Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: May, 2014

Last Drop of Water

Blanche Sweet

Blanche Sweet

This movie, along with several others we’ve looked at from Griffith in the same year, was shot during a special trip to California. The Biograph company was located in New York City, but the executives were starting to see the advantages of shooting in an area with a great deal of visual diversity and few rainy days, and Griffith took full advantage of the location. This story concerns a wagon train in the desert, which runs out of water due to an “Indian” attack. The Indians in this movie are stereotypical villains, who attack without apparent motivation and are simply an evil which must be vanquished by the heroic settlers, unlike the more nuanced characters of “The Invaders” or Griffith’s own “The Red Man’s View.” The movie is nevertheless impressive, in the scope of storytelling that Griffith managed to accomplish in only 13 minutes, and the attack, as well as the inevitable rescue by the cavalry, are filmed on a larger scale than most pictures of the time. Blanche Sweet, who’s been in several supporting roles (for example in “The Miser’s Heart” and “Enoch Arden”) finally gets a lead romantic role, and Charles West (from “The Unchanging Sea” and “Enoch Arden”) is her husband, who redeems himself after being a drunken slob by saving the settlers with his last water.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Charles West, Blanche Sweet, Robert Harron, Dell Henderson, Linda Arvidson, Francis J. Grandon

Run Time: 13 Min, 15 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

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Miser’s Heart (1911)

Misers_Heart

This Griffith short is a good combination of suspense with mild social commentary. I say the latter because I think it’s no mistake that the heroes of this film are a misunderstood old man (“The Miser” of the title) and a down-and-out street person. The basic story is that some thieves take it into their minds to rob the old man, using the sweet little girl from downstairs as a hostage to try to force the combination of his safe from him. The bum sleeping on the street below sees her being dangled from the high window and rushes to get the cops, only to have them arrest him for petty theft from the local baker. Griffith uses cross-cutting with sophistication to heighten the tension of the situation, although a modern audience will know the outcome beforehand. The police rushing to the rescue strike me as the more serious side of the Keystone Cops, a kind of template which Sennett would soon parody. The street person is played by a young Lionel Barrymore, who is better known today for his sound work with Frank Capra, including “You Can’t Take It With You” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Griffith’s wife Linda Arvidson appears again as little Kathy’s mother (we’ve seen her in a lot of these movies, including “Enoch Arden” and “The Unchanging Sea”).

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Linda Arvidson, Wilfred Lucas, Blanche Sweet

Run Time: 16 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Enoch Arden (1911)

Enoch_Arden_(1911_film)

This two-part “featurette” by Griffith has a lot in common with his earlier film “The Unchanging Sea.” First of all, it’s based on a poem of the same name, in this case by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who was read by all educated people at school at the time. Secondly, it follows the story of a couple, separated when the husband goes to sea to seek his fortune, and shows their seaside romance as well as images of the abandoned wife staring out to sea forlornly while she waits for her husband’s return. Unlike that story, however, it does not end in reconciliation, but rather in tragedy, as the wife finally relents and marries her other suitor (a remarkably persistent fellow, who continues to court her as her children grow from babies to adulthood). It’s obvious that Griffith was becoming interested in more complex storylines and storytelling techniques: we see closeups, and there’s a pretty impressive ship, either built or hired for the shoot. The story stars and was written by Griffith’s wife Linda Arvidson, who we’ve seen in “Corner in Wheat” and “The Adventures of Dollie,” with Enoch portrayed by Wilfred Lucas, from “His Trust” and “The Girl and Her Trust.” The rival is Francis J. Grandon, who would soon turn to directing movies like “To Be Called For” and “The Adventures of Kathlyn.”

Director: D. W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Wilfred Lucas, Linda Arvidson, Francis J. Grandon, George Nichols, Grace Henderson, Blanche Sweet, Dell Henderson, Charles West.

Run Time: 33 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

His Trust (1911)

His Trust

This early melodrama is a good example of why modern audiences can have a hard time with Griffith, and with early film in general. It has many of the same problems for us as “Birth of a Nation” does, although it is much shorter and refrains, at least, from glorifying the Ku Klux Klan. The subtitle alone: “The Faithful Devotion and Self-Sacrifice of an Old Negro Servant” is enough to set our teeth on edge, although “Negro” was not considered an insulting term at the time, nor even a few generations ago. “Servant” here is, of course, a euphemism for “slave,” as the movie is set in the South during the Civil War, a period that lived in the memory of the older and the myths of the younger generations at the time (it was as distant to them as the Kennedy assassination is to us today). The “servant” is played by a white man (Wilfred Lucas, also in “The Girl and Her Trust” and later “Modern Times” with Chaplin) in black face, another practice that is no longer acceptable. I would encourage viewers, not to ignore their sense of discomfort with this movie, but to regard it as evidence of an important shift in American history. One African American commentator on film I heard observed that stories like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” were popular among black audiences of the time, because, in spite of the stereotypes, they at least suggested the possibility of noble action on the part of black people, and this movie falls into that category as well. Today, the stereotypes are no longer acceptable, and I’d say that’s a good thing, but this phase in history remains significant in understanding race in America.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Wilfred Lucas, Dell Henderson, Claire McDowell, Linda Arvidson, Mack Sennett, Charles West, Grace Henderson.

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here. (Along with the sequel, “His Trust Fulfilled”)

Cabbage Fairy (1896)

Cabbage Fairy

I know I’ve mostly been doing Griffith lately, but I stumbled across this little gem from the first nation of cinema while doing research tonight and couldn’t resist throwing it in. It’s listed as the debut work of French filmmaker Alice-Guy Blaché, and apparently was out before Méliès was able to get his first movie, “The Haunted Castle” on the screen. It is a simple tableaux, in which a woman in a flouncy dress moves about a cabbage patch, periodically taking babies out of the cabbages (one wonders if the “Cabbage Patch Kids” were invented here). Typical for the day, the camera is static, there is no editing, and the shot establishes a “stage” on which the action takes place. The filmmaker was a woman, often overlooked in film histories in spite of her long career and many contributions. Some have argued that this should be regarded as the “first fiction film,” and though I think that might be going too far, if she beat Méliès I’d be happy to consider it the first fantasy film. At one minute long it was also one of the longest movies of the day.

Original Title: La Fée aux Choux

Director: Alice Guy Blaché

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Unchanging Sea (1910)

1910_UnchangingSea

This Biograph picture by DW Griffith is based on the poem “The Three Fishers” by Charles Kingsley, which provides a somewhat different structure to the storyline than similar shorts of the time. At the beginning of the movie, the intertitles are almost all quotes from that poem, which manage to tell the entire poem before the movie storyline completely takes over. That story involves a fisherman in a small seaside village who leaves his pregnant wife behind to go to the sea and fails to return, leaving her and the child alone for years. His companions’ bodies are washed ashore, but the sea never gives him up, leaving the wife uncertain to his fate. It develops that he’s been in another village all this time, apparently suffering from amnesia, but he finally returns to find his wife and now-grown child – who now has a fisherman sweetheart of her own. The husband is played by Arthur V. Johnson, who we’ve seen in “The Adventures of Dollie” and “The Sealed Room” and the wife is Griffith’s real-life spouse Linda Arvidson, who was in “Corner in Wheat” as well as “The Adventures of Dollie.” Mary Pickford (from “The Usurer” and later in “Poor Little Rich Girl”), again edging toward stardom, is the grown daughter, and Charles West (whose career includes “The Redman’s View” and “In the Border States“) is her boyfriend.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Arthur V. Johnson, Linda Arvidson, Mary Pickford, Charles West, George Nichols

Run Time: 13 Min, 30 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Usurer, the (1910)

Usurer

This is another early Griffith work for Biograph, with similarities to both “Corner in Wheat” and “The Sealed Room.” It portrays a greedy money-lender, contrasted with his unfortunate victims, and his ironic demise through suffocation after being sealed in his own vault. Although this one was made later, I feel that it is actually less artistically successful than “Corner in Wheat,” which included so much clever inter-cutting and fast-paced editing. Here, the approach is less successful, and Griffith appears to hope to make up for it by including more separate stories, which really only muddies the waters. The death of the villain is slow and drawn-out, lasting for almost five of the eighteen minutes, and inter-cut with scenes that don’t clearly connect, and Griffith relies more heavily on intertitles to tell the story. George Nichols (who we saw in “The Sealed Room” and “Fatty Joins the Force”) stars as the title character, with future-Keystone-founder Mack Sennett among his cohorts. Mary Pickford (who had a small role in “The Sealed Room” and was later star of “Stella Maris”) is obviously moving up in her career at this point, appearing in the important role of the “invalid daughter” whose bed is removed by strong-arm men when her mother cannot pay her debts, and Henry B. Walthall (from “Corner in Wheat” and “The Avenging Conscience”) is another unfortunate debtor.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: George Nichols, Mack Sennett, Mary Pickford, Henry B. Walthall, Grace Henderson, Linda Arvidson.

Run Time: 18 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Corner in Wheat (1909)

Corner in Wheat

This is an early example of D.W. Griffith directing a film with a clear social message, something he was to return to frequently in his career. In this case, a wealthy tycoon manipulates the market for wheat in order to give himself a monopoly, unconscious of the harm it does to less fortunate people. Through cross-cutting, we see the story unfold across the two worlds simultaneously: the “Wheat King” attends fancy parties in one scene while the poor line up for bread at inflated prices. Another scene, the subtlety of which I missed on the first viewing, shows three people coming in to the shop to get the newly expensive bread: the first is a fop, who just shrugs as he hands over his extra nickel; next is a young woman, who seems reluctant, but pays anyway; finally a poor mother comes in with her daughter, she cannot afford the new price and is turned away hungry. At the end, the Wheat King suffers the ironic fate of being buried alive in wheat at a granary. Henry B. Walthall (the minstrel from “The Sealed Room” and later in “Birth of a Nation”) appears as the Wheat King’s assistant, and there are small parts for Mack Sennett (founder of Keystone Studios) and Blanche Sweet (later to star in “The Avenging Conscience” and “Judith of Bethulia”) as well.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Frank Powell, Henry B. Walthall, Mack Sennett, Blanche Sweet

Run Time: 14 Min, 15 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Sealed Room (1909)

sealed-room

This early Griffith costume-drama short, like the later “Avenging Conscience,” is a somewhat free interpretation of Poe. A jilted husband seals his wife and her lover behind fresh masonry after discovering them together. Arthur V. Johnson, the heroic husband from “The Adventures of Dollie” stars as the villainous Count (identified as “the King” in the intertitles), and Henry B. Walthall (who we saw in “The Avenging Conscience”) is the hapless minstrel courting his wife (Marion Leonard, an early “Biograph Girl” and star of “A Burglar’s Mistake”). Also in small roles are Mack Sennett, who would soon leave Biograph to start Keystone Studios and Mary Pickford, who was to make many more pictures with DW Griffith. It doesn’t seem to me as if Griffith had much of a knack for atmosphere and dread, but it’s interesting that he tried it more than once. This stands out among early silent films for not having a happy or redeeming ending, and Johnson eats up the scenery as the frenetic nobleman. The editing is comparably simplistic, and there are minimal setups, so this was probably cheap to make.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Arthur V. Johnson, Henry B. Walthall, Marion Leonard, Mack Sennett, Mary Pickford

Run Time: 11 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Adventures of Dollie (1908)

Adventures of Dollie

This is the very first directorial effort of D.W. Griffith, who would go on to become one of the major pioneers of the Classical Silent Period. It is a short film about a father’s hunt for his kidnapped little daughter, and in that sense resembles “Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest,” which Griffith had starred earlier in under Edwin S. Porter while working for Edison Studios. After joining Biograph as an actor, he was requested to direct something and agreed, on condition that he could return to acting whenever he wished. Apparently he never did. The most thrilling sequence in the film is that in which Dollie is sealed in a barrel by her Gypsy captors, which then accidentally falls off the wagon into the river, and proceeds through rapids and over a falls, before being recovered by a wholesome Huck Finn lookalike and reunited with her family. I was surprised that the father was not given the chance to heroically rescue her, as in the Porter film, but this was a pretty good example of an early multi-scene film, using editing and creative camera angles to tell a story with no intertitles. The Gypsies are definitely stereotypes here, with no depth or dignity, which I suppose also pre-sages certain aspects of Griffith’s career, while Dollie’s family are as white as snow.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Arthur V. Johnson, Gladys Egan

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.