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D.W. Griffith Cinema DVD Set: 'Abraham Lincoln,' 'Way Down East'

Griffith Masterworks 2

It may not have been terribly original of Kino to include in their 2005 Griffith Masterworks boxed set the only four D.W. Griffith features that most people could name (let alone claim to have seen), but it would have been downright perverse to pass over The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, and Orphans of the Storm (the fifth and sixth discs were made up of several Biograph shorts).

Way Down East by D.W. GriffithWith their second set, Griffith Masterworks 2, released this month, Kino has selected some genuine curiosities; each of the five films on offer here has novelty value in addition to being the work of cinema's first genius.

Way Down East (1920), the first film in the set, is probably the only one with any kind of reputation. It fits in quite well, both stylistically and thematically, with the aforementioned films of the first set. Anna (Lillian Gish), a pure-hearted girl from the countryside, visits some relatives in Boston. In short order, she finds herself seduced by a wealthy cad, who stages a sham marriage and then, after the wedding night, ditches her. She bears his child, and then retreats to an unfamiliar village in order to start her life over.

Way Down East was adapted from a popular play, and Griffith seems to have taken this into account in his version. The staging owes much more to the conventions of theater than to his earlier films, with wide shots predominating and actors spread all over the frame. Even so, the film feels almost novelistic in scope; while Anna's story provides a sturdy spine for the plot, Griffith mixes in several secondary (and even tertiary) characters, generously giving each actor a memorable scene or two. This, along with the lovely pastoral locations, works to paint an authentic picture of the virtuous, rural, Protestant world that was already beginning to disappear by the 1920s, one that Griffith had obvious affection for (even as he understood its limits – hence Anna's need to keep her past a secret).

The whole thing is topped off with a mad chase over a river clogged with ice floes, probably the most famous Griffith sequence not in The Birth of a Nation or Intolerance. Way Down East is well deserving of a spot in the classic Griffith canon, and deserves the second life it will no doubt find on this release.

D.W. Griffith: Father of FilmThe second disc in the set features a three-hour, three-part BBC documentary on Griffith's life and work, D.W. Griffith: Father of Film. The doc itself was directed by the great chronicler of silent cinema, Kevin Brownlow, and is very good, illustrating Griffith's visual style with carefully-chosen clips. However, there is little here that couldn't be discovered in a trip to the library or in Brownlow's own books and although it might be a good introduction for the uninitiated, the uninitiated are unlikely to delve into a 5-DVD box of silent epics in the first place. While this is a worthy example of film scholarship, I would have preferred another movie.

Disc number three features The Avenging Conscience (1914), which may be more interesting than good, but it sure is interesting. This was released a year before The Birth of a Nation, and it foreshadows that film's ambition, if not nearly as much of its formal skill. The Avenging Conscience claims to be based on Edgar Allan Poe's poem 'Annabel Lee,' but it is actually a very loose adaptation of 'The Tell-Tale Heart': a young lawyer murders his tyrannical uncle, stashing the body in his office. Later, during the investigation, he is troubled by spooky religious visions, as well as the ghost of his victim.

The Avenging Conscience is notable mainly for the primitive (yet fun) special effects and the slightly shabby rehearsal of some of the stylistic innovations that would mark Griffith's later masterpieces. It's also an intriguing relic of a time when cinema was making its first attempts at respectability; Griffith here indulges his fondness for literary pretension and highbrow symbolism in a way that, to put it kindly, hasn't aged terribly well.

The last twenty minutes or so are one howler after another, giving us first the cliched (even by then) Griffith-standoff ending, the climax of which reveals that the entire preceding film was the protagonist's dream. From there we follow our two young lovers into the woods, where they dedicate their love to the fauns, nymphs, and satyrs of the forest; these creatures then put in an appearance!  Whatever else he was, Griffith was never boring, and seeing his imagination outpace his abilities like this is more fun than most subsequent directors' best work.

Walter Huston in Abraham Lincoln
Walter Huston in Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln by D.W. GriffithThe most anticipated (by me anyway) part of this set is the twofer disc of Abraham Lincoln and The Struggle. Long overshadowed by Griffith's earlier work, these have the distinction of being his final two films (from 1930 and 1931, respectively), and his only attempts at talkies. By this point, Griffith's career had been in decline for several years, as newer and, frankly, greater talents eclipsed his trailblazing innovations of a decade earlier. These two films were his last shots at securing a place in the emerging film industry.

For the son of a Confederate soldier, Griffith was surprisingly fond of the great emancipator, and his Lincoln biopic is an occasionally moving, sometimes uneven, but ultimately delightful puff piece. As expected, Griffith and screenwriter Stephen Vincent Benet tell you pretty much everything you already knew about Lincoln, from his aw-shucks origins to his bouts of wartime depression to his premature end (though, in a nice touch, they do give more attention than usual to Mary Todd's legendary crabbiness).

Many of the shortcomings of early sound films are on display here, such as tortured line readings and long, awkward stretches of silence – it's clear that Griffith didn't have much more of an idea what to do with the new technology than many others at this point. His style hadn't evolved much from the old days, but there are nifty details reminiscent of his late-1910s films (e.g., a hand hovering over Lincoln's shoulder as he signs the order to go to war; an echo of an earlier shot of his Kentucky cabin after the scene at Ford's Theater). The whole thing is anchored by a strong lead performance by Walter Huston, who strikes the balance of melancholy, affability, and solemnity that future cinematic Lincolns would aspire to. Abraham Lincoln is not quite a patch on Young Mr. Lincoln, but it's certainly more than just a historical curiosity.

Hal Skelly in The Struggle

The Struggle, on the other hand, may be the least of all Griffith features and seems at first to be definitive proof that his sensibilities were simply ill-suited to the new world of sound. Not for no reason is Griffith often associated with grandiose, overblown melodrama, and while that may not be a terrible disadvantage in silent cinema (or for something with the historical heft of Abraham Lincoln), it almost completely fails when applied to the realistic socially conscious drama that The Struggle wants to be.

Griffith pulls out all the stops to tell the story of Jimmie (Hal Skelly), a working-class man who brings ruin on his young family and himself through drunkenness. The moralizing tone here is somewhat at odds with the general cynicism toward social reformers found in Griffith's earlier work (most obviously in Intolerance), and the whole thing has the unfortunate whiff of an Afterschool Special.

But I will say this for The Struggle: Griffith obviously felt very deeply about the effects of alcoholism on society in general and the family in particular. He tackles the subject without irony or ambiguity, unafraid to rub the audience's collective face in the ugliness of dipsomania. Near the end, Jimmie has been reduced to an unshaven, muttering tramp, begging on the street for booze money. He retires to a filthy hovel, yelling nonsense syllables and waving his arms at (unseen) drink-induced hallucinations. I refuse to believe that this wasn't greeted with derisive laughter by contemporary viewers, but I must admit that, watching this scene by myself in the middle of the night while (as it happens) nursing a drink, it was brutishly effective and a little scary.

The Struggle is notable in other ways as well, especially (and ironically) in its use of sound. Though musty and overwrought in almost every other way, it demonstrates significant sonic progress over Abraham Lincoln. Griffith's technicians try to give street scenes aural depth, and there's even some not-entirely-unsuccessful attempts to pull certain sounds out of a chattering crowd. Most striking is a scene late in the film: while his children listen to a pro-temperance radio program in another building, Jimmie stumbles around his apartment in an alcoholic stupor; Griffith, typically, cuts back and forth between these two locations, but extends this famous technique by bleeding the voice of the radio program over both locales, allowing it to act as both diagetic and non-diagetic sound. It's quite a scene, in addition to being a glimpse of what Griffith might have been capable of had he continued to make films in the new era. But audiences stayed away, and The Struggle remained his last completed project.

W.C. Fields, Carol Dempster in Sally of the Sawdust
W.C. Fields, Carol Dempster in Sally of the Sawdust

Sally of the Sawdust by D.W. GriffithThe final disc of the set contains Sally of the Sawdust (1925), a rare comedy feature starring Griffith protegee Carol Dempster and W.C. Fields. The Sally of the title (played by Dempster) performs in the circus with her “pop,” Professor McGargle (Fields). Little does she know that McGargle came to be her guardian through an unlikely set of circumstances, and is not in fact her real father. As Sally nears adulthood, McGargle decides to bring her to her old hometown so that she might know the truth about her family; wacky hijinks ensue.

Sally of the Sawdust is a fine second-tier Griffith film, thanks mostly to the two leads. W.C. Fields displays gifts for physical comedy that were held somewhat in check in the later films for which he's known today. Since he first came to fame as a vaudeville comedian and juggler, it's good to finally get a look at him in a setting that's similar to where he spent most of his career. (Those who are strictly fans of the later, misanthropic Fields will however be relieved to know that he at least gets to kick a dog in this film.) And while Carol Dempster is the Griffith stock player that most cinephiles love to hate, she's excellent here, skillfully anchoring the film's blend of comedy and sentiment; she even gets the best gag in the film, involving a pair of stolen bread rolls.

Fields and Dempster more or less save the whole enterprise for, while Sally of the Sawdust is enjoyable enough on its own terms, it's clear that Griffith wasn't a natural comedy director. Few of the gags arise organically from the story, occurring more or less at random throughout the film. Furthermore, Griffith isn't able to resist his melodramatic impulses, resulting in a film that feels slightly schizophrenic – although the melodramatic parts are quite good, e.g., a very well done midpoint scene where Sally meets her grandmother.

The year that Sally of the Sawdust was released also saw the debuts of Seven Chances, The Freshman, and The Gold Rush, so I can't help but wonder if Sally didn't feel a bit dated even on its release. Still, it's a worthy addition to the set, and a fine way to end your Griffith binge.

Richard Barthelmess, Lillian Gish in Way Down East

Several extras pepper these discs:

Way Down East gets the regal treatment here. Mounds of material about the original play – vintage programs, photos, press clippings and so forth – are included, as is the “souvenir program book” that the first viewers of the film received. A clever essay on the compilation of the musical score show an interesting perspective on the use of film music, and a comparison between the climactic scene on the river and a similar sequence from an older Edison production of Uncle Tom's Cabin tops off the package.

Henry B. Walthall in The Avenging ConscienceThe Avenging Conscience disc, in a nice bit of thematic unity, also features Griffith's previous take on Poe, the 1909 Edgar Allen Poe (sic) Biograph short. As with Way Down East, insightful notes on the musical score are present here as well.

The Abraham Lincoln / The Struggle disc features the official press book for Abraham Lincoln (which is well worth a look for the hilarious, PT-Barnum-esque suggestions for theater owners looking to drum up more business) and a fascinating interview with Griffith (by Walter Huston!) that was used as an introduction for one of the Birth of a Nation rereleases.

Sally of the Sawdust contains only two extras, but they're great: the original theatrical trailer from 1925, and a filmed introduction from Orson Welles (from the early 1970s), in which he shares some little-known gossip about W.C. Fields.

The video quality, on the whole, is very good, certainly better than the crummy public-domain versions that have been littering retail outlets for years. The sound on the Abraham Lincoln / The Struggle disc is good as well, though, given that the source material for both films were primitively-recorded mono tracks, I certainly wouldn't expect demonstration-quality audio. Though none of these films can quite stand up to those on Kino's previous set, any Griffith that is still salvageable today is mandatory viewing.

© Dan Erdman

Photos: Courtesy Kino International

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