D. W. GRIFFITH: An American Life by Richard Schiekel

D. W. GRIFFITH: An American Life

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Schickel, who was fairly skillful at blending psychology, sociology, and aesthetics in The Disney Version (1968), is less successful here--in a not-very-cogent attempt to analyze the neurotic, culture-bound foundations of Griffith's ""profound (if ultimately inexplicable) psychic connection with the unspoken yearnings of his audience and the imperatives of his historical moment."" Still, if tenuous as cultural history or psychobiography, this is a solid documentation of Griffith's landmark film-making career--de-romanticized, placed in context, critically balanced. Born in 1875 Kentucky, David Wark Griffith was the son of a self-dramatizing Confederate vet, who presented a ""powerful yet confusing image of masculinity""; this was the major source, Schiskel suggests, of Griffith's ""deep and permanent sexual obsession"" (guilt, a whore/madonna split, compulsive womanizing); and, least persuasively, he argues that Griffith's racism was really sexism--with ""blackness. . . a convenient visual aid in symbolizing the ugliest and most rapacious of male impulses, but not perhaps to be taken personally by blacks."" On firmer ground, Schickel traces Griffith's creative climb--from journeyman-actor years and sometime playwrighting to Biograph in 1907 New York, where he began directing one-reelers: the technical innovations; the Dickens-inspired approach to storytelling; his ""unthinking but constant touching of the roots of his experience."" For Schickel, in fact, Griffith's early, intimate, realistic Biographs were his best works--superior to the romantic/historical expressions of ""overweaning ambition"": Birth of a Nation (the racism controversy is exhaustively detailed); Intolerance (""His fatal flaw as an artist was his intellectual shallowness""); Hearts of the World. (The dark, poetic Broken Blossoms is ""a singularity, a signpost on a road not taken."") And later, after his egomania drew him into bad business-deals, the pressures led to weaker, old-fashioned films, to money woes and drinking. Schickel disputes, then, the legend of DWG's ""noble insolvency in the cause of art""--and Griffith's own tragic-hero self-promotion. He was ""the principle author of his own misery,"" professionally and personally: an ""emotional cannibal"" with a ""ceaseless need for disciples."" (As for most-loyal disciple Lillian Gish, Schickel seems to believe that all was not so platonic.) But, though plausible here and there, Schickel's portrait of Griffith doesn't add up effectively, too often falling back on airy psychobabble. (""What matter that he had never known precisely who he was?"") And the prose throughout is too humdrum to conjure up a vivid sense of the films or the period movie-making. An undistinguished critical biography, then, but the fullest one yet--especially informative on studio-deals (Zukor, Schenck, United Artists), money matters, and page-to-screen development.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1984
Publisher: Simon & Schuster