This D.W. Griffith production stars Carol Dempster and Ralph Graves, with support from Charles Emmett Mack, Edward Peil, W.J. Ferguson, Porter Strong, George Neville, Charles Slattery, Tyrone Power (Sr.) and Morgan Wallace.
The film was not a success in 1921, and it is not a success today — due in part to the melodramatic juxtapositions of good and evil that pervade the film. There is the puritanical contrast of influences of the street preacher (Power), who spreads good through his Biblical teachings, and the mysterious, masked street violinist (Wallace), who inexplicably spreads evil through the music of his violin. (If this were a film from the 1950s, he would be a Rock and Roll musician!) Taken a step further, there is the moralizing contrast of good and evil in the Jekyll-and-Hyde behaviors of the brothers Spike and Billie (Graves and Mack), which land on one side of the polarized line then flip-flop with little cause. Also a detriment to the film is the prejudicial portrayal of the eye-rolling Chinese gambling house owner (Peil), whose lascivious lust for the white dancer Gypsy Fair (Dempster) and his subsequent vengeance is meant to stir up racial acrimony in the film’s audience. Let us neither ignore the stereotypical portrayal of blacks in the unsuccessful blackfaced comedy of Strong, who is pitchforked into the film with gambling tendencies and knee-shaking, wide-eyed takes of fear that are intended to break the tension of the drama.
Carol Dempster makes a somewhat refreshing self-confident and self-reliant young woman and the always-likeable Ralph Graves makes a gruffly tactless but still pleasant and entertaining cad. Despite the film’s distracting deficits, much of the film's residual appeal rests in the duo’s characterizations and performances.
By 1921, Griffith begins to show signs of losing touch with contemporary audiences; here in the hokey conflict between the alternately corrupting and redeeming influences of the street music upon the crass Spike and the namby-pamby Billie, whose homoerotic relationship with his brother comes into dangerous conflict over the attentions of Gypsy. Embarrassingly clumsy is the intentional and transparent manipulation of the audience in the appearance of the maskless violinist, which is way over the top in its use of makeup consisting of facial moles and ghastly false teeth.
Originally marketed as a “dramatic comedy,” this seemingly endless film is ultimately a confused and confusing morality play firmly seated in melodramatic 19th century stage traditions, which does nothing to justify Griffith’s lasting reputation as a cinematic innovator. — Carl Bennett
Grapevine Video, no catalog number, UPC 8-42614-10118-2.
One single-sided, single-layered, Region 0NTSC DVD-R disc, 1.33:1 aspect ratio image in full-frame 4:3 (720 x 480 pixels) interlaced scan MPEG-2 format, 4 Mbps average video bit rate, 224 kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound, English language intertitles, no foreign language subtitles, 8 chapter stops; standard DVD keepcase, $16.95 (reduced to $14.95).
Release date: 2003.
Country of origin: USA
This DVD-R edition of the rare D.W. Griffith film has been mastered from a dark 16mm reduction print at slightly faster than natural speed. The source print has occasional speckling, dust, long scratches, and momentary bands of over-exposure from the developing lab that sweep through the picture. The interlaced disc encoding, likely processed from an older analog video transfer, produces a coarse picture with compression artifacts and the ever-present interlaced lines of picture resolution.
In case you’re wondering, the source print does not contain any of the synchronized sound sequences that utilized the experimental sound film system developed by Orlando Kellum.
The film is presented with a compiled music score of preexisting, low-fidelity orchestral recordings that is barely serviceable.
This disc can be rough viewing, but this is also the only readily-available home video edition of the film for North American collectors.
USA: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 0NTSC DVD-R edition from Amazon.com. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
Bach Films, unknown catalog number, unknown UPC number.
One single-sided, dual-layered?, Region 2PAL DVD disc, 1.33:1 aspect ratio image in full-frame 4:3 (? x ? pixels) interlaced scan MPEG-2 format, ? Mbps average video bit rate, ? kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo? sound, English or French? language intertitles, optional French? language subtitles, chapter stops; standard DVD keepcase, unknown suggested retail price.
Release date: 17 May 2010.
Country of origin: France
This PAL DVD edition is likely to have originally been transferred from 35mm print materials but, as with other silent film Bach Films releases, it may have been mastered from a commercial VHS videotape copy. If so, the visual quality is likely to be only fair to good. The film’s intertitles may be in English, with optional French subtitles — but we cannot confirm that at this time.
North American collectors will need a region-free PAL DVD player capable of outputting an NTSC-compatible signal to view this edition.
France: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 2PAL DVD edition from Amazon.fr. Your purchase supports Silent Era.
United Kingdom: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 2PAL DVD edition from Amazon.co.uk. Your purchase supports Silent Era.