It’s easy to be hard on D.W. Griffith, and not just because of the taint he left on American movies with his sickeningly racist epic, The Birth of Nation; his “Father of Film” label, ceaselessly promulgated by his best leading lady and closest collaborator, Lillian Gish, is as tarnished by now as an old barnstorming theater awaiting demolition. Griffith’s treatment of war and sex is just as problematic as his inherent race prejudices, but the man knew how to capture a bucolic country scene on film, and even if his bossy title cards keep telling you what to feel and think, following the measured grace of his images can still be edifying. Griffith inaugurates a certain strain in American film, the Problem Director, a moviemaker whose ideas can never keep pace with their visual inventiveness, so that they often get all fouled up and confused.
Kino has put out a second box set of Griffith films to go with their essential first set, which included many of his Biograph shorts, Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, and Orphans of the Storm. Missing from this sequence of Griffith films was Way Down East, which is the best known of the movies included in the second set, a full-blooded melodrama that serves as a monument to the enduring art and deep-dyed masochism of Lillian Gish. My first video copy of Way Down East lasted around 80 minutes, but this copy is the restored two-and-a-half-hour version with lots of comic subplots. Even with all this extra footage, there are still scenes missing (title cards alert us to what we should be seeing) and poor Lillian seems to spend forever out on her ice floes for the wow finish. It still works as a drama and a spectacle, but the film is frankly unimaginable without Gish’s artistic intelligence guiding the way.
The Avenging Conscience is a curiosity from 1914, an Edgar Allan Poe mélange that proves that surreal creepiness was not Griffith’s forte. He clearly has no enthusiasm at all for Sally of the Sawdust, a static W.C Fields vehicle that seems to go on for an eternity (as the romantic lead, a young Alfred Lunt makes a rare film appearance, but he’s ghostly and uncertain). The most surprising film in the set is Griffith’s first talkie, Abraham Lincoln, which I had seen and disliked a few years ago, in a poor print. This restored print from the Museum of Modern Art definitely won me over, and it brings out the full luster in the director’s held-in-amber, lyric compositions while adding several scenes that enrich the drama, such as a raw moment when Walter Huston’s Lincoln despairingly stretches out over Ann Rutledge’s grave (these new scenes are missing their soundtrack, unfortunately, but Griffith doesn’t really need sound, of course). Included on the Lincoln disc is Griffith’s next and last film, The Struggle, a story about alcoholism. It’s a very different sort of movie: Griffith seems to be trying for an anti-aesthetic kind of drabness, and there’s an awkwardness in the staging that must be partially deliberate. It doesn’t entirely work, but The Struggle shows us why we need to keep struggling with Griffith, for American film really does begin with him, for better and for worse.
Kudos all around, especially for the Abraham Lincoln restoration, though I would have preferred more extravagant music for the climax of Way Down East.
A raggedy Griffith short on Edgar Allan Poe from 1909, a pressbook and notes on the genesis of Way Down East, a rambling Orson Welles intro for Sally of the Sawdust, and that strange interview featurette between Griffith and Walter Huston made for a reissue of Birth of a Nation. There's also a superlative Kevin Brownlow/David Gill documentary about Griffith that really gives you the big picture on his life and career in extensive interviews and commentary. There's a telling bit of newsreel footage in this documentary where an obviously bitter Griffith tries to club Bette Davis over the head with her 1935 Oscar; she just stares at him and smokes her cigarette, the new sweeping away the old with a calm, bitchy smile.
There's some filler here, but the restored Abraham Lincoln is impressive, and everyone should have a copy of Way Down East.