The Moving Image

By the time Griffith took his company of Biograph players to California in the winter of 1910, he had explored enough of the new medium to realize that movies had left the stage far behind. Out of his own need to fulfill himself as an artist, Griffith expanded and refined the camera innovations of others, giving them his individual trademark. His predecessor at the Biograph studio, Wallace McCutchen, had photographed a chase from an automobile, and even earlier, in 1903, Alfred Collins of British Gaumont had used shots from moving cars. Griffith did it more masterfully and more dramatically. At the Sunset Boulevard studio the sun hardly set without at least one camera on wheels—the trucking-shot technique that Griffith used to perfection in The Birth of a Nation, when the Klans ride to their various rescues.

By taking one final step forward, Griffith brought the motion-picture art to maturity. He added touches of editorial comment or symbolism for social or political emphasis, a technique subsequently imitated by Eisenstein and Pudovkin. His two greatest masterpieces, The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, bristle with such juxtapositions of argument and plot, fact and fiction. Both films carry the quality of epics because their creator had a burning passion to rewrite history in his own image. In Intolerance, Christ, Belshazzar (Babylon’s betrayed king), the massacred Huguenots, and Modern Man (victimized by strikes, poverty, crime, charity, and the courts)—all are portrayed as sacrifices to “despotism and injustice.” The four historical stories unfold first separately and then together, linked by Griffith’s ideological editing. It is a picture ahead of its time, and our time.

Within an eight-year period (1908–16) Griffith brought the Moving Image to its peak, and today we are coasting on his achievement. Looking back, it is clear that Edison regarded the Kinetoscope and Kinetograph as machines for novel entertainment; Porter considered the craft unique as a storyteller and a money-maker; and Griffith became the master of an art form he unwittingly brought to maturity. Since then, sound and color have arrived, and the television camera and receiver—also perfected near the Hudson River—have added long-distance transmission to the medium’s capabilities. When the future passes judgment on this era, it will not be surprising if the art of the Moving Image ranks high among our creative accomplishments.

SHREWDNESS AT THE SUMMIT, or, WHO OUTFOXED WHOM? American bumptiousness has always been offensive but the abasement that goes with it is worse, for it has been deceptive.... the most serious mistake of Europe has always been to misunderstand [the Americans’] romanticism, which is the consequence of having lived a Cinderella story. It has been repeatedly mistaken for softness, gullibility, decadence. Their smile is childlike and bland; they affect an innocence and credulity which the European mind has accepted as real. Yet from Franklin and John Jay on, their negotiators have usually come back not only with all that the adept cynicism of their opponents undertook to take from them by means of a cold deck, but with the scarf pins, cuff links, and pocket watches of the cynical as well. For the romanticism is the thinnest possible veneer. There have been no such realists since the Romans and they are the hardest empiricists of the modern world. Bernard DeVoto, in the centennial issue of Harper’s Magazine, reprinted in The Easy Chair, Houghton Mifflin, 1955.