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A Traveling Man

D.W. Griffith: An American Life

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

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 the South from shame, as Thomas Dixon put it in the novel Griffith worked from, were moved by the sweep of the spectacle, and the tact and precision of its presentation of ordinary life invaded by war and ruin. Many of the details that had seemed silly or pointless to people on the set turned to magic on the screen. When the Little Colonel comes home to the battered South, for example, his walk up to his house is so slow and so long that it seemed endless to watchers at the shooting, and an assistant cameraman has recalled his worry that the film in the camera would run out before the fellow arrived at his door. In the finished movie, this walk carries much of the weight of the war and a crowd of reflections on it. Theatrical as he was in many respects, Griffith understood that the cinema is not at all like the theater at such moments. In a theater you project, and your audience listens and looks at you; in a film you think and feel, and the camera finds you and reads you.

Only the NAACP seems to have seen at the time how much damage such an instrument could do in the hands of a man who knew it so well. Everyone else was too busy counting his money and saying he could see no racism in it (as indeed, sadly, most people couldn’t), or taking the high line, as Griffith did, about purity of motive, the disinterestedness of art, the freedom of speech.

There is a dilemma. Can we afford to let this sort of power loose all over the land, employed in any old nauseous cause? Do we really want to muzzle the movies in the name of virtue, even goodly political virtue? Woodrow Wilson is supposed to have said of the film, which was shown at the White House, thereby inaugurating a special relationship between Hollywood and the presidency, that it was “like writing history with Lightning.” The question is, whose history? Schickel takes a sensible, revisionist line about the alleged horrors of Reconstruction, but he is perhaps too sane to understand what virulent prejudice is about and how it lives. Not that I understand it either: I just see its waving tentacles, and its obvious independence of reason and fact. Griffith, it seems, grasped very little of this. He was not a bigot, like Dixon; he was a southerner who didn’t see what was wrong with the old dispensation. He also, like many directors since, saw movies very simply and very narrowly in relation to other movies.

We had had all sorts of runs-of-the-rescue in pictures and horse operas. The old United States Cavalry would gallop to the rescue—East, one week; West, the next…. Now I could see a chance to do this ride-to-the-rescue on a grand scale. Instead of saving one poor little Nell of the Plains, this ride would be to save a nation.

Schickel argues ingeniously that color was in any case something like an allegory or a displacement for Griffith, that his recurring story was about the violation of women by men, and that blackness therefore was a moral category, an exacerbation of appetite and difference, “a convenient visual aid in symbolizing the ugliest and most rapacious of male impulses, but not perhaps to be taken personally by blacks.” This line of thought is not quite so shaky or so specious as it looks—Schickel is trying to understand Griffith, not to rationalize his vices—but it doesn’t address the lure of racism, which includes just this sort of sexual allegory among its weapons and appeal. Schickel himself, nudged by some tiny demon sent to pester equivocators, goes on to speak of the “darkest” recesses of Griffith’s being.

David Wark Griffith was born in 1875, in Kentucky, not far from Louisville. His father, “Roaring Jake,” had fought in the Mexican War, found a fortune in the gold rush and gambled it away, and bravely battled for the Confederacy, rising to the rank of colonel, or perhaps brigadier general. The family was poor both before and after Jake’s death, and young David worked in a dry-goods store in Louisville before going on the stage. He was in touring companies for eleven years, and knew some hard and only times, on the Bowery and on the road. He played Lincoln, Rupert of Hentzau, Athos in The Three Musketeers, many other parts. In 1908 he applied to the Edison Studio in New York for a writing job—he had written poetry and plays, and nursed great literary ambitions—but was taken on as an actor and assigned the lead in a short called Rescued from the Eagle’s Nest. After this one job, he moved to Biograph—the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, to give it its full name—where within a brief time he was given a chance to direct, and was soon delivering two films a week, and changing everyone’s idea of what a movie might be. He left Biograph in 1913, having made hundreds of shorts, a few two-reelers, and one four-reeler (Judith of Bethulia), but nothing as immense as Birth of a Nation, which was a success from which Griffith perhaps never recovered.

The brilliant, grandiose, messy, shallow Intolerance, of 1916, didn’t go down well with the general public, but Griffith kept experimenting, elaborating all the while that single tale of enclosure and sexual bullying—locked rooms, states of siege, brutal fathers, callous seducers—which was to become his mark. In Griffith’s films the villains of Victorian melodrama cease to be abstract expressions of evil and everything that threatens innocence, and become much more complex and interesting figures, akin to the monsters in Racine and Sade. Not because they are acted or directed in a particularly convincing way, but because their rioting desires are made known to us through their objects: those badgered, vulnerable, irresistible little girls played by Lillian Gish, Blanche Sweet, Mae Marsh. Even virtuous desire would surely be a threat to these creatures.

Or would it? Isn’t this just a man’s fear of mauling his own idealization? Is desire ever virtuous, come to that? What is the difference between the good guy and the bad guy when both are drooling? Perhaps the bad guy, in these reaches of fiction, is merely the good guy watching himself drool. Griffith knew all about this sexual schizophrenia in his life. He was fond of brothels, and of fragile-looking teenagers, a little older than nymphets, a little younger than worldly ladies. The miracle is that he should have got it all so tenderly on film, that he should have displayed these intricacies with such an air of simplicity.

His major films after Intolerance are no doubt Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924). As Schickel says, many of the Biograph films hold up remarkably well—“Nowhere is his art less debatable than it is in these films.” In his later years his art was not debated, merely mourned or forgotten. Virtuous cries were raised about Hollywood’s scandalous neglect of Griffith—even his special Academy Award in 1936 was politically provoked, an attempt to drag in an old ghost to stave off a planned boycott—but reviewers panned each new film remorselessly. His last work, The Struggle (1931), was said to be “shiftless and pitiably stupid,” and “the crudest talking picture that has yet been manufactured.” Griffith drank a great deal, and seems at one point, Schickel remarks, to have wandered into the plot of A Star is Born, being rescued by his second wife from a Beverly Hills jail after a particularly paralyzing binge. He fell out with his friends, hid away in his Hollywood hotel, railed against the world that was forgetting him. He died in 1948.

There is an aura of myth about such a life, and of course Griffith himself had a large hand in producing it. He had “habits of hokum,” Schickel says, “he was both secretive and mythomaniac.” This makes Schickel’s book a curious affair in one respect, not as much of a revision of our sense of Griffith as it perhaps set out to be. Griffith can’t be revised because he can’t be reached. Certainly Schickel has a clear and persuasive view of his subject, of his greatness and his failings: an aloof, solemn, diligent man, not given to self-examination, taking refuge in booze when he couldn’t take refuge in furious hard work. “He was, underneath his courtly manner, an emotional cannibal.” And Schickel is unfailingly lucid and informative about the financing of film after film and company after company. This is an aspect of film history that used to be beneath scholars or not available to them, and it is good to see it in the light, and set straight.

But Griffith’s cultivated remoteness, his perpetual rearrangements of his life in the telling, leave us finally in a realm full of fiction and guesses. Schickel is too wise to go in for much mind reading. He is not a biographer of the he-must-have-felt or the we-can-only-surmise schools. What he does find himself saying is, “It is impossible to determine…,” “There is no clue…,” “It is by no means certain…,” and occasionally, “It would be fascinating to know….” Griffith recedes from us as he receded from his contemporaries. Perhaps this is as it should be. Griffith was, as Lillian Gish says, “at home only in hotel lobbies and movie stages,” a traveling man, on tour in the world.

But what about the myth? Does the cinema, like revolution, devour its children? As one star is born, must another necessarily flicker disreputably out? The sensible answer is no. “Like the rest of us,” Schickel says, “D. W. Griffith was the principal author of his own misery.” Myths are not sensible, however. They thrive on other diets. I think we sometimes need to believe not only that the cost of success is unbearable, but that the cost of success in the movies is especially high and horrid. Partly it is a matter of the suddenness of fame and fortune in the cinema, and of the unimaginable sums of money involved. Someone has to pay for that: Partly it has to do with the manipulation of appearances on film, and a superstitious feeling that this black art has to be found out and chastised sooner or later.

Mainly, I think, this belief concerns the peculiar engagement of the movies with time. Nothing dates faster than a movie, and not everyone can get up gracefully onto the shelf, or even see that the shelf is there. “He lived too long,” James Agee said of Griffith, “and that is one of few things that are sadder than dying too soon.” This is sentimentally put, but it matches the myth, and returns us, perhaps, to Schickel’s subtitle. Do Americans believe, more than others, in the ripening of time, in the arrival and passage of the opportune moment? Again, the sensible answer no doubt is that some do and some don’t, but the mythological answer—a hesitant yes—is not to be discounted, for it implies an eloquent but rather desolate view of history, quite contrary to much utopian American thinking. It was an idea whose time had come, we say in cliché (and Schickel says of the nickelodeon). What happens when its time has gone, the chance lost, or taken and outlived? Americans, from Henry James and T.S. Eliot to Scott Fitzgerald and Susan Sontag, are specialists of the missed moment, and Griffith in his life fought out his own version of the Civil War. The birth of a nation was the death of an old, satisfying dream, and Griffith clung nobly, if perversely, to the dream’s master images.

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