Between 1908 and 1913 D.W. Griffith directed almost five-hundred short films for the Biograph Company. Once he and his troupe hit their stride they created dozens of superb dramas that set the standard for American cinema, featuring the best acting, cinematography, and editing of the era. This particular movie, which dramatizes the director's near-obsession with the damage inflicted by "do-gooders," may well hold the distinction of being the strangest film Griffith ever made. It certainly ranks alongside Man's Genesis and For His Son with the most unusual products of the director's surviving output. Viewers familiar with Griffith's monumental 1916 feature film Intolerance will recall that the Modern Story scenario paints a scathing portrait of "reformer ladies," those interfering busy-bodies whose seemingly well-intentioned efforts to improve society cause more harm than good. In The Reformers we watch appalled as an average town is turned upside down by a group of self-appointed moralists known as the League of Civic Purity, a roving gang of Puritans who disapprove of beer, smoking, dancing, Vaudeville, movies, and just about everything but psalm-singing. This is Griffith's version of "It Can't Happen Here," a Dystopian fantasy of what the world would be like if the Puritans took over and established a state where innocent pleasuresalong with some that aren't so innocentare strictly forbidden.
At the center of the story is a family consisting of Father, Mother, Son and Daughter. Father is a stern man who appears to be a minister. When he is approached by members of the League to run for Mayor he accepts the offer and tours the town, along with his wife and the ever-present League, and campaigns on street corners delivering impromptu speeches. We notice a couple of things immediately: first, that the League is dominated by harsh, mannish-looking women in masculine attire, suggesting the Suffragette caricature that prevailed at the time in newspaper cartoons, assisted by sissified men with pursed lips, all waving their wrists about in a very campy fashion. Second, we notice that once Father becomes the League's candidate for Mayor he neglects his teenage children. The children (played by Biograph regulars Bobby Harron and Mae Marsh) reveal a rebellious streak in the opening sequence, when they put aside their homework to look at a pulpy magazine instead. As soon as their parents depart, however, the kids lose all sense of discipline. They quickly fall under the sway of a decadent friend of the boy's, an older fellow who plies Bobby with booze until he's reeling, and who then attempts to seduce Mae. (A title card helpfully identifies this guy as "A Dangerous Influence.") Griffith's point isn't exactly subtle: while the Reform candidate is out crusading against Vice, members of his own household are falling victim to the very vices he denounces. Physician, Reform Thyself!
The most interesting scenes involve the candidate's efforts to "Right the World," in the words of another title card. On the street Father and the League members watch in righteous disapproval as a hooker approaches a potential customer. Father steps in, lectures them both sternly, and sends the woman on her way. But when a smiling, pipe-smoking onlooker steps forward to congratulate the candidate, he is told to stop smokingand the man's smile vanishes. The Reformers proceed to a cozy-looking saloon where Father orders the denizens to cease drinking and dancing, although frankly the beer drinkers appear to be quite harmless, while the dancers fox-trot in a genteel fashion. By this point we are disturbed to notice that the League and their chosen leader travel with an entourage of uniformed police officers, cops who enforce these new codes of Civic Purity with billy-clubs. This is the strangest and darkest element of the film. This man is merely a candidate for office, not an elected official, yet he is abruptly presented as a feared authority figure with his own police force, and the League members are his Cabinet.
I was especially fascinated by the sequence set in a Vaudeville theater, where a raucous crowd is enjoying a pair of black-face comics. (Here we seemingly encounter what might be called The D.W. Griffith Problem, but it's a false alarm; the comedians are plainly presented as white performers practicing the minstrel tradition of the era, and are not meant to be taken for actual African Americans.) This scene plays almost like a Keystone comedy, a resemblance boosted by the presence of Keystone regular Charles Murray as a boisterous spectator. When the Reformers and their cops march into the theater the atmosphere chills noticeably, although Murray tries to applaud the comedians when the cops aren't looking. Even when the minstrels finish, and are followed by a scene from Shakespeare's "Othello," the League members disapprove. They take over the theater and lead the crowd in a hymn, and when spectators attempt to sneak out the cops force them to remain.
In this film's brief running time the director managed to depict a nightmare world that's just as chilling today as it must have looked in 1913: a world ruled by humorless, narrow-minded prudes. While no one would argue that prostitution or smoking are healthy pursuits, the authoritarian nature of this League of Civic Purity is a frightening thing to behold, and reminds us of the totalitarian scourges that blighted so many societies during the 20th century, in the years after this film was made. (Besides, what's so bad about the fox-trot? Or Shakespeare?) But Griffith saved his thesis statement for the final scene, when the League's leader, the vice-hating Father, returns home to find that his children have quickly gone to hell in his absence. This man who believes he can "Right the World" can't even maintain the stability of his own household. And if that reminds you of any real-life public figures from the past century or two, well, I think that was no accident.
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