Film review, by Jason Day, of the silent epic set during the French Revolution starring Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish. Directed by D.W. Griffith.
Director: D.W. Griffith. United Artists.
Cast & credits
Producer: D. W. Griffith.
Writer: Gaston de Tolignac.
Camera: Hendrik Sartov, G.W. “Billy” Bitzer.
Music: Louis F. Gottschalk, William F. Peters (1921). Brian Benison (1996 reissue).
Sets: Charles M. Kirk.
Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Joseph Schildkraut, Frank Losee, Katherine Emmet, Morgan Wallace, Sheldon Lewis, Frank Puglia, Creighton Hale, Monte Blue, Lucille La Verne.
Two innocent sisters (Gish and Gish) are caught up in the tumult of the French Revolution and are separated when they travel to Paris to cure Dorothy’s blindness. One is pursued by a lecherous cad and the other is kidnapped by a wicked crone to work as a beggar.
Review, by Jason Day
Griffith has for a long time been referred to as the ‘Father of Cinema’. He incorporated his own and other film-makers’ techniques and styles (such as editing, camera angles, framing and tinting) into his films, resulting in technically proficient and sophisticated products that advanced film as an art form, as well as his ability to direct actors toward a more subtle, ‘cinematic’ performance of psychological and emotional insight.
His career was drawing it’s last breath with this mighty, lavish historical epic with a story as old as the director itself and totally at odds with the emerging ‘Jazz Age’ of the 1920’s (there had previously been a version with the great Vamp of the silver screen, Theda Bara). It was the last of his films to turn anything approaching a profit and was one of the top money-spinners of the decade.
Real-life silent movie acting siblings Lillian and Dorothy Gish are appropriately cast in the lead roles. The two forged independent careers and screen personalities between 1912 and 1930. Lillian as the serious, dramatic actress was frequently cast as a poor, down at heel waif suffering all manner of hardships that the world could throw at her. Dorothy played perky, comic roles in generally more financially successful pictures. Occasionally they acted together and it is charming and interesting to compare them face to face.
Posterity looks favourably on Lillian as the better actress, possibly because she was the more hard-working of the two, possibly because her later movies were of a higher artistic quality. But here Dorothy cannily bagged the better role when Griffith chose her sister for the romantic part.
Blindness is very often portrayed in a melodramatic, ‘staring off into the distance’ manner, but Dorothy skilfully relates a more naturalistic and controlled interpretation. She underplays the camera with remarkable effect and steals the limelight from her more famous sister.
Lillian was the more intelligent actress and holds the lead well, conveying a burgeoning sexuality that belies her character’s frailty and Griffith’s Victorian typecasting of female roles (virgins/mothers or whores).
The supporting cast struggle with Griffith’s tendency to deploy tactless and unfunny pantomime during moments of high drama, but there are some memorable displays of comic villainy in Hale as a bizarrely coiffed servant and La Verne as the warty Mother Frochard who imprisons and beats Dorothy.
Despite the old-fashioned story (Griffith, writing under a pseudonym, is to blame for the mouldy script), lengthy running time and narrative oddities (for impoverished farmers, the Gish girls live in a spacious and well-furnished abode), the director still fashions a stunningly photographed and exciting drama, with the requisite last-minute dash to save someone letting him once again use a series of breathless cross-cuts between different points of action to grip audiences.
Kirk’s spectacular and intricately detailed set designs are the film’s real highlight however. He hits the mark with creepy, expressionistic Paris slums and the ornate mansions of the aristocracy.