You may have never heard of Raymond Griffith, as I hadn’t until a few weeks ago, but you’ve probably seen him. His brief role—as the mortally-wounded French soldier Gérard Duval in All Quiet on the Western Front—ranks as one of the most memorable uncredited parts in all cinema.
This heartrending turn would be his last appearance before the camera, an ironic final act for one of the greatest laugh-makers of the silent screen.
Hollywood’s transition to talkies put a definitive end to Griffith’s stardom, not because he had an incongruous voice, but because he barely had one at all. Though an avid conversationalist, he couldn’t speak above a hoarse whisper, “the ghost of a voice” as one fan magazine described it.
The handicap was occasionally blamed on his show business childhood spent screaming in melodramas night after night. In point of fact, it was diphtheria that probably caused the permanent damage to his vocal chords and set an expiration date on his acting career. As adaptable as his celluloid persona, in the early talkie years Griffith transitioned smoothly to the roles of producer and sought-after script doctor and never looked back.
During an era of imposed silence, however, the dapper, blasé Griffith rivaled the greatest comics of the 1920s. This feat speaks to his glittering intelligence and resourcefulness, since he produced his films at a major studio, Paramount. You might say that Griffith rose from the same conditions that proved the downfall of certain other silent geniuses. As Motion Picture magazine observed in May 1926, “If all the truth were told, his presentations would read something like this:
Raymond Griffith in ‘So and So’
Adapted from the story by Raymond Griffith
Directed by Raymond Griffith
Photographed with suggestions by Raymond Griffith
Titles by Raymond Griffith
A Raymond Griffith Production.”
So, even in his own day, he wasn’t perceived as solely a gifted comic actor, but as a bona fide auteur.
Griffith’s Paths to Paradise, released into theaters the same month as Chaplin’s The Gold Rush and Lloyd’s The Freshman, held its own in the eyes of the critics. Compared to those two better-remembered films, Paths, co-directed by Clarence Badger, blazes a completely different path for comedy. Whereas Lloyd and Chaplin stabbed the public cleanly in the feels with tales of toil and woe made unexpectedly funny, Griffith cleansed viewers’ palates of pathos and sentiment.
Interestingly enough, although Griffith plays a congenial crook, the viewer never feels manipulated by him. His unfazeable (it’s a real word because I say so) persona exists solely to entertain us. The phenomenal silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis (who put Griffith on my radar) has noted that the comedian plays especially well to audiences today, since his films can seem “a bit more cynical and so perhaps more modern” compared to those of his contemporaries.
An autodidact and classic literature junkie, Griffith cited Aristophanes and Molière as two of his favorite slapstick masters. One can discern the indiscriminate wit and nothing-sacred mentality of those timeless playwrights in Griffith’s worldview. The “silk hat comedian” demurs to deliver any broad moral vision, apart from the idea that we live in a shyster world and it behooves us all to be the most competent shysters we can be. If that’s not a message for our day and age, I don’t know what is.
Paths to Paradise revels in dissembling and chicanery. It’s a veritable millefeuille of fakery: airy, yet carefully structured. As “the Dude from Duluth,” a debonair confidence trickster, Griffith wafts about, assuming a dozen different aliases and cheerfully pursuing other people’s wealth. For the greater part of the story, the Dude and Molly—the delightful Betty Compson as a fiery lady criminal—vie for the chance to swipe a valuable diamond necklace.
This sadly neglected classic peppers its discreet Lubitsch-esque interplay with bits of action-comedy that might make even Buster Keaton crack a smile. The Dude and Molly’s rivalry and eventual alliance, set against the backdrop of a society wedding party, is sandwiched between two dazzling set pieces. The film begins with an elaborate triple-cross scenario in a seedy corner of San Francisco’s Chinatown and ends with a chase involving hundreds of policemen on motorcycles.
These bookend stunners cleverly use cinema’s complex balance of illusion and reality to make us laugh. Blissfully innocent of exposition, the opening sequence quickly establishes the Bucket o’ Blood saloon as a generically nasty underworld watering hole. Hatchet-faced thieves scowl at each other and some tough dame, the Queen of Counterfeiters, is making money in the corner. We notice these things especially because a tour guide—and the camera—points them out to a small group of wealthy sightseers.
Their curiosity satisfied, the thrill-seekers depart, whereupon the Queen of Counterfeiters serves up the results of her labors: she was only making waffles. Despite the “genuine” textures of the gangland saloon, we realize that it was all just an act, staged to extract dollars from gullible tourists. The guide sticks his head into the saloon and announces their next customer. Some poor goof wants to see a Chinese joint. In a matter of seconds, the small army of cons transforms the saloon into an opium den, bringing out lacquered crates and scrambling up into bunk beds with long pipes.
And in steps our hero. First seen in a mysterious, imposing silhouette, the Dude from Duluth rather underwhelms us when he appears in person. Another trick. Another chuckle.
The crew of racketeers proceeds to put on a new show for the Dude. Through it all, he overreacts to each fresh exotic shock: cowering dope fiends begging for money, an overly solicitous Tong proprietor, and the agonized pleas of the Queen of Chinatown.
The fakers manage to extort an ungodly sum of money from the Dude and send him scuttling away…but he stops at the door, lets his lackey in, and flashes a badge. What a sting!
After roundly lecturing the group of flimflammers, the Dude graciously accepts a bribe in exchange for not hauling the lot of them to the station. The Dude saunters out. Oh, he left something behind: his badge. But wait…
He’s no policeman. He conned the cons with nothing more than guts and a gas inspector’s badge.
Within the space of a few minutes, our perception of the protagonist thus radically changes—twice. His modulation from startled gentleman slummer to wily undercover cop to consummate scoundrel impresses the audience. His nimbleness of identity wins over our good humor in spite of—or maybe thanks to—that reptilian glint in his eye and his beastly indifference.
More important, a lot of the comedy of the scene depends on our brain cache of movie-going experiences. The racketeers expertly summon up a bunch of cues that signify certain romanticized locales, not as they really are (probably) but rather as they’re typically depicted. These hustlers know how we’ve been conditioned to read and anticipate these cues.
In this way, the fake-outs within the film remind the audience of the fake-out that is film, of the thousand-and-one times we’ve seen a dive like the Bucket o’ Blood or an exaggerated Chinatown hovel in a movie and accepted it as reality. Paths to Paradise celebrates the creativity of crooks even as it debunks the clichés which Hollywood, that great community of swindlers, puts over on us regularly.
The conclusion of the film, as the Dude speeds towards the Mexican border with the jewels and the girl, also riffs on this concept of pushing movie-land fraud to extremes. Road signs announcing DANGER! fly right into the camera. Spectacular high angle shots show a fleet of motorcycles careening around curvy mountain paths in pursuit of our hero—ahead by a nose.
As the brilliant Walter Kerr explains in The Silent Clowns, “The business is flatly impossible… a gleeful seizing on silent-comedy permissiveness… Griffith’s planning eye has told him precisely what camera angles are needed to validate the gag while reveling in its preposterousness.”
The joke’s on you and me, the viewers who inevitably recognize but condone the shenanigans. And unlike a lot of today’s “meta-humor,” this dose from 1925 is actually funny. Griffith exposes filmdom’s cheating—then uses it to his and our benefit.
My favorite moment from the film savors a less flamboyant flavor of flimflamming. At one point, a few policemen happen across the Dude and Molly (disguised as a maid) fighting over the diamonds. Improvising with the reflexes of professional crooks, they can’t just act like nothing was going on. There’s too much electricity in the air. So, the Dude and Molly break apart and proceed to make eyes at each other furtively, as if they’d just been caught in flagrante. We get this wonderful suite of leisurely-paced, evasive, eyeline-matched shots as the Dude and Molly fidget and feign to avert their gaze.
Don’t get me wrong: they’re not pretending they were just canoodling. They’re pretending that they’re pretending they weren’t just canoodling. Griffith and Compson’s sophisticated performances convey a micro version of the film’s layering of charades that proves a total joy to watch.
Now, I write about a lot of movies that I think you all (or those of you who make it to the ends of my posts, you brave souls) should seek out. But this one really needs you to go and buy it. I think the time is right for a Griffith rediscovery.
This man and his work have dwelt too long in silence.