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D.W. Griffith’s career ended with a raw drama shot on the streets of the Bronx

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: In the spirit of Life Of Riley, the final film by Alain Resnais, we’ve singled out other swan songs from master directors.

The Struggle (1931)

Equally enamored with the myth of the heroic South and the myth of the liberating Lincoln, and as uncritical of racist iconography as he was eager to make pleas for racial tolerance, D.W. Griffith is film history’s definitive contradiction—a stodgy and sentimental self-styled Victorian who was always out of step with the times, but did daring, thoroughly modern work in a new medium. Griffith was an eccentric and an exception.

Griffith directed only two complete sound films, both richly complicated by contradictory impulses. The first was Abraham Lincoln, a biopic whose Wagnerian portent—which casts John Wilkes Booth as a kind of sorcerer who wants to achieve immortality by stealing Lincoln’s life essence—is offset by Walter Huston’s profoundly earthy lead performance. The second was The Struggle, the movie popularly credited with ending Griffith’s film career, a preachy and passé temperance story than shifts genres several times over and experiments with radical realism. It is alternately didactic and elegant, corny and terrifying; it looks to the 1800s for inspiration, and ends up prefiguring the Italian neorealists.

The Struggle opens with a prologue that shows Jimmie (professional dancer Hal Skelly) over two decades, as he goes from being a casual drinker to being a full-blown alcoholic and falls in love with Florrie (Zita Johann), who agrees to marry him if he quits drinking. This section of the film is packed with winks to the audience (“Moving pictures? No, I think they’re terrible!” says a character before her friend launches into a discussion of early Griffith muse Mary Pickford) and over-stressed historical ironies, though they’re nicely counterbalanced by Griffith’s graceful handling of the passage of time, which he depicts using close-ups of a dance floor, with the awkwardness of a couple’s slow dance in 1911 dissolving into an energetic Charleston in 1923.

The interesting thing about this section—which sets up the relapse into addiction that structures the rest of the movie—is that it’s intentionally fanciful and artificial, and looks and moves nothing like the rest of the film. The Struggle is one of the grimmest depictions of the Great Depression to have actually been made during the period. With the exception of the 1911 scenes, which were filmed in Stamford’s leafy Springdale neighborhood, Griffith shot the whole film in the Bronx, using a small local sound stage for the three major interiors. The movie oozes raw, unvarnished authenticity; for viewers who’ve grown accustomed to seeing clean back-lot street corners in movies from the 1930s, there’s something exhilarating about spotting a real Third Avenue El train reflecting in a storefront window. Despite his small budget, Griffith was eager to experiment with sound, going so far as to mount the microphones in steel bowls to better capture the ambiance of the steel mill where Jimmie works.

Were The Struggle merely a story of relapse and recovery, it would be easy to peg. But toward the end, as Jimmie hits rock bottom, it effectively transforms into an expressionist horror movie, with Jimmie as a pathetic monster lurking in the shadows, terrorizing his young daughter. Griffith reportedly struggled with alcoholism, but he was also the son of an alcoholic; few films have more succinctly visualized the experiences of a child faced with an unstable parent.

Availability: The Struggle can be streamed through Netflix, and is also available on a DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library, and to rent or purchase from the major digital services.