These notes accompany the D. W. Griffith Leaves Biograph program, which screens on November 4, 5, and 6 in Theater 3 as part of the two-year An Auteurist History of Film exhibition.
1915 marked the publication of poet Vachel Lindsay’s The Art of the Moving Picture, the first serious attempt in English to come to grips with the medium that had outgrown penny arcades and nickelodeons and was now threatening to appear in venues that would rival cathedrals. In the preceding year, as extraordinary European films like Benjamin Christensen’s The Mysterious X (released as Sealed Orders in the U.S.) and Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria were arriving on American shores, D. W. Griffith had been tearing at the seams of his constraining Biograph contract. As with so many early commentaries on the movies, Lindsay struggled to find the language that would do justice to his thoughts. (One thinks of a young Eugene O’Neill groping for words, or of Griffith himself, trying to articulate something previously undefined and unrecognized.) In fact, in his enthusiasm for film, indicative of the heady atmosphere of the times, Lindsay waxed positively Biblical, informing filmmakers:
“All of you who are taking the work as a sacred trust, I bid you God-speed…. You will be God’s thoroughbreds…. It has come then, this new weapon of men, and the face of the whole earth changes. In after centuries its beginning will be indeed remembered. It has come, this new weapon of men, and by faith and a study of the signs we proclaim that it will go on and on in immemorial wonder.”
Meanwhile Griffith (God’s thoroughbred du jour), himself a true believer, had one more Biograph film to make, and he wanted to make it special. But more on that in a moment.
I was privileged to have known the star of both of this week’s films, Blanche Sweet (1896–1986). Blanche was feisty and opinionated. She claimed to have frightened Cecil B. DeMille (and probably Griffith, too); she delighted in telling how wonderful it was to live through the 1906 San Francisco earthquake; she knew what it was like to work as a shop girl after her career mostly ended in 1930; and she was politically progressive, unlike her successor in Griffith’s affections, Lillian Gish. Vachel Lindsay was an admirer, composing a poem after seeing the Biograph short Oil and Water: “Solemn are her motions/Stately are her wiles/Filling oafs with wisdom/Saving souls with smiles.” (I’m not convinced he measured up to the claims of my high school English teacher). In later life, Blanche worked with the Department of Film on the restoration of her movies, including the silent version of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, which the playwright greatly admired. She was set to do the talkie remake, but Greta Garbo got the part instead. (Blanche also made a point of taking me to Liv Ullman’s Broadway performance, which she greatly admired.) When she died, her dear friend Martin Sopocy arranged for the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens to cultivate the Blanche Sweet lilac. Her ashes were secretively sprinkled over it in the gardens, and her lilacs bloom there every spring.
Griffith’s final film for Biograph, Judith of Bethulia, was an adventure for all involved, since Griffith’s company of actors and technicians (nearly all of whom would follow him when he left Biograph) had never made a film nearly as long or spectacular. Griffith assured Blanche, then seventeen, that her great (but short) co-star Henry B. Walthall would “measure up” as General Holofernes. “Don’t worry,” Griffith said, “Wally will play him tall.” Walthall’s performance lives up to this promise—at least, until Blanche decapitates him. The story is from the Apocrypha, but Griffith would soon move on to more authentic Biblical sources in Home Sweet Home and Intolerance—the latter being the film for which Judith could be seen as a rehearsal. Judith of Bethulia was lavish by Griffith’s previous standards, but it still paled in comparison with the Italian imports—with the exception of the restrained intensity of the performances.
The Avenging Conscience reflects Griffith’s reverence for Edgar Allen Poe, and literature in general. (One of his first shorts was an adaptation of Poe’s “The Raven.”) Pretentious enough to earn the support of Lindsay and others who argued for film’s acceptance as “Art,” Griffith’s fourth independent production—and the immediate predecessor to The Birth of a Nation—earned the director bragging rights for anticipating the psychological leanings of German Expressionism, which became all the rage five years later. Griffith and cameraman Billy Bitzer pulled out all the technical stops at their command, as though beefing up for the larger challenges ahead. In the context of Griffith’s career as the quintessential romantic naturalist, The Avenging Conscience remains a commendable oddity.
Once again, a reminder that the series To Save and Project will be showing some important films that will not be shown in An Auteurist History of Film: The Phantom Chariot (November 7), Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages (November 8 and 13). In addition, the series Nuts and Bolts: Man Made Machine in Films from the Collection includes Metropolis (November 4) and The Golem (November 8).