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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Book Choice(s) --- A One-Two From William Drew

Early last-century play-acting (as in legit) was still wild and wooly enough for an actor to emerge onstage with blackened eye just got in dressing room fisticuffs, this and more theatrical lore explored by William M. Drew in his newest, Mr. Griffith's House With Closed Shutters, which as you'll gather, is about lots more than a to-be director and his board-troddings prior to immortality directing flickers. In fact, it's the best summation so far of DWG's massive input to narrative pics and how he brought them out of primitive state. Never has been served such detail surrounding one filmmaker's climb from cross-country barnstorming (and poverty attendant) to glories of a H'wood Griffith helped invent. So much Drew uncovered is new --- nothing rehashed here. You'd think no one had told the titan's tale before based on revelation piled one atop other, and boners Drew exposes from previous Griffith tomes will inspire many to lay these aside and focus henceforth on final and authoritative word this author supplies.

Never Knew What Radical Content Lurked
in Griffith Features Till Reading Drew's Book
As referenced in sentence one, Mr. Drew gets into thick of vagabond performing way back, and taught me much of how grassroots patronage reacted to troupes strutting and fretting their hour upon local stages. An acting Griffith could get raves in one burgh, then mere miles away at a next stop, they'd shout "You stink!," or 1901 words to that effect. Never did I realize how gossipy large and small press was about offstage travail of visitor stock companies --- stars, it seems, were born earlier than we knew insofar as having their private lives poked into. That, by ways, is a hint as to the big reveal of Drew's 575 page odyssey (D.W. had his Intolerance ... this is Drew's). Seems Griffith harbored a major-to-him secret of past life throughout a long career that no one till Drew got to bottoms of. Even Lillian Gish wondered for most of her 99 years what the master was hiding. Too bad she couldn't be around long enough to read this book ...

Is That Guillotine For Orphans Of The Storm Characters or Extras Failing to Follow Griffithian Instruct On 1921 Epic Show?

I'll withhold further spoiling. Suffice to say, what Drew dug up (and he dug lots) will change forever perceptions of Griffith and his work. Research done here is awe-inspiring. Talk about an artist influenced by events ... what DWG did reveal about said storm in his life was there all along in shorts/features gone back a century, the missing piece (a large one) being what William Drew supplies in Mr. Griffith's House With Closed Shutters. If you want to "get" where Biograph's chief helmsman and creator of long-form triumphs was coming from, begin here.

Griffith and Crew Face Wintry Mix to Stage Ice-Flow Sequence in Way Down East

Youthful and Future Directing Fan Robert Florey Sees Dreams
Come True When He Meets DWG
To the fascinating foregoing is added what amounts to a bonus book wherein Drew explores Griffith's legacy in print and research since the director's peak and later decline. The author reveals fallacy in much of what has passed for Griffith bio, understandable as the Great Man buried all aspects of private life deep as Egypt tombs (for much good reason as revealed by William Drew). Thanks in large part to internet resources, Drew has accessed newspapers/periodicals unseen since cover dates --- certainly these went un-consulted by previous historians --- and who among them had Drew's remarkable tenacity? Most compelling is delve into hasty conclusion and myths propagated to date, several DWG books having moved from my library into cold storage as result. Oh, and Drew takes dead aim at political correctness gone amok to disadvantage of Griffith's reputation and The Birth Of A Nation in particular. And who knew a grisly trunk murder figured into these pages? Yes, I was hooked and you'll be too. Mr. Griffith's House With Closed Shutters resolves me to watch Intolerance, Birth, Way Down East, and much of the rest again, now that William Drew has opened eyes to truth of what made the enigmatic Mr. Griffith tick.

Romantic Rudy Gets a Fresh Coat Of Paint in 1938 Revival of Past Hits

The perfect addition to Griffith's House is another of William Drew's to savor, especially if, like me, you're into the afterlife of film beloved. The Last Silent Picture Show, published in 2010, was a book concept I wish I had dreamed up. Subtitled Silent Films on American Screens in the 1930's, the content covers just that. So what were attitudes toward silent movies after they disappeared? Turns out not so good. Yesterday's fish gone bad sums up how many felt --- I don't wonder at all those negatives getting junked. Neither does author Drew, as he covers an industry ringing out an old art form to ring in newness of sound. What was revived after coming of talk were as many tin lizzies so far as a disrespecting public went. Even gilt-edged hits like Ben-Hur and The Big Parade saw hard times before noise-accustomed patronage. Was ever a broom so thorough at sweeping off a discarded era? Made me think of the bum's rush 35mm is getting now that digital is here to stay --- modern parallel of which makes The Last Silent Picture Show strikingly relevant.

Misguided Mary Was For Junking Her Inventory After Sound Came In --- Wiser Heads Luckily Prevailed

So many arresting topics here --- "Old Time Movie Shows" (they couldn't even wait until the end of the silent era to laff at oldie pics), final stand of unwired houses (you want to cry at fates of these), a chapter called "Mary and Charlie vs. The World" (he kept making non-talkers and she wanted to burn hers), continued silent filmmaking out of Europe and the Orient, founding The Museum Of Modern Art (Iris Barry and I would not have hit it off), plus isolated moments when a single night or week's triumph made it look like silents might rise again (not). As to latter, there is Drew's coverage of Paramount's socko 1938 bring-back of The Sheik --- Valentino was hot again! --- followed by Bill Hart's return with Tumbleweeds. These subjects have been touched before, never with such detail as here. The Last Silent Picture Show plows fresh along ground barely grazed before. It's the kind of book I get busy reading seconds out of the mail box. Whoever goes for what Greenbriar generates will flip for The Last Silent Picture Show. It alongside Mr. Griffith's House With Closed Shutters amount to a pair of aces dealt by a writer/historian second to none.

Go HERE to check out William M. Drew's website and much more silent era content.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I first came in contact with Mr. Drew a few years back when a local journalist who aspires to be an authority on film published a carelessly written piece of THE BIRTH OF A NATION and D. W. Griffith that had more holes in it than Swiss cheese.

I wrote him about it. So did Mr. Drew with whom he put me in touch. That lead to a long and much appreciated dialogue between Mr. Drew and myself which can be read along with other pieces on Griffith at:

The present state of film journalism and scholarship is at its lowest.

For those who care about such things (and, thankfully, their number is growing) Mr. Drew's books are very welcome. Thanks for giving him the coverage he richly deserves.

8:19 AM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

Turner Classic Movies has shown several early 1930's shorts featuring silent films with mocking commentary...snark is not as new as we think.

11:07 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

What a great review of these important books, John, you do indeed understand what a magnificent historian and brilliant film scholar, William M. Drew is and why he needs to be read and re-read. “The Last Silent Picture Show” should not be overlooked, thanks for reminding me why Drew is the powerful voice; he is a man of passion and knowledge.

But for me the idea that “Mr. Griffith’s House With Closed Shutters” can be purchased on Amazon at such a reasonable price makes this breathtaking book available to anyone interested in early film history and behind the “Closed Shutter” a page-turning mystery! Of the Drew books/writings, I’ve read (and I think I have read a lot of his material) this is the most significant. Absolutely, no one should write another word about D. W. Griffith without citing Drew astonishing book.

6:09 AM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

I just ordered the Harry Langdon book you wrote about last week. Now I've got to put the Griffith tome on my wishlist. Between these two books, plus "Errol Flynn Slept Here," you're gonna make me broke! But keep 'em coming.

10:25 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer shares thoughts about image vs. reality among Hollywood directors ...

It seems to be an old story often told, with countless variations.

A Jewish hatter's son from Vienna leaves Europe on an ocean liner and emerges from steerage in New York as Erich Oswald Hans Carl Stroheim von Nordenwald, a nobleman of the Hapsburg court, fleeing the aftermath of an affaire d'honeur.

Howard Hawks and John Huston embroidered bright threads into their life's histories, Raoul Walsh was notorious for his whoppers, and Tom Mix would have had to have lived several lifetimes to encompass all the adventures he supposedly had.

Errol Flynn had a colorful life. His tragedy was that he could never redeem its messy and disagreeable aspects or fail to live down to them.

It wasn't that the lives of these men and many other men and women working in Hollywood were without merit, it was simply that the truth seemed prosaic compared to the tinsel which was such an important by-product of its output. The talent that was real enough seemed to require the justification of lives that were as marvelous as what was projected on the screens of the world.

Is it possible, then, that D. W. Griffith also fabricated a life preceding his triumphs as a film maker? Of course, and without reading the book, but knowing that he was a man of the south, I'd guess that, if such stories existed, they would pertain to his lineage. He would want his films, and certainly his first great one, The Birth of a Nation, to be seen as the expression of a culture as real as the soil from which it sprung. He would be the champion of his people, when, as with Erich Stroheim, it was a relationship that may not have existed, save in his imagination.

And even if this is so, still, it would have nothing at all to do with the validity of his work, which must be judged on its own merits.


6:09 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

No one after him has taken the risks David Wark Griffith took nor equaled (let alone surpassed his success.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION was seen by over FOUR times the population of The United States in that country alone on first release. At $2 a seat it was presented at top Broadway prices. Imagine paying top Broadway price for any movie now playing today).

Not only have the theaters that show motion pictures gotten smaller so have the men and women who make them.

It is no wonder that Griffith is is now is disfavor as he dwarfs the current slate of film makers. Those who can not measure up tear down.

I just completed this book. Am going to re-read (and re-re-read) it before saying anything on my own site. I am also going to pick up Mr. Drew's other books.

8:11 AM  

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