David Wark Griffith has long been championed as one of the great filmmakers not only of his time, but enough of a cinematic innovator to live on in the spirit of Hollywood. In his long career he directed an astonishing 520 short and feature films, though most of his acclaim is tied to only two films: The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. While these films are known to create much of the film language and technique that basically created the industry we know today, he wasn’t exactly a two-hit wonder. I won’t make the argument that those two giant epics aren’t his most important works, but many of his following features are beautifully crafted dramas that are worth watching for anyone with interest in silent cinema.

Note: All of these highlighted films [and many other Griffith films not covered] are available on Amazon Prime or YouTube.

A Corner in Wheat [1909] & The Musketeers of Pig Alley [1912]

Perhaps the two most recognized Griffith shorts, A Corner in Wheat and The Musketeers of Pig Alley show the range and talent of their filmmaker. The settings of the films couldn’t really be much more different: the wheat fields of middle America vs. the big city. The films aren’t as visually impressive as the later features, but they already employ sophisticated cross-cutting that was still new in cinema. This helped allow for more complex narratives to be told over a shorter amount of time. At just under 14 minutes, A Corner in Wheat is a surprisingly complete film with a very focused subject. Starting and ending with a farmer tending to his wheat crop, the short spins through the entire theoretical life cycle of the crop, from the tycoon trying to corner the market to the poor families unable to purchase their daily bread when the price doubles. The opening sequence is particularly compelling with a documentary feel before shifting into the main narrative plot. The Musketeers of Pig Alley is known to be the first gangster film, a genre that would become increasingly important through the 1920s and 30s. The story involves a poor, young musician and his wife and their run-in with a charismatic gangster called the Snapper Kid. Griffith’s editing acumen is in full display during the film’s climactic shoot-out scene which zooms by like a modern action setpiece. Even still, the quantum leap in scale to The Birth of a Nation only three years later is incredible.

Broken Blossoms [1919]

Along with The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, the 1919 melodrama Broken Blossoms is usually considered Griffith’s third masterpiece. It also isn’t without some racial controversy: this time with Richard Barthelmess [a white man] cast as “The Yellow Man.” Set in contemporary London, Broken Blossoms explores a seedy immigrant neighborhood and the ill-fated love between the Yellow Man and young Lucy [Lillian Gish], the daughter of a hard-headed and abusive professional boxer. Unlike the criticism surrounding The Birth of a Nation, the portrayal of the Asian character is sympathetic and the interracial romance is unique for the time. The use of “yellowface,” however, is impossible to argue for, and the makeup used to transform Barthelmess is garish. Also, the elements of crime, sex, and drugs within the Asian district doesn’t exactly give a generally positive view of Asians, even with the more nuanced central character. Aside from that [and yes, that is a big aside], Broken Blossoms is a wonderful work of narrative filmmaking, beautifully toned and tragically told. The final minutes of Broken Blossoms are absolutely devastating, one of the best examples of tragic love on screen. We can also concede that at least Griffith didn’t go with the title of the short story the film is based on, Thomas Burke’s “The Chink and the Child”---I’m guessing that wouldn’t have held up well.

True Heart Susie [1919]

True Heart Susie bills itself as the “story of a plain girl,” dedicated to all the women who wait for a man to love that never comes. While that is a pretty old fashioned condescending way to start, it is a sweet and simple melodrama. There are no big epic setpieces, there’s no real extended dramatic moments, and that’s OK. Lillian Gish stars as the title character, a young woman in love with her longtime friend William [Robert Harron, another oft used Griffith actor]. Destined to be married, Susie sells her beloved cow to secretly pay for William to attend college, as she wants to marry an educated man. But at the big college, William meets plenty of city girls who tempt his mantra of flirting with the girl who “paints and powders” but marrying the plain one. This is the perfect role for Gish and she gives a fantastic silent performance, per usual. She’s undoubtedly pretty, but her performance and especially her face has a frailty to give the film its melancholic tone. She isn’t quite the tragic character she plays in other Griffith films, but the sadness and innocence is compelling enough. True Heart Susie is one of the best “minor” films in Griffith’s filmography, perfect for what it is.

Way Down East [1920]

Way Down East opens with a plea for men to understand the pressures put on women to pick one mate for the entirety of their lives; whereas men are under no social constraints of monogamy. In the film, Lillian Gish reunites with Richard Barthelmess, though not before young Anna is seduced by a rich and handsome man, tricked with a sham marriage and abandoned with child. While the film’s lesson still applies today with slut shaming still prevalent especially among teenage girls, it hasn’t aged incredibly well. A more cynical reading of the film is that sexually frivolous men are out to get innocent young women who simply can’t make independent decisions when up against such virility. Also: it is moralistic rumor-mongering women who cause the most problems for Anna’s reintegration into society. Aside from this narrative, Way Down East is most known for its stunning climactic setpiece. Her scandalous past come to light, Anna flees a dinner party out into a blizzard where she becomes trapped on dangerous ice floes. It is a thrilling action sequence and was quite dangerous for the cast and crew---both Griffith and Gish suffered frostbite from their interactions with the freezing water. Overall, Way Down East is perhaps the quintessential version of the Griffith melodrama. It may be more saccharine than sweet at times, but the career defining performance from Gish and the incredible final scene have locked down its place in cinema history.

Abraham Lincoln [1930]

One of Griffith’s few films made after the industry’s transitions into full-sound pictures, Abraham Lincoln is a fairly straight-forward biopic of the great president, spanning his life from young adult until his death. This, of course, wasn’t the first time Griffith profiled the icon, as his assassination is a centerpiece scene of The Birth of a Nation. Walter Huston [father of filmmaker John Huston] gives Lincoln a great deal of humanity, a charismatic but simple man---especially when up against his rival, the boisterous Stephen Douglas. His transformation from fresh-faced and shy young man, in grief from the death of his first love, to powerful and stern leader of the free world is exceptional [just the makeup job to transform Huston into a spitting image of Lincoln is remarkable]. Above all else, Abraham Lincoln highlights the difficult transition for Hollywood from silent to sound. The end of the silent cinema remains one of the most innovative periods of Hollywood, with Griffith perhaps the most innovative filmmaker of all. Outside of a brief section of the film covering the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln is a rather by-the-numbers looking film. This is most noticeable when comparing the assassination scenes from Abraham Lincoln and The Birth of a Nation---the two scenes play out similarly, with almost identical staging, and yet the later version lacks the energy of the original. Aside from the central performance and as one of the first films to take a look at the important historical figure, it is an unfortunate misfire at the end of a great filmmaker’s career.