The Alcoholic Weepie that Ended D.W. Griffith’s Career

D.W. Griffith’s last film as a director was The Struggle, the story of an alcoholic’s decline and eventual reform. After a series of commercial and critical flops in the 1920s, the pioneering filmmaker — best known for the hideously-racist-but-formally-groundbreaking Birth of a Nation in 1915 — had seemingly begun to restore his reputation with his first full talkie, the reverential Abraham Lincoln in 1930. The biopic was critically admired but commercially mediocre, so his next effort needed to hit, if he was to secure continued access to outside funding and the respect of the newly dominant Hollywood studios.

The Struggle put an end to those hopes. It told of Jimmie Wilson, a bright young steel mill foreman whom Prohibition, Griffith suggested, had made a regular binge drinker of hard liquor. Jimmie marries the adoring Florrie on the promise that he’ll never touch another drop, but small setbacks and anxieties soon send him back to the bar, including a memorable challenge to his manhood for ordering a sarsparilla. (“What do you think this is,” the barman mocks, “a pansy bed?”) Jimmie’s binges get longer and harder, and then he drinks to dull the shame of the resulting career failure and family misery. His wife and daughter stand by him resolutely, until he blows his life insurance on a bootlegging scam and disappears into the streets. His daughter Mary eventually finds him, holed up in an abandoned building and suffering the d.t.s. Delusional, he tries to kill her, but Florrie arrives just in time to save them both. She nurses him back to health, and he works his way back to prosperity, in the final scene signing over ownership of his successful new foundry plan to Florrie, “my new boss.”

Despite framing it as a hot-button Prohibition thinker, and despite hiring au courant husband-wife writing team of John Emerson and Anita Loos, Griffith horrified critics with this hackneyed subject matter and his melodramatic treatment of it. “The beating was savage and relentless,” Richard Shickel wrote in his Griffith biography, from which some other details below are drawn. The reviews “may well be the worst that any director of his standing and post achievement has ever had.” The focus of this critical ire was its old-fashioned rendering of the drunkard’s tale as a “pitiably stupid homily,” an “antique” better suited to the 1870s than the 1930s. Worse still, audiences ignored it.

Griffith was humiliated. After holing up in his hotel room for a six-week drinking session — more on that supposed irony below — he began the long process of winding down his deeply indebted production company. No one else hired him again, except as a name brought in for the credits.

But the film remains intensely interesting, as a viewing experience and as an episode in the cultural history of alcoholism.

Critics have reconsidered The Struggle’s merits. Due to budgetary constraints, for example, Griffith did some innovative outdoor shooting in the Bronx for his rough-and-tumble street scenes. It is now held in higher regard than the Lincoln film. But the conventional view remains that Griffith was unable to transcend the broadly melodramatic style of his silent-film formative period two decades earlier, and thus erred badly (comically, even) by offering the America of 1931 a temperance melodrama. Given the contemporary reviews, consensus could hardly be otherwise. Some audience members literally laughed, some critics claimed, when they were supposed be shedding a tear.

Delirium tremens as a screen convention.

Yet, it’s not as if melodramas were out of style in that era — the 1930s was the Golden Age of weepies. Nor had Depression audiences become hardened to the pathos of a father rendered helpless by alcohol, and the child whose love redeems him. Indeed, opening just a month before the The Struggle was the classic of that genre, The Champ, which won academy awards for Frances Marion’s screenplay and Wallace Beery’s lead acting, plus a nomination for director King Vidor. The Champ has gone down in history as a seminal popular film. Franco Zeffirelli remade it in 1979, with all the emotional push-points intact. Critics have always expressed some embarrassment at the story’s sentimentality, but they agree that it works.

It is surely possible to break down what distinguishes a successful film melodrama from a failed one, in terms of its storyline, cinematography, and social context. Gender is one key qualifier. Since at least the middle of the nineteenth century, women’s fictionalized emotions have been written off as self-indulgent, while men’s have been elevated to the status of the tragic. So the long-suffering wife of the male alcoholic will be perceived as a stock type, while the loyal young son can appear uniquely moving.

It’s all in the eyes.

But I don’t think we much of the time do that analytical work, especially in regard to addiction stories. What interests me in regard to The Struggle is how people talk about failed melodramas. The descriptors used to denounce Griffith’s “dismal chronicle” hardly distinguish it from any other story of alcoholic decline.

In part this must be because melodramatic and sentimental styles have long been in aesthetic disrepute. But it seems to me that critics, and perhaps most of us, draw on the terms of this disrepute selectively, calling on them to write off a work by quick categorization or false periodization. It is a vocabulary not for explaining formal shortcomings but for expressing distance from the perceived target audience of a film. While I want to avoid false critical populism, I think we do, in the language we use for such films, assign them to the realm of “for people who are not as clever or sophisticated as us.” I know I do. A film that tries to stir our emotions but fails feels deeply contemptible, hostile to our self-concepts. Points managing editor Trysh Travis has written very helpfully about this phenomenon as a way of understanding the academic neglect of recovery culture.

And indeed this critical shortcut is especially interesting when it comes to addiction. Most addiction tales, whether successful or not, work within the structure of narrative forms developed in the nineteenth century: temperance decline and evangelical conversion. Self-consciously realist, modernist, and postmodernist addiction stories — movements which are to some extent predicated on the rejection of the melodramatic and the sentimental — very often use a thin layer of aesthetic effect and tonal affect to obscure their use of these same old templates.

In a book coming out next year I write about how some modern novels do this. In previous posts here I wrote about how more recent screen works like Requiem for a Dream, and Mad Men, do similarly. Even our most empirically assertive conceptions of addiction are often built on such narrative. Watch the vignettes in HBO’s heavily neuroscientific Addiction project, and find yourself invited into a familiar realm of emotions.

In the end, no matter what larger meaning frames it, addiction narrative is pathetic. And its long, drawn-out pathos can only be narrativized by resort to a tighter sequence of symbolically representative pathetic turns. I’m not suggesting this can’t be done with great nuance and tonal subtlety. My go-to film for addiction narrative without easy emotional satisfactions is Debra Granik’s Down to the Bone. But it is still, essentially, a jerker of tears. You can’t denounce an addiction story for its pathos alone. The pathos goes all the way down, insofar as social loss is fundamental to its definition.

And a closer look at The Struggle reveals that there is more going on than mere anachronism. Consider some fascinating facts about its genesis, none of which rise to the level of the key that unlocks its meaning and reception, but which together tell a story about addiction narrative in the modern era and its fraught relationship with disreputable aesthetic styles.

Griffith maintained a career-long interest in alcoholics as characters (often as violent fathers), and alcoholism narrative as potentially transformative for drinkers. His 1909 short, “The Drunkard’s Reformation,” tells of a drinker whose daughter takes him to a temperance play as a strategy for reforming him. The key shots in the film are of the father’s face as he reacts, in a sequence of emotions, to what he is seeing on stage — a drunken father abusing his family. Roberta E. Pearson identified this kind of acting in Griffith’s early films as a hybrid of “the histrionic and verisimilar codes,” involving classic melodramatic stage tableaux, within which actors performed small gestures of filmic realism with their faces and hands. This transitional style’s presence in The Struggle does seem dated. But again, I contend that it is just another version of the updating techniques that almost all addiction narrative partake in as they inhabit those older story structures.

Identifying, not comparing, in “The Drunkard’s Reformation.” (Image courtesy of 11east14thstreet.com)

And Griffith had other aesthetic influences in his last film — perhaps just as dated, but not as easily pigeonholed. His original treatment for The Struggle was based on Augustin Daly’s 1879 play “The Demon Drink,” which itself was a loose adaptation of Emile Zola’s naturalistic novel, L’Assommoir (The Dram Shop). Loos reported that Griffith resisted her and Emerson’s efforts to create psychologically fuller characters in the film, because he had become fixated — despite the vast distance between Zola’s dense, unsentimental story and his own — on a version of the naturalistic concept that human behavior is largely unmotivated. He didn’t want Jimmie’s self-destruction to make sense by any established code of realism, dramatic or psychological.

Critics felt that what they were left with, without character motive, was mere temperance polemic — a logic that exists only to show the evils of alcohol, not the makeup of the human being. But actual temperance melodrama did include all manner of internal motive, too. When the Times reviewer wrote that The Struggle “seldom rises above that old-time contribution, ‘The Face on the Bar Room Floor,’” he missed a key difference. In that poem of 1872 and 1887, turned into a Charlie Chaplin film in 1914, the protagonist has turned to drink out of heartbreak. By contrast, only minor anxieties kick off Jimmie’s sprees, and it’s never clear why he drinks so recklessly. Once he starts, he can’t stop.

Another way of viewing this narrative logic is as that of alcoholism. Jimmie Wilson is neither depressed nor heartbroken. He is a compulsive drinker, and is so in a way that fits quite neatly with Bill Griffith Wilson’s formula of insanity/obsession/compulsion later in the decade. The Struggle, then, is more at home in its era’s emergent alcoholic realism, in that way, than many films in which addiction must be “about” something bigger.

A man on a bed.

Griffith himself was an alcoholic entering a transition stage from periodical binges to, in his later years in the 1940s, constant drinking. Schickel regrets that even if the film was an effort toward self-knowledge, still it remained “irresolute to the point of absurdity” about the psychology of alcoholism. The most important thing for a melodrama to do, it seems, is to marry its emotional structure to a psychological principle of motive and action, of dramatic cause and effect. Critics are never so unforgiving as when they can’t figure out why a character acted as he or she did.

But consider the aforementioned components that Griffith forged this work from: a career-long commitment to adapting stage melodrama to the film medium; a temporary but passionate interest in philosophical naturalism as an alternative to conventional psychodrama; screenwriting by an archly modern humorist in Loos; an experiment in slum realism in the memorable street scenes; and personal experience, building toward crisis, with alcoholic compulsion.

We might call these the essential ingredients of realistic addiction narrative in the twentieth century, indeed to this day. Under tremendous pressure, Griffith grasped at all of them, but wasn’t in a position to combine them with much coherence, given rapid changes in the film medium. Still, The Struggle should be given credit for, however clumsily, conning uncharted territory in alcoholism narrative. It is definitely worth a viewing, along with “The Drunkard’s Reformation,” by historians of alcoholism.

2 thoughts on “The Alcoholic Weepie that Ended D.W. Griffith’s Career

  1. An excellent article on so many levels. Griffith made his early works during a time in which there was much discussion of the enormous potential of cinema both for social and artistic “progress.” The arts and the sciences, of which cinema was seen as encompassing both, were viewed in terms of their ability to move society “forward” through technological advances, and the expression of “truth” and “beauty” in the arts. Realistic depictions of the ugly aspects of existence in this new art form/technological wonder were resisted strongly in many quarters, particularly the shapers of opinion in the media: critics and social commentators. Griffith’s use of the alcoholic’s story in “Drunkard’s Reformation” without giving his protagonist some sort of motivating factor “causing” him to drink was daring and ahead of its time. Ironically, his similar treatment of the character in “The Struggle” two decades later, simply blew right past audiences of 1930 who were weary of prohibition, and the critics and behavioral experts of the time who looked for psychological motivation in every aspect of human behavior, including addiction.

    I see “Drunkard’s Reformation” as brilliant on multiple levels. First, the film is groundbreaking in terms of its innovative editing, and in the contrasting acting styles used by the stage characters and the “real” characters of the story (an interpretation which differs from Ms. Pearson’s in her excellent work on the subject of early film acting). Second, against the prevailing “headwinds” of opinion of that time, Griffith was able to create a realistic film narrative, one that simultaneously won over the temperance interests and satisfied the forces of censorship — both of which he thoroughly detested. If it was his intent to do something similar with the story in 1930, then he seriously misjudged the times — temperance as a social cause was dead, and movie audiences were being offered cheap cinematic thrills — sex and violence — in unprecedented quantity, which in a few short years would bring the forces of censorship to bear squarely on the Hollywood film factories for the next 30 years.

    Griffith, because he was “canonized” so early (he was referred to as the “Genius of film” as early as 1913), has been subjected to many efforts to pigeonhole his work, including of course many attempts to knock him from a pedestal that was poorly fabricated to begin with. Unfortunately for Griffith, he still awaits a biographer who, unlike Mr. Schickel, can write without being locked into a cinematic or social frame of reference circa 1945.

  2. Gene, thanks so much for your insights into early film and especially the nuances of “Drunkard’s Reformation,” both here and at your website. Your points about “The Struggle”‘s reception, from the critics of 1931 through to Schickel’s biography, make me think about what a mixed bag the rise of the psychological outlook has been for the arts in general. On the one hand it elevated them into this role as the creative component of a universal new project of human understanding, running from the intricate intellectual endeavor of psychoanalysis to colloquial debates about motive and desire. On the other hand, psychology has so often been the source of reductive creative and critical language, always rushing past formal techniques to get to the “real” stuff of the mind.

    It’s interesting that you pinned a particularly psychological interpretation of film to1945, because that was the year of Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend,” the classic psycho-drama of alcoholism. For all its own formal excellence (and it cleaned up at the Oscars), its psycho-sensationalism (like the heavy handed Freudianism of Charles Jackson’s novel) reads to me every bit as dated and constructed as Griffith’s melo-naturalistic-drama.

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