The Stupid 365 Project, Day 22: Passionelle

October 23rd, 2010

Nobody who’s seen “The Birth of a Nation” would call D.W. Griffith — the first great director, the inventor of the moving camera, of the close-up, of the “literary” film — a social progressive.  But he wasn’t any more advanced in his views of women.

Lillian Gish, so ethereal in the photo above, was Griffith’s greatest star, followed closey by her equally wispy sister, Dorothy.  This was good for Griffith and the advancement of film, since one of the first performers ever to be caressed in closeup by a moving-picture camera was, almost incidentally, a great actress.  But Gish wasn’t just an actress to Griffiith; she was an ideal, the embodiment of a thoroughly 19th-century view of the female sex.

Griffith divided women — young, attractive women, anyway — into two categories: passionelles and spirituelles.  The dividing line between the categories was pretty much what it sounds like.  To simplify (but not much), those who did and those who didn’t.

As you’d expect, Griffith was a strongly visually oriented man, and he knew exactly what he wanted to see.  The passionelle was “a restless, passionate, dark-haired girl with a red rose in her hair.”  The spirituelle “a mere flaxen-haired girl as carefree as a May morning.”  Stifle the gag impulse for a moment and look at that: brunette vs. blond;  “girl” vs. “mere” girl.  A little racism (especially in a country that was uneasily accepting millions of dark-haired immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe) and a little — well — pedophilia.  Or, at least, infantilization. Women who remain children are never threatening, especially not sexually.

And just to make it a little more explicit, Griffith elaborated.  “The voluptuous type, blossoming into the full-blown one, cannot endure.  The years show their stamp too clearly.  The other type . . . ah, that is different.”  In short, I guess, thank heaven for little girls and let’s keep them that way.  This was, by the way, the prevailing view of men in upper-class Victorian England.  Dickens, with his virtuous girls and his fallen ones, with the saintly Little Nell and a bunch of others, goes for it completely.  Trollope, and Thackeray, the other great novelists of the day, knew better.

If the Gish sisters and, to a lesser extent, Mary Pickford, were perfect Victorian spirituelles, the paradigm of the passionelle, for Griffith, anyway, was the screen’s first great comedienne, Mabel Normand.

Enormously intelligent, spirited, careless to the point of self-destructiveness, independent, and dark-haired, she was everything Griffith disliked (or, perhaps, feared) in a woman.  Griffith made sparing use of her, casting her a couple of times as the passionelle to the spirituelle of Mary Pickford, who in real life, despite the dimples and flowing curls, was tougher at ten years old than Normand was at twenty.  Frustrated, Normand went to California to become a star working and living with Mack Sennett, cranking out one great comedy after another until she figured in a notorious Hollywood murder case, burned out, and died (largely of the bottle) at the age of 38, barely photographable because of the booze and occasional dope – the passionelle’s inevitable fate.  The years, as Griffith would have had it, showed their stamp too clearly.

But by the time Normand died, Griffith was a has-been.  The moguls had taken over the film business and turned it into an industry, and – who knew? –with the appearance on the scene of Jean Harlow, blonds were allowed to be bad.  Harlow kicked off a long line of blond baddies that stretched down through Carole Lombard and Barbara Stanwyck to Veronica Lake, Marilyn Monroe and all her imitators, all the way to the tiresome flounderings of Madonna and (I suppose) Lady Gaga.  These blonds were permitted to grow up — physically, at least — and Griffith’s beloved spirituelles (and all they stood for) faded, with occasional exceptions, in the harsher light of the late 20th century.

And it’s a good thing, too.

10 Responses to “The Stupid 365 Project, Day 22: Passionelle”

  1. Bonnie Says:

    Gee, thanks for that, Tim. :-/ Suddenly visions of the young Mia Farrow dancing in my head, with thoughts of Mr. Allen’s subsequent… ugh, reaching for brain bleach.

  2. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Mia Farrow is a great example of a latter-day spirituelle. Although I knew exactly what Ava Gardner meant when she said, after Farrow married Frank Sinatra, “I always knew Frank would end up in bed with a boy.”

    Both Griffith and Woody Allen are proof that there’s no relationship between a healthy sexuality and vigorous art. Griffith was a genius, and Allen, among other women-centered films, made “Hannah and Her Sisters,” one of the best (for me) ever written and directed by a man, if you leave out most of Ingmar Bergman.

  3. Sylvia Says:

    This is fantastic. One of the things I love about the Poke Rafferty books is that you don’t retreat into the easy stereotypes for the women.

  4. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks, Sylvia — I really appreciate that. Since QUEEN, I seem to prefer writing women – one of the protagonists of PULPED is a woman, as is the hero of the standalone I’m writing, based on Scheherazade.

  5. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I don’t think you would ever take the easy road. What strikes me about Griffiths’ women is there seems to also be a class difference that has endured for some years. The pure “spirituelle,” rich woman as opposed to the passionate, read sexual, poorer working woman-shades of Theodore Dreiser in “A Place in the Sun.” Madonna and Lady Gaga are cartoons to me, as are those who relentlessly ape them. I like real, far from ordinary women.

  6. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Yes, it’s a class difference, too, although the discerning eye, like Griffith’s, for example, can pick out the untouched spirituelle even living in a slum. Heightened sensitivity, doncha know. But he rarely put the passionelle in furs. I’m with you in liking real, far from ordinary women, and men, too.

    I just thought it was interesting to see such a 19th-century sensibility at work in one of the creators of the supreme 20th-century art form. And Griffith really was great.

  7. Gary Says:

    It’s interesting. Eisenstein’s 1925 film The Battleship Potemkin is supposed to have pioneered so many film techniques, like montage, mixing wide shots with close ups, and so on. And yet Griffith had already done so much of this stuff ten years earlier.

    My CAPTCHA for Passionelle is “for hottems.” The system is intelligent, I tell you!

    But still nobody believes me.

  8. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Yes, Gary, Griffith was certainly the first really great film story-teller. I think the only American director who gave him a run for his money in the early days was Buster Keaton, and that’s not a joke. Keaton was one of the great directors in American film. He invented more techniques on “The General” alone than almost anyone other than Griffith ever did.

    Not knocking Eisenstein — Both Potemkin and the two Ivans are amazing. Gee, I wonder whether anyone else directed from the 20s to the 80s.

  9. Larissa Says:

    Neat post. Ah, those precious little Lolita’s…gag.

    I’d love to do a film studies class that looks at how these ideas are still lingering around in our modern day era…then again, there’s so much variety out there now that you can make whatever argument you want…sort of funny how that works out.

  10. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    There were then and will probably always be men who are threatened by adult women, for whatever reason. (In some cases, a woman in the man’s childhood might even bear some of the responsibility.) But at least it doesn’t seem to be quite as prevalent a preference as it used to be.

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