Saturday, October 1, 2016


Historically speaking, the D. W. Griffith must-see film canon begins with the epic, but controversial Birth of a Nation and the epic, but rambling, Intolerance...but it certainly doesn't end there. The 1001 movie list has three other Griffith films and...I've put off seeing them long enough.

Broken Blossoms
Broken Blossoms is a basically a morality tale about a peace loving Chinaman who opens a shop in London and befriends a young woman who suffers from the brutality of her abusive father. The movie relies quite heavily on title cards, which gets to be a little distracting after awhile. The film is more interesting historically than anything else and let it be pointed out to Griffith detractors that the good guy in this film is the person of color and the bad guy is the white guy...though the original short story title (The Chink and the Child) couldn't even pass the political correctness test of 1919.

Way Down East
Way Down East is honestly my favorite of all the Griffith films from the 1001 list. The story is about a poor young woman named Anna who gets tricked by a smooth-talking, affluent scalawag. The young woman ends up having a baby (who conveniently dies) and later begins working at the house of a family whose son falls for her, though Anna feels her secret past is too much for her to overcome. There are a bevy of local characters who provide comic relief and further complicate the plot. The movie does have a lot of melodrama, but I found the story interesting and involving even at two and a half hours.

Orphans of the Storm
Griffith had directed several historical pieces up until the release of Orphans of the Storm in 1921. Orphans is set during the time of the French Revolution and the plot involves the separation of two sisters (one blind), amidst the turmoil and upheaval of the time.  Griffith is know for being a technical innovator, but he also knew how to put a story together (he's also the screenwriter of Orphans ) and the idea of using fictional protagonists coinciding with real historical events has been a movie staple ever since.

The Players...

Lillian Gish is the female lead in each of these films, as well as Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. In later years, she received and Academy Award nomination for Night of the Hunter. Her last film, The Whales of August was released in 1987, seventy-five years after her movie debut in 1912.

Richard Barthelmess appeared as the Chinaman in Broken Blossoms and as the love-struck David in Way Down East. He was nominated for an Academy Award in 1928, the year of the last hurrah of the silent era. One of his best later roles was as a pilot in Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings.

Donald Crisp played the evil father in Broken Blossoms, and went on to become one of the most reliable supporting players in Hollywood (Mutiny on the Bounty, The Life of Emile Zola, How Green was My Valley,The Man From Laramie, among many others). Crisp also appeared as General Grant in Griffith's Birth of a Nation.

Lowell Sherman played Lennox the cad in Way Down East. He later made a mark as a director, directing Mae West in She Done Him Wrong.

Dorothy Gish appeared with her sister Lillian in Griffith's Musketeers of Pig Alley as well as the blind sister in Orphans of the Storm.

Joseph Schildkraut played the dashing romantic lead in Orphans of the Storm. He later became a reliable character actor, winning an Academy Award for The Life of Emile Zola in 1937. I remember him best for playing the ghost of a murdered concentration camp victim in the 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone, Deaths Head Revisited.


  1. My favorite, as far as there is such a thing, Griffith movie is Broken Blossoms. It does have intensity and economy that Griffith usually lacked.
    When Lillian Gish showed up in Night of the Hunter I almost cried. A very moving moment.

  2. Brave of you taking all three on at once! ;) Way Down East is my favourite Griffith's film.

  3. Kudos to being able to watch all three in a row. I can usually only do one silent every now and then but I try to integrate one in each month...not always successfully.

    I have seen all three of these. My favorite by far was Orphans of the Storm even if it did drown in melodrama from time to time. The Gish sisters made an interesting team and that added an extra oomph to the picture.

    Except for the justly famous conclusion of Way Down East I found it a tedious bore. Stilted and labored.

    Broken Blossoms! So very heavy and downbeat. The use of color in different sequences added a visual hook but it was probably the toughest view of the three even though it was the shortest. Amazing the difference sound made in some performers careers. I know Donald Crisp played an occasional villain in his talkie career but with his engaging Irish lilt and warm personality he was for the most part miles away from the dreadful bastard he's cast as here.

  4. I must confess that I watched most of these three movies on my iphone during a bus trip. You got to catch them while you can sometime.

    1. I imagine that Griffith would be rolling in his grave if he knew that his films are being watched on a tiny screen :)