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The Forgotten: D.W. Griffith's "Battle of the Sexes" (1928)

D.W. Griffith attempts a comedy of manners in “Battle of the Sexes,” a late silent from the tail end of his fame.
With a new film entitled The Birth of a Nation in cinemas, we may expect to hear more about D.W. Griffith, whose 1915 version stands as both a crowning glory and a primal sin of the early American film. The period of Griffith's career least discussed is the late silent era, when he was falling from both independence and preeminence and was forced to take work he might otherwise have looked down on. Nevertheless, his restless creativity sometimes found expression in what he probably saw as potboilers.
Battle of the Sexes starts as a Jazz Age comedy in which flapper-vamp Phyllis Haver and her "jazz hound" lover Don Alvarado conspire to seduce (her department) and fleece (his specialty) a wealthy businessman (Jean Hersholt). Griffith sets up the good bourgeoise's family home with all the sentimentality one might expect from his Victorian sensibility, but unexpectedly finds far more fun in the bad guys. Is this just because the shameless party animals of the Jazz Age are more appealing to us than the whitebread happy families the director always celebrated, or does he share our sneaking admiration for the wicked, sexy and amoral couple?
Certainly the title-writer seems to get more inspired whenever his villains are onscreen: Alvarado is introduced as "Babe Winsor: the wrong answer to a maiden's prayer," and Haver is later heard to rhapsodize over her lover with the memorable phrase, "Perfumed ice!"
By contrast, stodgy Hersholt has an equally stodgy wife, characterized as "sympathetic" rather than actually interesting (so we have little if any real sympathy for her), and their two teenage children are played with barely-suppressed mania, which may indeed be how 1920s teenagers behaved, I don't know. The movie is at pains to make clear that Hersholt the lover cuts a ridiculous figure, levering his middle-aged torso into a murderous corset, reducing himself to a perspiring mess on the dance floor, all the while imagining that his peroxide gold digger loves him for himself. Sometimes morality, hilarity, cruelty and wisdom can go hand in hand.
Hersholt becomes still more unappealing as he falls prey to jealous rages over his new squeeze's attachment to jazz hound Alvarado, but delightfully, while the ending predictably reaffirms the value of the nuclear family, the baddies are allowed to profit from their miscreance and get a happy fade-out.
Griffith shows a surer light touch than one might expect in the lighthearted material about middle-aged male folly (which he was prey to himself), while laying on the ham when melodramatic opportunities are presented. An unconvincing suicide attempt is enlivened by William Cameron Menzies' eccentric production design: as the jilted wife stands on the roof ledge of a Manhattan skyscraper, an overhead view reveals miniature traffic, complete with tiny headlamps, inching along a miniature street about a foot below the rooftop. You sort of wish she would jump, so we could enjoy the sight of her rampaging King Kong-like amid the tiny cross-town traffic.
Elsewhere, Griffith achieves some interesting, modern effects, such as a row between Hersholt and Havers, each stalking up and down a separate half of the room, Griffith tracking up and down with each in turn, the two clashing frames rendered even more dynamic by the fact that the camera is imperfectly synched with each actor's movements, so that sometimes it seems about to collide with them. And Griffith's skill with a telling closeup comes into play at the climax, when Hersholt's daughter conceals herself in his love nest. The angle is so powerful it almost upsets the whole dramatic balance, such as it is.
Cinematographic duties were divided between Griffith's old collaborator from the teens, Billy Bitzer, and the younger Karl Struss, fresh from Murnau's Sunrise, which only enhances the overall clash of styles. Griffith, Janus-faced, was torn between the past and future, a schism which would ultimately tear him apart, or at least make him seem permanently out of step with his times.

The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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