Like a lot of the films directed by cinematic pioneer D.W. Griffith, the 1931 film The Struggle is currently available on Netflix. As a result of his direction of the film Birth of the A Nation, Griffith is a controversial historical figure but it cannot be denied that he was one of the most ambitious, talented, and innovative of the silent filmmakers. Unfortunately, like a lot of the great figures of silent film, he did not survive the transition to sound. Griffith directed two sound films. Abraham Lincoln is overly theatrical while The Struggle … well, bleh.
The Struggle tells the story of a married couple whose marriage is threatened by the husband’s alcoholism. Florrie (Zita Johann) only agrees to marry Jimmie (Hal Skelly) on the condition that he stop drinking. And, for several years, Jimmie doesn’t touch a drop of liquor. But, under pressure at work and struggling to support his family, Jimmie finally breaks down, steps into a speakeasy (this film was made during prohibition), and has a drink. Soon, Jimmie is a full-blown alcoholic, wandering the streets of New York while little school children shout, “He’s a beggin’ bum!” at him. Will Jimmie’s life be turned around as the result of hearing a sermon the radio? Or will he just keep drinking himself to death?
This was the last film on which Griffith was credited as being director. (Reportedly, he was an uncredited co-director on San Francisco.) It’s obviously a heart-felt work but, outside of the harrowing shot-on-location scenes of the unshaven Jimmie stumbling down the streets of the Bronx, the film is too overly theatrical and the performances are too stiff and unconvincing to really work. Griffith was still a visual stylist but, watching The Struggle, it’s obvious that he never learned how to work with speaking actors. As well, dialogue that would have worked on a title card came across as being over-the-top and preachy when actually uttered aloud.
That said, The Struggle has some interesting historic value, especially for those of us who tend to take the Libertarian point of view when it comes to the war on drugs. The Struggle opens with a scene that is set at a garden party in 1911. We listen to various conversations being held at each table. Two people debate whether the Biograph Girl is named Mary Pickford or Mary Packard. A man declares that Woodrow Wilson will never be President because he’s a college professor. (This is all the 1931 equivalent of that scene in Titanic where Billy Zane says that a painting was done by “Somebody Picasso. I’m sure nothing will ever become of him….”) Suddenly, scandal hits the garden party as it’s discovered that a woman has had too much to drink and is now drunk. Everyone at the party, on their own, shuns the woman and she is properly shamed.
The film jumps forward to 1923. Prohibition is now the law of the land and we find ourselves in a speakeasy. The thing that we immediately notice is that there are a lot more people in the speakeasy than were at that garden party and every single one of them is drunk. And, since liquor in now illegal, it’s no longer being bought from safe and trustworthy sources. Instead, it’s now being brewed in a back room. One bootlegger holds up a bottle of prohibition liquor and announces it to be poison before then sending it out to be drunk by the Jimmies of the world.
The film’s point, of course, is that community is a lot better when it comes to policing itself than the government is. The Struggle may not be a great film but it certainly has the right message.