Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - The Battle of the Sexes

Saturday, November 22, 2008

THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - The Battle of the Sexes

Just this morning I read "Echoes of the Jazz Age," F. Scott Fitzgerald's marvelous elegy for the Roaring Twenties. In it he writes, "Contrary to popular opinion, the movies of the Jazz Age had no effect upon its morals. The social attitude of the producers was timid, behind the times and banal - for example, no picture mirrored even faintly the younger generation until 1923, when magazines had already been started to celebrate it and it had long ceased to be news." The Battle of the Sexes, which appeared in 1928 (five years after the date Fitzgerald set, a year before the Crash) is the first Griffith film I've seen that makes any attempt to capture the zeitgeist. It would be unfair to call it Griffith's first Jazz Age film - there were too many of his 20s films unavailable on Netflix for me to make that judgement, and at least one of them (The Sorrows of Satan) seems to have a contemporary setting. However, it's safe to say this is a departure for Griffith and in some ways a welcome one, though I would not call The Battle of the Sexes a rousing success.


Ironically, this most modern of Griffith films was a remake of a Griffith featurette from 1914. The plot, detailing a wealthy husband who has an affair, and the resulting strains on his family, particularly his wife and daughter, is ripe for melodrama. This is apparently the approach Griffith took in the early, lost film, but in 1928 his style is more mixed. Though I wouldn't classify the movie as a comedy - its final act darkens too much for that - its tone is initially quite light and there are numerous gags. Unfortunately, as Griffith's work in Sally of the Sawdust indicated, he is not especially blessed with comedic timing. He's good at humorous details, but cannot pace or orchestrate gags effectively - and so sequences tend to go on and on after they've made their point.

Still, there's a charm to the humor and a graceful elan in the camerawork which adds to the refreshing appeal of Griffith's ultra-modern setting. Though in long scenes the camera placement is disappointingly stagey, there are occasionally movements which are startling for Griffith: he typically keeps the frame still or else moves it with characters in a car or on a horse - but here the apparatus seems to have a life of its own. Griffith, with cinematographers Billy Bitzer and Karl Struss, lets the camera weave through dancers at a nightclub (a nightclub scene in a Griffith film!), glide across a display of male and female legs at a salon, and peer out on a snowy night only to pull back into the room as mother and daughter welcome the man of the house.

That scene updates the Griffith touch: it could be a homecoming of a Civil War soldier, or one of the early working-class families in his Biograph shorts, but here it's an elegant, fashionable (short female hairdos in a Griffith film!), and energetic Jazz Age family. As always, Griffith just has an ineffable way with domestic bustle; you could say he locates the heart of cinema in the home movie, a feature which has graced not only his work, but that of other popular entertainers from Capra to Spielberg. Here he relocates, and hence strengthens, this domestic touch by pulling it into a post-WWI urban society. The metropolitan setting is another surprise - of the Griffith films available on Netflix, none feature modern cities until this one. That in itself inflects the tone and style of the picture; it's harder to linger on a sentimental gesture in the midst of a bustling rush-hour crowd.

Still, Griffith locates a particularly urban melancholy as the matron of the family is faced with scandal and divorce. And he is able to linger, in a newly interrupted way what with the dancing revelers, and fluctuating camera movements, on her expression as she discovers her husband out on the town with his mistress (the children see him first, and try to shield her; the husband himself never realizes he's been spotted). Later, when her husband has left, the distraught woman wanders from her penthouse to the dark, lonely roof. The nighttime city blazes before her - this is the visual height of the not always stunning film - and she approaches the ledge, looking down at the racing cars below. At one point the camera even plunges down the side of the building, simulating her impending fall, which the abandoned wife's vigilant daughter arrests.

The movie ends with rather over-elaborate hijinks in the mistress' apartment, involving the mistress' own beau, who fondles the adulterer's daughter when they're hidden away in a back room. Confronted by her father, the daughter - a blooming, but we're led to believe still virtuous flapper - pretends to have welcomed the man's advances. Though she's faking, and her playacting is meant to be a slap in her father's face (I'm only imitating you, she says), it's still unusual to see a Griffith film even humor playful extramarital sexuality, even if in the form of some mild necking.

There is one solid Griffith victim-heroine in the movie - the abandoned wife - but she is not the focus. The daughter is plucky, the husband foolish but lovable, and the mistress, played with vigor by Phyllis Haven, is often charming in her villainy. If you can call it that...Griffith surprisingly does not overdo her vampishness, and we're allowed to see her as dangerous and selfish but not exactly evil - just another gold digger. Though, if she's not evil, she's not exactly conflicted either; or as one of Griffith's intertitles puts it: "Not as hard as most gold diggers - she was harder." We even see her reading Little Women and giggling helplessly, presumably at its sentimentality and good-hearted ethos.

Now if that's not a sly, self-effacing dig at the director's own propensities, I don't know what is!

Previous: Sally of the Sawdust
Next: Abraham Lincoln

The D.W. Griffith series begins here.

2 comments:

manwithoutastar said...

Yes I remember that article of Fitzgerald's that you mention here- I found it incredibly touching and intelligently de-glamourising. The Crack-Up is also very good. Have you read his short stories? He has one about the 'bob' called 'Bernice Bobs Her Hair' which I highly recommend..

MovieMan0283 said...

man,

I have a slim volume of Fitzgerald's Jazz Age essays sitting by my bedside (it's entitled, appropriately enough, "The Jazz Age") but have so far only read the first entry as I'm currently neck-deep in lengthier tomes. I hope to return to it soon.

Oddly, though The Great Gatsby is my favorite American novel of all time (and second-favorite novel period, after Great Expectations) I have not read much Fitzgerald. A little bit of This Side of Paradise, which didn't grip me for some reason, and pieces of The Last Tycoon and his Pat Hobby stories, both of which I enjoyed but for some reason never finished. I'll never forget beginning Gatsby though and just having a visceral reaction of immense pleasure, followed by the intellectual ephiphany: my God, can this man write!!!