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.

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