D.W. Griffith shorts (1908-1913)

In a possibly vain attempt to institute a regular feature here at The Cameraman’s Revenge, I bring you Silent Sundays, wherein each Sunday I shall have a look at some aspect or other of silent cinema and post about it here. Wonder how long this‘ll last. Kicking us off, therefore, this selection of the early work of young Mr Griffith…

The Adventures of Dollie (1908): Griffith’s directorial debut, in which a nice young family has a day out, and find themselves harrassed by gypsies who kidnap their child. Unfortunately the shabby print condition made it hard to actually appreciate; Kino says they used the reproduction from the LoC paper print, but they clearly didn’t use the 35mm version made from the same paper print I’ve seen excerpted in a documentary. Story is fairly easily deciphered despite the lack of intertitles, and interesting to see Griffith turning to the perilous rescue in the climax right at the start of his career. Historically interesting more than anything, though, I suspect.

Those Awful Hats (1909): Amusing skit which probably served a similar function to those cinema ads you see telling you to turn your damn phone off, except this one is about taking your damn hat off. In a nickelodeon, a small crowd of filmgoers are sorely beset by an influx of women who refuse to take their hats off so they don’t spoil other people’s view of the screen, but the proprietors have technology on their side. I suppose the main advance witnessed here is the (literal) film within the film, an early bit of “green screen” matting the film being watched by the audience into the film we watch here.

The Sealed Room (1909): The king has built a nice little windowless, isolated room for him and his mistress to cavort in. But he finds the little hussy has eyes for the court troubadour, so he walls them in the room. A right charmer, obviously. Problem I had with this was the question of, well, sound; basically it kind of relies on the assumption that, because we can’t hear anything happening on screen, neither can the characters in the film itself, and so we’re asked to swallow the fact that somehow neither of our two lovebirds manages to hear the sound of masonry work going on in the very doorway of the room they’re in. Surely those curtains weren’t that sound-absorbent?

Corner in Wheat (1909): First saw this on Youtube, but needless to say even this dusty copy was better to look at. I don’t know if I realised just how bitter this film is, revolving around a “Wheat King” who sets out to corner the world market on wheat—never mind that people can’t afford to buy bread any more thanks to him—before he comes to an untimely and somewhat ironic end. Unfettered capitalism can be hazardous to one’s health indeed. And yet the forlorn shot of the farmer sowing seeds at the end of the film and the threat of violence at the bakery seems to indicate that even without the Wheat King monopolising the market, things aren’t necessarily going to improve. Cross-cutting in this is markedly more advanced than in the three other films so far.

The Unchanging Sea (1910): Much the best of the films on this disc so far, and a fascinating lesson in just how much you can squeeze into a fourteen-minute running time. The tale of a fisherman and his wife; the former goes off to sea and never returns, what with the boat being wrecked and all, leaving her to raise their child alone as the years pass, unaware that he did survive the wreck but lost his memory. Melodramatic but rather lovely; and, for once, the film actually benefits from the lengthy tableau staging. When you watch those men going out in that boat on that rough sea, you know they’re really doing that.

The Usurer (1910): Bit of a retread of Corner in Wheat, with an even more odious figure at its centre, the moneylender who’s grown fat on the misery of others, sending his heavies to ruin the lives of the poor and the desperate, before meeting a similarly ironic fate (and this time with a happier ending than the earlier film, except of course the poor bastard who shoots himself). I didn’t like it as much as Corner, though; proportions seemed a bit off by comparison and it dragged rather more.

His Trust (1911): Oh god/dess, I didn’t realise the thorny issue of race would lift its ugly head this early in proceedings. “The faithful devotion and self-sacrifice of an old negro servant” is our theme; George is the chief slave of a southern family during the Civil War, and when the husband goes to war and dies in it George is left to look after the wife and child. The scenes of Northern soldiers on the rampage leave us few doubts about what side Griffith felt himself to have been on, but at least our coloured cousin is shown in a far more positive light than in, say, The Birth of a Nation. If only the blacks in this film weren’t played by white people in blackface… Anyway, the film also shows Griffith in expansive mood, as he envisaged this as merely the first half of a two-part story (this at a time when both US studios and distributors balked even at the idea of two-reel films), albeit each half would be reasonably self-contained; alas, we’ll have to wait for another disc to see part two…

Enoch Arden (1911): Here Griffith really took the bold step of making an actual two-reeler, though Biograph still insisted it be released as two separate films. Although they were taken from separate sources, Enoch Arden actually isn’t a million miles removed from The Unchanging Sea… young lovers, man goes out to sea, is wrecked, never heard from again but the girl keeps faith in his return; he has in fact survived but is trapped on a desert island and this time there won’t be the same happy ending. We’re a remarkably long way from Adventures of Dollie at this point, you really can see the ambition growing up to now; remarkable how Griffith did in 33 minutes what most producers these days would likely struggle to contain in 100 or more.

The Miser’s Heart (1911): A comparative step back, or so it feels, although when we get an honest-to god/dess close-up of an object it’s actually kind of jolting. (Again, compare with Dollie: every damn thing in pretty long shot, with no cuts except at the end of scenes.) Didn’t recognise Lionel Barrymore as the kindly thief, though he was younger then, which may be why… Not a great deal of a tale; a miser is threatened by two not-so-kindly thieves who menace a small child to convince him to open his safe for them, Barrymore must alert the police who lock him up instead. Nothing too special going on here.

An Unseen Enemy (1912): Enter the Gish sisters, both Lillian and Dorothy making their film debuts in a suspenser that’s still pretty neat. They’re orphan sisters whose father has died, but whose brother sells off part of the estate so they have money. Unfortunately they also have a maid with sticky fingers and a friend with safe-cracking abilities, not to mention a gun and a curiously convenient porthole of sorts from one room into the next. By now I presume Griffith could do this sort of thing in his sleep, but it’s still pretty effective; I particularly like the bit where brother is racing to the rescue but his car gets stuck on a bridge turning to let boats through. Shame the print was so shaky it felt at times like the film was taking place on one of those boats…

The New York Hat (1912): “Heartwarmth for every clientele”, as the DVD’s intro screen declares. I’m still not convinced heartwarmth is a real word (neither is the spellchecker on this thing), but whatever. Mary Pickford’s in this one, not an orphan as such (her mother’s just died) but she may as well be (father’s still around but not worth much). The local pastor is given a strange dying request by the mother which causes a fuss, but all ends well with marriage and heartwarmth and meh. Couldn’t get into this one.

The Mothering Heart (1913): To end this selection, another film with Lillian, a young woman who marries, perhaps unwisely, a young man who winds up leaving her for another woman; left to fend for herself, Lillian has to preside over tragedy. Like the man says here, we’re given pause to wonder just how mentally strong this woman is even before horror strikes, and the ending is not necessarily a consoling one. Interesting but I did feel it dragged a bit.


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