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With: Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, W.C. Fields, Carol Dempster, Walter Huston, Mae Marsh, Alfred Lunt
Written by: D.W. Griffith, Anita Loos, John Emerson, Anthony Paul Kelly, Forrest Halsey, Stephen Vincent Benet, Gerrit J. Lloyd, John W. Considine Jr.
Directed by: D.W. Griffith, Kevin Brownlow
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 700
Date: 18/03/2013

Griffith Masterworks 2 (2008)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Father of Film

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Griffith Masterworks 2 on DVD

When Kino Video released their first D.W. Griffith DVD box set in 2002, someone -- I wish it were me -- compared it to owning a complete volume of Shakespeare. This couldn't be more apt. It's impossible to downplay Griffith's greatness and importance in the history of cinema. But this comparison also brings negative connotations; the very words "greatness" and "importance" can be enough to drive people away and back into the fluffy arms of Kung Fu Panda. As with Shakespeare, it can be highly pleasurable watching Griffith, but you have to pry back the heavy armor, dive in and experience it for yourself. And, also like Shakespeare, you have to take a few minutes to adjust to the language. Once there, a world of possibilities awaits.

Six years later, Kino has released the essential companion piece. It's a little less meaty than the previous edition, not least of all because there are only five discs as opposed to seven in the previous set. And we only get one short film as opposed to the tantalizing selection from the first set. But we do get Griffith's horror film The Avenging Conscience (1914), plus Way Down East (1920), Sally of the Sawdust (1925), and Griffith's two talkies Abraham Lincoln (1930) -- starring Walter Huston -- and The Struggle (1931). Legendary historian Kevin Brownlow finishes things off with a giant-sized, 2-1/2 hour documentary on Griffith's life and work, produced in 1993.

The Avenging Conscience: or 'Thou Shalt Not Kill' (1914) is an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Tell Tale Heart" and poem "Annabelle Lee" (with bits of "The Cask of Amontillado" and other things thrown in). It takes a while to get started, it's not exactly frightening, and it's more than a little loopy in the plot department, but it contains some truly memorable, hallucinatory images. The young hero (Henry B. Walthall) decides to kill his miserly uncle (Spottiswoode Aitken) so that he can be with his sweetheart (Blanche Sweet), but images of the dead man and other creepy ideas keep tormenting him. Griffith throws in a few bizarre, pet messages, such as pictures of Moses holding the "Thou Shalt Not Kill" tablet. It's shot on just a few, basic sets, it has degrading images of Italian-Americans, and it's a great deal less impressive than the following year's The Birth of a Nation. But it's fascinating nonetheless. The disc includes the one-reeler Edgar Allen Poe (accidentally, but now permanently misspelled), from 1909. Herbert Yost plays the great writer, who comes up with the inspiration for "The Raven" as his wife Virginia (Linda Arvidson) lies on her sickbed. Can he sell the story in time to save her life?

Based on a stage play, Way Down East (1920) was a huge hit for Griffith. It's widely considered one of his four masterworks (alongside The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance and Broken Blossoms) and was the major omission from Vol. 1. It's also the major reason to pick up Vol. 2. (Don't be fooled by all the public domain copies floating around; this is the definitive edition.) Lillian Gish stars as Anna Moore, a poor country girl who is forced to appeal to her wealthy relatives for help. While visiting, she falls prey to the charms of flighty playboy Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman). She's married and pregnant before she realizes that she doesn't really have a husband at all. After the baby dies, she leaves town and starts all over again, working as a servant girl in a wealthy ranch house, her past kept secret. The patriarch, Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh), is a strict religious nut, but his grown son, David Bartlett (Richard Barthelmess) falls for Anna. Unfortunately, Lennox turns up again, revealing Anna's past, and causing Bartlett to turn Anna out into a snowstorm. Thus, having dispatched the villain, it's up to David to dash out into the freezing cold and snatch Anna from the ice floes at the top of a deadly waterfall. This is melodramatic soap opera at its most blatant and at its very best. Even the most hardened moviegoers will melt at the images of Gish shouldering through her never-ending hard times.

Griffith rarely veered into comedy, and the universal consensus was that when he did he wasn't very good at it. Sally of the Sawdust (1925), a collaboration with the up-and-coming W.C. Fields, is rather sweeter than it is knee-slappingly hilarious, but Fields is still a lot of fun to watch. Fields was a successful juggler when he won the part of "Poppy" on stage; this film is a rough adaptation of that play. Fields plays Prof. Eustace McGargle, a curmudgeonly cardsharp working with a circus. A woman of good breeding runs away with a circus performer, and she winds up traveling with the circus and pregnant. She also befriends McGargle. So when she and her husband meet their demise, McGargle raises the child as his own. She grows up to be Sally (Carol Dempster), a dancer, who doesn't know about her wealthy, well-to-do grandparents (Erville Alderson and Effie Shannon). When she falls in love with a charming, wealthy bachelor (Alfred Lunt), it starts her on the road of re-discovery. The film really isn't "about" McGargle, but Fields does his best to steal as many scenes as he can. All in all, it's a minor Griffith, but I love it because it's a rare opportunity for him to stretch out and relax.

Griffith was already seen as a relic in 1930 when he attempted his talkies, and it wasn't long before he wound up finished and penniless. Kino's transfers of Abraham Lincoln and The Struggle -- included on the same disc -- are as good as anyone can ask, but I have one major complaint: no subtitles or captioning. (Abraham Lincoln provides subtitles during the sequences in which the original soundtrack was lost, but not during the rest.) For early talkies with creaky, muffled sound, I've grown to count on optional subtitles to make viewing smoother, so it's very disappointing that Kino didn't take this final step. Still, Griffith Masterworks 2 is one of the year's finest DVD releases.

Each disc comes with various extras.

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