Saturday, March 16, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: THE STRUGGLE (1931)

When D. W. Griffith tried to join the Pre-Code Parade the public kicked him to the curb. For a generation Griffith had been the dean of directors, already a living legend for directing The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. His career had some rough patches later, but in 1930 he made a critically-acclaimed talkie debut with the biopic Abraham Lincoln. His follow-up, The Struggle, was a career killer. The reviews were humiliating. This one was typical.

Desperate for a positive blurb, Griffith and United Artists, the studio he co-founded, could find but one worth publicizing, but Eric M. Knight's rave set the tone for revisionist accounts of the film decades later.

It eventually became popular to assert that however his contemporaries condemned him for being behind the times, Griffith was actually ahead of them in some ways, anticipating Robert Altman in his overlapping of dialogue and countless future auteurs in his use of actual urban locations. It appealed to auteurists' sense of romanticism to see Griffith innovating to the end. But more people than ever can judge The Struggle for themselves now that Netflix has it available for streaming. My own verdict is a split decision: Griffith's swan song is a misunderstood, unfairly maligned, and not very good movie.

The Film Daily reviewer was especially typical in his equation of The Struggle with archaic anti-alcohol melodramas like Ten Nights in a Barroom. Such a spectacle, presumably, was the last thing a nation on the brink of repealing the "noble experiment" of Prohibition wanted to see. But if people took The Struggle as a brief for Prohibition it was through willful ignorance of intentions explicitly stated by Griffith in a text prologue. He claimed neutrality in the wet-vs.-dry debate, but few took him seriously as they saw alcohol ruin the film's hero, Jimmie (Hal Skelly). The film itself makes the more modern distinction between alcohol and alcoholism. Though the word isn't used, Jimmie is an alcoholic, and if a film about an alcoholic is a call for Prohibition, than so is Flight from just last year and every movie about alcoholics between now and 1931. On top of that, The Struggle has a very specific thesis about the alcoholism that claims Jimmie. It pointedly does not portray pre-Prohibition America as a wasteland of drunken depravity. Its prelude, set in 1911, is actually something of a joke, setting up a running gag for the whole picture about onetime celebrity and serial bride Peggy Hopkins Joyce and poking fun at Griffith's UA partner Mary Pickford (a character misnames her "Packard") while printing the legend that she, not Florence Lawrence, was the original "Biograph Girl." More to the point, the prelude shows a group of people drinking and dancing and having a good time, except maybe for one woman who gets "intoxicated." Griffith clearly milks for all the humor he can find the euphemistic outrage of her peers at this woman who does no more than babble inanely as she's led home. Intoxication! My word! Needless to say, this does not portray a nation that needed Prohibition.

Instead, Griffith claims -- his political neutrality notwithstanding -- that Prohibition has turned some people into worse alcoholics than they would have been before. Assuming that people will drink, Griffith and writer Anita Loos assert that speakeasies were more likely to serve the hard stuff than good old beer, while showing that bootleg hooch was often little more than poison. Disregarding safety standards, a bootlegger observes that we all gotta go sometime. Griffith is most neutral, if not complacent, on the question of mass lawbreaking. Nothing apart from Jimmie's plight appears to argue for closing down the speaks, yet within the picture itself Jimmie seems to be an exceptionally vulnerable figure. Alcohol isn't ruining anyone else's life as far as we can tell, not counting the collateral damage as it ruins Jimmie's. Taking the longer view, anyone who'd seen Intolerance and remembered the hostility shown there toward busybody moral reformers would not assume that Griffith was all for Prohibition.

Jimmie works in some kind of foundry as some kind of foreman with big ideas for improving productivity. He'd get drunk sometimes before marrying Florrie (Zita "Ankh-es-sen-amon" Johann) in 1922, but takes the pledge at her request. He sticks to it for years while remaining sociable with his cronies, drinking sarsaparilla in speakeasies. Curiously, he falls off the wagon on the day another worker gets laid off. He takes the poor man to the speak for a consolation snort but is urged to have one himself. He agrees, as if embarrassment at abstaining among friends had finally caught up with him. He's ready to leave after one, but when someone else offers to buy, it'd be unfriendly not to accept. Soon enough the laid-off man is long gone and Jimmie is tying one on, and it's downhill from there.

For most of its length The Struggle is more of a rout as Jimmie reels from disaster to disaster, from ruining his sister-in-law's engagement party (and humiliating his own boss) to getting conned into cashing in his $4,000 insurance policy and investing it in a fake bootlegging scheme. He appears to touch bottom when, some time after Florrie has thrown him out, he sees his family's furniture put on the street as mother and daughter are evicted from already reduced circumstances. Wandering into the empty rooms, he appears to have an epiphany as he hears a radio play the hymn "Abide With Me" across the street. We next see him begging for any honest work, and Griffith clearly wants us to think that this is the start of his recovery. Not yet: weak from malnutrition, Jimmie faints while working on a road crew and is revived only by a co-worker's flask. He doesn't make it through his first day, and soon he's a "begging bum" and the laughingstock of the neighborhood kids, cadging dimes for "a cup of coffee." When the kids tease his daughter Mary with their discovery of his panhandling, the stage is set for a Griffith finish. Mary tracks her dad to a hovel where he mumblingly flashbacks to happier days at home and work, then goes berserk as Mary gently confronts him. One last time the old master does his crosscutting trick as Jimmie chases Mary around in a manner almost reminiscent of Broken Blossoms while Florrie races down one of those authentic city streets toward the address Mary has written on a note for her. Luckily, Jimmie passes out before he can do real damage to his daughter.

And then everything turns out all right. Florrie nurses Jimmie back to health and sobriety, he gets his job back, and earns a promotion when the boss implements his efficiency scheme. The End. You really can't blame audiences for feeling disappointed at the abrupt turnaround. They didn't know how to account for it, and it's hard for us, too. Griffith skips all the scenes of confession and resolution we've come to expect from addiction movies; Jimmie just gets better and that's all there is to it. A generous reading might credit Griffith with implying that Jimmie's recovery is as tentative as it seems arbitrary, or with allowing us to infer that it could all fall apart again at any moment. But Griffith is too much the oldschool showman for us to see this as anything other than the implausibly happy ending that it seems. A more complete print might spell things out more recognizably, but while contemporary reviews report an 87 minute running time, the edition streaming on Netflix runs only 76 minutes. We're missing more than 10% of the movie Griffith released, but what's missing may have matched the dismal descriptions of early reviewers more than what we have.

Reminder: The Struggle is a Pre-Code picture.

What we have doesn't seem as primitive as hostile reviewers claimed, but it doesn't really display much directorial style, either. Its most visually clever moment comes when Griffith dissolves from the shuffling feet of the 1911 dancers to the frantic steps of higher-skirted dancers in the 1922 sequence. The location work looks fine but Griffith doesn't really do much with it apart from the tracking shot of Johann running down the street at the climax. The Struggle is really more an actors' film than a directorial showcase. Griffith trusts Skelly to put on a show and the actor delivers. He's at his best in the mid-picture drunk scenes when Jimmie is his most recklessly sociable. Skelly and his fellow actors may be improvising as they go along, and there's a dull ring of authenticity in their banter. The rest of the cast fails to impress, little Edna Hagan as Mary being particularly bad as she appears to stare straight at cue cards in search of her lines rather than at the actors playing her parents. Griffith gives us a plausible portrait of an alcoholic -- did experience contribute to it? -- but smothers it with excessive melodrama. Still, to make a portrait of an alcoholic was neither excessive nor archaic. But I suppose that Pre-Code audiences were no more comfortable with the disasters of alcoholism on screen than audiences are today. They may well have been less comfortable with the material than we are, and that may be a point against them rather than one against Griffith.

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