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The Greatest Question is one of the best of Griffith's "unknown" or "forgotten" films. It was made right after Griffith's masterpiece, "Broken Blossoms." Griffith had contracted with First National to make three films. According to Lillian Gish, all three were made in a rush, so Griffith could not take the care with them that he did with his special projects. It stars Lillian Gish and Robert Harron. These two starred in several films together during this period, and they always played well to each other. They would contrast each other in masculine and feminine ways, but they would also sharing a fine sensibility and chemistry. Watching them in this film it is clear that if Robert had lived they could have been a famous screen couple. This is one of their best roles together.
The plot, like many Griffith films, is that of an old fashioned melodrama with a family in distress, a motherless child, a boy lost in the war and so on. Melodrama is somewhat ridiculed today, but in Griffith's hands it often becomes a sincere story, for after all - aren't the lives of most people made up of melodrama? Here, Griffith hits the mark about 85% of the time. Only one scene stands out as poorly done. There is a bit too much weight put on the ghostly appearance of a dead boy to save the day. With more time, care and better editing, Griffith might have made this work, but if anything shows the that the film was rushed it is this scene.
But there are so many good things to make up for this. Lillian's fright over breaking a dish, and knowing she will get a beating for it; the death of her mother; moments when she is cornered in the attic by a rapist; her many moments of flirting with Robert Haron; these are all played with skill and subtly.
Robert Herron had some excellent moments as well. His innocent and playful flirting with Lillian; his youthful willingness to take a man's role when he isn't ready for it; these all ring so true they almost hurt. The rest of the cast also put in some wonderful moments. The father's bitterness over what seems to be a Godless world, and the mothers frantic effort to maintain her faith - these are also unforgettable moments.
Overall, the film is well put together, the story is tight with no waisted moments. The photography by Billy Bitzer is excellent. There are things that Bitzer did which Hollywood has yet to catch up to. One reviewer complained of a bad video copy. Mine was excellent, so they are out there if you look.
The film is not in the first rank of Griffith films, but still, as Griffith himself used to say when he was pleased, "That was very fine!"
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