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Schickel on D. W. Griffith: shady dealings, brilliant films

Richard Schickel didn't expect to write the ''definitive'' biography of D. W. Griffith, the great early filmmaker. In fact, Schickel told me in the living room of his Manhattan home, he visualized a modest sort of book when he signed for the project some 15 years ago. But things took off on their own - partly because he saw a need for a standard account of Griffith's life and work, partly because the huge mass of Griffith papers (and movies) generated their own momentum.

The result - ''D.W. Griffith: An American Life,'' published by Simon & Schuster (please see review in May 22 Ideas section) - is a blockbuster of almost 700 pages, as big and dramatic as a Griffith epic. Nobody is more surprised at the size and scope of the volume than the author himself, a Time magazine film critic whose credits include several books and TV specials, mostly on movie subjects.

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''The more I got to know Griffith, the less I liked him in some ways,'' Schickel says with a rueful smile. ''He went through some very hard times during his career - and in the later stages, when he was trying to keep things going, there were some pretty shady doings.'' As detailed in the book, these dealings seem more sneaky than actually crooked, but Schickel doesn't excuse them. Rather he seeks to understand them, and to put them in the context of the wild-and-woolly days when cinema was invented on the wing by people who, many times, simply didn't know what else to do with their lives.

Why has there been no definitive Griffith biography before now? One reason could be the mixed legacy of his films, which combine historical importance and cinematic brilliance with motifs that came to seem benighted even in his own day: a smug racism, for example, and an obsessive concern with fragile child-women threatened by lust-crazed men.

On a more practical level, Schickel notes the major challenge of sorting through the Griffith financial records, which hold many clues and keys to the filmmaker's career. In the teens and '20s, as today, money was the root of all movies, especially when a free-spending zealot like Griffith was at the helm of a production. Unlike some writers, Schickel has a fondness for the financial subplot of film history, so he wasn't daunted by the mountain of figures and accounts that loomed large in his research.

Before embarking on the project, he was no more a Griffith buff than most critics who write largely on current films. Still, he has a healthy admiration for silent cinema (a quality more of his colleagues ought to share) and can wax downright enthusiastic about such masterpieces as ''A Woman of Paris,'' by Charles Chaplin, and ''The Crowd,'' by King Vidor.

Part of his biographical task involved ferreting out and studying all manner of Griffith pictures, from early shorts (Griffith made nearly 150 of them in 1909 alone) to such major efforts as ''Broken Blossoms'' and ''Sally of the Sawdust,'' and on to the end of his career in the first days of talking pictures. Schickel formed strong opinions, but conscientious ones: While I think he's too much in love with ''A Corner in Wheat'' and ''Way Down East,'' for example, I share his respect for the talkie ''Abraham Lincoln,'' and I applaud his sensibly mixed emotions about the wacky super-production ''Intolerance.'' In the book, his critical views are integrated with his chronicle of Griffith's life - a tack he feels could have benefited some other recent film-related biographies.

Now that ''Griffith'' is notched in his belt, will Schickel plunge into another massive tome? No, because he still thinks of himself as mainly an essayist, even when the essay (along with many photos) fills out a whole book, as in his recently published celebration of Cary Grant. And because he still enjoys tapping out reviews of the latest Hollywood products - many of which, even today, reflect conventions shaped by the flawed but flaming talent of D. W. Griffith himself.

'The Natural'

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Shortly before ''The Natural'' was released, I asked someone close to the production whether it kept the downbeat ending of Bernard Malamud's novel, which concludes with the washed-out hero weeping ''many bitter tears.''

''No,'' was the reply. ''They've made it the 'Rocky' of baseball.''

I like ''Rocky,'' with its rousing celebration of the underdog. I also like Malamud's book, though, and I approached the movie version warily. Alas, the bittersweet finale isn't the only thing missing. Also gone are the wry wit and knockabout intelligence of the novel, which is very much about language, folkways, and style as well as the obvious subjects of baseball, money, and the sour side of the American dream.

When the book's hero goes into a slump, for example, the word ''slump'' takes on a mythical resonance for the characters and a keenly ironic tone for the author, who understands the stifling inertia of unquestioned ideas. In the movie , the slump is just another plot twist, and not a very clever one. It comes, it goes, and there's no reason to care much about it.

The loss of Malamud's superbly sustained style would be all right if director Barry Levinson substituted his own signature. But the movie is mostly flat. Close-ups of Robert Redford and Glenn Close do not add up to style. Nor do slow-motion athletic feats, wan romantic scenes, bad jokes about bad athletes, or fake newsreels that pale beside the weakest moments in ''Zelig.'' The good supporting players do their best to boost the tired script, but only a handful accomplish much: Robert Duvall and Kim Basinger in key roles, Richard Farnsworth and Robert Prosky in smaller parts, and Barbara Hershey as the bizarre Harriet Bird. The delicate cinematography is by Caleb Deschanel.


''Firestarter'' is the fourth movie in a year ''inspired'' by a Stephen King story, and it doesn't exactly lift the genre to new heights. Measured on the Stephenometer, a key piece of equipment for movie reviewers these days, it's less controlled than ''The Dead Zone,'' less original than ''Children of the Corn,'' less clumsy than ''Christine,'' less idiotic than ''Cujo.''

As in the original novel, the heroine is a little girl with a big talent. Her psychic abilities include setting things on fire, moving distant objects, and - my favorite - wiggling her hair without shaking her head. She just wants to go to school, but the government wants to use her against the Russians, or something. So sinister G-men chase her all over, and she sets things on fire, and there's a big climax with lots of explosions, and at the end she goes to the New York Times, which will save her (and the Russians?) by blabbing her predicament to an outraged citizenry.

Horror buffs may enjoy this, but I prefer Brian De Palma's treatment of a similar theme in ''The Fury,'' a film with vastly more visual excitement. Drew Barrymore is all right in the title role, though she lacks the bratty charm she had in ''E.T.,'' and George C. Scott makes the biggest impression among the grown-ups, playing a weird assassin named Rainbird who was much more mysterious (and scary) in the novel. Mark L. Lester was the director, and Tangerine Dream provided the pulsing music.

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