Besserer, Agnew does complain of two scenes that she said should have been caught by the censors, featuring Dempster and Walter Long. I suppose that what she objected to was the following: Long thrusts his knee into the ruffles of Dempster’s skirt in one scene, and then in the other, the rape scene, with Dempster’s dress pulled off her shoulders, Long starts to lift her skirts, both rather explicit and crude gestures for 1919. But Rosie Nell’s character as a prostitute, or dance-hall girl in the euphemism of 1919, was not offered up for criticism.
Scarlet Days
is a minor film in the Griffith canon. It was probably made in haste, because Griffith was doing a lot of things at once in 1919. Scarlet Days was the last of the Artcraft contract, and Griffith’s mind was on his new enterprise, one that he hoped would bring him independence, the partnership of United Artists, although he first had to make the three films for First National with which he hoped to finance his own studio at Mamaroneck. He described Scarlet Days to Adolph Zukor (in The D.W. Griffith Papers) as “a big drama with lots of comedy, real scenery, big action”. I would call it a small drama with a little comedy, a little real scenery, and lots of action. – EILEEN BOWSER [DWG Project # 589]


Prog. 5

THE LOVE FLOWER  (D.W. Griffith, US 1920)
D.W. Griffith; cast: Richard Barthelmess, Carol Dempster, George MacQuarrie, Anders Randolf, Florence Short, Crauford Kent, Adolphe Lestina, William James, Jack Manning; 35mm, 7022 ft., 94' (20 fps), Patrick Stanbury Collection, London.
Didascalie in inglese / English intertitles.

The Love Flower, filmed quickly around Nassau in the Bahamas, as part of a three-picture deal with First National, is typically dismissed by most Griffith scholars as a potboiler the director made for the money. The convoluted narrative and often perfunctory technique Griffith applies to its telling do little to dispel that negative assessment. While The Love Flower boasts some atmospheric cinematography by Billy Bitzer, an engaged performance by Richard Barthelmess, and occasionally delirious demonstrations of daughterly devotion, it usually seems like the work of a director marking time until his next important project – in this case, Way Down East. When one wonders how Griffith’s reputation as a director of merit suffered such a marked decline in the 1920s, films like The Love Flower provide ample evidence.
Placed within the context of 1920 studio filmmaking, The Love Flower is certainly no worse than the average feature. What is dispiriting is that those aspects of the film which seem definably Griffithian reside on the same level of mediocrity as those moments which one might attribute to any journeyman director of the era. At this point, Griffith’s depiction of the woman-child as a product of nature was becoming almost parodic. Watching Carol Dempster gambol in the surf, repeatedly tossing her arms up in the spray, or demurely posed in a garden, gazing dewily at bowers of roses, one is struck by the predictable shallowness of Griffith’s conception of female innocence. The Love Flower reaches its nadir in this regard when Dempster dresses up the requisite kitten in baby clothes and then encourages a feline embrace of a tiny goat kid. Remarkably, this moment of enforced zoological affection is meant to convey the character’s emerging maternal instincts. More successful at demonstrating Margaret Bevan’s emotional growth is the brief moment when she views an obviously enamoured island couple. Rather than relying on animal substitutes, Griffith here provides undiluted desire through point of view; coupled with the lush atmospherics of the mise-en-scène and Bitzer’s sense of mood, this relatively straightforward approach proves Griffith could achieve more contemporary effects.
The slowly developing relationship between Margaret (Carol Dempster, whose character is referred to in some sources as Stella) and Jerry (Richard Barthelmess) finds its major obstacle in her belief that he means to aid in the capture of her father Thomas Bevan (George MacQuarrie). The fact that Margaret chooses to construe the remedy to her sexual isolation as a threat to her intense bond with her father provides a few moments of invigorating fury, most obviously when she takes an axe to Jerry’s boat and causes it to sink. But the narrative constantly distracts from the psychosexual frisson her attraction to Jerry produces by making the figure of Crane (Anders Randolf) the main object of her anger. Margaret attempts to kill Crane no less than three times, most spectacularly when she tries drowning him, creating the opportunity for some exciting underwater filming. But overall, the figure of Crane is an impediment to the film developing its most intriguing situation: Margaret’s dilemma in choosing between Jerry and her father. Rather improbably, the solution ultimately devised is that she need not make a choice, as the narrative allows her to keep both. (Even so, the film implies that the threesome can only sustain their relationship by continuing to live on the island, isolated from “the law”.) But while we are told that Margaret will return with Jerry to her father, what we are shown conveys the opposite. The film ends with the police file photograph of Thomas Bevan (pictured with his daughter, no less) marked “Dead”, followed directly by the young couple featured alone on a boat surrounded by the emblem of their relationship: the love flower. The insistence on imagery associated with Jerry and Margaret’s love further confirms the negation of the father stressed in the previous shot. The urge to maintain the intensity of the father/daughter bond even as it is supplanted by the union of the couple results in this strangely contradictory conclusion, where visual representation refutes the assurances of the title cards. Were all of The Love Flower as suggestive as the tensions produced within its final moments, it would warrant a more extended reappraisal. – CHARLIE KEIL [DWG Project # 591]


Prog. 6

THE IDOL DANCER (D.W. Griffith, US 1920)

Re./dir: D.W. Griffith; cast: Clarine Seymour, Richard Barthelmess, George MacQuarrie, Creighton Hale, Kate Bruce, Thomas Carr, Anders Randolf, Porter Strong, Herbert Sutch, Walter James, Adolphe Lestina, Florence Short, Ben Graver, Walter Kolomoku; 35mm, 6818 ft., 91' (20 fps), Patrick Stanbury Collection, London.
Didascalie in inglese / English intertitles.

I tried a high-minded approach to The Idol Dancer, which was a great mistake. It was naïve, I suppose, to think that I could brush this one aside as a potboiler, the notorious five-day wonder that Griffith shot in Fort Lauderdale while waiting to occupy his new Mamaroneck studio. But the film clearly called for a breezy sociological treatment. Best to consider it as part of the post-war vogue for South Sea romance, spice things up with a witty reference to the ukulele craze, notice the strange mix of stereotypes Griffith uses to paste together his Polynesian islanders, make a daring connection to Somerset Maugham’s Rain and maybe W.H. Hudson’s Green Mansions, and then move on to better Griffith. I hadn’t seen The Idol Dancer for a long time. But if ever a film were immune from critical redemption, this was it. What could a re-screening possibly redeem? Wando, the overweight tribal chief with a bone through his nose and two large skulls hung down his chest like a low-slung brassiere? The lineup of impossible performances? Porter Strong’s blackface? The bleeding Christianity, whence all the critical commentary has been directed? True, there was the haunting shot of the Flatiron Building in snow, still vivid in my mind 45 years after I first saw it, but there must be limits even to what a Griffith maven like me will put up with. William K. Everson’s program note for a screening at the Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society (24 April 1959) seemed to set the right tone: “Not having seen Scarlet Days, One Exciting Night, or Sally of the Sawdust, I cannot categorically state that this is [Griffith’s] worst picture, but I think it safe to assume that all three were infinitely better and that The Idol Dancer was perhaps the only really bad film D.W. made (even later, weak entries like Drums of Love and the remake of The Battle of the Sexes had really worthwhile qualities).”
But then the fateful Saturday afternoon when I saw the film again and realized that I really do have the capacity to put up with Griffith’s cheesiest products – revel in them, actually. The Idol Dancer is arguably Griffith’s most out-of-control work since War and The Wild Duck, those formless effusions written during his theatre days. It’s tempting to work it into current arguments about trash and kitsch. But even as a degraded text The Idol Dancer is unlikely to be reclaimed as a species of camp that generates cult audiences. There is little chance this work will be reborn even by a community of cult filmgoers reading against the grain. True, it has the requisite naïveté and failed seriousness that defined camp for Susan Sontag. But it simply isn’t entertaining enough.
For specialists, however, The Idol Dancer is required viewing. As an eruption of primal Griffith fantasies exposing strains and anxieties that were re-directed, sublimated, or repressed in better films, this South Seas movie is in a class by itself. This isn’t a lazy day at the beach – the logical but wrong-headed assumption historians have made about a movie shot quickly in a vacation locale. If anything, the filmmaker seems terrorized by the idea of idleness, using his drunken hero, Dan Maguire the Beachcomber, played by Richard Barthelmess, to illustrate the ghastliness of indolence, aimlessness, and drift. The movie itself suffers from a superabundance of ambition – darting uncontrollably from one underdeveloped idea to another as the director tries to control a story that turns earlier signature themes on their heads. As he had with Broken Blossoms, Griffith is working with material obviously taboo in his earliest features – miscegenation, auto-eroticism, and voyeurism – and making them desirable. Most striking is the way it flips The Birth of a Nation. In her book Hollywood Fantasies of Miscegenation, Susan Courtney notices how, despite its affinities to Birth’s last-minute rescue formula, The Idol Dancer inverts the racial order. Whereas Birth, Courtney argues, divides the world into black and white and vilifies mulattos precisely because they blur the line between those worlds, The Idol Dancer, set on “Rainbow Beach, Romance Island under the Southern Cross”, where men of all shades co-mingle, makes its heroine a woman whose mixed blood proves irresistible to a variety of white and non-white males.
If one of the great obstacles to appreciating The Idol Dancer is Griffith’s smug condescension to his ostensible material, its naïveté may be what makes the film bearable. Its idea of exotic tropical delights could not be more innocuous or derivative, the limitations of the bland Florida cinematography underscored by the disciplined, powerful handful of images of New York. The stories that those New York images accompany have the striking effect of making the allusions to hometown America more colorful and remote than the banal morality tales set on Rainbow Beach. But within the “middle-class-bland-parading-as-exotic” framework, Griffith has created an “exotic-parading-as-middle-class-bland” subtext. Try as he might to make themes of brotherhood, missionary work, blackface clowns, and idol dancing as mainstream as his island scenery and love story, his excesses keep tempting us into rear-door readings. – RUSSELL MERRITT [DWG Project # 592]


Prog. 7

A GREAT FEATURE IN THE MAKING (Robertson-Cole Co., US 1920)
?; cast: D.W. Griffith, Richard Barthelmess, Lillian Gish, Vivia Ogden, G.W. Bitzer; 35mm, 103 ft., 1’30” (18 fps), National Film and Television Archive. Conservazione 1952, stampa 1979 / Preserved 1952, printed 1979.
Didascalie in inglese / English intertitles.

A Great Feature in the Making
is the only graphic footage we have of Griffith actually directing. In fact, he is rehearsing Richard Barthelmess, Lillian Gish, Vivia Ogden, and several other members of the cast of Way Down East. G.W. Bitzer can be seen operating a Bell & Howell 2709 camera rather than his faithful Pathé. Most of this footage can be seen in the documentary for television D.W. Griffith, Father of Film (Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, 1993). This “making of” film was clearly set up for the Screen Snapshots camera, and not filmed from the sidelines. Knowing Griffith’s habits, it was probably rehearsed as intensively as for one of his own films (he even rehearsed his home movies). The invaluable “Screen Snapshots” series was produced by Marion Mack’s husband Louis Lewyn, and ran for many years. I think there is even a silver anniversary edition. – KEVIN BROWNLOW [DWG Project # 595]

(D.W. Griffith, Inc., US 1920)
D.W. Griffith; cast: Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Mrs. David Landau, Lowell Sherman, Burr McIntosh, Josephine Bernard, Mrs. Morgan Belmont, Patricia Fruen, Florence Short, Kate Bruce, Vivia Ogden, Porter Strong, George Neville, Edgar Nelson, Mary Hay, Creighton Hale, Emily Fitzroy, Norma Shearer; 35mm, 9050 ft., 121’ (20 fps).
Didascalie in inglese / English intertitles.

Way Down East fits into two trends in Griffith’s filmmaking in the late 1910s. Like True Heart Susie and A Romance of Happy Valley, it is a nostalgic story of pre-World War I rural life, “a simple story of plain folks”. Tol’able David also fits this mold; Griffith bought the rights to the story by Joseph Hergesheimer while making Way Down East, and eventually sold them to Way Down East’s male lead, Richard Barthelmess, for a film that was directed by Henry King in 1921.
Way Down East
is also one of two extremely popular, and therefore high-priced, theatrical properties acquired by Griffith in 1920. Romance, a play by the American Edward Sheldon, was first produced in 1913, but only became a big success in England, where it starred Doris Keane and Basil Sydney. Griffith’s contract with Keane called for an advance of $150,000 as well as a percentage of the profits, a deal which Richard Schickel calls “unprecedented for its day”. Way Down East proved even more expensive, with Griffith paying the producer William Brady $175,000 as well as making payments to the original writer, Lottie Blair Parker, and Joseph Grismer, who had rewritten Parker’s script for Brady and also prepared a novelization of the play. While the film of Romance, directed by Griffith’s assistant Chet Withey, lost money, Way Down East was enormously successful, and thus seems to have motivated a third theatrical adaptation in 1921, Orphans of the Storm, based on the play The Two Orphans by Adolphe d’Ennery and Eugène Cormon.
Way Down East
was made at a time when Griffith was heavily in debt, both for the construction of his studio on a country estate in Mamaroneck, on Long Island Sound, and for money owed to United Artists, which had helped underwrite the purchase price and production costs of Romance. In addition, although without elaborate sets or crowds of extras, Way Down East turned out to be extremely costly to produce. Richard Schickel states that Griffith’s crew and studio were tied up in production for six months, much longer than his usual schedule, as the crews waited for the appropriate weather to film the blizzard and the scenes on the ice.
Griffith’s extensive debt led to rather strained relations with United Artists over the film’s distribution. Griffith sought to retain the lion’s share of the profits by road-showing the film himself, rather than releasing it immediately through United Artists. The newly formed company, itself strapped for cash and for product (Chaplin had yet to release a single feature), pressured Griffith for the film, and for a time it looked as if Griffith would break with Pickford, Fairbanks, and Chaplin over the distribution rights. Although the breach was eventually healed, Richard Schickel argues that neither Griffith’s production company, the D.W. Griffith Corporation, nor United Artists ever effectively solved the problem of how he was to finance his films. Because Griffith had to mortgage most of the potential profits on a film simply to get it made, he was never in a position to use the profits from one production to pay for another. While the fantastic success of Way Down East temporarily eased his debt, even more modest successes, such as that of Orphans of the Storm, not to mention the more unpopular ventures, put his company in a very difficult position by 1924.
Although Way Down East was a popular hit, and was lauded in unusually glowing terms by critics, its reception was marked by a degree of condescension towards the source material, at least in the metropolitan press. This attitude is epitomized by playwright and director Winchell Smith’s letter of congratulation to Griffith (5 September 1920; in The Griffith Papers): “One of these days theatre people will wake up to what you’ve done. To make a big feature picture from the old plot of Way Down East – chuck it into a regular [i.e., legitimate] theatre – and get away with it! It’s nothing less than wonderful!” Most of the big New York papers followed in this vein, although it is instructive first to consider an editorial from the hinterlands, in the Evening World-Herald of Omaha, Nebraska (9 February 1921; in The Griffith Papers), which took the film straight: “David Wark Griffith is not merely a keen business man exploiting ‘the movies’. He is a man of culture and refinement and ideals – a true and a great artist…. And he has shown us, in this ‘simple story of plain people’, how the screen can be used, with true art of a high order of excellence, not alone to entertain the people but to serve them. He has made the combination of beauty with truth. He has put art to its loftiest practical use as the hand-maiden of simple goodness.”
By contrast, the New York trade press were almost all at pains to distance the film from the original play, frequently dubbed a mere “melodrama”. Variety (10 September 1920), extremely enthusiastic about the film (“it would be sacrilege to cut a single foot”), saw Griffith’s role as that of transforming an old warhorse: “‘D.W.’ has taken a simple, elemental, old-fashioned, bucolic melodrama and ‘milked’ it for 12 reels of absorbing entertainment.” Wid’s Daily (12 September 1920), which thought the film “the biggest box office attraction of the times”, was more respectful of the play as a big money-maker and a likely draw for audiences, but nevertheless noted that the original “never reached the public finished off as artistically and as powerfully, as Griffith’s picture”. Frederick James Smith (“The Celluloid Critic”, in Motion Picture Classic, November 1920) also predicted commercial success for the film, calling it Griffith’s “greatest since his epic, ‘The Birth of a Nation’”. But while approving the morality of the original play, he noted: “Not that we consider ‘Way Down East’ for a moment as a thing of literary or dramatic value. It was a melodrama of fearful dialogue and even more fearful construction. But a compelling message and a compelling background were there.”
The highbrow critics were even more vehement in their rejection of the play, although the film version usually came in for praise. In 1918 George Jean Nathan had compiled a list of popular plays he considered “pish and platitude”. In addition to Tosca, East Lynne, Camille, and The Old Homestead, he included The Two Orphans and Way Down East. For many, the story Griffith had chosen to tell simply overwhelmed his treatment of it: they could see the appeal of the film, especially of its last-minute rescue over the ice, but they still could not take it seriously. Writing anonymously in the New York Times (“The Screen,” 4 September 1920), Alexander Woollcott quipped: “Anna Moore, the wronged heroine of Way Down East, was turned out into the snowstorm again last evening, but it was such a blizzard as she had never been turned out into in all the days since Lottie Blair Parker first told her woes nearly twenty-five years ago. For this was the screen version of that prime old New England romance, and the audience that sat in rapture at the Forty-fourth Street Theatre to watch its first unfolding here realized finally why it was that D.W. Griffith has selected it for a picture. It was not for its fame. Nor for its heroine. Not for the wrong done her. It was for the snowstorm.” – LEA JACOBS [DWG Project # 598]