D W Griffith

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D W Griffith

Postby wpqx » Sat Feb 03, 2007 11:13 pm

I have seen roughly 30 short films by Griffith, but few if any of them could I remember anything about. I'm going through my set of his films once more, and trying to at least write about them as I see them. Now there has been a tendency in film history to just lump every techincal development to Griffith, and he himself did a great deal to perpetuate the myth that he was the "Father of Cinema". However no director of his generation can even come close to matching his skill as a storyteller, a filmmaker, and even as an innovator. Perhaps with any luck I'll be able to revisit some of his features as well, but for now this brief look at his short films is as much for my benefit as yours. Oh and in case you're wondering, I have to go to work, and don't have time to watch a full length film, hence the reason the Oscar watch is on hold.

In the Border States (1910)

One of if not the earliest Civil War film Griffith made, this one takes his extraordinary attention to detail and applies to a rather humanistic tale. Taking place near the Mason-Dixon line, this involves two families from opposing sides as one daughter or a union soldier wards off a confederate soldier in their home. Taking place on Griffith's typical house, the same room shown in nearly all of his films. An actor portraying Robert E. Lee appears here, and just as in Birth of a Nation, you almost feel a little history coming to life.

The House With Closed Shutters (1910)

Another Civil War short, this one is powerfully feminist in its implications. A man is drafted to fight for the Union, but chickens out, and rather than risk family disgrace, his sister dons the uniform and goes to fight for him. She winds up being killed, and as a result the cowardly brother is made a prisoner in his own house, never to show his face. The film is overtly patriotic, and deals with a moral code of family honor that may make it seem horrifically dated. Still the thought of not just a woman impersonating a man, but actually going off to war and being braver than the man is a novel concept indeed. Try not to get too distracted with the "black" servant who's very much a white man in makeup.

The Fugitive (1910)

It is odd to think about it, but during Griffith's time if you wanted to make a war film you basically had the Civil War to choose from. Before either World War, and after the decidedly uncinematic Spanish-American War, this was your stomping ground. The Fugitive makes an extensive use of location shooting, moving far out of the typical one room studio. An early sense of parallel editing is present, as Confederate soldiers are tracking down a Union fugitive who's killed one of their men. The ironic twist is he hides out in the house of the mother of the boy he's killed. Griffith, one of the earliest humanists, and a decided pacifist shows that North or South we're all Americans. In many ways tied to the similar themes of In the Border States. Griffith unfortunately gets left off the list of the great humanist directors, but lets be honest Kurosawa, Ray, and Renoir all owe an enormous debt to Griffith thematically if not from a techincal standpoint. The Fugitive shows much more of the guilt of killing in war than previous pictures.

Re: D W Griffith

Postby wpqx » Sat Feb 03, 2007 11:28 pm

His Trust (1910)

One of the hardest of Griffith's films to watch, this features one of the most controversial shots in all of silent cinema, featuring a young white girl ride an old black servants back like a horse. This same servant in horrific blackface makeup to boot. Now looking at this scene isolated is tough, however in the context of the film this is remarkably liberal. In the film the black servant winds up saving the daughter's life, as well as the recently deceased master of the house's sword (his honour). Taking a very pro-Confederate stance though this illustrates the "happy slave" mentality that makes it rough. The picture depicts the Union soldiers as looting muderers, and the nobile Southerners as good people, inspiring devotion in their black slaves. This was the first of a two-part series followed by His Trust Fulfilled right after. Not having the extra time to watch the sequel as yet, I'll have to let you know how it concludes later.

Re: D W Griffith

Postby wpqx » Sun Feb 04, 2007 8:49 pm

His Trust Fulfilled (1910)

Well as our story continues, it is once again the faithful servant who must come to the aid of his ill equipped and proper white masters. He sends himself into poverty to keep his former masters from the same fate. The second half does not have quite the same power as the first, nor the texture but if you're wondering whether they all lived happily ever after here's your answer. The little girl grows up and marries, which if I'm not mistaken she married her cousin, but hey it is the south and these things could still fly.

Swords and Hearts (1910)

Once again the loyal slave is given due corse. While the man of the house is away fighting for the Confederacy he is unknowingly the object of one of the farm hands daughters. She risks her life, even taking a bullet to save him, meanwhile after losing the war a band of bushwackers comes to raid the house, and only the servant has forseen it. The house is burnt down and looted, but not before the wise old slave manages to bury the families most valuable possessions. Anyways love conquers all and such, and again we are led to believe that slaves just love their masters, or at least the one's who get to work in the house.

The Battle (1911)

The one film on this set that didn't seem to get any restoration, at first its jarring to watch, but within a few minutes you forget how horrifically deteriorated the print is. The story involves a victorious Union battle fought at heavy cost and the redemption of a coward. Something like the retribution that the man from The House With Closed Shutters wished he had. The battle scenes, particularly the Confederate charge seem to be the blueprint for Birth of a Nation. Not much of a face is put on the Confederates here, as the battle is pretty much all on Union perspective.

Re: D W Griffith

Postby wpqx » Fri Jun 08, 2007 9:29 pm

True Heart Susie (1919)

It's been a long time since I've seen a feature film from Griffith, and after watching this picture I'd say its been too long. True Heart Susie is a remarkably unpretentious film of Griffith's that harkens back to his simpler days making films at Biograph. In fact the time setting of the film is roughly ten years before it was released. Lillian Gish again appears as the cheerful and good natured small town girl who does everything to help the man she loves suceed. Some of the twists and turns are a little predictable, and sometimes you have to wonder how much life must have sucked back then, but its a simple moral and it is very effective. Griffith makes us care for these characters particularly Susie and William and we genuinely feel for their situation, even if in 1919 death was the only acceptable solution to a bad marriage.

Rocky Road (1911) was also included on the Grapevine DVD.

Re: D W Griffith

Postby A » Tue Jun 12, 2007 4:19 pm

I agree with your statement that Griffith is often forgotten, or simply ignored when it comes to humanist directors due to his more controversial films (which definitely seem racist, imo). Like wpqx I think he definitely belongs next to renoir and Kurosawa, though!

I've seen about a dozen of his early shorts, most of which were remarkably good. I liked The unchanging Sea (1910) the most because of its beautiful photography and its pacing, even though the direction was a tad bit too melodramatic at the end, as is often the case in many films by Griffith. A Corner in Wheat (1909) was also remarkable. What I like about him is that the acting is also quiet subtle at times (of course there are also expressive bouts), at least compared to some other films from this early period of cinema. Griffith is imo a very good director when it comes to actors.

It's true though, that his films tend to merge somewhat in memory, as the styles and stories are often very similar.
But I still vividely recall the stunning images he conjured up in An unseen Enemy (1912), when Lillian and Dorothy Gish are on the run from the housekeeper who tries to kill them. The image of the hand with the gun sticking through the door is terrifying and haunting!

From the films you mention I've only seen His Trust (1910). I wouldn't call it racist, but it remains very ambivalent. While Griffith clearly isn't portaying the slave as a negative figure (quite the opposite) his view is simplistic and condescending, not so if you watch only this film, but if you are aware of the fact that he uses this view of black people over and over in many of his films. Of course some of the people surely had been naive, and loyal to their "masters" but the majority probably wasn't. Talking about the times the film was made in doesn't make it much easier to watch.
It's interesting that almost all black people were portrayed by whites in blackface in American films up until the mid 20s. This wasn't something one should particularly blame Griffith for. To me it's rather a document of its time, similar to the fact that men had to play female parts at the theater in Britain during certain periods. Like in ancient Greece and in Europe during the middle-ages women weren't allowed on stage.

Re: D W Griffith

Postby wpqx » Tue Jun 12, 2007 5:25 pm

True, but you sometimes wonder whether Griffith could have had black actors and challenged the status quo.

Re: D W Griffith

Postby A » Tue Jun 12, 2007 11:00 pm

That would have certainly been something. But then again, he definitely wouldn't have made The Birth of a Nation

Re: D W Griffith

Postby wpqx » Tue Jul 24, 2007 10:15 pm

Judith of Bethulia (1914)

Considered by some sources to be Griffith's first feature. He made this film in open defiance of Biograph's demand that his films shouldn't be longer than two reels. Griffith ignored this and made a four reel historical spectacle. Utilizing a 12 mile backdrop, he meticulously recreated ancient Jerusalem and proceeded to make an update of this legend of a recently widowed woman who is believed to be justified in her murder of her people's enemy. Watching the film I wonder if it needed to be four reels. Much of the film simply consists of fighting, and done in such a chaotic way that its hard to even tell who's who. The film is certainly rich in historical significance. It was considered something of an American Quo Vadis, just as Intolerance was considered Griffith's answer to Cabiria. However the film feels much more like one of DeMille's religious epics. Lots of flash, but not a great deal of substance. The ensuing anger Biograph had at Griffith resulted in his leaving the studio and becoming an independent filmmaker, and led directly to his making Birth of a Nation.

Re: D W Griffith

Postby arsaib4 » Tue Jul 24, 2007 10:34 pm

Kael agrees with you: "Seen now, this D.W. Griffith 4-reeler (which was one of the first 4-reel films made in America) appears to be a warmup for the splendors of his Intolerance. Judith of Bethulia is not an altogether likable picture, but it has its heavy pseudo-Oriental charms."

Re: D W Griffith

Postby wpqx » Tue Jul 24, 2007 10:55 pm

Always nice/surprising to agree with Kael.

Home Sweet Home (1914)

Hard to watch one Griffith film without another. This film although featuring an almost identical cast, and being produced in the same year as Judith, the films could hardly be more different. John Payne, the composer behind the song "Home Sweet Home" is shown here as his life if intercut with several groups of people who each seem to be effected in a different way by the title song. This shifting group of protagonists make things a little hard to follow. The length of this film unfortunately makes it hard for us to really care for any of the particular characters. In all honesty this is not one of Griffith's best works, and its historical significance is negligible. Gish commented that the film was the first "all-star" picture, but in reality the cast was pretty much the Griffith regulars. As one of Griffith's more contemporary films this allows to carry on most of already well established themes. Few characters seem completely bad, and everyone seems to be redeemable. The ending is a little silly, but is one of the few moments of fantasy in a Griffith film I can recall. That said, Gish commented that she can't watch the ending with a straight face, oh well.


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