These notes accompany the program D. W. Griffith on a Smaller Canvas, which screens on January 6, 7, and 8 in Theater 3.
Although D. W. Griffith’s racism was unforgivable, nothing can ever take away the fact that he was the most gifted and creative director in the cinema’s first thirty years. In John McWhorter’s December 14, 2009 New Yorker review of Pops, Terry Teachout’s biography of Louis Armstrong, McWhorter says Armstrong’s early 78-rpm recordings “were as crucial in creating our modern musical sensibility as D. W. Griffith’s films were in creating the grammar of cinematic narrative.” McWhorter goes on to say of Armstrong that, “While performers around him assimilated his innovations, he never really grew.” One might also argue that this was true of Griffith, and not simply because he lost his independence for the final decade of his career due to his inept business sense and changing public tastes. However, his greatest gift never really failed him—his skill with actors.
Broken Blossoms is Griffith’s great and somber tragedy, his Limehouse Romeo and Juliet. Thomas Burke’s brief original story, “The Chink and the Child,” is told primarily from the point of view of the Yellow Man (played in the film by Richard Barthelmess), whom Griffith romanticizes. The director and Lillian Gish fleshed out Lucy’s fragile waif with myriad human touches, and the resulting child-goddess is an exquisite creation, shattering all barriers in our minds between artifice and reality. As Burke puts it, “She was a poem.” We believe in Lucy—and in Broken Blossoms—simply because they exist before our eyes. It is all the more extraordinary that so little in Griffith’s previous career (or in anyone else’s) had laid the groundwork for such soulful poetry. Broken Blossoms stands alone as a work of lyric genius in which technique is virtually invisible.
Both Barthelmess and Gish bring to their roles a sensitivity commensurate with the style and subject of the film. The excesses of Donald Crisp’s brutishness lend even more grace to their portrayals. Lucy is such a forlorn creature that she must manipulate her mouth with her fingers to force a smile. The poetic intertitles, largely borrowed from Burke’s text, do not approach the eloquence of her disbelief and twittering delight at the boy’s kindness. Because the scope of the film is so narrow, with only three main characters, there is ample time for nuances of far greater subtlety than in her previous roles.
The film’s pace is leisurely, and the midsection has no plot other than the study of two of the most gifted faces the cinema has given us—and their study of one another. This cloistered love interlude is destroyed horribly, of course, but only after we have had the privilege of seeing how expressively two people alone in a small space can communicate without a single word. It is the essence of the silent art, which is seldom expressed more gloriously than it is in Broken Blossoms.
In 1919 Griffith also released a trilogy of small films that, taken as a piece, provide a celluloid record of the imprint his Kentucky childhood left on his soul. These three works are built around a Gish characterization that is richly unsophisticated and ornately simple. Never was she more endearing or more sublimely suited to her roles.
In A Romance of Happy Valley, True Heart Susie, and The Greatest Question, Gish’s little girl manages to be more worldly and wise than Bobby Harron’s young man by adhering to the old-fashioned values in which Griffith believed—but which conflicted with his actual ambition and lifestyle. To be in Hollywood and to be the most honored master of the most popular artform in human history was not in harmony with the idealization of life back on the farm. These films signify Griffith’s gnawing realization that he would never be truly comfortable amongst the city slickers who kept the accounts and who gradually came to own slices of his soul. The rural romances represent a yearning after the lost illusions of his youth; they were the secret stories he told himself in the privileged moments of the night. They are art of a different kind from his epics, more personal testaments to what might have been.
Lillian’s acting in these films depends more on gesture than facial expression, and there is a tender delicacy to her scenes with Harron that is both fragile and poetic. Coy kisses mask the ferocity of patient commitment. Humor conceals vulnerability, and love is a lifetime statement that precludes all else. Because it is uncontaminated by plot complexities, True Heart Susie is the best film of the trio. It is a lyrical ode to simplicity and plainness, and it is Lillian’s magical gift that her least plain of female faces can persuade us out of our senses. Like all screen magic, it is both inimitable and ultimately indescribable. I can only suggest that part of the secret may lie in her ability to play the character simultaneously tongue-in-cheek and with supreme naturalistic preciseness—something akin to what Marlene Dietrich later achieved for Josef von Sternberg, but with a vastly different kind of woman. Susie allows Lillian to be both comedienne and tragedienne, incorporating both skills into one of the sweetest and most moving performances ever committed to film.
I would be remiss not to mention the recent death of the British/Canadian critic Robin Wood. Robin was an early hero of all knowledgeable auteurists (myself included), and a sometime friend. His 1965 book Hitchcock’s Films remains possibly the most readable and erudite study of any director’s work. After his almost equally brilliant book on Howard Hawks, Robin’s work became more diffuse, as he became increasingly political and the movies became less interesting. I remember an intoxicating—and intoxicated—discussion in my tiny apartment around 1971, when Robin and Andrew Sarris rearranged my personal pantheon of directors, which I had posted on my walls, mounted on shirt cardboards. I felt duly honored.