The Struggle (1931)
Director: D W Griffith
Cast: Hal Skelly, Zita Johann, Charlotte Wynters
Synopsis: A young couple’s marriage is jeopardised by the husband’s descent into alcoholism.
“My wife, she don’t understand me,” grumbles a sozzled Jimmie Wilson (Hal Skelly). He speaks the line just before the good time girl who’s lured him back to her place with the intent of relieving him of the insurance policy he’s just cashed declares that she hopes he didn’t mind her slipping into something more comfortable, and the dull mediocrity of these lines more or less sum up just what’s wrong with The Struggle, D. W. Griffith’s cinematic swansong. His reputation was already in tatters by the time of its release in December 1931, and the critics seem to have been waiting for any excuse to descend upon him. The Struggle gave them reason enough to do so even though, for the period, it’s not a particularly bad movie; it’s just a very ordinary one — something which just wouldn’t be accepted from a director who once bestrode Hollywood like a giant.
The best part of the movie is the opening couple of scenes in which the habits of drinkers in 1911 are compared with those of drinkers in 1923, when prohibition was in full force. In 1911, the sight of a young lady the worse for wear as a result of imbibing too much is enough to cause a small scandal, but in 1923 everyone is three sheets to the wind, and one patron of the speakeasy we are visiting observes that people now get drunk on the kind of gut-rot that can send you blind while back in the day they drank good beer. It’s a salient point, and although a foreward proclaims that the movie neither supports nor condemns prohibition (which was still in force in 1931), The Struggle then does little to suggest that the ban on alcoholic liquor made any contribution to poor Jimmie’s decline.
He already likes a tipple when we first meet him, but when his sweetheart Florrie (Zita Johann) promises to marry him if he gives up the booze, Jimmie climbs right up on that wagon. He stays aboard for eight years, long enough to see Florrie give birth to their baby daughter, Mary (Edna Hagan), but falls off again when consoling a fellow employee at the steel mill where he works who has just been laid off (this fellow is an Italian who speak-a like-a dis who, together with a financially assiduous Jewish insurance agent, suggests that Griffith had lost none of his tendency towards racial stereotyping). Returning home to Florrie, Jimmie is consumed with guilt at the disappointment in her eyes, but she soon forgives him. The second time he returns home a little the worse for wear, however, Florrie isn’t so forgiving and nearly throws him out of the house before finally relenting.
This sudden and violent turnaround in Florrie’s propensity to forgive Jimmie his drinking is typical of The Struggle’s problem chronicling Jimmie’s decline. He seems to become a full-blown alcoholic in a matter of weeks instead of the years that it would take someone to develop a problem severe enough to result in him losing his job and then his family. And there’s no middle-ground with Jimmie, he’s either roaring drunk or stone-cold sober. The movie also pulls up short when it comes to a reason for his self-destructive drinking, other than to suggest that threats to his masculinity — the ridicule of a bartender when he orders sasparilla, and his inability to wear the lavender tie his wife bought him for a party — are to blame. Despite this, Skelly manages to deliver a believable performance in an otherwise disappointing movie which serves mostly to show just how poorly Griffith adjusted to the different style of acting demanded by the advent of sound. Too often, The Struggle looks like a silent movie, particularly in the overwrought scenes in which Jimmie collapses with the DTs, and rather than being the hard-hitting expose it clearly sets out to be, The Struggle proves to be as unconvincing and unsatisfying as a near-beer.
(Reviewed 18th July 2014)