The Struggle (1931) was D.W. Griffith's last feature film. He was fifty-six years old when it was released and it had only been sixteen years since he stood astride the film world with the breakthrough Birth of a Nation. Griffith would live another seventeen years, occasionally working on the margins of the industry, under pseudonyms, but that proud opening title, "personally directed by D.W. Griffith" was never to be seen again. And by reputation, The Struggle seems an ignominious end to an illustrious career. The film flopped so badly that some newspaper accounts have it disappearing from theaters within a week. Critics savaged it, and the movie was simultaneously decried as too old-fashioned and too "Soviet" (the latter argument, apparently based on the title yet unfathomable given the film's content, only offers further proof that no one went to see it). The Struggle ended Griffith's career not with a bang, but a whimper.
So imagine my surprise upon discovering the film today. Tacked onto the Abraham Lincoln disc as an addendum (and together, these films were only released two weeks ago), it arrived unheralded and I wasn't expecting much. But The Struggle is not only Griffith's best available film since Way Down East, it's one of his best, period. The movie has its flaws, but is far superior to the more widely acknowledged Abraham Lincoln, which was Griffith's first talkie. Lincoln feels like a silent film with dialogue superimposed, whereas The Struggle is surprisingly modern - in everything from its use of sound to its performances to its photography. This is an astonishing and impressive work of art, all the more so for being unusual in Griffith's canon.
The Struggle is a straight-up tale of alcoholism. Its virtues are not to be found in the plot, which bares no discernible difference from the myriad other "rise and fall of the drinker" stories which have been told from time to time. No, The Struggle passes the true auteur test, which is to say that it takes relatively indifferent material with emotional potential, and mines every opportunity for humanity and realism. Griffith shot on location in the Bronx and cast vaudevillian actor Hal Skelly who gives a harrowing and thoroughly convincing performance. Griffith's decline was due in part to his adherence to a Victorian form of melodrama, but The Struggle feels more naturalistic, complex, and nuanced than most of its contemporaries.
Griffith has always had a naturalistic touch in domestic scenes, in which families gather, celebrate, and mourn. Often nothing much happens in these sequences, but Griffith maintains our interest because his players seem like they're really engaged in conversation, as if they're enjoying life unaware of being watched. Until now, we didn't have sound to go with the pictures, but with The Struggle we do, and this only deepens our attachment to the figures onscreen. Griffith stages a few small family scenes, and one party, with the loose touch of a master. The characters don't move like puppets, but like people, expressive, conflicted, happy, sad, flowing easily on the steady stream of Griffiths' mise en scene.
When the drunkard arrives at his sister's engagement party and embarrasses his family, it's excruciating not because the screenplay tells us it should be, but because everyone seems genuinely embarrassed. We react as we would at a real party, because it feels like one - the sister and her fiance sneak off into the corner, trade rings, and kiss, and the image seems captured from a home movie camera, rather than staged for the big screen. The man of the house, loaded, arrives in the room waving his arms, and knocks down the banner - not a banner which stagehands placed carefully on the set, but one which we saw the wife putting up earlier. All the details are there; the universe feels fully lived-in (a trait which The Struggle shares with another initially overlooked - and still misunderstood - film about the nitty-gritty day-to-day existence of families, It's a Wonderful Life). Even the film's unhurried pace becomes a virtue, paving the way for numerous moments of unexpected truth.
After one drunken bout, the scene opens casually, with a close-up of a doll bowing and dancing. The drunk's little daughter is playing with the doll, but how often is play presented with such interest and enthusiasm? Children are usually relegated to backgrounds of scenes, made to speak in overly strident tones, their artificiality heightened by the director's condescension and disinterest. But Griffith is fascinated by the little girl's actions, and her acting rings true because he doesn't condescend towards her. As she sits on the bed, her father arrives at the doorway and stands sheepishly, half-in, half-out. His posture simultaneously conveys a personal weakness and ambivalence, yet seems to be the natural behavior of the character.
As the protagonist descends into a losing struggle, the mise en scene crackles and breathes with a portrait of urban Depression America which rings true because it is true. I've been told that an unseen Griffith film (The Sorrows of Satan) foreshadows neorealism. I don't know if that's true, but The Struggle certainly anticipates the classic works of postwar Italy. As the mother runs down the street, racing towards her degraded husband's flop house, her daughter's note flapping her hands, and real homeless and poor men and women scowling on the bustling sidewalks behind her, it's an old Griffith "race to the finish" with a twist, Intolerance by way of De Sica. Except De Sica was fifteen years away from Shoe Shine and Bicycle Thieves and Griffith was working not out of necessity, but choice.
The climax of the picture is as innovative as it is raw, and not just because it's raw. One sequence especially impresses: the drunk arrives home to find that his family has been evicted. No one is home, and he stumbles around the empty room, lost and confused. He hears a noise - from outside? - the shifting static of a radio station culminating with loud church organ music. Looking out the window he sees, across the way in a parallel building, another open window. Inside is his daughter, with several other children she's been taken to live with, playing with the radio. The man slumps to the ground, humiliated, tired, pathetic. He does not call out to his child. We fade to black.
Ultimately, The Struggle offers some redemption for its hero, but it earns this indulgence by showing us the genuine depths to which he -and the world around him - have tumbled. Less than two years after the Crash, Griffith faces the Depression head on. And even if he promises imminent recovery - based on an old-fashioned work ethic - in his conclusion, the film still feels pertinent. This is not even to mention the obvious drinking theme which, far from advocating Prohibition, seems to find the ban a pathetic joke, one which only further damages society and individuals (but then, Griffith never liked moralistic reformers).
The acknowledgement of Depression and Prohibition marks the picture as a product of its times, rare for a Griffith film. Even in something like The Battle of the Sexes, which finally adopts the flappers and nightclubs of the era, contemporary history remains a backdrop at best, and is often evaded altogether. Yet Griffith boldly opens The Struggle in 1911, with all kinds of tongue-in-cheek references to the fads and mores of the time ("Who's that Biograph girl"?" "Why, I think her name is Mary Packard!"). This is immediately contrasted with the free and easy dancers of 1923 (already dated too by this time). The Struggle is the only Griffith film I've seen which grapples with the 20th century as lived by its denizens - the only one which can serve as a primary source for historians, sociologists, and the eternally curious among us who wonder how our grandparents and great grandparents really lived.
And there's also something poignant in the nostalgia of the 1911 opening. Griffith pokes fun at the ladies in long dresses, the outdated attitudes, and the way current fashions - in thought, clothes, and speech - always end up looking absurd a few years down the line. But this was his time too - he was in his thirties in 1911, moving ever higher in the realms of film art and film business - and as the Biograph reference reminds us, Griffith was part of the popular culture, a notable breeze in the air that average Americans breathed. Now, a mere twenty years later, he's a relic. Even as he faces up to his era in a powerful work which proves that he's still got it - and what's more, that he can develop and change and grow in his craft - Griffith is slipping off the historical radar altogether. In terms of art and accomplishment, the great director wins his struggle. In terms of recognition and acceptance, he loses. What a pity.
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The D.W. Griffith series begins here.