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30 May 2017

Women Take Center Stage: D.W. Griffith's Resolute Heroines

Way Down East and Scarlet Days
One of the greatest things about pioneering director D. W. Griffith is his ability to let it all hang out. He didn’t censor himself, even when he probably should have. Part of his genius (possibly of anybody’s genius) lay in his confidence in his artistic judgment, which gave him the freedom to create a new visual vocabulary for a new art form. He didn’t see himself as an innovator; he just wanted to tell a story as effectively as possible. But he somehow knew what people would instinctively understand, what the rhythms of camera movement from close-up to long shot, from scene to scene, would convey without words, And he knew how effective his actors’ slightest expression, or their stillness, would be to audiences. This applies to one of his masterpieces, Way Down East, and what might be called an anti-masterpiece, Scarlet Days. All of his conceptual strengths and weaknesses are on display in each film.

Needless to say, probably, Griffith had other serious failings — the son of an impoverished, disabled Confederate Civil War veteran, mainly home-schooled and half-educated, he was undoubtedly a racist. But racial issues arise in very few of his films; it is just everyone’s misfortune that one of  his major works, Birth of a Nation, is fatally marred by crude and ignorant stereotypes.
Griffith was essentially a failed actor when he began directing in about 1908. His efforts in the theater weren’t successful, but taught him a great deal about meaningful drama. He tried motion picture acting, such as it was in those early years, but became fascinated by the actual process of making films, and soon determined that he could direct at least as well as anybody else he had seen.

He was certainly right about that. His very first film — which was twelve minutes long, the maximum possible at that time — was instantly recognized by his employers, the Biograph Company, as being superior work. He began shooting two movies a week, a one-reeler at six minutes and a two-reeler at twelve minutes long. By his third film he had begun his innovations with a “point-of-view” shot. Griffith knew audiences would understand it, and they did. Dissatisfied with the standard painted canvas and cardboard sets used in most films, he took to shooting his stories outdoors whenever possible — something else nobody had tried before.

Soon Griffith became the first star director, whose name actually went above the title, won praise from critics, and brought in audiences. By 1919 he could pretty much do anything he wanted. But his friends and colleagues were aghast when he decided to make a film of Way Down East, a 20 year play which was considered creaky and melodramatic even when it was new. Their most charitable conclusion was that he had lost his mind. Lillian Gish said that she could hardly keep from laughing when she read the script. Griffith paid no attention to these doubters; he knew what he wanted, and he knew how to get it.

Unfortunately, despite his position as father of narrative film, certain habits of Griffith’s tend to put modern viewers off, which is a shame because even his worst films have scenes of insight and beauty. First, there are his flowery, over-written titles; nothing, apparently, could dissuade Mr. Griffith from writing the titles himself, and unless confined to a simple statement of fact, they are almost uniformly terrible. Contemporary reviews frequently mention this, but Griffith paid no attention. The second major problem is his fondness for antiquated “yokel” humor, which probably wasn’t funny then, and certainly isn’t funny now, when we barely comprehend the stereotypes presented. But these passages do perform their real function of relieving the tension of the drama; the tension is dissipated in irritation, not laughs, but it is dissipated.

Lillian Gish is the innocent Anna
Shorn of its humorous interludes, Way Down East is the simple though melodramatic story of Anna (Lillian Gish), an innocent girl who goes to visit wealthy relatives in the city and is “ruined” by a wealthy cad, Sanderson (Lowell Sherman) by whom she bears a child out of wedlock. The cad deserts her, her mother dies, her baby dies. Desperate and alone, she doggedly seeks whatever work she can find, and is taken on by the kindly Bartlett family, consisting of Squire Bartlett, Mrs. Bartlett, and their grown son David (Richard Barthelmess). The Bartletts own a large and successful farm, and Anna is hired to help Mrs. Bartlett with the household chores.

Life on the farm is shown as the ideal — this is the natural, normal, healthy life people should live, with hard work, good, simple food, and the society of people whose lives were equally rigorous and uncomplicated. The decadence and lax morals of such city dwellers as Sanderson seem far away.

Anna loses everything

Soon the family happily welcomes a visit from the Squire’s niece, Kate (Mary Hay); the Squire has always wanted Kate and David to marry. But she has two other suitors, one of them a clumsy but endearing professor (Creighton Hale), and, to Anna’s horror the other is Sanderson, the man who wronged her. They avoid each other, and neither one says anything to the Bartletts.

Anna has blossomed in the warmth of the kindness of the family, particularly Mrs. Bartlett (Gish does look absolutely lovely). And, not unnaturally, David
David proposes marriage
falls in love with her. But when, as they sit on the riverbank in the springtime, with peaceful natural beauty all around them, he tells her of his feelings, although she loves him, too, she insists that he never mention it again.

A few months pass. Inevitably, Anna’s secret is revealed, and the Squire, sterner and more rigid than his wife, turns her out of the house — despite the growing blizzard. Before she goes, Anna denounces the Sanderson before the whole family, to everyone’s consternation and amazement, and flees into the howling storm.
Gish as Anna on a real ice floe

Anna, blinded by the icy wind, staggers towards the river, which is largely frozen over. Weak with despair and cold, she collapses on the ice. The seemingly solid ice cracks and Anna is swept down the freezing river. Meanwhile, David, defying his father, follows after Anna and catches up with her just in time to see her peril. Despite the danger, he clambers over the ice floes and seizes the unconscious Anna just before she is swept over nearby falls. This sequence is incredibly exciting, and movie audiences were known to cry out warnings and encouragement. The editing is brilliant; in reality it is a mix of footage shot in a real storm during real winter combined with staged elements, but you really can’t tell unless you look at it frame by frame. Gish and Barthelmess really did risk frostbite and injury for the sake of their art — both said it never occurred to them to question Griffith, whatever he asked of them.

David carries Anna to a nearby sugaring shack (used to make maple syrup in the fall), where there is a stove, and sits anxiously beside her for hours waiting for her to regain consciousness. As dawn comes, you see him murmuring, “Wake up, Anna.” Then she awakens.

"Wake up, Anna."
This is one of the most powerful love scenes in film; for a long moment they simply gaze into each other’s eyes and then, knowing that he has no doubts about her, she melts into his arms. The storm has ended and soon the whole family arrives, and David rises and places himself sternly between Anna and his father. But the Squire has come to apologize, and everything ends happily.  Even Sanderson offers to marry Anna, but she turns her face away from him.

The last scene is an idyllic triple wedding; Kate and her semi-comical professor, two of the yokel characters, and, of course, Anna and David. The final shot is of David with his arms around his mother and his new bride, as she is welcomed into the family.

Scarlet Days (1919) could hardly be more different. In fact, to me it’s an example of an artist’s art outrunning his conscious thought. He probably intended to make an adventure featuring his new discovery, Richard Barthelmess, as a dashing and colorful Mexican bandit, Alvarez. Barthelmess is terrific, and made quite a splash in this role (coming as it did right after his role in Broken Blossoms) And such a story would make sense; because, generally, Griffith’s ideas about women were definitely of the 19th century; “purity” and virtue were unquestioned ideals, and maidens were supposed to wait around to be rescued.

Richard Barthelmess as Alvarez the bandit
So theoretically, adventure was out. But despite that, as it turns out, the real protagonist of Scarlet Days — and this is not the impression you get from the advertisements or the posters — is not the handsome adventurer, or a lovely and virtuous young woman, but a middle-aged semi-prostitute called Rosy Nell (Eugenie Besserer), whose life has been anything but pure.

Scarlet Days is nothing like any other Western. Set in the rough and tumble California gold fields, it presents a wholly unsentimental and unromantic view of the makeshift town that has grown up around this particular cluster of mines. It is largely inhabited by men without women, some of them honest — like the young Virginian, John Randolph, played by Ralph Forbes, who works hard for a living — and some of them the dregs of society, rootless, amoral and greedy. What passes for a town has no social order, no doctor, no churches, schools, or banks; there is one over-worked sheriff (George Fawcett) and one large, ramshackle saloon, which is the only gathering point for the prospectors when they need some respite from their backbreaking work. Their surroundings are bleak, dirty, and barely civilized.
Rosy Nell

The saloon, owned by a shady, black-hatted gambler, King Bagley (Walter Long) provides the miners with booze, entertainment of a sort, and the opportunity to loose all their hard earned money gambling. It is staffed by dance-hall “girls” — not glamor girls like Ann Sheridan and Miriam Hopkins, as in later, more conventional westerns, but women who have reached rock bottom. Dressed in skimpy, worn finery, they coax the patrons to drink and gamble — and, it’s pretty clear, provide more intimate services for cash. Rosy Nell is one of these women — and not one of the younger ones, either.

The amazing thing is that Griffith makes no apology for Nell. She is never viewed with contempt or condemnation, but with compassion. It turns out that Nell does have a romantic secret — she has a young daughter, who has been raised by a relative in the East.

Nell's Daughter (Carol Dempster)
Now, as the story begins, the beautiful young girl has been left alone by the death of her aunt, and she discovers her mother’s whereabouts. Having no idea of Nell’s circumstances — how could she? A girl brought up as she was would have no knowledge of such a life — she decides to travel west to find her mother. And she writes to Nell to tell her she’s coming.

Meanwhile, we do indeed meet the handsome and extremely dashing young Mexican bandit, Alvarez, played by the gorgeous 24-year-old Richard Barthelmess, with a snazzy black goatee and mustache. Griffith’s camera lingers lovingly over this vision, but in reality Alvarez’ story is pretty secondary — he is loved by, but oblivious to, one of the wild young tomboy girls that were so popular in the 1920s, Chiquita (Clarine Seymour). Alvarez amuses himself by robbing the saloon and evading the Marshal. But the plot doesn’t really get moving until Nell’s daughter’s letter arrives.

Unfortunately for Nell, her life gets even worse, if such a thing is possible. Because during a fight she has accidentally caused the death of another one of the dance hall women, who happened to have a weak heart. And she was Bagley' mistress; he vows revenge.
Alvarez makes Bagley give Nell a break

But not yet. When they realize Nell's daughter has come to see her, Alvarez, Randolph, and the Sheriff decide to convince everyone — bar girls, miners, even the thugs working for Bagley — to allow Nell three days to welcome her daughter in the guise of a respectable lady.

Now, many people will notice that this is the plot of Damon Runyon’s story Madame La Gimp, eventually filmed by Frank Capra as Lady for a Day in 1933 and then as Pocketful of Miracles in 1961. The interesting thing is that Runyon’s story was not published until 1929; I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Runyon saw this movie and then  forgot about it. But Griffith was the originator; he himself wrote this story, under one of his pseudonyms (though the titles are atrocious, as usual).

The good guys meet Nell's daughter

When Nell’s daughter arrives, unknown to herself she is provided with an honor guard of the three good guys -- Alvarez, Randolph, and the Sheriff -- at all times to protect her from molestation from the rough townsmen. They escort her to Randolph’s house, where she waits for Nell to come. Then she meets her mother for the first time. Griffith's camera lingers on this scene, which is more dramatic than anything else in the movie. It’s worth sitting through the other vagaries of this film to see it. I don’t know where the idea came from, but in Griffith’s hands it is quite overpowering.

Nell holds her daughter for the first time in 16 years

Eugenie Besserer, an experienced character actress, gives a flawless, courageous performance as a woman who has fallen just about as far as a woman can (you will definitely not recognize her in her most famous role — as Al Jolson’s loving mother in The Jazz Singer!). Her half frightened, half incredulous embrace of her innocent young daughter is beautiful.

Griffith shows the reactions of the tough miners and Alvarez, all so moved that they look away.

Alvarez watches the reunion

Naturally, more trouble is coming; the evil Bagley develops a creepy obsession with the daughter (we never do find out her name), and the good guys, Randolph and Alvarez, eventually have to protect her from him by hiding out in one of the mines, which leads to a shoot out and, incidentally, the revelation of her mother’s degradation.

The problem with Scarlet Days is that, unlike Way Down East, the plot is not supported by the extraneous stories, but confused and undercut by them. The sheriff’s pursuit of Alvarez, and Alvarez' relationship with Chiquita, don’t really have any bearing on the far more compelling story of Rosy Nell. There’s a good deal of unfocused galloping around, but it sort of peters out. Though he wanted to make a real he-man western adventure, I think Griffith’s imagination simply wasn’t caught by the action-packed part of the story as it was by the mother and daughter drama, and he gave his best effort to portraying that rather than the shootouts and fights of the men. His absolutely stark portrayal of what Nell’s life is like as an aging prostitute is certainly not what you expect from a western.

Alvarez says farewell to Chiquita
Another plot innovation, I believe, is that when all is said and done, the sheriff, having arrested Alvarez, sees his farewell to the heartbroken Chiquita, and lets the bandit escape, pretending that he got away by himself. (This is what happens in the last scenes of John Ford's Stagecoach, twenty years later.)

Although this film is frequently scorned today as Griffith’s weakest effort, it was quite successful when it came out, and got generally good reviews, with particular praise for the actors. When Way Down East was released the next year it was a smash hit, despite everyone’s initial misgivings about the project. To me, they are both examples of Griffith’s amazing artistry; indeed, he was the inventor of so much of film’s  vocabulary that it’s impossible to imagine what it would have been like without him. Every movie we see tells its story using visual language that he created. 

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