D.W. Griffith’s final film, a remembrance of The Drunkard’s Reformation from the vantage point of sound and the Great Depression. "Man’s struggle against intemperance" is the theme for a tale of tainted hooch and domestic skirmishes, agonizingly archaic and dazzlingly modernist in equal measure. The waltzing couples are like John Singer Sargent canvases in motion, a dissolve dissipates the American Belle Époque and ushers in the Charlestoning saloon, Hal Skelly declares his sobriety and proposes to Zita Johann in the same unbroken take. The couple lives happily with daughter (Edna Hagan), aunt (Evelyn Baldwin), and assorted ethnic sidekicks, until Skelly ditches sarsaparilla for booze and brings the family to ruin -- the folly of O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet is anticipated, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn tells the daughter’s version. Griffith doesn’t cloak the story’s creakiness, he faces it head-on and erects images to embody and purify its emotions. Every shot feels a beat or two too long, yet the mysterious elongation of the moment is what makes a close-up of Johann gazing at the window from which her husband has just sneaked out so profoundly moving. Skelly flabbergasted at his newborn baby, the return to the empty apartment, the helpless thrashing in the dark shack -- flares of nakedness as close and uncomfortable as anything in Cassavetes and Pialat. The camera on the sidewalks of the Bronx glances sideways and spots immigrants sitting on porches, the subway rattling on an elevated track is reflected in a display window. The translucent technique was lost on critics who came to gloat over the director’s "decline," and even as sensitive a defender as Andrew Sarris could still miss the jokes in the 1911 prologue ("Moving pictures? They’re all terrible... Have you seen the new Biography girl?"). The Servant (table-hopping chatter at the café) and 8½ (the hoochie-coochie line in the speakeasy) are just two of the unacknowledged pilferers, Griffith all the same bids cinema a smiling adieu ("Your eyes are shining"). With Charlotte Wynters, Jackson Halliday, Claude Cooper, and Arthur Lipson. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce