Silent Guest Stars: Herr William M. Drew und Rich Wagner
Herr William M. Drew wrote:
As someone who usually appreciates Ferdinand von Galitzien's generally well-informed comments on the silent cinema, I wish to register a strong objection to his dismissal of D. W. Griffith and his films as being "conventional," "conservative" and "dated" and apparently only of value for their cinematic techniques, not their inherent artistry. This opinion of his is, alas, far from original and has been at the heart of the persistent revisionist misinterpretation of the director's work. Much of this, needless to say, is based on a never- ending obsession (in the United States, at least) with "The Birth of a Nation" and the notion that every one of the films Griffith made in his 23 years of directing should somehow be seen as reflecting the same point of view as those parts in the Civil War-Reconstruction film which have caused such controversy.
However, the fact is that Griffith was a complex artist who, were he subjected to a more sophisticated analysis than is usually the case, would be receiving much greater critical appreciation from those who profess to be devoted to film art. Unfortunately, many analysts don't really look at the films with fresh eyes, merely bringing to each work their stereotypical view of Griffth as "conventional," "conservative" and "dated," or viewing every one of his films through the prism of that part of Thomas Dixon's narrative, "The Clansman," that was incorporated into "The Birth of a Nation." Neither have these analysts undertaken a thorough examination of the impact of Griffith's films in his own time beyond discussions of specific technical innovations and the controversy over "The Birth" in the USA.
I can assure Mr. von Galitzien, however, that those who actually did hold conventional and conservative opinions were often fiercely critical of Griffith's work at the time, seeing it as an attack on everything they held dear. For example, "Broken Blossoms" stirred up a hornet's nest of debate in the United States on its original release in 1919, receiving much criticism by some for the alleged brutality and sordidness of its subject matter. In particular, there were apparently a number of people with racist sentiments who resented the film's sympathetic treatment of a Chinese character and his culture and religion which are contrasted with the cruelty and intolerance of the West.
One outraged individual who had spent time as a missionary in Asia wrote "The New York Tribune" on July 6, 1919 to protest what he viewed as a "slur" on Christian missionaries in the East. He complained: "The whole wretched tragedy of that picture is designed evidently to convey the impression that the ancient civilization and religion of China are much better and finer and stronger than the Christian civilization and religion of the Occident. Deliberately Mr. Griffith has contrasted an ideal Chinese poet with a brutal degenerate of the London slums; has shown that the Chinese are tender and gentle with little children, while the London prizefighter is just the reverse. The fallacy of this presentation lies in the fact that while one such isolated, single case might be true, it is plain that Mr. Griffith would have us believe that it is typical--this unfair contrast between two races." Continuing on with his fundamentalist bigotry, the outraged letter-writer charged the "religion of Buddha" as having left 400,000,000 Chinese "the most backward
Obviously, analysts like Mr. von Galitzien who have been so quick to write off D. W. Griffith are unaware of this forgotten history surrounding the reception of his films. This ignorance extends not only to those who condemned his films but many of those who admired his films as well. The radical social critic, Floyd Dell, for example, praised "Intolerance" upon its 1916 release in the Socialist newspaper, "The Masses," calling it the expression of "a mind which loves life and beauty and joy, and is moved to rage and pity by the deliberate malice with which, in all ages, life and beauty and love is destroyed."
Perhaps even more significantly in 1916, the leading African-American newspaper on the West Coast, "The California Eagle," in a review of "Intolerance" praised the film, saying that not only did it demonstrate its director's "wonderfully inventive mind" among contemporary filmmakers but that it also "clearly shows that D. W. Griffith stands out above them all as the greatest humanitarian of the age." The reviewer observed: "As a race we believe that 'Intolerance' will do much to abate the prejudicial feeling created by 'The Clansman'" (under which title "The Birth of a Nation" had been shown in California).
There are many equally laudatory comments on Griffith's films as they were shown around the world that I could also include here but for reasons of space have not. Indeed, in many respects it's been my impression that, if anything, Griffith in later decades has been more widely appreciated abroad than at home which is why I find Mr. von Galitizien's comments particularly disconcerting. Perhaps he has never experienced any of Griffith's films with an appreciative audience as I did some years back at a screening of "Way Down East." The indictment of sexism in that film, the denunciation of a male- dominated society penalizing women for failings that are excused or even justified in men, elicited tremendous applause and loud cheers from the audience. So much again for the nonsense that Griffith's films are "conventional," "conservative" and "dated."
Of course, it's possible that Mr. von Galitzien is living in some Utopia where the kinds of evils that Griffith denounced no longer exist and are of purely historical interest. Based, though, on what I read in the papers, there isn't a country in the world, including even those in enlightened Europe, that does not continue to suffer to one degree or another from the kinds of ills powerfully depicted by Griffith in so many of his films.
In conclusion and while reaffirming that I appreciate most of Ferdinand von Galitzien's posts on the silent cinema, I am afraid his observations on Griffith are suffused with the same kind of intellectual laziness that has led others to repeat as holy writ equally hoary myths like John Gilbert having a high-pitched voice and Marion Davies being a Susan Alexander. For that reason, I felt it incumbent on me to dispute yet another manifestation of ignorance about Griffith that has surfaced on this board.
And Herr Rich Wagner added:
Yes, it is definitely true; all of his major work is "paternalistic, combining religion and conservative values." That is the very nature of what is called a morality play. It was his stated intention to try and make the World a better place. If it seems dated, one must remember when it was made.
All of his films are "fictional," but that does not prevent them from having a real purpose. Griffith never hid his purpose, but clearly stated it in every major film. "Hearts of the World" is no different!
Great Britain may have hoped to have Griffith inspire America's involvement in WWI, but it's clear from this introduction that Griffith hated war, and clearly saw the futility of it.
For those who have taken the time to learn the true story of America's history, they should clearly see that his "Birth of a Nation" also fits the common theme of all his films. That theme is, 'Man's inhumanity to man.' Our true history is far more offensive than what was depicted in the film. Be it racial intolerance, war, inequality of the sexes, the conflict of religions (where each views the other as heathen), the social double standards, where women are expected to remain chaste, while men are expected to sow their wild oats, the idea that one can abuse another for their pleasure because of wealth, or that a father can have an affair, but demands that his daughter does not. These are the themes of Griffith's paternalistic films. How could this be too complicated to understand when they are so clearly stated?.
Griffith's "dated approach" all carried that same theme without apology; a sincere effort to make the world a better place. His films were all fiction, but his intentions were not.
With fondest wishes to both Herr Graf and William Drew, who have each helped me immeasurably over the years.
PS: Two things were not mentioned in Herr Graf's review. Griffith framed several scenes through armored plating resulting in a letterbox style.
Finally...the horrific image in the film of what appears to be a man who had been blown apart. Judging by the image and the dead man's expression, he apparently was conscious long enough to reach down with his hand where his body once was.
That image was the real image of War and the horror that soldiers are still facing today. It cause many to gasp when the film was first shown and should still today. I will remember that image long after I forget many of the details of the story.
Herr Graf Ferdinand Von Galitzien replied:
First of all, this Herr Graf would like to say that he appreciated very much the comments and replies of Herr William M. Drew and Herr Rich Wagner to this Herr Von silent review about Herr Griffith’s “Hearts Of The World”. They are very enlightened point of views that this German count would like to make more precise for the sake and enrichment of Herr Griffith silent oeuvre.
As this Herr Graf said in his previous post, this German count highly appreciates-- it would be useless and even pretentious to consider them not in that way -- many of Herr Griffith’s silent films. They are wonderful masterpieces of silent film history. As an example recently this Herr Von emphasized “Isn’t Life Wonderful”, as a superb masterpiece that deserves more attention and to be claimed as one of Herr Griffith’s best pictures. The problem with other minor films of him is the particular film narrative sources that, always granting the artistic and visual style of the Amerikan director, is the background or the surroundings of the film is in question, which do not always fit in some of his films.
In “Hearts Of The World”, a contemporary silent film, the first part of the film is one that suffered those mannerisms that this German Graf doesn’t like at all. If we keep in mind that we are watching a “modern” picture that depicts the horror of WWI, that atmosphere of pretentiousness regarding the live of the two Amerikan families in a French town seems dated even for a “modern” 1918 silent film. They even appear disconnected for Herr Griffith’s artistic purposes; in perspective, it seems two different parts of the film are at odds with one another.
The Herr Griffith film narrative sources in “The Birth Of A Nation”, “Intolerance” and much more in “Way Down East” works and fits for the artistic Herr Griffith film purposes, not to mention the film story of those pictures which rely on such peculiar Herr Griffith style. However, to transfer those caricaturized aspects, that sometimes are somewhat reminiscent of XIX newspaper serials to “Heart Of The World” is an absurdity. What’s achieved is that the first part of the film is more “fictional that fiction itself” and unreal insists this German count, for a contemporary film. But these flaws, when finally Herr Griffith puts them aside, give action and emotion to “Hearts Of The World”.
So, the major problem of “Heart Of The World” it is their simplistic characters in the film context and not any social conflicts depicted by Herr Griffith in many of his great films that you mentioned and that this Herr Von likes very much and shares. Because when this German count watches any Herr Griffith silent film never having in mind any of those unfortunately revisionist controversies (well-known about some Herr Griffith famous silent films), that raises a question that doesn’t generally appeal to this Herr Graf overall because they don’t prevent enjoyment to Herr Von of those specific films. As it was pointed out before, in the context of those films those particular subjects questioned by modern revisionists, weaves into the atmosphere and artistry of those oeuvres, political incorrect nowadays, certainly, but honestly, this Herr Von never paid attention, although knowing those controversies for years, if finally they are successful and in agreement always for the sake of the artistic purposes of the director.
So, forgetting those revisionist controversies that Herr Drew mentioned and that this Herr Graf never cares for and especially the epithet of “dated” that you don’t like at all, Herr Graf is referring specially to the first part of the film. In other words when those peculiar and special artistic licences of the Amerikan director that in other films of him works pretty well but not, in this Herr Graf opinion, this time as an introduction in a contemporary film that depicts WWI. That’s not to ignore , of course, those areas of the film depicting the horrors of war, which this German count knows and appreciates ( this Herr Von after all, lives in Deutschland, not Utopia… ) and Herr Griffith’s mastery during those sequences. That’s because those objectionable mannerisms in that part of the film were put aside by the Amerikan director.
And finally Herr Rich Wagner said:
I believe that I've misunderstood Herr Graf's use of the word 'dated' and I'd like to amend slightly my recent comments made to Herr Graf's original post.
After reading my reply and his original posting again, I've learned from my own words to better understand, and now agree with the statement above. Even when words are clearly written, they can be misleading if you're unsure of what is intended.
He's actually correct to say that Griffith's films seemed dated (out of fashion even when released), when compared to the much more realistic and mature films being made in Europe at the same time. I didn't think so at the time, but after reading my response, it's now clear to me. The reason simply is that Griffith's films can resemble the collected sermons of a minister, whose been preaching on the Seven Deadly Sins. My original response captured that fact when I highlighted the themes of so many of Griffith's major films.
From my recent comment. “Yes, it is definitely true; all of his major work is "paternalistic, combining religion and conservative values. That is the very nature of what is called a morality play. It was his stated intention to try and make the World a better place. Be it racial intolerance, war, inequality of the sexes, the conflict of religions (where each views the other as heathen), the social double standards, where women are expected to remain chaste, while men are expected to sow their wild oats, the idea that one can abuse another for their pleasure because of wealth, or that a father can have an affair, but demands that his daughter does not. These are the themes of Griffith's paternalistic films. How could this be too complicated to understand when they are so clearly stated?”.
That final question haunted me until I realized that perhaps this was exactly what Herr Graf had meant by dated, but I had misunderstood.
Unlike his contemporaries, Griffith's morality plays all carried a common theme without apology. His was a sincere effort to make the world a better place. When viewing his work along side the many other films from Europe, they certainly do seem "dated" in the way that I believe Herr Graf had intended by his comment. I believe it's a view I now share, along with his great respect for D. W. Griffith's entire work including "The Birth of a Nation."
Unlike William Drew, I never thought Herr Graf's comments were anything revisionist, but simply an honest appraisal of Griffith's work.
I've learned much from this exchange.
Published in “alt.movies.silent”.