[PROLOGUE TO DREAM STREET] (US, 1921)
Regia/dir.: D.W. Griffith; cast: D.W. Griffith; 35mm (sonoro/sound), ??? ft., ???’ (24 fps), UCLA Film & Television Archive, Los Angeles.
Dialoghi in inglese/English dialogue.
Regardless of whether this prologue had any effect on the commercial success of Dream Street, it is of immense historical value today, for it’s perhaps the closest thing we have to a sound-film record of Griffith’s public performance style. Facing the camera, Griffith announces slowly but perfunctorily: “Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been asked to say a few words concerning the play of Dream Street, which you are about to see.” Then, preliminaries over, he launches into a more declamatory style, proclaiming in sonorous tones: “Dream Street! I wonder if there isn’t a Dream Street running through the heart and soul of every human being in the world.” And there, frustratingly, the fragment ends. Griffith had made his reputation partly by bringing an intimate, realistic acting style to his films, but his roots were in the theatre. In this brief clip we can gain some sense of the resonant delivery with which he reached the back-row spectators – and, later on, commanded the players in his classic films. – J.B. Kaufman
The Kellum process was sound-on-disc, similar to Edison’s Kinetophone and – in its use of a single crankshaft that drove both record and projector in order to (hopefully) maintain synchronization – to the Vitaphone. The Griffith speech from Dream Street is adequately recorded, although not up to the standards of the Vitaphone, which benefited from five years more of research and the Bell laboratories’ technological expertise. The single factor mitigating against wider adoption of the Kellum process was probably the fact that it could only attract marginal adherents – Sam Moore and his Singing Saw, not Al Jolson; Dream Street, not Broken Blossoms (1919). Of course, Broken Blossoms didn’t seem to need the extraneous bells and whistles that sound constituted in 1921. – Scott Eyman [DWG Project # 602]
DREAM STREET (D.W. Griffith, Inc., US 1921)
Regia/dir.: D.W. Griffith; cast: Carol Dempster, Ralph Graves, Charles Emmett Mack, Edward Peil; 35mm, 9,096 ft., 135’ (18 fps), The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Didascalie in inglese / English intertitles.
Dream Street, released between two of Griffith’s last great films, Way Down East (1920) and Orphans of the Storm (1922), suffers distinctly by comparison. Time and again we have seen with the Biographs how Griffith’s crowded production schedule led to masterful one-reelers being released alongside quite pedestrian work. Here the same holds true. It would be pleasant to uncover hitherto unnoticed stylistic or narrative patterns that reveal Dream Street as an unappreciated masterpiece – or at least a good film. The most interesting aspects of it are, however, its strange contradictions and its repetitions of Griffith’s earlier work, from the Biographs to the recent features.
Dream Street was apparently filmed during the late autumn of 1920 and into the early months of 1921. It was far enough along in the editing phase to be previewed on 16 March 1921. Dream Street was the first film Griffith made after the formation of his own production company, D.W. Griffith, Inc., on 30 June 1920. At that point, Griffith was in severe financial straits, but the huge success of Way Down East (released in September of 1920) gradually put him back on a firmer footing. The initial intent, however, was clearly to produce a film along the lines of Broken Blossoms (1919) by returning to the stories of Thomas Burke, author of that film’s source, “The Chink and the Child”. Using the pseudonym Roy Sinclair, Griffith took two other short stories by Burke from the same collection, Limehouse Nights, and worked them together into a script. Although an early title in Dream Street declares that the setting represents no specific slums, the details suggest the same Limehouse setting as in Broken Blossoms.
In fundamental ways, the story of Dream Street simply reverses that of Broken Blossoms. Where the earlier heroine played by Lillian Gish had been naive and helpless, Gypsy is streetwise, feisty, and self-reliant. Far from being a brute of the Battling Burrows sort, her father is an ineffectual invalid whom she loves and supports. In place of the almost saintly Chinese character played by Richard Barthelmess, there is the sinister criminal Sway Wan. The situation is more complicated, however, with the addition of the two contrasting brothers, the aggressive “Spike” McFadden and his adoring and repressed little brother, Billie, both of whom fall in love with Gypsy. Interestingly, Spike walks in a way that recalls Burrows’ tough-guy swagger, stiffly, with chest thrust forward and hips back.
Where in Broken Blossoms the delicate heroine and Chinese hero were highly sympathetic characters, Dream Street suffers from the fact that, as Richard Schickel has put it, “none of its principal characters is very appealing in deed or manner”. Spike, who ultimately emerges as the romantic lead, spends much of the early part of the film trying to seduce or rape the heroine, being redeemed only by a sudden and implausible religious conversion that turns him into an impossibly romantic wimp. Before that point, he certainly conveys no sense of the innate gentleness that distinguishes the Yellow Man in Broken Blossoms, who resists his sexual attraction to the heroine (an attraction which surfaces primarily in one scene). Gypsy is portrayed by Carol Dempster in what one contemporary critic called her “hippity-skippity” manner – a vivid phrase which could be used to characterize many moments of feminine acting in Griffith’s films through much of the silent period.
There can be few films in the history of Hollywood whose narratives depend so much upon coincidence as Dream Street. Although coincidence is not absolutely proscribed in classical narrative, its preferred use is supposed to be limited and to come well before the climax portion of the action. Griffith’s film is flagrant in its use of happy or unhappy chance events. In one scene, Gypsy and a friend spend a Sunday evening strolling along the riverside. There they encounter Spike, Gypsy repels his crude advances, and the two women turn to leave. He starts to sing, knowing that his voice captivates women. Sure enough, the pair pause to listen, and an expository title reveals, “it chances that a great theatrical producer, searching for local color…”. The eventual happy ending comes about when that producer discovers Spike’s singing talent, Gypsy’s marvelous dancing, and Billie’s brilliant songwriting ability and catapults them all to fame and fortune. Other coincidences occur when the violently jealous Billie happens to arrive in the alley across from the entrance to the apartment building where Gypsy lives just in time to see Spike declaring his love to Gypsy. Later, after committing a murder for which Spike takes the blame, Billie flees and takes refuge in the apartment of a friend – who happens to live in the same building where Gypsy does.
Stylistically, Griffith also sought to repeat his success with Broken Blossoms. The pictorialist Hendrik Sartov, who in collaboration with Billy Bitzer had brought the fashionable soft style into Griffith’s work, now became the sole cinematographer. The photographic qualities of Dream Street exaggerate the dreamy, fuzzy look of the earlier film. Using the resources of his new studio facility in Mamaroneck, New York, and shooting during the winter, Griffith shot the film in studio settings. Numerous obvious paintings stood in for the skyline of London with the Evening Star and for other locales. The newly developed three-point lighting system that was becoming the standard for classical Hollywood filmmaking is quite apparent in Dream Street, countering the common argument that Griffith never adopted the new norms of commercial filmmaking. There are distinctly old-fashioned moments in the staging, however, as when Billie bursts into Gypsy’s apartment to interrupt Spike’s attempt to rape her: all three freeze into a surprisingly extended tableau image.
Ultimately Dream Street did not fulfill Griffith’s goal of putting his new production company on a sound footing. It lost about $150,000, not an inconsiderable sum in those days. Even his more successful films, however, did not generate enough income to keep the director’s one-man production firm going, though he did recover from the artistic low point that Dream Street represented. – Kristin Thompson [DWG Project # 601]
ORPHANS OF THE STORM (Le due orfanelle) (D.W. Griffith, Inc., US 1921)
Regia/dir.: D.W. Griffith; cast: Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Joseph Schildkraut, Frank Losee, Morgan Wallace, Lucille La Verne, Sheldon Lewis, Frank Puglia, Creighton Hale, Monte Blue; 35mm, 11,208 ft., ???’ (??? fps), Photoplay, London.
Didascalie in inglese / English intertitles.
The title credits for Orphans of the Storm acknowledge that Griffith’s film is based upon Eugene Cormon’s and Adolphe d’Ennery’s The Two Orphans. The drama first appeared as Les Deux Orphelines at the Théâtre Porte St. Martin in Paris in January 1874. Receiving favourable notices and drawing large audiences, it was soon pirated by anonymous translators who hawked their English-language versions to foreign managers who then rushed these illicit translations into production before injunctions halted their transgressions. Simultaneously, but slower in achieving playable scripts, more circumspect London and New York managers negotiated agreed adaptations by John Oxenford (London) and N. Hart Jackson (New York), the latter for A.M. (Harry) Palmer, manager of Manhattan’s Union Square Theater. Unauthorized versions, in some respects more faithful to the original French text than adaptations reshaped to meet London and New York tastes, had been suppressed by prosecutions but never wholly eradicated from the repertoire. These rogue translations periodically surfaced on American rural circuits, and were later to compromise Griffith’s rights to the Jackson-Claxton American version of the play. Unlicensed texts were also to encourage Griffith to alter elements of the drama’s plot to answer his need for a suspenseful filmic climax.
N. Hart Jackson’s licensed version, premiered in December 1874, cast the 26-year-old Kate Claxton as Louise. Kitty Blanchard, another popular young actress of the day, took the role of Henriette. Blanchard moved on to other parts, but Claxton became so identified with the role of the abused and exploited blind heroine that, soon after 1874, she purchased the U.S. copyright from Palmer and Jackson and, forming her own combination company (the term combination indicating that she had supplemented Jackson’s melodrama script with variety turns and additional musical numbers), toured the play though the American hinterlands for over 30 years, eventually staging a major New York revival in 1904. In 1921 Griffith leased from Claxton what he assumed were exclusive performance rights to this play, only to discover that Claxton’s copyright had lapsed. He further found that, by virtue of William Fox’s 1915 film version (directed by Herbert Brenon) of the play, starring Theda Bara as Henriette and Jean Sothern as Louise – which apparently drew on several versions, authorized and pirated, of the script – Fox now held U.S. copyright. Griffith was obliged to settle with Fox. Therefore, the phrase “through arrangement with Kate Claxton” on the main title to Orphans of the Storm conveniently obscures vexed issues of ownership which Griffith prefers to elide.
The Palmer-Jackson-Claxton version of the play was set forth in seven scenes, initially arranged as a four-act drama but, by the 1890s, as a three-acter. Anxious to emulate as much as possible of the Paris production, Palmer dispatched his stage manager to the Théâtre Porte St. Martin to obtain the designers’ costume sketches and renderings and maquettes of stage settings viewed by Paris spectators. Four of these settings are again closely reproduced in Griffith’s film: the Paris street where the two orphans arrive and are separated; the Frochards’ underground lair; the west front of St. Sulpice, complete with the addition of Richard Marston’s stage snowstorm effect; and in the opening shot of La Salpétrière women’s prison from where Henriette, betrayed by Robespierre and arrested and imprisoned by the Count de Linières, is about to be dispatched to the penal colony of Cayenne, far from the attentions of her aristocratic suitor, the Chevalier de Vaudrey. Images of these stage sets, obviously popular and known to theatre audiences, were also reproduced on sheet-music covers when songs and incidental music by Henry Tissington, the play’s musical director and conductor of the orchestra at the Union Square Theatre, were published in simplified “reductions” for domestic pianos.
Both in the Paris and American versions of The Two Orphans, the action is set entirely in the year 1784. Nothing of the Revolution, neither the initial uprisings of 1789 nor the Terror of 1794 intrudes. There is no Bastille to storm, no tribunal, no guillotine, no Committee of Public Safety, no Danton, no Robespierre, no orgiastic carmagnole dance. These elements will come – almost unaltered – from other Victorian plays by other dramatists. The only note of social unrest and political protest in The Two Orphans is a reference to the long-delayed performance, to be attended by de Vaudrey, of Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro. Neither is there a prologue in The Two Orphans which enacts the assassination of the Countess de Linières’ first husband, the abduction of her infant daughter Louise, Louise’s rescue from the cold church steps and her arrival in the poor family where the infant Henriette also lives. Griffith will find and take his models for a prologue from other dramas. Instead, the stage-play begins with the “sisters’” arrival in Paris, Henriette’s kidnapping, and Louise’s forced co-option into the Frochard family. Subsequently, Henriette meets de Vaudrey, an appalled and unwelcome spectator at the Marquis de Praille’s orgy, and is rescued by him.
The developing romantic relationship between Henriette and de Vaudrey is realized more slowly in The Two Orphans than in Griffith’s film, and much of the suspense and spectators’ anxieties are focused, not on this love affair, but upon the plight of Louise. Pity for Louise is intensified by her plaintive begging song, the lyrics unrecovered at the time of this writing, but Henry Tissington’s melody is remembered and recycled in the andante passages of Louis F. Gottschalk’s and William Frederick Peters’ 1921 film score. Jackson’s stage adaptation calls for a number of agonizing near-misses, the sisters just failing to meet, until the relieved audience is prepared to ascribe total plausibility to their eventual reunion. One of Griffith’s more conspicuous and astute alterations to The Two Orphans is to accord more weight to Lillian Gish’s Henriette. This re-balancing of roles, resulting in a more passive and helpless Louise – imprisoned and sexually intimidated by Jacques Frochard – when seen against Henriette’s desperation and almost futile search to recover her sister, visibly enlarges Lillian Gish’s role. Henriette’s character is further enlarged by her unpremeditated sheltering of Danton, her consequent alienation from Robespierre, and her sacrifice of love and marriage until Louise can be found. Enacting such confused emotions – love, fear, bewilderment, denial – are known and exploited Lillian Gish strengths. Both French and English-language scripts call for the Countess’ guilty secrets – her former marriage, her stolen child, her unhappy second marriage – which she confides to de Vaudrey, to cause a breach of trust between the Count de Linières and his nephew which widens when the Count, judging another by his own standards, mistakenly assumes that Henriette is de Vaudrey’s mistress. – David Mayer [DWG Project # 603]
ONE EXCITING NIGHT (D.W. Griffith, Inc., US 1922)
Regia/dir.: D.W. Griffith; cast: Carol Dempster, Henry Hull, Porter Strong, Morgan Wallace; 16mm, 3,887 ft., 136’ (19 fps), The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Didascalie in inglese / English intertitles.
In mid-1922, Griffith attempted to secure the rights to The Bat, an enormously popular play by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood that had opened on Broadway in 1920, running for a phenomenal 878 performances. Considered the “granddaddy” of all haunted house mysteries, The Bat tells the story of a woman who rents the home of a banker who may or may not have died while on a trip to Colorado. During her first few days in the house, she becomes aware of strange happenings and someone’s insistent attempts to break in. She is warned to leave the estate but refuses to do so. A large sum of money is missing from the dead man’s bank and it is suspected that he stole the money himself and hid it in the house, waiting only for the chance to sneak back and retrieve it. However, there is a long list of others who also want the money: the bank cashier wrongly accused of the crime; a detective trying to clear up the mystery; a doctor who is a close friend of the family; a nephew who is penniless; the woman’s niece, who is romantically involved with the cashier; and “The Bat”, a murdering thief who has been eluding the local police.
Because he did not have enough ready money to purchase this valuable property, the rights for which were reported by Variety to be $150,000, Griffith did the next best thing: he wrote his own haunted house story. Using the pseudonym Irene Sinclair – “a young Kentucky authoress” – Griffith constructed a continuity generic enough to circumvent any copyright problems, and then went so far as to copyright his own treatment in July of 1922 as “The Haunted Grange”, although the final film would differ significantly from this initial sketch. As his leading man, Griffith hired Henry Hull, fresh from his star turn on Broadway in another haunted house play, The Cat and the Canary; the character of Agnes Harrington was played by Carol Dempster, in her least convincing imitation to date of the Gishes and Mae Marsh.
The photography and editing of One Exciting Night were completed without incident, and the entire production was previewed and ready for release in short order. As originally planned, the film was a modest production, taking place primarily within the confines of the Fairfax mansion, a dark and claustrophobic environment perfectly in keeping with such a story. Griffith, however, felt that the production was too modest and lacked an appropriately dramatic climax, one worthy of his past successes. In this he was encouraged by Carol Dempster, who, according to at least one eyewitness account, complained to her director that the film was not big enough. As a result, a storm sequence was filmed at huge expense and worked into the film’s finale. Griffith later claimed that an unusually severe mid-June storm had been the source of the sequence, but the evidence onscreen makes it clear that the entire storm was man-made. Wind machines, enormous banks of lights, and numerous lightweight trees and tree limbs combined to create a near-hurricane that was all too obviously fake and without dramatic effect. The cost was considerable (nearly $250,000) and put the film significantly over its original budget, making it difficult, if not impossible, for One Exciting Night to finally turn a profit.
Of course, an ill-advised storm sequence was not the film’s primary problem. At its heart, One Exciting Night was a comic thriller and, as such, required a tightly knit story directed with a light touch – neither of which were among D.W. Griffith’s strengths. For comedy, Griffith fell back upon the broadest and most offensive kind of racial stereotyping, portraying the character of Romeo Washington as a lazy good-for-nothing whose quaking in terror at the slightest provocation was clearly meant to incite riotous laughter in the audience. The fact that the part of Romeo was acted by Porter Strong, a white man in blackface, makes the effect all the more painful for modern audiences. Moviegoers of the time, however, had little or no problem with the convention of white performers in blackface; in fact, if reviews of the time are any indication, audiences found Porter Strong and Irma Harrison, the maid, to be skilled burnt cork performers and highly entertaining.
More than the use of offensive stereotypes, Griffith’s inability to grasp the essence of his own story – knowing what would make it work and why – is the reason for One Exciting Night’s ultimate failure. Rather than carefully unfold his plot and clearly introduce his characters, Griffith does both haphazardly, using an overabundance of explanatory intertitles in an effort to move his story forward and dropping characters into the film wherever convenient. All too often, motivations are spelled out with such obviousness that the audience is left to wonder what all the fuss is about on the screen. Clutching hands, characters in grotesque disguises, sliding panels and creaking doors, ominous shadows that contain unknown terrors – these are the essential elements of the mystery genre, but rather than weave them into the fabric of his story for maximum effect, Griffith drops them indiscriminately into the plot with little or no effect, failing to understand that they are not arbitrary devices with which to scare the audience, but are instead the very heart of the matter, the reason why the audience is paying attention to the story in the first place. Griffith’s legendary ability to manipulate an audience is nowhere to be found in One Exciting Night; even the final storm sequence, which he hoped would rival the triumphs of his previous film finales, falls oddly flat. Griffith’s usually unerring sense of cinematic rhythm fails him in this film, and one can only assume it is because he has so little affinity for the mystery genre. Long before the film is over, the audience knows who the killer is, and no natural disaster created in the studio can help One Exciting Night recover from such a basic flaw. – Steven Higgins [DWG Project # 605]
THE WHITE ROSE (D.W. Griffith, Inc., US 1923)
Regia/dir.: D.W. Griffith; cast: Mae Marsh, Carol Dempster, Ivor Novello, Neil Hamilton; 35mm, 8,932 ft., 132’ (18 fps), The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Didascalie in inglese / English intertitles.
The White Rose could be seen as Griffith’s reworking of Way Down East, but with a striking series of variations. The setting moves from the alternately bountiful and frigid rural landscape of New England Puritanism to the steamy Louisiana bayou country, with its decaying aristocratic mansions, torrential downpours and omnipresent Spanish moss draping the trees. This change in setting allows a change in tone as well, as the story of rural purity seduced by a city cad takes on complex shading and contradictions. The masculine figures of seducer and rescuer (represented by dandy Lennox Sanderson and farm boy David Bartlett in the earlier film) are here fused into the anguished and ambiguous figure of Joseph Beaugardé, both seducer and – ultimately – husband, and, to complicate things even more, Minister of God. Joseph’s tortured sense of both sexuality and guilt strongly engaged Griffith, and the performance as an updated Arthur Dimmesdale by English actor Ivor Novello, while perhaps not totally successful, nonetheless provides Griffith’s most multi-layered investigation of male sexuality.
The myth of Griffith’s decline is bound up with (and often explained by) a claim that Griffith as an old-fashioned Victorian moralist became increasingly out-of-step with the mores and styles of the 1920s “Jazz Age”. This reading overlooks not only subtleties, but ignores the major thrust of Griffith’s filmmaking, which, as Eisenstein pointed out, was never exclusively the celebration of old-fashioned rural values or the embracing of the fast-paced tempo of modern life, but – crucially – a complex staging of the encounter between these two opposed worlds. To dismiss Griffith as “old-fashioned” entails missing his often tortured attempt to reconcile the old and new, to bring old-fashioned values into the new world and vice versa. If nothing else, The White Rose must be read as a parable about the dangers of a woman maintaining the old-fashioned patriarchal values of the repression of sexual expressiveness and glamour in the modern world.
Sexuality takes center stage in this encounter between the old and new – and I mean sexuality and desire as much as gender. The crucial role of sexual desire in Griffith’s plots (and indeed in his stylistics) has also been obscured by the view of him as a puritanical Victorian. Just as we can no longer maintain a notion of the Victorian Age as one that simply ignored sexuality, we cannot overlook the sexual dimension of Griffith’s filmmaking. But Griffith does not simply exemplify Victorian sexual mores and repression. Rather, he participates in the breakdown of the Victorian view of the role and representation of sexual behavior, as much akin to Thomas Hardy as to Charles Dickens. Griffith wrestles with a devotion to the Cult of Pure Womanhood, devoted to Motherhood and domesticity, and with the attraction of a modern sense of woman as sexual, but also playful. Both these views certainly remain trapped within patriarchal ambivalences toward the feminine, hardly offering progressive models of gender. But in his feature films Griffith stages the breakdown of the virginal “angel of the house” (Lillian Gish may seem born to play the role, but in Griffith’s films she most often enacts it as tragedy), and a growing fascination with an alternative female role (figured in many ways as a girl rather than a woman): the woman who approaches sexuality as a game, a play of surface glamour. Mae Marsh first incarnated this role in the Modern Story of Intolerance, which in some ways provides a sketch for her character of Bessie/Teazie in The White Rose. In contrast to the more one-dimensional portrayal of this proto-flapper type by Clarine Seymour in such films as True Heart Susie, Marsh in The White Rose carries this role through a prolonged transformation, a melodramatic odyssey, as the playful girl-woman, enduring undeserved suffering, becomes a mother and ultimately a wife.
To any viewer willing to look beyond images whose unfamiliar dynamics might first appear as melodramatic clichés, it should be clear that in The White Rose Griffith tries to work out a new view of sexuality, not simply retelling Victorian morality tales. But, a bit like Thomas Hardy, Griffith finds that exploring a new interest in sexuality and sensuality does not release him from a strong indulgence in guilt. Hence the exploration in this film of the interiorly divided male character, in sharp contrast to the traditional melodramatic roles of heartless cad and earnest young man in Way Down East. The humid atmosphere of the Louisianan night seems to foster the expression of sexual passion in The White Rose, while having Mae Marsh, rather than Lillian Gish, take the main role of the woman seduced and abandoned also entails a greater degree of sexual expressiveness. One senses Griffith’s own erotic investment in this story, his identification with Teazie trying to discover a new mode of modern sexuality, while preserving the traditional sense of being a good girl, as well as his alignment with Joseph’s tortured pursuit of a new realm of sensual delight and emotional involvement while struggling with an overwhelming guilt.
Around the time Griffith began planning The White Rose he sent a telegram to Mae Marsh telling her he had just seen again the greatest performance by an actress on film: her role as Little Sister in The Birth of a Nation (The D.W. Griffith Papers, D.W. Griffith to Mae Marsh, 27 April 1921). Marsh frequently gets overlooked in the pantheon of Griffith’s leading ladies, due partly to the indisputable power and range of Lillian Gish, but also, I feel, because this film showcasing her most complex performance has received so little attention. Marsh was not an actress trained on stage as Gish was, but a teenager Griffith noticed and decided to cast during one of her visits to a Biograph shooting location because of her resemblance to stage actress Billie Burke. Arguably she does not possess Gish’s uncanny control of facial expressions, but, on the other hand, she moves her whole body more gracefully than Gish (the dancing around the sets that often seems awkward when Gish attempts it seems natural with Marsh). But more than expressiveness, Marsh’s talent lies in a profound vulnerability and openness to the camera. As Bessie, the “first class orphan”, and Teazie, the would-be Jazz-baby, Marsh projects an eager desire to please, to be liked, and a need to be loved. All of this reveals her poignant innocence, expecting so little from the world other than attention and affection – and receiving even less: harsh judgment, contempt, abandonment.
It would be misleading to indicate that The White Rose eschews melodrama; the basic situation of the abandoned mother and her suffering constitutes the core of the domestic melodrama, and Griffith most certainly explores melodrama’s heightened degree of moral expressiveness in this film, as well as the expression and recognition of the true signs of virtue. But Griffith also labored to redefine melodrama. Throughout his career Griffith redefined the heritage of melodramatic theater through the new medium of cinema; but, to truly understand Griffith’s career, we need to recognize this transformation demanded a constant process of innovation. The excitement of Griffith’s mature films lies partly in the fact that he redefines even his own contribution to cinema, constantly searching for new ways to express human desire fashioning scenarios of tragedy as well as redemption.
What Griffith labors to avoid in The White Rose consists less of the expressive aspects of melodrama than its scenario of Manichean villainy portraying the guilty man as “fallen” and in need of redemption. Likewise, the film avoids the “melodramatic action” of its prototype Way Down East. This contrast can be made very directly, since I believe that Griffith conceived a key scene from The White Rose in explicit parallel and contrast to Way Down East: Teazie’s wandering with her baby in the midst of a tropical storm. The contrast between scenes operates on nearly every level: the drenching nighttime rain of the one contrasted with the winter cold of the other; Gish’s basic passivity on the ice floe (collapsed and nearly unconscious as the ice bears her toward the falls) compared to Teazie endlessly trudging through rain and mud, carrying her child; and, perhaps most importantly, the rescue of Anna by David which joins the romantic couple and resolves the film in Way Down East, compared to the unwitting spatial proximity of Joseph and Teazie in The White Rose, which effects no rescue and leaves her to contend with the elements alone.
In Way Down East Griffith brilliantly followed traditional melodramatic scenography (indeed increased it: he added the ice floe rescue to the original melodrama source) resolving the emotions generated by the revelation of Anna Moore’s betrayal through the physical action of danger and rescue, purging not only Anna’s shame with suffering, but also re-establishing, through David’s action, a heroic image of masculinity to counter Sanderson’s mendacity. The sequence provides a climax that is as dramatically, emotionally, and physically satisfying as it may be ideologically dubious. But just as the collapse of seducer and lover into one figure in The White Rose does not permit the simple purging of male guilt thorough heroic physical action, the rainstorm sequence describes a trajectory of suffering and ignorance, refusing to sublimate spiritual redemption through physical heroism.
Griffith maintained in the early 1920s a vision of the utopian possibilities of society, religion, and the cinema, all of which he saw as capable of immense, even millennial, transformations. In this, he voices the progressive and even radical ideals of the first generation to shape the 20th century – ideals that in many ways were shattered by the technological carnage of World War I on the one hand, and by the post-war growth of a consumer culture on the other. Griffith continued to believe in his ideals that are less those of a Victorian sensibility than of a utopian and millennial modernism, proclaiming new roles for sexuality and new freedom for women, but very much under the sign of a new spirituality. In many ways, especially politically and socially, the 1920s can be seen as a period of reaction and polarization as the political activism and idealism of such figures as Vachel Lindsay or Lewis W. Hine fell out of favor with established institutions and appeared increasingly irrelevant to progressive forces after the Russian Revolution. The White Rose should not be seen as the old-fashioned Victorian melodrama of an increasingly out-of-step director about to surrender his independence as a filmmaker, but as a glimpse of a forgotten future, a utopian vision that few could sustain. – Tom Gunning [DWG Project # 607]
AMERICA (D.W. Griffith, Inc., US 1924)
Regia/dir.: D.W. Griffith; cast: Neil Hamilton, Erville Alderson, Carol Dempster, Charles Emmett Mack, Lionel Barrymore; 35mm, 10,420 ft., 154’ (18 fps), BFI National Film and Television Archive, London. Conservazione e stampa / Preserved and printed 1958.
Didascalie in inglese / English intertitles.
The original version of America was copyrighted and released in 14 reels, 2 reels longer than The Birth of a Nation or Orphans of the Storm. The existing version is much shorter: it is the one made for distribution in Britain, with a new title, Love and Sacrifice. The bitter wartime enmity of 150 years earlier, already neutralized in the original version, has been further softened for this version, primarily through title changes. The revised intertitles stress the evil Captain Walter Butler’s American birth and the hatred that the British had for this renegade who betrayed both his king and the newborn republic. In this version, the Revolution is characterized as a civil war, Englishman against Englishman, brother against brother. Even in the original version Griffith’s Anglophilia, strengthened by his warm reception in England in the Spring of 1917 for the opening of Intolerance, the discussion with the British for the war propaganda film that became Hearts of the World, and the filming of episodes for The Great Love (filmed with the aid of English high society in the Summer of 1917), guaranteed an effort to be inoffensive to British sensibilities. He could hardly have been unaware of the fate of Robert Goldstein, the costumer who spent his earnings from his Birth of a Nation investment to produce a film called The Spirit of ’76 (Frank Montgomery, 1917) on the eve of America’s entrance into the World War, and consequently spent several years in jail for making a film unfriendly to our allies.
The making of America justifies the use of the word superproduction. Here was a subject big enough for the man who made The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance and Orphans of the Storm. Historical societies, historians, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the U.S. Army freely cooperated and gave advice. After all, here was America’s most respected director undertaking an extremely important subject, the country’s heritage. A total of four cameramen are credited. Unlike the making of The Birth of a Nation, the full glare of publicity lit every step of the production. Where it was possible, historical events were filmed in the original settings. The main sequences are: Lexington, Massachusetts, where the Nathan Holden-Nancy Montague romance is established; Williamsburg, Virginia, where the aristocratic Montague family entertains George Washington; the English Parliament, where taxation of the colonies is discussed; Boston, where the forced taxation without representation enrages the populace; the Virginia legislature, where Holden arrives as messenger from Boston; Northern New York, where the Virginia Montague’s brother lives on a rich estate, and Captain Butler rouses the Indians and plots to establish a new empire; Boston, where Butler confers with General Gage; 18 April 1775, Hancock and Adams flee to Lexington, where the Minutemen can protect them; Paul Revere’s ride and the stand at Concord Bridge; the Battle of Bunker Hill; the Continental Congress in Philadelphia; the signing of the Declaration of Independence; in the North, Tories and Indians join together under Butler’s command; Fort Esperance in the Mohawk Valley; the Cherry Valley massacres; Butler visits Ashley Court; Butler reveals his true purposes for an empire to his closest followers; winter at Valley Forge; Ashley Court, Nathan sent to fight with Morgan’s men, reunites with Nancy; Nathan rides to warn the settlers about Butler’s approach and again meets Nancy and her father when the troops arrive to rescue the refugees at the besieged fort where they have taken refuge; and the surrender of Cornwallis to Washington.
America was thought of as the ideal vehicle for teaching American school children about their heritage. Whether it was much used for that purpose and its effectiveness with children might be interesting to study. Whatever the textbook character of the recreated historic scenes, they surely would at least have roused more excitement in the classroom than the usual dry history lesson. America was in distribution for years and was reissued. With the addition of the sale of stock footage, America eventually earned back its cost, but it was an expensive production and it was never very profitable. Educational films, however much requested by those who sought to elevate the medium and the industry, were never the most popular with the large public, and less than ever in the midst of the Jazz Age when this film was released. Griffith had won his independence to make films his own way, his prestige gave him everything he asked for, yet this time he came up wanting.
The result, like the production process, was ponderous. Griffith’s great skill at personalizing history with the stories of individuals was not effective this time. The romance across the political lines, the rebel Nathan Holden and the royalist Nancy Montague, tended to be stultifying, perhaps because Neil Hamilton and Carol Dempster in these roles lacked the necessary electric presence. After a time, it begins to seem too much coincidence that Nathan and/or Nancy happen to witness so many of the key historic events of the Revolution. Nathan is sent here and there on official business, and turns up over and over again at significant moments. Carol Dempster, with her sharp profile, and especially in her ostrich-feather hat, is bird-like, as her head turns this way and that, watching all the events with a lively interest, while Hamilton seems emotionless as he sacrifices his love out of loyalty to the larger cause, and protection for the woman he loves to save the population at large. This is not Casablanca (1942). The flat performances could be as much in Griffith’s direction as in Hamilton’s reserve, perhaps even a symptom of the director’s infatuation with Carol Dempster. She gets the most close-ups, always a measure of star power. But she is not one of Griffith’s strong females. Nancy Montague is quite ready to give up her royalist beliefs for the man she loves. The best performance of the film is Lionel Barrymore as the villainous Captain Butler, who betrays everyone in grand style and terrifies Dempster with his lustful actions. In his character, America left history behind: instead of the colonists rebelling against British control, they seem to be battling with an individual evil man who was betraying both Britain and the rebel cause to realize his own ambition to establish an empire. Griffith received some criticism from the historians for that.
Griffith was more successful with the handling of such episodes as the ride of Paul Revere, which contains the first surge of excitement, but only occurs after we are a third of the way into the film, and the spectacular recreation of the historic battles of Lexington and Concord. The rescue sequences in the northern campaign further added to suspense toward the end. Army troops in large numbers were at Griffith’s disposal for deployment over original battlefields, and historic buildings and artifacts were made available. The camera placements, editing and rhythmic pace of these battle scenes are at Griffith’s usual high standard. They carry the powerful emotional charge of a people struggling for liberty against tyranny. But over all, America is unlikely to be considered as one of Griffith’s greatest films. – Eileen Bowser [DWG Project # 609]
ISN’T LIFE WONDERFUL (D.W. Griffith, Inc., US 1924)
Regia/dir.: D.W. Griffith; cast: Carol Dempster, Neil Hamilton, Erville Alderson, Frank Puglia, Lupino Lane; 35mm, 9,017 or 8,888 ft., 134’ or 132’ (18 fps), The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Didascalie in inglese / English intertitles.
This modest film was an extraordinary one-of-a-kind for the 1920s, in some ways a throwback to Griffith’s Biograph one-reelers, in others a forerunner of the semi-documentaries made after the Second World War. One of Griffith’s least popular 1920s films, its rediscovery came in the mid-1940s when directors like Jean Renoir and Roberto Rossellini paid tribute to it, and it became discussed as something of a model for neo-realism. Symptomatic of the critical shift, when Iris Barry wrote up Griffith’s film in 1926 for her book Let’s Go to the Movies, she described it as “not merely bad, but boring”. Fifteen years later, in her Griffith monograph, she referred to the same film as “a little masterpiece ... a sensitive and often touching pro-German picture which most forcibly conjures up the tragedy of defeat and hunger”. Documentary filmmaker John Grierson, writing in 1946, linked its box-office failure to the precocious style of its social exposé: “Epic, too, can have its way if it is as roughshod as The Covered Wagon, as sentimental for the status quo as Cavalcade, as heroic in the face of hunger as Nanook. But heaven defend it, if, as once happened in Griffith’s Isn’t Life Wonderful, the hunger is not of Eskimos but of ourselves.”
The original impulse behind Isn’t Life Wonderful was that of an angry exposé. As he sometimes did at Biograph, Griffith started from newspaper headlines, in this case front-page stories chronicling the horrific consequences of the recent French occupation of the Ruhr. Today, that military action is little more than a footnote in modern German history, usually remembered – if it is remembered at all – as one of those events that facilitated Hitler’s rise to power.
At the time, however, the French occupation was recognized as a critical turning point in 1920s European affairs, the event that effectively ended Allied unity and led many, including Griffith, to perceive Germany as a victim of a punitive peace. At issue was French premier Poincaré’s decision to force Germany to pay its war debts by taking over its industrial heartland and redirecting the region’s coal, steel, and iron to France. To cut these resources off from Germany, as the French military proceeded to do, was to bring the economic life of the whole country to a standstill and the government to the point of disintegration.
What American newspapers showed was a country in a state of undeclared war. Headlines told of strikes, acts of sabotage, food riots, mass deportations, and economic blockades. Such reports, together with a 26-page Weimar government pamphlet documenting Franco-Belgian atrocities in the Ruhr, were methodically stored in Griffith’s studio files. For the son of a Confederate soldier, tales about occupying armies and victimized workers had obvious echoes. Reports of mass deportations and workers cut down by military troops were no less resonant for the man who had staged similar scenes at Biograph and in Intolerance (1916).
The catalyst came in the form of a recently published book dramatizing conditions in Germany, a collection of six short stories written by Geoffrey Moss called Defeat. Moss, a British military officer in the Grenadier Guards, had left the service and turned to fiction writing in order to denounce what he considered the injustices of Allied post-war policy. He had already published one bestseller a year earlier, a novel called Sweet Pepper, about a female British attaché’s life in Budapest during the Allies’ dissection of the Habsburg Empire in 1920. Now Moss turned his attention to Germany.
Each of the six tales in Defeat was meant to illustrate a different aspect of Germany’s suffering under the French occupation. As he had with Sweet Pepper, Moss hammers away at the cruel spectacle of an historic civilized country carved up and put at the mercy of foreign rabble. In Sweet Pepper, what hits Moss’ nerve is the unworthiness of those who have been permitted to annex Hungary’s lands. The stories in Defeat transfer the same struggle to occupied Germany, where the battles are made more poignant by the prior collapse of what he calls “the old faiths”.
How Griffith discovered Moss’ book or who introduced him to it is unknown. But once he found it, Griffith acted quickly. Contracts were signed and casting assignments made even before Griffith had settled on precisely which Moss story he wanted to film. Whirlwind casting calls kept players in last-minute suspense: only hours before passport deadlines did actors learn who would go to Europe and who would be used once Griffith returned. He knew he wanted Carol Dempster, but whether she would play Freya, the shrewd showgirl in “The Wrong Receipt”, Lotchen, a beleaguered wife, in “The Nacht Lokal”, or Inga, the shop clerk in “‘Isn’t Life Wonderful!’”, was anybody’s guess. In the end, Griffith took three actors, three cameramen, and “an arrangements director” with him, figuring to develop his story during the ten-day voyage. Working out of the swank Hotel Bristol in Berlin, Griffith struck eyewitnesses as being in exceptionally good spirits while scouting locales and auditioning his German and Austrian actors, rehearsing and shooting with remarkable self-assurance. The reminiscences of cast and crew members draw a picture of an affable, hardworking Griffith able to overcome language barriers and local customs with ease. Griffith’s ability to charm became one of two abiding memories of the Americans who worked on the picture. The other was the desperate poverty they saw in Berlin.
The company returned in October to Mamaroneck, where duplicate sets were built and the filming completed, and by early November Griffith was ready to sneak-preview a 14-reel (2½-hour) version unannounced in Westport and other Connecticut townships, followed by a formal preview at Montclair, New Jersey, and then a private screening for the German Consulate in New York. The reviews were uniformly favorable (“... marked a new standard for films”; “... one of the most daring experiments in picture history”; “... should be instrumental in promoting mutual understanding”). Everybody thought the film too long, but the reviewers were curiously silent on the two most nettlesome questions: would American audiences accept a sympathetic portrait of Germans suffering from the War, and would audiences find the film too bleak?
Apprehensive, Griffith pared the film down to 9 reels, booked the film into a New York grind house (the Rivoli Theatre), attracting an opening night audience that included Fritz Lang, Ufa producer Erich Pommer, and CEO Felix Kallmann, and then waited for reviews. The New York critics were both impressed and puzzled, moved by the film’s somber tone, but thrown off by a film that shared so little with other contemporary American movies. The trade press, as enthusiastic as the New York dailies, got stuck on a predictable chord. Calling it a “depressingly drab little tale”, the Moving Picture World reviewer wrote that “we seriously doubt its appeal to the masses”; Moving Picture News concurred. The Exhibitor’s Trade Review called the film “a genuine screen jewel” but pronounced it all but unsellable. The coup de grâce came from Photoplay’s editor James R. Quirk, who in a famous editorial (December 1924) used Isn’t Life Wonderful’s début as an occasion to attack Griffith himself, deploring the turn his career had taken, and urging him to sell his studio. The problem, Photoplay contended, was that Griffith had lost touch with Hollywood; out of touch with Hollywood, the magazine argued, he had lost contact with civilization. Isn’t Life Wonderful illustrated the results: “your very habits of life have made you austere. You literally have withdrawn from contact with things about you. You have created a wall between yourself and the outside world.” – Russell Merritt [DWG Project # 610]