Lost in the Movies: THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - Biograph shorts, Part One

THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - Biograph shorts, Part One

Forward-looking and backward-looking, often at the same time, David Wark Griffith (1875-1948) provides a fascinating and somehow appropriate figure to kickstart the history of film. In 1908, screened cinema had been around for thirteen years, photographic trickery creating the illusion of motion for a bit longer. Griffith was a theater man and when, in his early thirties, he turned to film-acting it was a practical matter. Eventually he wound up at Biograph, a New York film production company. Over five years, he would produce 450 short films and, in this compressed and incredibly productive period, develop a language of film which survives in some incarnation to this day.

The Adventures of Dollie (1908)
A pastoral kidnapping tale, filmed entirely in long-shot, this was Griffith's directorial debut. To what extent he had story input I don't know, but it certainly fits the Griffith mould. There are scenes of blissful middle-class domesticity, which give way to a melodramatic plot device in which outsiders threaten the secure little family. In this case, gypsies kidnap a little girl, hiding her in a barrel, which falls out of their wagon as they cross a river, is swept downstream, and eventually deposits the girl back with her kin. Griffith is far from developing the intricate interplay of images that will eventually characterize his work: the story is divided up into a series of tableaux, shot from a distance, and essentially serving as black-and-white live action illustrations to a children's book.

That said, there are already distinctive formal elements in play. Unlike many early films which use the frame as a proscenium, and compose the scenes as if the actors and sets were on a theatrical stage, Griffith shoots in the outdoors and more importantly, often uses depth and movement in the composition in a way that would be impossible inside a theater. A prime example is the early shot in which mother and daughter come out to play by the river and a couple boys with fishing poles leisurely walk into the distance, curving along the border of the frame with the winding river (later one of them will save the kidnapped girl). Even better is the chase down a hillside, with a farmer scything grain in one corner while the gypsy zigzags down the hill with the little girl on his shoulder, followed soon after by the frightened parents, who cross into the farmer's territory and incorporate him into the chase. It's a marvellous use of screen space.

Those Awful Hats (1909)
Described as a "comic prelude" on the DVD menu, this is in fact an earlier incarnation of those "please shut off your cell phone" warnings. Except 100 years ago the problem was apparently flowery ladies' hats, which blocked the view, rather than loud cell phones. A giant crane machine serves as a deus ex machina, dropping into the frame to carry away the offending hat in its jaws, and later the offending lady. In the upper-left corner we get a movie-within-the-movie. I guess this makes Griffith a self-reflexive postmodernist, or something. The cranes are pretty funny.

The Sealed Room (1909)
A highly unusual story fusing Balzac with Poe: a king discovers his wife having an affair with a minstrel and seals them into the room in which they're making love - chastely, this being 1909 - causing them to suffocate and die. The Sealed Room is apparently more theatrical in its staging, what with the small, clearly fabricated sets, but it employs a relatively new cinematic device: cutting between two locations to heighten the tension. (We go back and forth between the king filling in the doorway outside the room, and the wife and her lover cozying up in the other - why they don't hear the sounds of the workmen two feet away from them is never addressed, but such are the benefits of a silent cinema.)

A Corner in Wheat (1909) and The Usurer (1910)
A literary adaptation, the former is also one of Griffith's most didactic works and at times it feels more like a piece of journalism than drama. Both films are reminders that, for all his predilections for racism and traditionalism, Griffith was, like many traditionalists, an economic populist who was distrustful of capitalists. The capitalist villain in this particular story will get his comeuppance by falling into a silo and being smothered by the very grain he has cornered, a vengeance which will be repeated in another piece of Griffith agitprop, The Usurer. Here, the journalistic and didactic elements overwhelm the story but its opening is a beauty: the farmers standing outside their barn, preparing for work while their wives, all downcast expressions and windswept hair, stand by in silence.

The Unchanging Sea (1910) and Enoch Arden (1911)
Two tales of husbands lost at sea, only to return years later when their children are grown and their wives resigned to widowhood or remarriage. The later film, an adaptation of Tennyson, seems more "prestige" with its longer running-length (it's a two-reeler, clocking in at over half an hour), but I preferred the more expressive, almost naive Sea. It uses the shore and the sea poetically, casting its figures in constant companionship with the waves. Enoch Arden does less with its shipwrecked hero than Sea manages with its amnesiac fisherman, who finally stumbles across his wife in a happy, yet appropriately bittersweet ending (Enoch Arden's conclusion is more bitter than sweet, yet curiously less poignant). It's noticeable, though, that in the second film Griffith seems to have achieved his ideal perspective: the medium shot, with figures arrayed somewhat more naturally than on a stage; and there's even a close-up at one point.

His Trust (1911)
Mostly of interest as a dress rehearsal (on much smaller scale and much shorter length) for Griffith's formally masterful (and KKK-glorifying) 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation. Here, a "Negro" is the protagonist though, like most of Birth's black characters, he's played in simpering blackface as he charges into the house set aflame by the dastardly Yankees, not just to save his master's family but also the master's sword. When he brings the family back to his cabin, he sleeps outside. The film's condescending conception of race relations is hard to stomach but at least its (racist) heart is in the right place, compared to the out-and-out nastiness of Birth of a Nation. In other words, the slaves are victims instead of villains. Which may be even more noxious, but is the best we can apparently hope for from Griffith. The march off to war and the battle sequences are very much precursors for Griffith's later work although, especially in the latter, he does not yet achieve the same virtuosity.

The New York Hat (1912)
With Mary Pickford (who also appeared, albeit in a much plumper incarnation, in The Unchanging Sea), this is a tale of misunderstanding in which a pastor, assigned as benefactor to a young girl, buys her a hat which leads the congregation to think there's something illicit going on. The portrait of a girl outcast from her community prefigures one of Intolerance's storylines but here it's pretty minor stuff, at least on my initial viewing.

The Miser's Heart (1911), An Unseen Enemy (1912), The Mothering Heart (1913)
In the first film, a little girl is held out of the window by burglars while her grandfather is forced to give up the combination to the safe. Outside, a vagrant ne'er-do-well summons the police to her rescue though the girl is pulled in before the police can see her. Unlike with most of Griffith's work, sound would help here, as I couldn't tell if the miser was refusing to tell the burglars the combination, or just couldn't get his message out. If he was refusing, I'd say he gets off pretty easy for almost sacrificing his granddaughter.

Far more effective as a suspense piece, An Unseen Enemy introduces us (at least on this disc) to the Gish sisters, Dorothy and her even more radiant older sibling, the luminous Lillian with those saucer eyes. Their presence and an excellent use of space and parallel action, enlivens what is probably the best short in this collection. A maid holds the sisters hostage in one room, while she and a thief try to break into the family safe in the other. Meanwhile, the girls telephone for help and the police race to the rescue. Tension is heightened by a series of ingenious devices and the 96-year-old film has genuinely thrilling passages. In one, the maid reaches her gun-wielding hand through a hole in the wall and as the revolver waves side to side, the girls shriek in authentic terror. Initially the barrel of the gun points straight at the viewer in close-up, recalling Edwin S. Porter's Great Train Robbery in 1903, where a bandit fires directly into the camera. But here, with the gun disembodied, it's somehow even more frightening.

Meanwhile, the rescuers race across a bridge, smashing through the barriers, only to have it turn clockwise while they're on it (it's a sort of side-to-side drawbridge) and, while they struggle to turn it back, the villains set a timed charge on the safe and the girls cower in the corner. It all ends well, but the image you will remember is of Dorothy in the foreground, desperately calling for help, with Lillian in the background, eyes widening in fear, and the mad, eerie, disembodied gun waving between them like a rogue missile. Here Griffith's fondness for depth, empowerment of actors, and ability to create tension weave together in a small masterwork.

The disc concludes with The Mothering Heart, also starring Lillian Gish as a wronged wife. Though melodramatic and not especially adventurous, its themes and the sympathy with which Griffith directs and photographs Gish point the way to some of Griffith's best work with female leads later in his career.

Previous: A Declaration of Principles
Next: Biograph shorts, Part Two

The D.W. Griffith series begins here.

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