In the history of film, David Wark Griffith looms large. And that is mostly because of his uber-racist yet extremely important THE BIRTH OF A NATION. Legendary in a way no other movie from 1915 and its era is, Griffith’s white supremacist epic is justly and simultaneously criticized and recognized for its artistic and commercial influence. But the story of D.W. Griffith goes beyond THE BIRTH OF A NATION. From 1908 to 1931, he made 518 films. Most of those were shorts from an era much different from the post-BIRTH OF A NATION movie world, and indeed, Griffith’s films changed a lot over the course of his 23-year career. In spite of great success, his commercial viability waned quickly and dramatically in the 1920s, and together with alcoholism, this sent Griffith into a relatively early retirement at age 56. He died 17 years later, in 1948, at age 73.
At the time of his death, Griffith wasn’t fully celebrated, as his sway in Hollywood had abated long ago. And I don’t know how much he should be, quite honestly. The man behind some of the most important movies of all time and some of the best movies of their day is not someone to look up to, I think. If there is admiration to be found in him, it’s only to take stock of his accomplishments in moviemaking, even before and after THE BIRTH OF A NATION. Those accomplishments will be explored in greater (much, much greater) detail below, but suffice to say, every modern filmmaker owes quite a lot to Griffith. He was, if not the inventor of many techniques, the popular synthesizer who established the template that informed the Hollywood style, which set the precedent for much of world cinema as well.
As far as I’ve been able to track down, 135 of Griffith’s 518 movies are easily accessible online and elsewhere (many are straight up lost), and believe it or not, I’ve ranked all of those 135. That full list can be found on Mubi, but to avoid writing a full novel (I guess I’ve come kind of close with this very lengthy piece, which you may want to read in installments), I’ve ranked “only” the top 50 below, as an acknowledgement and criticism of D.W. Griffith’s incredible directorial skill and impact.
The apparently simple task of ranking items by enjoyment is complicated by the actual content and form of Griffith’s individual films and his legacy as a whole. Many “problematic” elements run through them, even besides THE BIRTH OF A NATION, and the movies included here are not always fully recommended as morally justifiable products or even necessarily always dramatically compelling pictures. We’re talking top 50 D.W. Griffith films here, many of which were made in a time and mode that is even more foreign than the primal paradigm created by THE BIRTH OF A NATION. So there’s room for some mediocrity elevated by just one reason or two. But hey, the guy did make some good movies.
#50 — THOSE AWFUL HATS (1909)
We begin with a film Griffith made only one year into his directing career, although THOSE AWFUL HATS was about his 62nd movie. At this time, the American film industry was still based in New Jersey and New York and entirely on shorts. The first feature film in the world was made only three years prior (Australia’s THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG ), and features wouldn’t successfully emerge in Europe and America until the early 1910s. THOSE AWFUL HATS ran just under three minutes, and came after a slew of motion pictures that Griffith made in a kind of trial by fire moment. He had entered the nascent film industry as an actor, mostly as an extra, just a year earlier, a concession after acting on stage and attempting to become a playwright. Edwin S. Porter, the most important American film director of his day, gave Griffith an acting job in RESCUED FROM AN EAGLE’S NEST (1908; I’ve written about it here). This was for the Edison Manufacturing Company, but Griffith quickly went over to work for Biograph, which at this time was about to eclipse Edison as the foremost American film studio. There, he met cinematographer Billy Bitzer, who would work with Griffith on his most important movies. It was fortuitous timing, because Griffith was in prime position to take over the director spot “vacated” by Wallace McCutcheon Jr. Jr. was the son of Wallace McCutcheon Sr., who had recently left Edison and a co-director partnership with Porter to become lead (and only) director at Biograph. Jr. was no good as a replacement, and so, Griffith was given the spot, making his first film, THE ADVENTURES OF DOLLIE, in 1908 (ranked #70). He would be the only director for Biograph from June 1908 to December 1909. This is a lot of semi-unrelated background to say that THOSE AWFUL HATS is an amusing enough example (among the earliest, I’d have to imagine) of the “woman with a big hat or hair obstructing the screen or stage” trope. It’s silly, but it’s also remarkable for its “picture-in-picture” effect displaying a movie within the movie. Of course, it was shot by Billy Bitzer (AKA G.W. [for Gottfried Wilhelm] Bitzer), who had worked as a cameraman as early as 1896 (with RIP PASSING OVER THE MOUNTAIN, part of Edison inventor and director William K.L. Dickson’s Rip Van Winkle series). Bitzer amassed an incredible 1,255 cinematography credits (and 14 directorial ones, all according to IMDB) over his 37-year career, ending with HOTEL VARIETY (1933). THOSE AWFUL HATS also starred Mack Sennett, soon to become a founder of Hollywood as know it with the opening of Keystone Studios and in short order a comedy producer titan who gave the likes of Mabel Normand, Harold Lloyd, and of course, Charlie Chaplin their filmic debuts. Got enough info for a blurb about a 112-year-old comedy short that runs 2:40?
#49 — RAMONA (1910)
Although it was made only two years into Griffith’s career, RAMONA was released at a time when the American film industry was significantly changing. Although the association of Hollywood as a “movie colony” would not take effect for a few more years, earlier in 1910, the Griffith-made IN OLD CALIFORNIA was released. It was the first film shot in the then relatively sleepy town. RAMONA, an adaptation of the 1884 novel of the same name by Helen Hunt Jackson, was made in Ventura, California, but for Biograph, which was still based in New York. This literary adaptation was part of a growing trend towards a first wave of “prestige pictures” in America, following the actualities of the earliest years of film and the comedies and fictional novelties to follow them in the 1900s. But of course, Griffith and the rest of the industry were still working with little time, so this “epic” drama ran only 16 minutes. It starred Mary Pickford, who had just entered the film industry one year earlier. She became part of Griffith’s (and by extension Biograph’s) stock company of actors, along with RAMONA co-star Henry B. Walthall, to be the Little Colonel in THE BIRTH OF A NATION. At this time, film actors weren’t credited anywhere, but Pickford was one of the performers at the time who led the charge, intentionally or not, for a “star” system. Although her name was not yet public knowledge, the public adored Pickford, and exhibitors advertised the films in which she performed as starring “The Biograph Girl,” among other nicknames. So RAMONA (along with many other contemporary films, but this is the first example on this list to illustrate this point) represented a shift towards Hollywood as a location, film being taken seriously as a dramatic medium, and the star system. If that weren’t enough, the film is important technically as well. Griffith employed cross-cutting, which is the transition from two distinct scenes to indicate simultaneous action. He was not the inventor of cross-cutting (that distinction may go to James Williamson for FIRE!  or Edwin S. Porter for THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY ), but Griffith was using it in a newer dramatic form with RAMONA. The film, which I should mention is problematic in its redface portrayals of Native Americans (it is subtitled “A Story of the White Man’s Injustice to the Indian”), is relatively progressive for 1910 racial politics. Beyond that, there are some beautiful shots of the California mountains, much more sweeping than, and not stage-bound like, most movies of the time.
#48 — THE LAST DROP OF WATER (1911)
While Griffith’s journey to The Golden State was in part to make RAMONA, it was also to set up a California-based arm of the Biograph Studio. Griffith would go back to the East Coast after making THE LAST DROP OF WATER, but Biograph maintained its presence in Los Angeles until it ended film production in 1916. This Western, however, was one of the most ambitious films Griffith had yet made. THE LAST DROP OF WATER starred Blanche Sweet, Griffith’s new (still uncredited) ingenue after Pickford left for Carl Laemmle’s Independent Moving Pictures Company (IMP), to be absorbed into Universal. It employed many extras (the publicized number of “over 200” may be fluffed), some of which donned redface to portray Native Americans as antagonistic “savages.” But THE LAST DROP OF WATER is notable for its formal elements, not so much its drama or themes. Cross-cutting continued to establish a new American style, and Bitzer’s cinematography captures a few different California environments with an expansive eye.
#47 — BRUTE FORCE (1914)
1914 was the last year Griffith would make more than a few movies a year, and even its ten was a big reduction from 1913’s 45. BRUTE FORCE, which ran just under the conventional feature length of 40 minutes (at 33), was released after JUDITH OF BETHULIA (1914), Griffith’s first feature. BRUTE FORCE was also Griffith’s last short, discounting LILLIAN GISH IN A LIBERTY LOAN APPEAL (1918), a World War I propaganda promotion. Also known as THE PRIMITIVE MAN, BRUTE FORCE is a “prehistoric” picture, a genre that popped up in popularity around this time. Like its contemporaries, BRUTE FORCE opens with a modern framing story, and segues into caveman drama that, of course, brings them into contact with dinosaurs. BRUTE FORCE is actually a sequel to an earlier Griffith film, MAN’S GENESIS (1912; not ranked here), but this one surely benefits from the inclusion of cheesy monster effects. Of note in the cast are Mae Marsh and Robert Herron, soon to star in THE BIRTH OF A NATION, and vague appearances from Harry Carey (an early Western superstar), Elmo Lincoln (the first on-screen Tarzan), and Lionel Barrymore, who would have the longest lasting success of any of them.
#46 — ENOCH ARDEN: PART I (1911)
In a way, Griffith’s adaptation of Tennyson’s poem ENOCH ARDEN (1864) was an early approximation of a feature film. Taken together, the two parts equal about 33 minutes of length. While this was not feature length even by the soon-to-come standard, Griffith’s ENOCH ARDEN project was able to strive for a dramatic richness that was mostly absent from film. The whole thing features some beautiful seaside action, but with this first installment, ENOCH ARDEN: PART I, Griffith sets up the higher drama that came in PART II.
#45 — ENOCH ARDEN: PART II (1911)
In ENOCH ARDEN: PART II, its titular fisherman character gets stranded upon a desert island for ten years. When he is finally able to return home, he finds his wife married to another man; she believed him dead. Enoch Arden never reveals that he has returned, and dies of a “broken heart.” The semi-mythical nature of Tennyson’s poem is given decent life by Griffith, but the two-part ENOCH ARDEN film operates on more studio sets and stages than the above films. But it allows for some relatively moving drama, although this may be a good point to mention that the acting in Griffith’s earliest films may seem even more “primitive” than the performances found in the later silent years. Especially by 1911, film acting wasn’t considered prestigious enough, and in fact it didn’t pay particularly well. I don’t mean to imply that film actors at the time were those that couldn’t “make it” on stage. Rather, I mean to say that film actors were emulating an established stage tradition that became more subtle as time went on.
#44 — EDGAR ALLEN POE (1909)
A good example of this stage-film acting dynamic can actually be illustrated by EDGAR ALLEN POE, released two years before ENOCH ARDEN. Griffith and Biograph screenwriter Frank E. Woods co-wrote a fictionalized episode in the life of its titular literary figure. It starred Herbert Yost, who was an already established stock actor for the stage. Yost took on the name of Barry O’Moore to distinguish his “inferior,” cinematic career from the better reputation of in-person performance. It was kind of pointless, though, because of course no one was being credited for their work on movies yet. I should add, in fact, that Griffith and other behind-the-screen talent weren’t receiving credit yet, of course. They obviously should have gotten it on principle, but EDGAR ALLEN POE in particular would have been good reason. The pantomime of Yost is relatively fluid for its time, and his frenzied attempts to sell “The Raven” for money to save his sick wife is compelling. Additionally, the framing and lighting of the Poes’ room has a pleasing depth of field.
#43 — LENA AND THE GEESE (1912)
A drama of mistaken identity, aristocratic ideals, and ultimately, validation of bucolic settings and ideals, LENA AND THE GOOSE was of a time when Griffith was entering longer run times (in this case, with 24 minutes). The period costuming is convincing and the fish out of water business is entertaining (a “goose girl” is sent to live with a rich family through a series of mixed up events), but honestly I just liked the glimpses of geese. OK, well, I guess the reverse Cinderella structure is also novel.
#42 — THE TELEPHONE GIRL AND THE LADY (1913)
THE TELEPHONE GIRL AND THE LADY is sort of a rehash of an earlier Griffith success, THE LONEDALE OPERATOR. It’s weaker than that film, which I’ll address soon, but the building of suspense based on the new technology of the telephone is intriguing. THE TELEPHONE GIRL AND THE LADY is frantic, which can actually have a distancing effect; it’s hard to feel engaged when things are one-note. But when that note is only 11 minutes long, this can’t be too huge a complaint.
#41 — THE HOUSE OF DARKNESS (1913)
Starring Lionel Barrymore and the soon-to-be famous Lillian Gish, THE HOUSE OF DARKNESS is in the thriller mold that Griffith often employed in the early 1910s. It is set at a mental institution, and while it dangerously depicts its patients as violent criminals, THE HOUSE OF DARKNESS’ significance is in its framing. First, in the framing of the story by starting with a sympathetic eye towards a woman who has just lost her baby. Secondly, in the literal framing of the camera, which captures the “lunatic’s” head peeking out in front of it, and showcases hands playing a piano in close up.
#40 — THE SUNBEAM (1912)
A common theme in many of Griffith’s films is the suffering of the poor, especially women. With THE SUNBEAM, he parlays female suffering into a new beginning and happiness. A young child sits with her dying mother, and wanders out into the hall. A spinster and old bachelor reunite based on the strength of the child’s, eh, I guess innocence, and decide to raise the girl since her mother has died. It is a bit of a strange scenario on paper, and everything moves very quickly in this 15-minute short, but THE SUNBEAM carries the spirit of, in particular, some of the great movies of the Great Depression.
#39 — THE LONEDALE OPERATOR (1911)
THE LONEDALE OPERATOR is one of Griffith’s most important pre-BIRTH OF A NATION movies. Noted for its use of cross-cutting, contextualized by its central conceit and setting of a telegraph office, THE LONEDALE OPERATOR also employed close ups that were certainly not conventional for the time. Its depiction of three separate “timelines,” happening simultaneously, was just another example of Griffith’s development of now ubiquitous techniques. And the effect is not just historical or technical. The very grammar of THE LONEDALE OPERATOR contributes to its sense of suspense, as the owner of a telegraph station attempts to raise help after thieves steal a mine’s payroll. It’s a breezy film, and not just because of its 17-minute runtime.
#38 — THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES (1912)
THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES, in spite of its potentially reductionist title, actually makes for a potent little drama. Four survivors of an abandoned mining town, a miner, his wife and her sister, and another girl, head out across the desert. The tension between the members of this little party is upped by the sudden death of the weak miner, who had made unwelcome advances towards the younger girl. The wife suspects her of welcoming those advances, and so their paranoia simmers as the characters themselves burn in the desert. The heat and dust are palpable as the characters just generally go about things with negative feelings, and a positive resolution actually counters the feelings of jealousy and suspicion that defined the rest of the movie. THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES is a thematic predecessor of many “isolated, sweaty dudes work things out” a la 12 ANGRY MEN (1957), but led by women, and of course in a more primitive narrative form.
#37 — THE BATTLE (1911)
Griffith turned to a Civil War setting a number of times before THE BIRTH OF A NATION (and did again after it, in fact). THE BATTLE is one such example, and even in its relatively small-scale skirmishes, you can see the action orchestration that would contribute to the 1915 feature’s epic sense of scale. The costumes, props, and most importantly, the smoke drifting across the screen are investing tools. Believe it or not, THE BATTLE also follows the Union rather than the Confederacy. Sure, it depicts one of its soldiers as a coward who retreats in a dire moment to see his “girl back at home,” which happens to be right behind the battle. Her anger at his cowardice sends him back to the frontlines, and he takes on an important mission that leads to victory. It’s meant to be rousing drama, and it is in a way, but THE BATTLE’s worth may lie in its technical accomplishments more than its characters.
#36 — THE MENDER OF NETS (1912)
Mary Pickford stars in this love triangle drama that, like a few of the shorts above, also takes place by the sea. The real strength of some of the earlier Griffith work, which has been explored so far, is Griffith and Bitzer’s inclination to shoot wide spaces at real locations. They fused the “world-sharing” approach of actualities with the still budding form of cinematic drama, the latter typically bound to small studio sets. THE MENDER OF NETS is a brief melodrama, but it is affecting due in no small part to its setting. Pickford’s appeal, especially at this point in time, is also evident.
#35 — ROSE O’SALEM TOWN (1910)
ROSE O’SALEM TOWN is a drama set in the midst of the Salem Witch Trials. In it, a good little Puritan girl is accused of witchcraft by her good little Puritan community, and a white adventurer-settler, with the help of his Native American friends (who are of course white actors in redface), save her. ROSE O’SALEM TOWN is interesting for its portrayal of this point in time, which has stood in for modern political commentary for some time. The term “witch hunt” has even been used by people to distract from their own wrongdoing (and Griffith did this, in a way, himself, but I’ll get to that)! But besides its dramatic themes, ROSE O’SALEM TOWN succeeds because of, and I feel like a broken record, its natural landscapes. Griffith and Bitzer film the sea once again (a common thread through these “lower” favorites), but in one special scene, they capture the spray hitting the rocks in such a beautiful way. The usually flat-looking interior sets are still stage-y, but Rose’s prison cell is brilliantly stark. The visual acuity of ROSE O’SALEM TOWN may have a greater impact because of the presentation of high-fidelity restoration of the film by Eye Filmmuseum, which often does a tremendous job in the restoration space.
#34 — ISN’T LIFE WONDERFUL (1924)
I am now able to turn to a different thread in the narrative of D.W. Griffith’s career. ISN’T LIFE WONDERFUL is the first feature on this list so far, and the the first from the 1920s. Often, short films are seen as minor works in the context of even “smaller” features, but in the case of Griffith, he certainly made better, more primitive, and shorter films before ISN’T LIFE WONDERFUL. It doesn’t just skate by on its greater scale. And that was recognized by the moviegoing public, apparently. ISN’T LIFE WONDERFUL marks a sharp downturn in Griffith’s fortunes, after a decent start to the decade. In fact, it led him to leave United Artists, the company he co-founded with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford so they could control their own interests and free themselves from total domination by the conglomerated studios. Griffith’s next film, SALLY OF THE SAWDUST (1925), would be made for Paramount. In any event, ISN’T LIFE WONDERFUL starred Carol Dempster, Griffith’s favorite ingenue after his extensive collaboration with Lillian Gish. Dempster’s character is a Polish orphan living in Germany in the wake of World War I and in the course of the Great Inflation. This feature is ranked “so low,” and in deference to simpler shorts that may at first glance not offer as much, mostly because it’s pretty forgettable. I watched ISN’T LIFE WONDERFUL some time ago, and for the sake of transparency, I did not in fact rewatch every movie included on this list. My impression of ISN’T LIFE WONDERFUL is that its melodrama isn’t given compensating visual brilliance; after mentioning him a lot so far, it’s worth mentioning that Bitzer didn’t shoot this film.
#33 — THE GOLDEN LOUIS (1909)
Anyone who made movies in the first decade of the 1900s made one or a handful or many that emulated Georges Méliès and his féerie films. Many built a whole career on it. Griffith, both as an American and part of the next wave of filmmakers to take things beyond the earliest form of fiction films, didn’t really do so. That is, except for THE GOLDEN LOUIS. Its snow-covered steps and tragic story of a poor girl reminds of Hans Christian Andersen’s THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL (1845) and Méliès’ “adaptation” THE LITTLE MATCH SELLER (1902). The fantastical mise en scène, comprised of costumes and architecture of centuries past, simply isn’t rooted in the rest of the work Griffith had done, was doing, and would do. And for that reason, THE GOLDEN LOUIS is exceptional, but also enjoyable; well, enjoyable in the sense that its brief but saddening story is impactful.
#32 — THE COUNTRY DOCTOR (1909)
Beautiful meadows, tranquil groups of trees, and panning shots: these define THE COUNTRY DOCTOR. The story, however, ultimately isn’t tranquil, as the titular character attempts to help a dying neighbor while his own daughter gets sick and whose condition worsens. The tragic turn of its narrative is set up by the bucolic idealism of its first “act” (the movie is only 15 minutes long), but THE COUNTRY DOCTOR’s appeal is also in its symmetrical return to the wide open spaces and foliage of the film’s earliest moments. It’s needed after the sadness faced by the doctor and his wife. Griffith’s commitment to symbolic, quiet moments preceding and succeeding the primary story of THE COUNTRY DOCTOR is certainly a unique characteristic among his peers in 1909.
#31 — THE IDOL DANCER (1920)
1920 was the last year that Griffith made more than two films. THE IDOL DANCER was one of four from the year, and the worst of the three that survived (REMODELING HER HUSBAND is lost). Griffith was coming off a successful back half of the 1910s, really unparalleled success in both commercial and artistic terms. And although he had some box office hits in these early years of the decade, as mentioned, the ’20s marked a significant decline in Griffith’s films’ quality and moneymaking capabilities. However, THE IDOL DANCER is clearly not one of Griffith’s worst movies overall. It is a “South Seas drama,” a sort of common setting and subgenre in the ’20s. Of course, in dealing with indigenous peoples in such a part of the world, THE IDOL DANCER leaves much to be desired. But its central performances are worth seeing. Richard Barthelmess, star of Griffith’s BROKEN BLOSSOMS in 1919 (and he’s not in yellowface here), charts a satisfying arc as an alcoholic beachcomber who becomes a competent love interest for Clarine Seymour’s French-Javanese woman. THE IDOL DANCER was Seymour’s last film role, as she died just less than a month after it premiered; Griffith was kind of preparing her as the successor to Gish in his now semi-informal stock company of actors. They’re both good and the romance is relatively compelling…but relatively. Among Griffith’s middling pictures, THE IDOL DANCER is typical. His movies by this time had become refined into the “invisible” Hollywood style that the American and global film industries would be based on, but that meant that at times the films themselves became invisible. That is to say, THE IDOL DANCER is kind of forgettable. But in reflecting on its positive qualities, I must return to what I did not expect to be a common thread on this list (at least so far): Bitzer (and Paul H. Allen) shoot the ocean with a good eye. But the problematic presentation of Seymour’s “mixed race” character and the brownface of others is difficult to ignore. THE IDOL DANCER is valuable, however, as an example of the development of not only Griffith’s film grammar, but also the cinematic art form in general.
#30 — A CORNER IN WHEAT (1909)
A CORNER IN WHEAT is one of the most significant movies in Griffith’s pre-BIRTH OF A NATION filmography. First of all, its dramatic themes and commentary reflected a growing sense of political awareness that was being injected into the director’s movies. A CORNER IN WHEAT juxtaposes the plight of the poor waiting in bread lines and the wild parties of a wealthy speculator in the wheat market. The movie is primarily important, however, because of how it juxtaposes those lifestyles. A CORNER IN WHEAT is another early, strong example of crosscutting, developing a central idea by presenting two different sets of images by transitioning back and forth between them. And of course, the human mind somehow generally understands that this is meant to imply that the scenes are happening relatively simultaneously. A CORNER IN WHEAT is also defined, in my mind, by a particularly strong, singular shot, as a farmer and farmhand, followed by a couple of horses, plant seeds. They walk towards the camera, with the stark field, complete with dead trees, stretching into the background. The focus is incredible for 1909, and that applies to many other aspects of A CORNER IN WHEAT as well.
#29 — THE MOTHERING HEART (1913)
THE MOTHERING HEART is the first film on this list to star Lillian Gish, who would become Griffith’s favorite star ingenue after Mary Pickford. Gish was one of the biggest stars of the silent era from the 1910s through a decent part of the 1920s, although it could be argued her peak was across the movies she made with Griffith. But her career did not end there. Gish worked into the 1980s, and died in 1993 at age 99. She had superseded her sister Dorothy, who started acting in films at the same time, but at this time, they were relatively equal in star power (although the star system had not quite emerged). They were both cast in Griffith’s AN UNSEEN ENEMY (1912, #68 on this list), which was also their film debut, but Dorothy would die much earlier than her sister, in 1968; she had her last acting credit in ’63. In any event, the short THE MOTHERING HEART only stars Lillian, who would become lauded as one of the earliest of the finest actresses of the screen, as someone who moved beyond stage training and pantomime to give true cinematic performances. And I think that’s a fair assessment. In retrospect, and this early in her career, you can see glimpses of Lillian Gish’s talent. THE MOTHERING HEART is tragic melodrama, in the elevated form that Griffith cultivated, and Gish helps with the elevation. Her character has a degenerative arc, which happens through no real fault of her own; if there is, it’s only because she felt pressured to humor a man she had no real love for. The story is actually still compelling today, as many women are pressured into relationships they don’t really feel comfortable with and find themselves in a vulnerable position years later. THE MOTHERING HEART has a more reconciliatory tone in regards to the male lead (played by Walter Miller), and its balance of cynicism and idealism is a positive portent of what was to come from the best films of the silent era.
#28 — THE WHITE ROSE (1923)
Even among Griffith’s obscure films of the mid-1920s, THE WHITE ROSE slips through the cracks. It is of a common trend of “fallen women” films of the 1920s and early 1930s especially. But THE WHITE ROSE is also, secondarily, focused on the “fall” of a man, a recent seminary graduate played by Ivor Novello. Mae Marsh is the female lead, although soon-to-be Griffith primary stars Carol Dempster and Neil Hamilton also perform in THE WHITE ROSE. The movie compares the moral degeneracy of the cities and new Roaring ’20s lifestyle with the simple, rural, and religious life, and obviously is in favor of the latter. THE WHITE ROSE, therefore, can feel preachy. But Griffith’s talent, which was applied insidiously at times, was the leveraging of film grammar to foment sympathy. THE WHITE ROSE is still not (obviously) a Griffith great, and uncomfortable blackface comic relief reduces its status even further, but there is value to be found in its central attempt at a humane message.
#27 — HOME, SWEET HOME (1914)
HOME, SWEET HOME was a short feature released in the wake of Griffith’s first feature, JUDITH OF BETHULIA. It is a biopic focused on John Howard Payne, who wrote the 1822 song of the same name. “Home, Sweet Home” was revived in popularity during the Civil War, so of course that connection would bring Griffith’s attention to the story of Payne (who died in 1852, however). The director brings to the songwriter’s story a sensationalized account of his reforming process; as has been illustrated, Griffith was very much interested in redemption. And as I’ve mentioned as well, sometimes that comes off in a cheesy way. That still applies to HOME, SWEET HOME. But for whatever reason, I was attracted to Henry B. Walthall’s performance as Payne. The film, shot by Bitzer, doesn’t have many examples of his characteristic ability to seemingly “widen the frame” (although of course the aspect ratio was always the same) with great shots. But the stagey drama is just fine.
#26 — ONE EXCITING NIGHT (1922)
Among one of Griffith’s overlooked influences is his popularization of the “old dark house” horror-comedy subgenre in film. He did not invent the concept; the stage plays THE BAT (1920) and THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1922), both adapted for film in 1926 and ’27, respectively, did. But on screen, ONE EXCITING NIGHT is one of the earliest examples of the story template that puts distinct character archetypes into one spooky setting and a thrilling mystery. For whatever reason, they’re often not allowed to leave, and everyone’s confusion and paranoia yields many comic moments. The “old dark house” horror-comedies fuse dark, almost Expressionist visuals with the gags you could find in straightforward comedies of the day. The Abbot and Costello monster movie crossovers were clearly inspired by these movies from the 1920s. In any case, ONE EXCITING NIGHT has a wonderfully understated title. An inheritance dispute brings the family of a wealthy man to a mansion, which is, unknown to them, being used as a hideout for a gang of bootleggers. And to make matters worse, an apparent “madman” is stalking the grounds. And then people start turning up dead. Exciting! ONE EXCITING NIGHT employs shadows in a visually stimulating way, although I’m sure they would be more stimulating in a better print than the VHS one that mostly circulates around. The movie is also crippled by its reliance on blackface comic relief, a common trope for early old dark house movies. ONE EXCITING NIGHT has its strengths, but it also exists on Griffith’s problematic spectrum.
#25 — SCARLET DAYS (1919)
According to Wikipedia, SCARLET DAYS is considered one of Griffith’s worst films. But at the time of its release, this Western was well received. A competing view is that SCARLET DAYS is too typical for someone who at the time was considered the best director alive. And yeah, the movie is an example of the Western trend of the late 1910s. But I simply enjoy the adventure and glimpses of desert and scrubland. Bitzer had a chance with SCARLET DAYS to capture wide landscapes, and he did so well.
#24 — THE LOVE FLOWER (1920)
Starring Richard Barthelmess and Carol Dempster, THE LOVE FLOWER was shot simultaneously with THE IDOL DANCER, and also is set (in large part) in the South Seas. THE LOVE FLOWER is more interesting than THE IDOL DANCER, however, because of its inversion of the redemptive arc that Griffith so loved. A man (George MacQuarrie) undeservedly jailed for a crime he didn’t commit does commit a crime when he, after leaving prison, kills the man who was seeing his wife. He escapes with his daughter (Dempster) to a remote island, where she slowly grows to trust a plantation owner (Barthelmess), and they fall in love. The story returns to the defense of the former felon, who had killed the cheater accidentally. THE LOVE FLOWER of course doesn’t end with a dark acknowledgement of men’s nature, so in a way, it still carries Griffith’s favorite return to positivity. THE LOVE FLOWER is also beautiful, with its portrayal of ocean waves and a soft focus on many of the close ups of Dempster. It is more beautiful than THE IDOL DANCER, although THE LOVE FLOWER used much of the same locales. I don’t know what to attribute that to, as both were shot by Bitzer and Allen. Perhaps Bitzer took the lead here more than on THE IDOL DANCER, which is not a full slight against Allen, who I’m not familiar with.
#23 — LADY OF THE PAVEMENTS (1929)
LADY OF THE PAVEMENTS was Griffith’s final silent film, although it would be more accurate to classify it as a “part-talkie.” Initially produced silently, the director shot some musical numbers to bring it apace with the rest of the American film industry in what is considered the first full year of sound. Today, LADY OF THE PAVEMENTS survives in its silent form, and its plot proceeds like many of the decadent romances of the late ’20s. Transitioning between swanky and sleazy in this form, Griffith and cinematographer Karl Struss produce some impressive visuals at a time when the director was considered all washed up. LADY OF THE PAVEMENTS isn’t quite the swan song that could have been made at the end of Griffith’s contribution to the silent film art form, but it’s a surprising, overlooked artifact.
#22 — THE STRUGGLE (1931)
THE STRUGGLE was D.W. Griffith’s final film, and only his second “talkie.” He, and the producers who could have given him money, had reached the end of their rope on taking chances with his movies. Griffith, who did not die until 1948, bounced around the industry for a time. He helped Woody Van Dyke, a former assistant to the legendary figure, shoot a sequence for SAN FRANCISCO (1936). He also connected with producer Hal Roach for OF MICE AND MEN (1939) and ONE MILLION B.C. (1940), and took on some producing duties himself. Ultimately, though, Griffith parted ways. This was essentially the extent of his continued professional life, things for which he received no credit, but he was still considered by some as the elder statesman of Hollywood. Today, he is fittingly remembered for his contribution to racist images on screen (and racism beyond) and icky personal politics, which he often injected into his films. But he is also remembered for a turbulent personal life fueled by alcoholism. In retrospect, Griffith’s experience may have informed his approach to the condition, which he did many times, as early as 1909’s WHAT DRINK DID. THE STRUGGLE was his ultimate contribution to this theme, and indeed motion pictures in general. It begins with a didactic prologue that Griffith often included in his films, decrying the prevalence of bootleg liquor, but qualifying the movie as not “a preachment either for or against Prohibition.” This prologue does pose two questions: “If Prohibition is the success that people claim it is, how could all these things have happened? Is man’s struggle against intemperance controllable by law, or is it solely a matter of individual character?” And I’m not sure THE STRUGGLE answers them. It charts one man’s “struggle” with alcoholism from 1911 to the then-current time frame of Prohibition. Its main character, played by Hal Skelly, becomes a family man and turns his back to the drink. But years into his marriage, and with a daughter now in his family, he turns back to drink, sending ripples through his family and beyond. It is actually compelling stuff, and although THE STRUGGLE is stagey even by early talkie standards, the movie is given some visual life by cinematographer and multiple Oscar winner Joseph Ruttenberg. Griffith did not bring to the new medium of sound the innovations he had brought to the silent feature form, but his personal investment (both financially and psychologically) does make a minorly profound statement. THE STRUGGLE is didactic and melodramatic and treads a moral message we’ve all seen and heard before. But sometimes, that is welcome, and Griffith still had a deft enough hand for his final film to move me with moving pictures.
#21 — THE MUSKETEERS OF PIG ALLEY (1912)
Griffith contributed in major ways to film form, genre, structure, and even financing. THE MUSKETEERS OF PIG ALLEY is a key film in regards to the first two: form and genre. In terms of form, the short showcases a great early example of follow focus, which as I understand it, is a method of maintaining focus even as something moves towards, away, or across a camera. THE MUSKETEERS OF PIG ALLEY’s most indelible image is an increasingly “close” close up of a gangster. THE MUSKETEERS OF PIG ALLEY is also a gangster film, an aspect of Griffith’s contribution to genre. The collision of shady and seedy settings with ritzy and carefree luxury, as would be seen in the Pre-Code gangster films about 20 years later, are typified in MUSKETEERS. It just builds its suspense so well, and utilizes a constantly evolving grammar to tell a brief, compelling story.
#20 — THE BATTLE AT ELDERBUSH GULCH (1913)
Here is a perfect opportunity to distinguish true enjoyment from impact or competence as I rank Griffith’s films. I’ve casually and briefly criticized portrayals of race that range from patronizing to vile so far. But THE BATTLE AT ELDERBUSH GULCH deserves notice, for it is almost a trial run for THE BIRTH OF A NATION. This short is a Western that places its white characters in direct opposition to a tribe of Native Americans that can only be described as “evil” (as far as Griffith portrays them). They kidnap puppies and babies and attempt to murder them and women. But in having such sympathetic central characters, the story obviously sets up high stakes. The action builds to a siege on a cabin, and the pitiful, dire scenario increasingly displays the indigenous people as monstrous beings. Eventually, they are all killed off by a band of white men. The racial hierarchy in America is made clear by THE BATTLE AT ELDERBUSH GULCH, and its insidious, apparently objective display of good versus evil is very obviously racially coded. Why it is ranked at #20 here, then, is because Griffith leverages performances from Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish and soaring “heroism,” complete with a large scale battle scene with drifting smoke and gunfire, to ground this dynamic. What’s interesting about Griffith’s racism is his vacillating instinct to be a virulent racist (as in ELDERBUSH or BIRTH OF A NATION) and a positive, patronizing one (as in many of the short films involving Native Americans or even BROKEN BLOSSOMS). Griffith was able to tap into and distill humanity beautifully for the screen and, frustratingly, he often turned these skills to the subordination of non-white people. THE BATTLE AT ELDERBUSH GULCH is, in my opinion, one of the most vital films to study in the Griffith canon.
#19 — THE MASSACRE (1912)
Griffith’s strange racial dichotomy is also illustrated by THE MASSACRE. In it, a group of white settlers, well, massacre much of a tribe of Native Americans. The latter are shown in their peaceful, everyday lives before the violence begins. In response, the survivors of the tribe strike back, and kill much of a wagon train led by the leader of the tribe’s massacre. Of course, the lead whites and their baby survive, but Griffith closes THE MASSACRE with an “In Memoriam” closing title. This is “both sides-ism” for sure, but it acknowledges the humanity of Native Americans in a way that THE BATTLE AT ELDERBUSH GULCH does not. THE MASSACRE even seems to somewhat understand the tribe’s retaliation, although ultimately, it wants to moderate an end to violence. That is a humane goal, and that’s generally not controversial, but as has been displayed, it’s hard for people to take the high road when their very existence is threatened, as it was for the Native Americans. THE MASSACRE leverages much of what makes ELDERBUSH insidious in service of a loftier goal. But it’s Griffith, and it concerns race, so it is still wrongheaded in many ways.
#18 — JUDITH OF BETHULIA (1914)
JUDITH OF BETHULIA is a milestone in Griffith’s career. Not only was it his first feature, it was also Biograph’s. And the studio’s uncertainty about the future of features so irked Griffith that he left, taking his stock company of actors with him. This biblical epic was certainly of epic proportions at the time of its release; its 60-minute runtime had only been matched by a few films before it. Critics and audiences took notice of JUDITH OF BETHULIA, which impressed them with its length and costumes. It starred the whole stock company, including the Gish sisters (although Blanche Sweet was the female lead), and was shot by the consistent Bitzer. For his part, Bitzer frames the battle scenes well, and the immersion offered by the costumes and sets is impressive for its day. I’ve read that JUDITH OF BETHULIA drags for some, and I suppose it does in a way. But it has a sort of camp that belongs to earnest biblical films, at least the ones of the early and mid-20th century. And since it’s an Old Testament thing, there’s some good violence and beheading in JUDITH OF BETHULIA.
#17 — DREAM STREET (1921)
According to Wikipedia, DREAM STREET is considered one of Griffith’s worst films. And indeed, it was released in his slump period. But once again, I don’t think it’s that bad. The original premiere actually contained a couple of sound sequences, including an introduction by Griffith, thanks to the Photokinema process (which didn’t go very far). But of course, the silent version is what we can view today. DREAM STREET stars Carol Dempster, who I will admit is not one of the greatest actresses of her day. But I am taken with its seedy London sets. Some great lighting is achieved by Griffith and cinematographer Henrik Sartov, and Ralph Graves also stars in the love triangle story, and I like Graves alright. It’s hard to articulate quite why I like DREAM STREET, but it proceeds at a decent clip and has some solid moments.
#16 — A ROMANCE OF HAPPY VALLEY (1919)
A ROMANCE OF HAPPY VALLEY is another urban versus rural, rich versus poor, secular versus religious morality play by Griffith. In it, a boy (Robert Harron) leaves his religious home in the country to make it rich in the city. When he comes back, his own parents don’t even recognize him. Of course, after some dramatic yearning, the boy (now a man) realizes the error of his ways and ends up with the faithful sweetheart (Lillian Gish). The sunny, bucolic setting is photographed, as ever, beautifully by Bitzer. Harron and Gish’s chemistry is also believable, making what would be a pretty bland drama into an affecting, sentimental movie.
#15 — THE GREATEST QUESTION (1919)
The plot of THE GREATEST QUESTION is chaotic. It involves murder, spiritualism, oil wells, and employee abuse. I won’t bother to recap it in full. The classic Gish close up is present in the film, which lends much weight to the all-over-the-place story. The impression of THE GREATEST QUESTION is its outdoor scenes, which (I swear, I feel like a broken record) are captured with visual acuity by Bitzer.
#14 — THE GIRL WHO STAYED AT HOME (1919)
THE GIRL WHO STAYED AT HOME fuses both Civil War and World War I commentary, four years after THE BIRTH OF A NATION and one year after HEARTS OF THE WORLD, respectively. It’s an example of Griffith’s ongoing attempt to rehabilitate some aspects of his image, as far as I see it. Draft dodger Jim (Robert Harron) ends up in France anyways, while his older brother Ralph (Richard Barthelmess) enlists intentionally. His sweetheart, Blossom (Carol Dempster), lives in France with her father Mr. France (Adolph Lestina), a Confederate who fled to France after the Civil War. THE GIRL WHO STAYED AT HOME resolves some of the more vicious aspects of the aforementioned films in two key ways. In regards to WWI and HEARTS OF THE WORLD, THE GIRL WHO STAYED AT HOME presents a sympathetic German who resolves a dangerous situation for Blossom. In regards to the Civil War and THE BIRTH OF A NATION, THE GIRL WHO STAYED AT HOME’s happy ending involves Mr. France reconciling with his traitorous past and swearing allegiance to the American flag. Of course, it doesn’t absolve him in the way the film and Griffith would like, but it is a testament to the language of THE GIRL WHO STAYED AT HOME that it isn’t wholly ridiculous. That language is not necessarily unique among Griffith’s films, which had been solidified into a new form by 1919, but THE GIRL WHO STAYED AT HOME reflects a self-awareness that would culminate in the director’s final two films, ABRAHAM LINCOLN and THE STRUGGLE.
#13 — AMERICA (1924)
AMERICA could be seen as the last epic that Griffith made in the mold of THE BIRTH OF A NATION. As with THE GIRL WHO STAYED AT HOME, it is kind of contradictory to the vibe of Griffith’s most famous film, although I suppose I don’t know how patriotic Confederate soldiers and sympathizers felt about the American Revolution. For that is the setting of AMERICA, and it is realized with perplexing historical inaccuracy. Of course, fictional films always miss the mark in being true to life, but a decent amount of confusion mounts between the various scenes in New York, Massachusetts, and Virginia across the 1770s and ’80s. But with its large battle scenes and sweeping timeframe, AMERICA still carries the spirit of a great Griffith, albeit much reduced. And apparently that was felt by both critics and audiences; there was a reason why AMERICA was his last epic. The movie was a flop in all aspects, and since Griffith had been self-financing many of his films for some time, that meant the filmmaker himself once again took a hit to his pocketbook. While AMERICA was considered old-fashioned in its grammar and structure for 1924, an opinion that isn’t quite as distinct through today’s lens, it is clear that its stars are not as strong as previous members of Griffith’s stock company of actors. I’ve mentioned that Carol Dempster is not a favorite, and Neil Hamilton was simply adequate in his role as the masculine hero. Ultimately, though, I think AMERICA is a rousing enough story that carries the patriotic, if didactic, simple, and uncritical, spirt of the American Revolution.
#12 — THE SORROWS OF SATAN (1926)
After AMERICA, and before his return to an auteur-like position in his selection of the subjects for his two talkies, Griffith was for a time a director of assignments from Paramount, and a maker of movies for United Artists once again, albeit in a reduced capacity. So through the rest of the ’20s, he made movies unlike much of what he had made so far. THE SORROWS OF SATAN may be the clearest example of that. Originally meant to be directed by Cecil B. DeMille, the supernatural drama is shot, by Harry A. Fischbeck and Arthur De Titta, with an eye towards dark, almost Expressionist shadow. But I feel I should qualify these statements. Its supernatural bent does not make THE SORROWS OF SATAN a full-blown fantasy, nor does its inkling of a different visual style suddenly make it THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920). But there is a different undercurrent to the movie, which follows the devil in Adolphe Menjou form (perfect casting) making a Faustian bargain with a poor writer (Ricardo Cortez). Of course, the film punishes its God-cursing protagonist, and rehabilitates him when he turns toward the light and away from the devil (which would have made DeMille a good choice for director too). But along the way, THE SORROWS OF SATAN sits in a seediness and threatening presence that is really quite remarkable for Griffith and other mainstream Hollywood films of the time. The movie’s stock has risen over time, and while it is not fully great, it is one of Griffith’s best.
#11 — THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES (1928)
THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES was released after DRUMS OF LOVE (which I haven’t been able to track down) and a bare 1927, making it the only year, along with 1917, that Griffith didn’t release a film until his full retirement from directing in 1931. Well, to be clear, Griffith did work on a film released in 1927: TOPSY AND EVA, based on UNCLE TOM’S CABIN (1852, go figure), featured a few scenes shot by Griffith for credited director Del Lord. But with THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES, Griffith was able to return to something of his own at a time when, as far as I can tell, he was once again working on films released through United Artists, the company he co-founded and had left four years earlier. See, THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES is a remake of Griffith’s 1914 film of the same name, which played like a straight melodrama and is now almost entirely lost. But the director’s 1928 version plays mostly like a comedy, which marks it as a unique entry in Griffith’s filmography. Oh, he had made comedies before, many in fact during his earliest days. But in the final year of the American silent film industry (THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES was released in a version with a soundtrack), Griffith made one of his best movies, a surprisingly funny one that could easily have been based in caricature rather than good gags and some respectable sentimentalism. Jean Hersholt stars as a family man lured away from his home (and hopefully, fortune) by a gold digger (Phyllis Haver). Through a series of chance encounters, which includes a hypocritical moment involving his wife and another man, he realizes the error of his ways and returns to his family, ashamed of what he’s done but welcomed back in spite of it. Hersholt, besides being the literal star, is the clear MVP of the cast, although everyone delivers their performance with impressive camp. Shot by Struss and Bitzer, THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES is also a great looking comedy, especially for its day, and deserves a bit more attention as both a curiosity and genuinely good piece of Griffith’s filmography.
#10 — ABRAHAM LINCOLN (1930)
I believe that ABRAHAM LINCOLN is vastly underrated. Oh, it was well received at the time of its release; Griffith’s penultimate film and his first talkie was praised as a return to form for the already legendary director. However, it still wasn’t a great box office success, and contributed to the end of Griffith’s directorial career within the next year. And today, ABRAHAM LINCOLN is considered an interesting object, but not much more. I think it was one of the best films yet made in the sound medium, and incredibly interesting as a reevaluation of Griffith’s greatest success, THE BIRTH OF A NATION, just as THE STRUGGLE would be a reevaluation of his own life choices. ABRAHAM LINCOLN plays within the streamlined, classical Hollywood biopic mold (to be cemented later in the 1930s), omitting certain facts and fudging others to get its narrative and its certain themes across. In the process, the film mythologizes its titular character, just as decades of history before and since had done and would do. Ironically, ABRAHAM LINCOLN does so in the way that THE BIRTH OF A NATION did 15 years earlier. Griffith, joined once again by all-timer cinematographer Karl Struss, brings a keen yet straightforward eye to the literal framing of his central figure, played to great effect by Walter Huston. With ABRAHAM LINCOLN, Griffith applied a refined sense of the “invisible” Hollywood style he prototyped to foment the epic and the tragedy of the 16th president’s story. It may appear stale to modern viewers today, just as THE BIRTH OF A NATION might, but ABRAHAM LINCOLN wormed its way into my consciousness with its forthright myth. It doesn’t matter if many aspects of its narrative aren’t historically accurate, just as the bogus claims and scenarios presented in THE BIRTH OF A NATION did not hurt its perception. It may be tempting to see ABRAHAM LINCOLN as an inversion of those principles, bringing Griffith’s exceptional understanding of film grammar and propaganda to bear on the side of the Union and “good.” But the movie does not absolve the director of his sins created by his most famous, important, and divisive film. Instead, ABRAHAM LINCOLN stands as a perfect companion.
#9 — THE AVENGING CONSCIENCE: OR, ‘THOU SHALT NOT KILL’ (1914)
Among Griffith’s earliest features and perhaps the only one to be classified as a “horror picture,” THE AVENGING CONSCIENCE: OR, ‘THOU SHALT NOT KILL’ is visually incredible. Based on a couple works by Edgar Allen Poe (clearly Griffith was an admirer), THE AVENGING CONSCIENCE follows a young man (Henry B. Walthall) who kills his uncle (Spottiswoode Aitken) and hides the body in a freshly built wall to pursue a woman (Blanche Sweet) he has fallen in love with; his uncle opposed. This leads to a dizzying amount of paranoia for the man, and while the movie eventually cops out by revealing the whole torrid affair as a figment of the man’s nightmare, THE AVENGING CONSCIENCE is steeped in dramatic despair. The incredible visuals come into play with some cool special effects (as in the case of the uncle’s ghost and split screen moments), but especially in a few choice close ups that illustrate Griffith’s unique disposition at this point in film history. In spite of its dark tale, contrasting views of expansive, bright fields and oceanside cliffs also serve to diversify the experience of watching THE AVENGING CONSCIENCE. Its acting and didacticism can appear lame, even in comparison to the previous film on this list, ABRAHAM LINCOLN, but Griffith’s mastery was in using technical ingenuity to convince an audience of the worth of his message.
#8 — TRUE HEART SUSIE (1919)
TRUE HEART SUSIE is widely considered one of Griffith’s best films, and I obviously agree. Released within that mid-to-late 1910s window that saw the peak of the director’s popularity and critical and commercial success, this bucolic drama carries a pace and sensitivity that the plot on paper wouldn’t necessarily imply. Without recounting it in detail, it is sufficient to say that TRUE HEART SUSIE fits into one of the key themes of Griffith’s career: the plain style of rural life is ultimately more fulfilling than the morally depraved, or at least questionable, life in the city. The movie is even subtitled “The Story of a Plain Girl,” which emphasizes the notion that the girl next door is more virtuous and desirable than a flamboyant flirt. I disagree with its moralizing in principle, and that feeling doesn’t totally go away while watching TRUE HEART SUSIE. But once again, Griffith employs his filmmaking skills to get his point across in an effective manner. Griffith was didactic; it’s clear what his movies are trying to say. And that can put people off, and has put me off. But sometimes, didacticism is powerful. It can be powerful in the sense that a viewer can already agree with a film’s message. It can also be powerful in the sense that the didacticism is so straightforward that it comes out into some specific, humane territory, regardless of the intent of its author. That is the case with TRUE HEART SUSIE, which is not a wholesale testament to the power of simplicity and religious morality in all cases, but an ode specific to Lillian Gish’s remarkable character.
#7 — SALLY OF THE SAWDUST (1925)
The reigning memory of my watching SALLY OF THE SAWDUST is its conclusion, when W.C. Fields’ circus performer, “Professor” Eustace McGargle, powerfully enters a courtroom to present proof of the legitimate parentage of his adoptive daughter Sally (Carol Dempster). It’s the ultimate sensitive moment in a comedy not without its sensitive moments, and clearly indicates that Griffith was still able to bring his pathos-inducing abilities to bear. This was in doubt at the time because Griffith had just fled from United Artists, the company he co-founded, to work on assignments for Paramount. SALLY OF THE SAWDUST, based on the 1923 stage musical POPPY, was his first; the lost THAT ROYLE GIRL was his second. But with SALLY OF THE SAWDUST, Griffith was able to prove that he could make a high quality, full-fledged feature comedy in the ’20s. Dempster was never better with Griffith than here, Fields was hilarious and sympathetic in spite of his character’s rascally nature, and the general circus scenery is dazzling. I’m a sucker for the aesthetic. The melodrama that fuels SALLY OF THE SAWDUST’s “serious” moments rings of the old-fashioned Griffith approach, but it ultimately isn’t cheap. It augments, and in some ways supplants, the laughs.
#6 — HEARTS OF THE WORLD (1918)
All of Griffith’s releases in 1918, which included three features and one short, concerned World War I. The director spent much of his time in 1917 preparing his first release for the next year, HEARTS OF THE WORLD, which made it one of the only two years that Griffith did not release at least one film during his 23-year career. At the time, the Great War was just winding down, and Griffith traveled to Europe and worked with American and British propaganda arms to bring his filmmaking talents to bear on American citizens’ desire for neutrality. The three other results of this work (THE GREAT LOVE, LILLIAN GISH IN A LIBERTY LOAN APPEAL, and THE GREATEST THING IN LIFE) are all lost. HEARTS OF THE WORLD alone survives from this war-oriented year of Griffith’s life and career. And when I said he worked with propaganda arms, I mean it: HEARTS OF THE WORLD is a propaganda film. The term “propaganda” often has a negative connotation, as it should in many situations. Maybe it even should in the case of this film, which I nevertheless consider the sixth greatest film D.W. Griffith made. I think it is telling that governments saw Griffith as a go-to filmmaker to make their case for why violence was necessary. He had contributed a massive, revitalizing PR boost to the Ku Klux Klan just three years before, of course. And the product of this “strategy” (a word you never want to implicate with a work of art) worked. HEARTS OF THE WORLD creates a universal structure in the sense that it vaguely specifies its archetypes; characters are named “The Girl,” “The Boy,” and so on. That “girl” and “boy” are played by Lillian Gish and Robert Harron, respectively, who imbue them with the quintessential damsel and hero energies. Throughout HEARTS OF THE WORLD, Germans are unceasingly portrayed as brutish villains, a portrayal Griffith apparently regretted; interesting, considering his defiant stance on THE BIRTH OF A NATION’s portrayal of African Americans. But that regret fomented into a course correction of sorts in the form of THE GIRL WHO STAYED AT HOME. Griffith qualified his messages a few times with subsequent films, and his treatment of World War I and Germans certainly softened. But HEARTS OF THE WORLD is not a success, in my opinion, because of its personal politics, but neither should those politics be discounted. As I’ve reiterated, some placements in this ranked list are not entirely because of the express pleasure I’ve derived from the films in question. Sometimes it’s just a matter of acknowledging the accomplishment made in the service of a silly, distasteful, or downright despicable message. HEARTS OF THE WORLD is a violent epic, filmed in part in the countryside and trenches of France, and that gives it a certain appeal. And Griffith reaches a sort of antiwar conclusion, even in his propaganda vehicle. As I’ve written before, “its ultimate message is much more kind, or at least ethically ambiguous, although the journey there is through wholesale disparagement of the German people.”
#5 — ORPHANS OF THE STORM (1921)
Griffith turned to other contemporary world events a few years later with ORPHANS OF THE STORM. Well, not with the setting of the film itself; it is set during the French Revolution. But in his portrayal of class conflict, Griffith seems to urge with this movie to move past inter-class hatred and work together. For someone who could so incisively portray the human condition and inflame hatred in equal measure, Griffith was at times quite naive and perhaps intentionally ignorant. As I explained in the case of THE BATTLE OF ELDERBUSH GULCH, Griffith was often a proponent of “both sides-ism.” In spite of all of this, again, the director made a good movie. ORPHANS OF THE STORM was the last film to star both of the Gish sisters, and a pivotal entry in the director’s filmography as an early and major box office failure for him. It wasn’t deserved, though. The movie is simply a thrilling and wonderfully shot drama centered on the separation and tribulation of two sisters, one blind, in the midst of the French Revolution. Their personal tragedies are woven into the politics of the era, and even though I’ve criticized Griffith for his handling of said politics, the apparent naivete still carries an aspirational quality that appreciates humanity. Confound you, D.W. Griffith, for your hypocrisy.
#4 — WAY DOWN EAST (1920)
Famous for its turbulent production of the climactic scene set upon a frozen river, WAY DOWN EAST also stands as, surprisingly, Griffith’s most expensive film to that point. The movie also ended up as the fourth-highest grossing of the entire silent era. And it is also Griffith’s fourth-best film and a key example of Griffith’s fusion of 19th and 20th century ideals and sensibilities. WAY DOWN EAST is based on the 1898 stage play of the same name, and along with many other films, Griffith idealizes the century of his youth through this movie. But he does so with a cinematic eye that was at this time mostly unparalleled, and bringing to that eye the visage of Lillian Gish, an actress who was able to project innocence and agency into her female characters. The epic scale of WAY DOWN EAST is imparted by certain scenes and visuals (again, the finale is pretty incredible), but the various romantic subplots also serve to create a movie heavy with emotion and significance. At two-and-a-half hours long, WAY DOWN EAST may appear to be a slog. But within its bounds is a film representative of the melodrama that Griffith did very well.
#3 — THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915)
And here it is, the big one. Much has been said about THE BIRTH OF A NATION’s landmark accomplishments in terms of its length (it was the longest movie yet made to this point), its financing (Griffith put his own money into the project), its box office success (it may still be the highest grossing film of all time, adjusting for inflation), its nearly singlehanded bending of Hollywood structure to bear on features (due to its massive returns), and its monumental place in developing cinematic language (it did a lot that may appear second nature in movies today). Of course, THE BIRTH OF A NATION is also dangerous propaganda that can be credited with reviving the Ku Klux Klan and perpetuating disgusting and harmful stereotypes about African Americans. There are a number of scenes in Griffith’s biggest success, the one that fundamentally shook the foundations of the moving picture art form, that are simply shocking in their complete and utter stupidity and hate. A whole book could be written about THE BIRTH OF A NATION, and many have been. But for my part, I can contextualize why I’ve placed this movie, which is really just a big reminder of the white supremacist nature of the United States, at so high a position on this list of films that, in spite of Griffith’s personal politics and history, don’t rankle nearly as much. But part of the reason is because THE BIRTH OF A NATION does rankle. It is insidious. It does not turn my mind over to the racist cause Griffith defends with the film, but I can see why it turned many over. I can see the fusion and refinement of many filmic techniques developed and popularized by Griffith into an epic scale, a scale not yet seen in the movies. I can see Billy Bitzer’s incredible cinematography and the movie’s unparalleled orchestration of action. And I can also see Griffith’s twisting of the Confederate cause into a state of victimhood, something to be sympathized with and ultimately celebrated in its doom. The import of the visuals presented in THE BIRTH OF A NATION make it, instead of a monumental piece of art that we lock away behind a vault, a valuable tool for the instruction of media literacy. I’ll quote myself once again: “There is no BIRTH OF A NATION without a society wallowing in systemic racism and gross lies, and in a way, there is no development of the film industry, its members, and American society as a whole, for good and bad, without THE BIRTH OF A NATION.” And at the risk of offloading commentary here, I’ll also quote the much more brilliant Roger Ebert, who in a way, has a nearly perfect closing word on the subject of this film: “THE BIRTH OF A NATION is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.” That THE BIRTH OF A NATION is “great,” in my view, does not mean that it is a humane work that rejuvenates its viewers, as many of the “great” films do. Instead, THE BIRTH OF A NATION is “great” in the sense that its weight is acutely felt. It is “great and terrible.”
#2 — BROKEN BLOSSOMS (1919)
At the other end of the “problematic Griffith spectrum” is BROKEN BLOSSOMS, a beautiful film whose issues take some reckoning. Based on a short story entitled “The Chink and the Child” (you know you’re getting into something with that background), BROKEN BLOSSOMS also stars Richard Barthelmess in yellowface. For his part, his performance as a Chinese man engaging in a forbidden romance with Lillian Gish’s abused young woman is powerful. And in fact, Gish was probably never better than here. Part of BROKEN BLOSSOMS’ charm is its contrast to the massive epics Griffith was known for by the time of its production and release. Its small scale was brought to foggy, shadowy life on studio sets depicting the Limehouse district of London, which has led to some comparison to the films of Josef von Sternberg and the development of film noir. But the anguish and emotion that Griffith was able to get out of his stars is what lingers from BROKEN BLOSSOMS. In spite of its place in the racist mold of the 1910s, the movie isn’t antagonistic to the idea of a mixed race relationship, just another example of Griffith’s bizarre ability to switch back and forth between genuine humanity and hateful screed. Indeed, BROKEN BLOSSOMS effectively foments sympathy for its two main characters, and the way it does so (mostly with tortured and tender close ups) is another masterclass in filmmaking language and its ability to move. That it does so with a bit of ignorance typical of the period is something to be acknowledged. As with THE BIRTH OF A NATION, but to be clear, to a much lesser degree, BROKEN BLOSSOMS stands in second place here not as a full-throated declaration of the movie’s universal appeal, but as a recognition of its exceptional craft.
#1 — INTOLERANCE (1916)
Griffith made his two most important films, and nearly his two greatest, back-to-back. His follow-up to THE BIRTH OF A NATION was somehow “greater” after the “greatest film ever made,” but its problems don’t rival the racism of the 1915 film. However, the foundation of INTOLERANCE is built on yet more misguided direction. You see, in spite of THE BIRTH OF A NATION’s popularity and the general modern perception of 1915, it was considered virulently racist by many even then. Of course, that was just fine with a lot of the white population of America at the time, but THE BIRTH OF A NATION was in fact harshly criticized for its portrayal of the black population of the country as well. So Griffith turned to make his next film a monumental epic, even more ambitious than THE BIRTH OF A NATION, that pointed out the “intolerance” of his critics, who labeled his great success a backwards validation of a dangerous way of thinking. Of course, “intolerance of intolerance” shouldn’t really be subjected to the same kind of scrutiny the original intolerance should be. But hey, it’s a problem we still have today: people cry victim after being called out for their own intolerance. But 105 years ago, Griffith used his unjustified outrage (with outrage) to ultimately make a phenomenal film that does in fact, powerfully and a little sloppily, condemn the plague of human existence: intolerance. INTOLERANCE, subtitled “Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages,” weaves together four distinct time periods to illustrate man’s folly in opposing the pure existence and happiness of individuals on simple and hateful grounds. In trying to castigate his critics, Griffith ended up instructing a powerful lesson he could have benefited from himself. INTOLERANCE is renowned, and justifiably, for its incredible sets, costumes, special effects, storytelling structure, editing, cinematography, and performances. And it is also known for its relatively tepid contemporary response, at least in comparison to THE BIRTH OF A NATION, which had a significant effect on Griffith’s career and pocketbook, as he financed much of INTOLERANCE himself. The director applied the artistic risk he brought to bear on THE BIRTH OF A NATION to a worthier topic for INTOLERANCE, and the result is a soaring epic that truly does speak to and celebrate the humanity of the oppressed. INTOLERANCE is the perfect example of Griffith’s cognitive dissonance throughout his career. His erstwhile cinematographer for much of his career and his greatest films (including this one), Billy Bitzer, quoted Griffith as saying, “A film without a message is just a waste of time.” From his earliest shorts through to THE STRUGGLE, this sentiment was clearly not just an ineffectual statement. Often, Griffith’s messages were meant, at best, to celebrate the human condition, and at their worst, to perpetuate the terrible conditions for large segments of humanity. That he was able to communicate those messages with the newfound medium of the cinema, and so potently, marks Griffith as one of the earliest and greatest authors of film. The scene of Lillian Gish, in the beautifully shot metaphysical space in which she plays “The Eternal Motherhood” who links INTOLERANCE’s disparate parts, is the most indelible visual D.W. Griffith implanted into my brain.