A Traveling Man

D.W. Griffith: An American Life

by Richard Schickel
Simon and Schuster, 672 pp., $24.95

D. W. Griffith
D. W. Griffith; drawing by David Levine

In 1929 D.W. Griffith predicted that people would come to laugh at silent films, to wonder at their weirdly antiquated looks. He was right, of course. It is easy to smile at the broad, pantomimed gestures of Griffith’s own works, at the helpless, foolish title cards. “After tea and noodles,” one card says in Broken Blossoms as we watch Richard Barthelmess, all humble and slant-eyed as the Yellow Man, trot down the street. Another card has Lillian Gish asking, “Why are you so good to me, Chinky?” Yet Griffith can almost always disperse those smiles, reclaim even later audiences with touches of softness or cruelty or unnerving suspense. A few years ago I saw Way Down East amid a giggling crowd in a New York movie theater. As Gish got herself stranded on an ice floe heading straight for a vast waterfall, everyone fell silent. And when her rescue was effected at what seemed to be later than the last possible minute, the previously scornful person behind me muttered “Christ Almighty” in audible relief.

Griffith is often thought to be the inventor of the cinema in a technical sense, the man who, with his cameraman Billy Bitzer, brought us close-ups, fade-outs, stills, long shots, back lighting, cross-cutting, the use of the iris, tinting, the first truly mobile camera. Griffith himself, in his tumbledown final years, took this view. “It was as if he despaired,” Richard Schickel writes, “of trying to explain his claim on history to those who did not remember”; he thought therefore that the technical credit was the most intelligible, least disputable. There is also an element here of the “American life” of Schickel’s subtitle. Early and late Griffith was ready to welcome new technologies, talkies, radio, television, yet he remained morally and intellectually a man of the nineteenth-century theater, and a prisoner of his own romanticized past.

Griffith’s achievement in the cinema, as Schickel says, is not a list of innovations but his coherent application of them as they came along, establishing a mode of storytelling that became so thoroughly accepted that it is often thought of as merely natural, like the grammar of a language we speak but don’t think about. He is, Schickel argues, “the man with whom begins the history of film as a self-conscious art.” He is also, less forbiddingly, the man who made the movies amply work, who found the varieties of power in them, their myriad ways of making people say “Christ Almighty.”

The power was part of the problem. Birth of a Nation, on its appearance in 1915, was greeted with awe and rapture, as if the medium had discovered its Ninth Symphony, which in a way it had. Even some of those most disturbed by the film’s ugly and undeniable racism, its portrayal, among other things, of the Ku Klux Klan as a team of saintly crusaders redeeming…

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