Posts tagged ‘D. W. Griffith’
Ripped from the headlines! Based on a true story!
Oftentimes the story on which a film is based derives from real life events. Inspiration from actual historic or contemporaneous incidents is not a new phenomenon in the cinema. Read more
These notes accompany the Great Depression program on November 10, 11, and 12 in Theater 3.
What goes around comes around. I first wrote about King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread in October 1972 (as part MoMA’s massive Vidor retrospective), exactly 38 years after film’s release. Now, another 38 years later, another economic crisis is upon us, and I essentially agree with my earlier assessment of the film. It is still naïve, simplistic, and awkward, but it remains extremely lovely in its innocence. Read more
D. W. Griffith (1874–1948) came to the end of his professional road in 1931. It is now time both to bury and praise him.
He remained an enigma to the end. His final feature, The Struggle (1931), was a passionate plea against alcohol made by a committed, unredeemable, and self-destructive drunk, and if Abraham Lincoln (1930) was intended as some sort of apologia for The Birth of a Nation (1915), the director seems to have missed the point of the outrage he inspired. Read more
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. Read more
These notes accompany the program And Yet More Competition: Walsh and Tourneur on December 16, 17, and 18 in Theater 3.
The career of Raoul Walsh (1887–1980) represents the flip side of that of Mickey Neilan (see last week’s post). Both were rakish protégés of D. W. Griffith, but Walsh found the self-discipline and instinctive artfulness to manage a fifty-year directorial career. Although he worked in all genres, Regeneration speaks to his special facility with “gangster” films and the tragic destinies of their heroes. Some of his best films, including The Roaring Twenties (1939), High Sierra (1941), and White Heat (1949), fall into this category. Happy endings were not requisite, but he could still wax lyrical over the massacre of Custer in They Died with Their Boots On (1941). His auteurist personality was not always universally appealing. He occasionally had a penchant for sophomoric humor, as in his sequels to What Price Glory (his fine 1926 film adaptation of Laurence Stallings’s Broadway hit), which continued to pair Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe. Although not so important as John Ford or Howard Hawks, Walsh has an honored place in the history of Westerns. In Old Arizona (1928) is the first talkie shot largely on location, and The Big Trail (1930) is spectacularly inventive in its use of an experimental widescreen process. He worked productively with virtually everyone, from Humphrey Bogart to Mae West, and he discovered—and named—John Wayne. Walsh was an archetypal example of a studio director (Fox in the 1920s, Warner Brothers later) who accepted divergent assignments and managed to mold them into personal statements. Hollywood filmmaking would have been much poorer without him. Read more
These notes accompany the screening of More Competition: Neilan and Vidor on December 9, 10, and 11 in Theater 3.
Marshall “Mickey” Neilan (1891–1958) was an archetypal example of a squandered talent, managing to cling to a twenty-plus-year directorial career before finally giving in to the allures of alcohol. (Many of the great directors suffered from this problem, but only John Ford seemed to control it by generally restricting his benders to between-film breaks.) Blanche Sweet, who had the “honor” of being married to Neilan, and whom he directed in The Sporting Venus (1925), told me a horror story about coming home to her brand new house and finding Mickey, John Barrymore, and other pals competing to see who could spit the most tobacco onto the ceiling. The “boy wonder” was essentially unemployable for the last twenty years of his life. Read more
These notes accompany the screening of D. W. Griffith’s Competitors: Ince and DeMille on December 2, 3, and 4 in Theater 3.
By the early 1910s there was a general awareness among film people that D. W. Griffith had brought something new to the medium and broadened the playing field. Rather than be intimidated, many ambitious young men who aspired to be directors followed Griffith’s lead—but also set out on their own path toward success. Thomas Ince (1882–1924) was one of the least intimidated. He shared Griffith’s experience as a not-very-successful stage actor who accidentally stumbled into the medium from which he would make his fortune. Unlike Griffith, however, Ince was highly organized and had a strong business sense. Twice he constructed his own studio, and he gradually fudged the lines between directing and producing, although he seems to have been highly adept at both. The early French film critic Louis Delluc made the distinction succinctly: “Griffith is cinema’s first director. Ince is its first prophet.” Read more
The humdrum life of a film archivist can occasionally be ameliorated by privileged moments. One of these was related to Intolerance (1916). Joseph Henabery (1888–1976) played Abraham Lincoln in The Birth of a Nation and had a small part in the French story of Intolerance. In 1916, under D. W. Griffith’s tutelage, he began a career as a director. Unlike some Griffith protégés (John Ford, Erich von Stroheim, Raoul Walsh), he never rose above the status of journeyman, although he did get to work with Douglas Fairbanks, Dorothy Gish, and Rudolph Valentino; he wound up making training films for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Due to happy accident, Henabery’s real legacy lay elsewhere. When Griffith set out to recreate Babylon for Intolerance, he took a leaf from the book of Giovanni Pastrone, director of Cabiria (1914), doing serious research to ensure the authenticity of his recreation. Henabery was assigned to gather together photos and drawings of Babylonian buildings and art and compile them in a scrapbook for Griffith’s use. When Griffith’s papers were acquired by the museum by Iris Barry, the scrapbook was included. Henabery visited the Museum shortly before his death, and my colleagues and I had the pleasure of looking through his work of nearly sixty years earlier with him. The Babylonian set and the introductory crane shot that Griffith and cinematographer “Billy” Bitzer devised remain stunning. The movies had offered nothing like it before, and seldom had since. Read more
These notes accompany the screening of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation on November 18 and 19 in Theater 3, and on November 20 in Theater 2.
I have been struggling with The Birth of a Nation for nearly a half-century, since I first saw it as a teenager. On the one hand, it reaches the highest artistic plateau film had attained in its time, and it is probably, on balance, the most influential movie, in terms of technique, ever. On the other hand, it reeks of the conjugal evils of slavery and lethal white supremacy. How does one reconcile D. W. Griffith’s Leonardo-like genius with his sleazy acceptance of a worldview that is so shameful and repulsive? Can the excuses of slightly tempering the racism of Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman in his adaptation or of a nostalgic Confederate-soaked childhood be fully acceptable? How tolerable was this “blind spot”—as Atticus Finch termed racism in To Kill a Mockingbird—when it condoned the nineteenth-century Ku Klux Klan and helped start a new one in the twentieth century? And, does the film still matter as a social document? I would like to try to approach answers to these questions by begging your indulgence and recounting my personal journey (or journeys) as it relates to the film. Much of this will lie outside the scope of standard film history and criticism, but this is no ordinary film. Read more