This first episode covers the years of 1876-1915 in the life of maverick filmmaker D.W. Griffith. The documentary shows Griffith's early life in Kentucky up to The Birth of a Nation being released with various folks ranging from Frank Capra, Lillian Gish, Blanche Sweet and various others commenting on the man. The documentary does a great job at breaking down Griffith's early career and that includes the four-hundred plus movies that he made at Biograph and his reasons for leaving the studio to make bigger pictures. The main draw here of course is going to be the discussion of The Birth of a Nation and it's rather amazing at how many different stories can be told about one thing with such wide range of opinions on what actually happened. There's some great stuff that separates this version of the events as we get to hear from a black man who watched the movie in 1916 and hearing his stories on what happened were quite chilling. The other side is also well represented without letting the director off the hook. President Wilson is pretty much thrown under the bus with an original note he wrote to Griffith about the film. Another thing that was nicely pointed out is that four years prior to this film Griffith released a movie where the KKK were the mortal villains. While nothing new can really be said about the topic the film does shine a light on one thing that everyone, including myself, seemed to overlook and that was the fact that Griffith would stop at nothing to get the perfect scenes on film and it didn't matter what happened afterwards as he put no thought into it.
Episode two covers 1915 through 1921 in the director's career as the controversy of The Birth of a Nation lingers on as Intolerance was going into production. After that film turned into a commercial flock, Griffith, the original independent filmmaker, set out overseas to capture WW1 only to return home with one more shot at a masterpiece in Way Down East. This second episode is just as good as the first one and once again a lot of different opinions and views are discussed. Having read several books about Griffith and his films there were new things to be learned here including the truth before the box office results of Intolerance and how it actually was a hit until the roadshow screenings, which Griffith spent too much on. Also we learn about Hearts of the World and how big of a hit it was. The most interesting stuff happens on the making of Way Down East, which at the time was the most expensive movie ever made just by Griffith paying nearly two-hundred-thousand for the rights to the play. Anyone who has seen the movie will never forget the incredible ice scene at the end and thankfully this documentary goes into nice detail about how this was done. The best scene happens with Gish finally get fed up of lying on the ice so she demanded a stunt double. Griffith gave it to her but the double quit after one day and this forced Gish back out there. The double is interviewed here and is a lot of fun. We also get to see the actual locations of the shoot, which just makes the scene all the more amazing.
Episode three starts off in 1922 and follows up to Griffith's death in 1948. Once again we get a lot of talk about the rest of Griffith's career, which ended up being over with in 1931 after The Struggle was released to disastrous reviews. People also tend to forget that this was one of the biggest disasters in movie history up to that point but I guess this viewpoint gets overlooked now as the film seems to get better reviews. The most interesting aspect from this era are how Griffith failed going back to the studios and his career could never rebound. The Sorrows of Satan was a major flop and Lady of the Pavements couldn't connect either. These stories have been told with different views from various books but this documentary takes a different stand as well. They seem to think that Griffith's career pretty much ended because certain majors didn't want to deal with him not just because he was difficult but because he was too big for them. In other words, the name Griffith was simply too powerful that they feared him as did the budget studios who didn't think they could get him. The final portions of Griffith's life are rather depressing and this is the one thing everyone seems to agree on. The most fascinating aspect is that I've read Griffith didn't have anyone attending his funeral but the footage here proves otherwise as both DeMille and Chaplin appeared and spoke. Another great bit of footage is of Griffith's Honorary Oscar where there's some newsreel footage of him joking around with Bette Davis.
In the end those interested in Griffith's career will find a lot to enjoy here as Brownlow and Gill do a very good job at going through nearly five-hundred films and showing what the man was all about. As is the fact, the documentary is fair and balanced as it shows Griffith didn't really invent a lot of the stuff he gets credit for but he did use it better than everyone else. As I said earlier, I've read countless books on the man and they all offer different opinions and that holds true here. It seems there will never be one final word on Griffith but this here, running over two and a half hours, comes the closest.
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