Bright Lights Film Journal

Making History: D. W. Griffith on DVD

A weighty package of early films by the cinematic titan

In Lillian Gish‘s last years, when she was a peaches-and-cream old lady, she talked openly and frequently about D. W. Griffith (1875-1948), the director who defined her early film career. At every opportunity she spoke of him in superlatives, and in a 1970s conversation that appears in Kino’s magnum new D. W. Griffith DVD box set, she calls him “the father of film” as casually as if she were calling him “daddy.” Many film historians routinely bestow such distinctions on the prickly Kentucky-born son of a Confederate officer. It comes off as a bit of hyperventilation, especially in light of the early feature-length work of contemporaries Raoul Walsh (Regeneration), Giovanni Pastrone (Cabiria), and August Blom (Atlantis). But the assumption of Griffith’s primacy is passed down from one generation to the next, at least in the United States, until it becomes unquestioned fact. No argument D. W. Griffith was a pioneer of motion pictures, but invention does not belong to one person. And none of this is meant as a discouragement from investing in Kino’s superb new seven-disc Griffith package. With two discs of his early Biograph shorts, The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, Orphans of the Storm, and a suitcase full of extras, this collection is de rigeur for the shelf of any self-styled would-be DVD snob.

To appreciate the scope of the Kino Collection, it’s best to tackle the films chronologically. The first two discs offer a banquet of one- and two-reelers Griffith did for Biograph Studios between 1908 and 1913. Famous among them is Those Awful Hats (1909), a three-minute demonstration of theater etiquette that would still play well at the local Octoplex. The realistic Corner in Wheat (1909) is a particularly valuable short film for its early use of cross-cutting, effectively punctuating the gross distinctions between rich and poor. Note, too, how an odd kind of death from Corner in Wheat was copied in 1985’s Witness.

Most every short has one or two points of enduring curiosity. The House with Closed Shutters (1910) features a Confederate woman who fights in place of her coward brother, while cross-dressing contributes to the air of timeless fable. The Last Drop of Water (1911) is a beautifully self-contained drama, warmed by a lovely piano score. The New York Hat (1912) offers a look at Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore at the beginning of their careers. Death’s Marathon (1913) is probably the first-ever depiction of suicide by phone. An Unseen Enemy (1912) is a crackling exercise in suspense, marking the film debuts of Lillian and Dorothy Gish. When Lillian finds evidence of her husband’s dalliances in The Mothering Heart (1913), she appears to lose her soul and mind simultaneously, and for one moment looks capable of anything. The moment is paralyzing.

Some of these artifacts creak and groan with age, rooted as they are in Griffith’s steadfast dedication to bug-eyed Victorian melodrama. His first film, 1908’s The Adventures of Dollie, has no hold on greatness. Enoch Arden (1911), his first two-reeler, is particularly dusty, with acting and makeup that look strictly high school today. His Trust (1911) has white actors in blackface playing subservient, cowering African American stereotypes. Griffith’s oft referenced racism is given a preview here, and of course reached its fullest expression in Birth of a Nation. The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913) is a rousing saga that looks like the grandfather of the director’s epics to be. Racial stereotyping is here, too, with the Indian blessing “may you eat dog and live long” given as an explanation for missing puppies. The white man, of course, makes the world safe again for babies and dogs. Even the surviving lemons from Griffith’s canon are purely distilled dramas managing both character development and narrative complexity in barely more than 15 minutes. One can’t help but ask why it takes modern filmmakers so damn long to tell a story.

The Kino Collection is generous, but it doesn’t approach Griffith’s output of more than 450 one- and two-reelers. Too bad Judith of Bethulia (1914), his first four-reeler and American cinema’s foremost transition movie from shorts to features, is not included. Still, Kino offers enough of these old nuggets to appreciate Griffith’s early art. They were apprentice works leading to Birth of a Nation (1915), arguably the most discussed movie in history. America had never sat down for a three-hour movie before, but it greeted the Civil War drama of two families with overwhelming interest. Some of it still excites, particularly Lincoln’s assassination at the Ford Theater. A mother and son reunion at an army hospital is poignant in the extreme, with Griffith offering full stories among the extras. We see crying women being led out of the camera’s range, while nurses and doctors grimly consult. The movie is rich in human texture, and at such times Griffith’s expansion of movie art is almost tangible. In contrast, the second half, with its blazing glorification of the Klan, is excruciating. Or surreal, considering that those fighting for what the modern world calls civil rights are portrayed as the bad guys. The Birth of a Nation is as much a demonstration of Griffith’s skills as it is a memorial to a uniquely American legacy. In a 1930 interview contained here as an extra, Griffith continued to defend his feelings for the Klan, despite years of protest and boycotts against his movie. The ado will probably never go away. Germany has Triumph of the Will and the United States has Birth of a Nation, two great works of art stained with racial propaganda in the service of national mythmaking.

Intolerance (1916) represents a quantum leap over Birth of a Nation. Griffith rightfully calls debt to the Italian epics Cabiria and The Last Days of Pompeii, but the structure of Intolerance was revolutionary. Four stories from history are interwoven around the central theme of the movie’s title. Two episodes, the death of Christ and the massacre of the Huguenots, are relatively weak, though the French Queen sneering at the sight of so many dead is an effective moment of rendered evil. The modern episode is filled with self-righteous “Uplifter” biddies who wrench a baby from its mother, played by the highly emotive Mae Marsh. With implications of drinking and vice (the father rots in jail due to a travesty of justice), the modern story comes to resemble an episode of Judging Amy. It even decries capital punishment and its room for error. The men of Intolerance pose and flex, but the women make a stronger impression, with fiendishly good work from Marsh, Constance Talmadge as the spirited Mountain Girl, and Miriam Cooper as a dark-eyed vengeful killer.

The fall of Babylon in Intolerance as orchestrated by Griffith is pure movie nirvana. To compete with the jaw-dropping sets, actors gesture wildly in a prolonged dance of operatic grandeur. In 1916, there were only so many ways a movie camera could move, so when Griffith engineered a downward pan upon the magnificent gluttony of old Babylon, accompanied here by a Joseph Turrin score, the effect is positively thrilling. Where Birth of a Nation has a calamitous second half, Intolerance improves over its three hours-plus running time, accelerating to a fist-clenching finale. Griffith poured on plenty of sentimentality and self-righteousness, even for his time, but the sheer muscle of his filmmaking allowed him to get away with it.

Broken Blossoms (1919) is an altogether different flower in Griffith’s garden, a fragrant bit of Oriental romanticism. The 90-minute ill-fated romance of waif Lillian Gish and kindly Chinese gentleman Richard Barthelmess is a tribute to the skill of its stars. Both were acutely sensitive actors, and here they convey a purity too good for this world. The case could be made for Gish’s character as the most pitiable creature the movies have ever seen. Beaten down by the abuse of her father (Donald Crisp), she’s so miserable that she can muster a smile only by famously pushing the sides of her mouth up with her fingers. It all makes for an unsurpassed bath in pathos, with the “yellow man’s” Buddhist enlightenment going right out the window in the last reel.

Kino’s seventh disc is taken up with Orphans of the Storm, the 1921 feature that marked Lillian Gish’s last movie with Griffith. Historically, it’s the least significant of the features offered by Kino, but it may be the most watchable today. Following a slurry 1970s introduction by a sodden Orson Welles, Orphans features two sisters in eighteenth-century France, the plucky Henriette (Lillian) and the blind Louise (Dorothy Gish). Their story is predictably loving and intimate, but it’s shrewdly set against the “storm” of the Revolution, where historic currents toss our heroines into all sorts of life-threatening challenges. Griffith reaches new levels of mastery for the dual intimate and epic storylines, suggesting inspirations in the work to come from Akira Kurosawa and David Lean. If the sisters suffer a bit too much, and the conclusion is a bit too tidy, the plot is otherwise irresistible, with Robespierre and Danton as integral characters, not mere historical references.

Whether Griffith invented the feature film and many of its technological and narrative conventions is debatable. Such proclamations make for good copy, not enlightenment. But at minimum he was one of a handful of monster-egotist-pioneers of the business. To watch Kino’s startlingly rich demonstration of his art is to rethink all of motion pictures. He looked backward and forward, which is the impulse behind much great art. In the case of Griffith, he borrowed nineteenth-century drama and applied it to twentieth-century technology. The movies would never be the same.