MoMA’s restoration of D. W. Griffith’s Talkie debut, a final historical epic from the faded film pioneer (available on a KINO DVD), adds fascinating footage long missing from most prints. (And still missing its accompanying soundtrack.) The most important addition is a brief, horrific look at a slave trafficking ship that moves the camera in to witness conditions for the human cargo. It’s but a moment of prologue, groundwork laid out to show the system that led to the Civil War, yet powerful enough to make this series of uneven biographical blackout sketches even more frustrating to watch than it had been. Griffith wasn’t much involved in the film’s post-production work, he’d been reduced to job-for-hire work, but it’s doubtful that he could have made the lumpy succession of waxwork dramatics and smartly edited location work play better than it does. The gap between Audio-Animatronics playlets fit for a Junior High Field trip and strikingly handsome lensing from Karl Struss on some remarkably fluid montage work constantly pulls you in and out of the episodic drama. Alas, mostly out. (Hard to know who’s to blame for an early scene that catches Walter Huston’s generally effective Lincoln in full stage makeup to gruesome effect.)
DOUBLE-BILL: Griffith quickly followed this major effort with his final project, a last-gasp micro-budgeted drunkard’s tale titled THE STRUGGLE/’31. Reviled on release, the reputations of his two sound films have now largely reversed. And since STRUGGLE is included on KINO’s DVD, it’s easy to judge. Particularly strong on NYC-location atmosphere, it ends with a career-appropriate race thru the streets finale. An awkward film, it requires considerable critical latitude to get past overplaying lead, vaudevillian Hal Skelly, but is worth the effort.