starring Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Eugenie Besserer
January 2, 1920

A David W. Griffith production in which Lillian Gish is starred. It is a development of a psychic drama in which spiritualism enters into the lives of some of the characters and to a great extent troubles their existence until the question whether life in this world concerns the soul after death is answered to their satisfaction.

But the little spiritualism expounded is really inciental to the main story which is sordid and almost gruesome at times. Throughout the picture there is a strain of moralizing which after the first 30 minutes becomes tiresome, and, at the same time, the thread of the narrative is not woven closely enough to keep the interest sustained in the characters.

There is nothing new about the theme which is really founded in the old melodramatic idea of the wicked being punished, and the good rewarded. Possibly it was the object of the producer to make the story relatively unimportant in order to better emphasize the thought he wished to convey, that of the human survival after death.

Miss Gish does fine work as Nellie Jarvis who hires out to the Scrubbles (sic) and has a hard time between the tyranny of Mrs. Scrubble and the advances of the man. Envy and passion are depicted as the woman hangs over the child's bed and purposes to kill her. But the climax is reached when the brutal husband chases the girl to a garret in the house, and she is only saved from him by the intervention of the jealous wie.

On the side of virtue and unrightness (sic) the Hiltons, Nellie's foster parents, who in spite of extreme poverty, never lose their faith in God and humanity. A touch of the supernatural is worked into the story when the son of the Hiltons, who had been drowned at sea, appears before this mother.

Photograhically the feature is aobve the average. Some of the night scenes are wonderful, and the ineriors and exteriors are in strict keeping with the theme. G.W. Bitzer was the cameraman. But the best part of the picture is the types. The producer's choice of characters leaves little to be desired, as he has used the medium of marked contrasts to intensify the difference between good and evil, and at the same time, one feels they are looking at real people, not stock types.

starring Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Eugenie Besserer

By all odds, the most significant photoplay of our screen month was David Wark Griffith's "The Great Question," (First National). Not because it is a good screen drama. It isn't. But it has a tremendous idea buried beneath its melodrama.

A wave of interest in spiritualism has been sweeping the world since the days of the great war. Does after life exist? Can dear ones across the Great Beyond exert an influence over earthly destinies? What is the answer to the eternal problem of death? Griffith had all these questions in mind when he started to screen "The Great Question."

Then something happened. The exhibitor ­ that monster reared by producers themselves ­ stood menacingly upon the horizon. Would the exhibitor accept a stern and grim drama dealing with death and the spirit world? We can imagine Griffith meditating ­ and then giving way to the exhibitor and his beloved melodrama.

So the vital theme of "The Great Question" was carefully buried beneath "action" and "punch." It became the story of a little waif in the hands of a murderously brutal farmer couple, her love for a neighboring boy and the subsequent finding of oil ­ with its attendant avalanche of wealth. The whole is gilded with the philosophy that a simple faith meets and overcomes all obstacles.
Griffith came nearer giving the world another "Broken Blossoms" in "The Great Question" than in anything he has done since that epic of Limehouse. "The Great Question" might easily have been a notable contribution to screen thought. There is one big scene, where the spirit of a young sailor, lost from a submarine, comes home to his aged parents.

Lillian Gish and Bobbie Harron are the bucuolic lovers, but the best work is done by Eugenie Besserer as the bereaved mother and Tom Wilson as a lazy negro servitor.

starring Lillian Gish and Robert Harron
March, 1920

I was still hoping that Mr. Griffith had seen the light when I went to see "The Greatest Question." Here, I said, is a fine theme, and a big one. Here will be a story of that mystical never never land with which the world is just now trying to establish communication. And it will be a clean and wholesome picture with a sweep of sympathetic drama such as always s surrounds the theme. But, I was wrong. There again was the beating of Lillian Gish by the degenerate old woman so well played by Josephine Crowell that you wanted to throw an orchestra chair at her. There was another attempted assault upon a young girl by a vicious, licentious ugly old man, and a brutal murder to top off the excess of violence.

Why, in the name of all things reasonable? Why? If the story was to be based on that boundless love between sympathetic souls on earth that cannot be broken by death, as apparently it was the original intention to base it, why not let it be the logical development of that theme through the experiences of the young man who, called to war, still kept in touch spiritually with his mother and returned to her in the spirit after he had been swept into the sea from the deck of a submerging submarine?

The brute redeemed did not necessarily have to be the particular type of brute that preys upon innocence. His character would have been much more logical, much more convincing, if he were just an easily recognizable kind of everyday brute, cruel and hard, selfish and ignorant. But, no, Mr. Griffith, with this obsession for scenes of assault and beating, must needs take both him and his degenerate wife out of character and exaggerate them out of all semblance to any but mentally unsound patients of a psychopathic ward in a hospital.

Dramatically, too, I believe this leading director is on the wrong track. He is shooting birdshot in place of bullets. And as a result, he is scattering his dramas so full of incidental scenes that he loses all contact with his main story. The only connection between theme and title in "The Greatest Question" is found in the brief reappearance in the spirit of the dead boy, with whom the audience is not permitted to become sufficiently acquainted to feel more than a passing interest in whether he lives or dies.

Otherwise, it is the story of a little girl who, reared by gypsies, was witness to the murder of a young woman "who trusted too much." Grown up, she is adopted by poor but worthy people, seeks work in a neighboring farm house that she may earn something to help her benefactors, discovers in her new employers the brutal pair before mentioned, and finally recognizes in them the perpetrators of the deed that had been stamped upon her infantile mind.

Now, having that much off my heaving chest, I can say some nice things. The pictures themselves, as pictures, are beautiful. There is a fine sense of location in the Griffith equipment. He finds the truest backgrounds for his scenes of any director with whose work I am familiar, and once they are found, the admirable G.W. Bitzer, his camera man extraordinary, employs them to perfect advantage. The countryside pictured in "The Greatest Question," the gypsy camp, the tumble-down farms, are intelligently chosen locations, and in composition the pictures are charmingly atmospheric. There is a real thrill, too, in the submerging submarine that leaves a man in the sea. Griffith also has an impressive sense of character (which is probably one reason I dislike his brutal types so heartily) and each individual is convincingly visioned on the screen. Even his exaggerations of character have point, in that they carry home to dull minds what he intends they should. Lillian Gish is again a charmingly wholesome innocent, Robert Harron an upstanding boyish hero, and Eugene Besserer, Josephine Crowell, George Fawcett and Tom Wilson all splendidly vivid.

For more information, see "The Greatest Question" as our "Feature of the Month"

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