Friday, March 06, 2015

Book Review: "The Films of D.W. Griffith" by Scott Simmon

A superb survey of the types of films Griffith was making during his creatively fertile tenure at Biograph, Scott Simmon's "The Films of D.W. Griffith" (Cambridge University Press, 1993) is rich in analysis and scope. After a chapter situating Griffith within both American culture and film history, Simmon devotes four chapters to specific themes within Griffith's work: the urban spaces of his city dramas, the role of female characters in the "woman's pictures", family honor in The Birth of a Nation and other Civil War pictures, and, finally, the role of film as a tool of reform, in relation to Intolerance.

In dealing with Griffith's overwhelming 450-plus film output, Simmon takes a wise approach in discussing one representative film per each year of his Biograph period (1908-1913). This allows for a thoughtful examination, not only in terms of the themes Simmon discusses, but how Griffith's approach to those themes changed or remained consistent over the first five years of his directorial career. Included is a convenient listing of all the titles Simmon discusses in the book, which provides a good starting point for readers to study this vast period of Griffith's career in greater detail. Thankfully, Griffith is unique among early filmmakers in that nearly all of his output (with the exception of maybe ten or so films) survives, making it easier to have something closer to a comprehensive survey of his work than is possible for other filmmakers of the era.

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