May 15, 1919 [Daddy-Long-Legs/Broken Blossoms]

Between the on-screen version of Jean Webster’s epistolary novel/stage play and Griffith’s latest exploration of otherness, the cinema these days seems full to bursting with sentiment and strange turns. Mary Pickford in Daddy-Long-Legs does her Chaplin impression--at least as a child--while Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms suffers despair and cruelty. Both performers stand at the top of their careers—but I cannot help noticing the weirdness of the worlds they inhabit.

Orphan Pickford resides in the “John Grier Home”--an obvious reference to the president of Princeton University, who himself is dedicated to supplying scholarships to deserving Westerners, cajoling the frontier to bloom among the ivy--and, after typically bizarre but humorous orphanage high-jinks (as always, I relish any moment that captures, no matter in how contrived a manner, the hidden lives of children, confronting the adult world—its bounty, its constrictions (even its inebriations)--especially in the netherworld of a surprisingly untended orphanage, in which all manner of revolution appears possible), Pickford finds herself educated and loved--but by whom? She is flabbergasted to discover: her adult benefactor, gray at the temples but ready for marriage.

As the father of two daughters, I must admit the whole thing seemed a bit, well, untoward. But that’s standard in the cinema--where the solid middle of things is blandly asserted--home sweet home and all that--while the oddest narrative loops circle the characters--and the audience--daring us to object--or to acquiesce. Either option makes for a mysterious journey.

As compelling as Gish and her made-up Oriental may be--and let’s not forget Battling Burrows--Donald Crisp screwing up his face in half-guilty rage, the brutish father who beats her, in scenes of disquieting sadism (Griffith energetically loading his trowel, building improbable edifices--here East and West ne’er meeting--if so, always tragically); and as touching as are some of the scenes--particularly when Richard Barthelmess’ “Yellow Man” presents himself as not so much inscrutable in his downward gaze as he is immobile in his despair--and no matter how attractive is Griffith’s love of visual language (even his captions are often more narration/description than (as in Daddy-Long-Legs) dialogue--in the end I felt as though I had stumbled into some strange Poe-like dream of love lost so deeply it becomes darkly obscure, something a bit clammy and, ah, cerement-al. The plot steams and clanks along, but what remains for me is the willingness I feel to take it in--or is that be taken in?

And of course this is the fun of it: part Ashcan portraiture, part Stravinsky audacity (although that fine Russian, even when he is silly, is still majestic)--each movement a surprise, whether sweet or churlish, a kind of narrative prank one sees coming a long way off, but--if the cinema is to be endured--is willing to wait and see.


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