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Geoffrey, a young and impoverished writer, is desperately in love with Mavis, who lives at his boardinghouse and is also pursuing a writing career. Unable to marry her because of his poverty, in his anger he curses God for abandoning him. Soon Geoffrey meets Prince Lucio de Rimanez, a wealthy, urbane gentleman who informs Geoffrey that he has inherited a fortune, but that he must place himself in the Prince's hands in order to enjoy the fruits of his inheritance. What Geoffrey doesn't know is that Prince Lucio is actually Satan, who is using Geoffrey as an experiment to show God that he can corrupt anybody. Written by
For many years Griffith had wanted to do Faust. He tried to get Lillian Gish to join him in the project, but she, quite rightly, declined saying that Faust had been a flop every time it had been tried with American audiences on the stage or screen. Instead she convinced him to do Orphans of the Storm (1921). Undaunted, however, Griffith took a wack at it several years after Orphans in this, The Sorrows of Satan (1926). Instead of Gish he had Carol Dempster.
Much has been said about Carol; how Griffith ruined his career by trying to make her a star; how she was his girlfriend (she wasn't) and how she was essentially responsible for his demise. This is, I feel, a gross exaggeration. She was an actress trying to make her living and doing the best she could. She was not a great actress, and Griffith often miscast her. In this film she is not badly cast. She plays a sweet, gentle and fairly pathetic girl with a heart of gold. A role she played very superbly well in Griffith's final masterpiece, "Isn't Life Wonderful" - made just two years earlier. Although this is not a great performance, Carol seems sincere and she has one of the better parts of this film.
The real cause of Griffith's demise is Griffith himself. He had abandoned so many of the things that made him great, In is early days on "Birth of a Nation," he would take his working cut to a small town and play it in the local theater to get the audience reaction. When he finally did release it, he knew that it would go over well with the audience. Between that film and this, he had let the justified praise for his skill go to his head. He had given up that practice thinking that his own taste was sure to be a success. (Faust no less) His judgment had been fogged by drinking, and a somewhat maudlin visions of great art. In truth, he was indulging in the greatest evil of an artist
a contempt for the ignorance of his audience.
I am a big Griffith fan and it hurts me to write this review, but just as there are some poor parts to this film, there are also some very good ones. Adolphe Menjou is a wonderfully oily Satan. Ricardo Cortez and Lya De Putti put in solid performances. Much of this is a credit to Griffith's direction. The inter-cutting to create excitement is always a feature of a Griffith film and this one is no exception. The excellent review by wmorrow59 here gives some other good points. A very sparing use of titles makes the flow of the best sequences move very soothly, and saves some of the lesser sequences from being a total bore. Unfortunately these islands of excellence are placed among a general sea of mediocrity.
Any moments of delight are overshadowed by extremely slow pacing. There are times when people stand for over a minute motionless and just looking at each other for no real reason. At one point I mistakenly got up to see if there was something wrong with my set. Add to that a plot with no real surprises, and you have some very boring moments. Griffith's attempts at showing sin and excess are not a copy of DeMille, as on reviewer suggested, but a copy of his own style in Intolerance. (It was DeMille who copied Griffith - and admitted it - not the other way around.)Here, however, they seem very tame and stilted. The players look as though they are moving through a set routine and not having very much fun.
The whole film has a feel of being very old fashioned even for its time. Griffith was known to be old fashioned; he was known to be overly melodramatic, moralizing and somewhat arrogant. In his best films he either controlled these tendencies or overcame them with his great sense of humanity, his technical and innovative brilliance or his remarkable talent for making a mundane role seem important, relevant and real. In this film, however, he seems to have let his faults run to excess. It is HUBRIS (excess) writ large.
All in all, although the film is not wonderful, it is watchable and even entertaining - provided if you don't expect much. But there are far better films by Griffith, and if you love Griffith, it is a pity to see him wasting his talents.
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