Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: June, 2014

Massacre, the (1914)

Massacre_1914

Shot in 1912, this movie by Griffith had to wait almost two years for an American release, in part due to the increased acceptance of the longer (2 reel) format. It reminds me of “The Invaders” by being a Western which depicts the clash of cultures between Native and Euro-Americans without over-justifying the Settlers’ position. Events are precipitated when a troop of American cavalry makes an apparently un-provoked attack on an “Indian village,” and the camera lingers on a dead woman and her baby to make the moral point that US forces are not clean. We then move to a caravan of “innocent” settlers, escorted by General Custer to “the new country” to begin their lives, and the inevitable Native American attack begins. Among the settlers is new mother Blanche Sweet (who we know from “The Lesser Evil” and “One is Business, the Other Crime”), who, having chosen one of her two suitors earlier in the picture, must now be protected by the man she rejected. The cast includes quite a number of Griffith regulars, as you’ll see from the cast list below, perhaps most notably Alfred Paget (from “The Lesser Evil” and “The Musketeers of Pig Alley”) as the “Indian Chief.” The wide-shots of the battle scenes are complex and effective, and foreshadow Griffith’s famous battles from “The Birth of a Nation.”

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Blanche Sweet, Alfred Paget, Wilfred Lucas, Charles West, Robert Harron, Dell Henderson.

Run Time: 30 Min.

You can watch if for free: here (recommend you mute the soundtrack!)

Lesser Evil (1912)

Lesser Evil1

The beginning of this Griffith short looks somewhat like “The Unchanging Sea,” suggesting that it may have been shot in the same area of California where he made that one, but I have no definite information about this. Unlike that movie, this is not a story of love parted by the sea, but rather a classic “damsel in distress” scenario, in which Blanche Sweet (who was in “The Painted Lady” and later starred in “Anna Christie”) is abducted by a rowdy crew of smugglers, while her beau (Edwin August, who we’ve seen in “One is Business, the Other Crime” and also appeared in “The Girl and Her Trust”) rushes to the rescue. Griffith shows he has mastered cinematic tension at this point, putting the girl into additional peril by having the crew decide to take advantage of her, while the gruff but gallant captain (Alfred Paget, from “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” and “The New York Hat”) tries to hold them off with two pistols. He’s a notably bad shot, however, and soon he’s down to his last bullet, which he offers to use on Blanche as a “lesser” evil than the loss of her honor. Even as the police, along with the hero, are climbing aboard the ship, his hand trembles on the trigger…

Director:D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Blanche Sweet, Edwin August, Alfred Paget, Charles West, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh.

Run Time: 13 Min, 20 seconds.

You can watch it for free: here.

Friends (1912)

Friends Pickford

This short by Griffith is a classic love-triangle, set in a Western context, with Mary Pickford (who was in “Coquette” and “The New York Hat”) coming between close friends Henry B. Walthall (also in “Birth of a Nation” and “Corner in Wheat”) and Lionel Barrymore (from “The Burglar’s Dilemma” and “You Can’t Take It With You”). All of this takes place in the saloon in a California mining town, where Mary lives alone in a room upstairs, and she comes across to me as rather forward by the gender standards of the day. The Intertitle refers to her as “the little orphan whose eager eyes and bright smile make Placer Gulch Haven an Earthly paradise for the rough miners,” which may not quite be a euphemism for “prostitute,” since she shows no interest in the other saloon patrons and apparently the eponymous friends intend to marry her. Walthall is her foppish beau Dandy Jack at the beginning, but when he leaves her to seek his fortune, she takes up with the grizzled and burly Barrymore, soon replacing Walthall’s picture with his in her photographic frame. This is what tips him off when he inopportunely returns, but, of course, friendship wins out and Walthall gallantly concedes the fray, apparently to Mary’s disappointment.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Mary Pickford, Henry B. Walthall, Lionel Barrymore, Harry Carey, Elmer Booth, Robert Harron, Walter Miller.

Run Time: 12 Min, 45 seconds.

You can watch it for free: here.

June, 1914

Pro-Constitutional forces pose in Mexico, 1914.

Pro-Constitutional forces pose in Mexico, 1914.

Our monthly century news roundup has some interesting items this week.

World War: One June 28, Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated. Expect a future “context” post devoted entirely to this event.

War Crimes: On June 12, Ottoman forces begin the “Greek Genocide,” in which Christian Greeks living in Turkey are slaughtered. Over the course of the next ten years, the number of Greeks killed will enter the hundreds of thousands.

Revolution: Mexican “Constitutional Army” forces under Carranza take San Luis Potosi, demanding the surrender of President Victoriano Huerta, whose increasingly dictatorial regime has lost support both at home and abroad.

Diplomacy: June 1, US President Woodrow Wilson’s envoy Edward Mandell House meets with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. This can be seen as the first of many efforts by the President to prevent or end the First World War.

Disasters: June 24, a major fire guts downtown Manchester, New Hampshire, causing $400,000 damage and injuring 19 firemen.

Sports: June 9, Honus Wagner makes his 3000’th career hit for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the first player to achieve that record in the twentieth century.

Movies: Movies released this month include “The Wrath of the Gods,” “The Only Son” and “The Million Dollar Mystery.”

Births: June 7, Indian director Kwaja Ahmed Abbas (who made “Shehar Aur Sapna” and “Pardesi”), June 18, actor E.G. Marshall (memorable in “12 Angry Men” and also TV’s “Defenders”).

Addendum/Errata: Last month, I failed to note the founding of Paramount Studios on May 8. Many apologies to the future producers of the “Star Trek” and “Friday the Thirteenth” movies!

One is Business, the Other Crime (1912)

One is Business

In classic Griffith fashion, this short film uses cross-cutting to contrast the lives of two newlywed couples, one rich, one poor, in order to make a social comment about the way we treat dishonesty at different ends of the income spectrum. When the poor man (Charles West, who we’ve seen in “The Unchanging Sea” and “The Burglar’s Dilemma”) cannot find a job, he finally breaks and tries to steal from the rich man’s (Edwin August, also in “The Eternal Mother” and later appeared in “The Magnificent Ambersons”) home. Said rich man has just accepted an offer of a bribe for his “vote” (I assume on a committee of some kind, since surely his vote on a ballot measure wouldn’t count for more than anyone else’s) in favor of a new railroad. Rich wife Blanche Sweet (from “The Painted Lady” and “Judith of Bethulia”) catches the would-be robber and holds him at gun-point, but, finding out about her husband’s illicit dealings, lets him go and upbraids her spouse. Chastised, the rich husband returns the money and offers poor Charles a job, apparently in a brickyard he owns. The happy ending probably pleased both working class viewers, who enjoyed seeing the rich man shamed, and the more middle class of film audiences, who wanted to believe that honesty pays off.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Charles West, Dorothy Bernard, Edwin August, Blanche Sweet.

Run Time: 15 Min, 22 seconds.

You can watch it for free: here.

Painted Lady (1912)

Painted_Lady

This Griffith short can be read both as an indictment of the gender order and a frank portrayal of mental illness and its consequences. Blanche Sweet (from “Corner in Wheat” and later in “Judith of Bethulia”) is the eponymous woman, perhaps better described as “the Unpainted Lady,” since her strict father refuses to allow her to dress up or wear makeup. When she goes to the ice cream festival (?!), she is unpopular, because of her plain looks. Finally, a man (Joseph Graybill, from “The Last Drop of Water” and “Enoch Arden”) shows interest in her, but it’s only to find out if her father has anything worth stealing. When he breaks in to their home in a mask, Blanche shoots him first and asks questions later. This is where her mind starts to go, and she tries to introduce her father to her lover as he lies dead. Later, her mother (Kate Bruce, who we’ve seen in “The Sunbeam” and “The New York Hat”) catches her talking to herself. Finally, she puts on makeup and goes to their old rendezvous point only to collapse in shame. It seems as though the real tragedy here is a society that forces her to judge her value as a person only in terms men’s opinions and her family’s lack of understanding when the symptoms become clear.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Blanche Sweet, Joseph Graybill, Kate Bruce, Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Henry B. Walthall.

Run Time: 13 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Sunbeam, the (1912)

sunbeam

We don’t generally think of the death of a parent as a good opener for a light comedy about a child. Nor is the threat of scarlet fever outbreaks in tenements usually seen as a subject for humor. But, D.W. Griffith made it work in this, one of his most memorable early shorts. The “Sunbeam” is his nickname for an adorable 4-year-old child (Ynez Seabury, who would later appear in “The Invisible Ray” and “Reap the Wild Wind” during the sound era). When her mother (Kate Bruce, also in “The Mothering Heart” and “The New York Hat“) passes quietly away, she runs out in search of other playmates. She fixes on a spinster (Claire McDowell, whom we’ve seen in “The Usurer,” and who later was in “The Mark of Zorro”) and a bachelor (Dell Henderson, who was in “The Unchanging Sea” and “His Trust”), who conveniently live across the hall from one another. At first, the two are crotchety and resistant, but the Sunbeam breaks down their resistance and gets them to be nice to each other, and to her. Then some local kids stick up a “Scarlet Fever” warning on their door and they are forced into quarantine together for a time, ultimately assuring that the new family unit will gel. It’s pretty silly, but undeniably as charming as Ynez herself.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Ynez Seabury, Kate Bruce, Claire McDowell, Dell Henderson.

Run Time: 14 Min, 45 seconds.

You can watch it for free: here.

Burglar’s Dilemma (1912)

Burglars Dilemma

DW Griffith directed this short crime-melodrama that, typically, has a hint of social message to it. In this case, a young man (Robert Harron, who we’ve seen in “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” and “Enoch Arden”) is nearly framed for a murder he didn’t commit when he conveniently breaks into the owner’s house to steal, at the behest of an older criminal (Harry Carey, Sr., also in “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” and “An Unseen Enemy”). The younger brother (Henry B. Walthall, later known for “The Birth of a Nation” and also in “The Avenging Conscience”), who is really guilty, turns him over to the police, who grill him mercilessly. The victim, the older brother (Lionel Barrymore, also in “The New York Hat” and later known for his series of “Dr. Kildare” movies), eventually revives and sets things straight, even getting his kid brother off the hook for good measure. The Gish sisters show up briefly before the heist goes down, but are barely in the movie. This seems like one of Griffith’s less innovative pieces, being constructed in a fairly linear fashion with minimal cross-cutting, and nearly all on square internal sets (often with the prominent “AB” for American Biograph visible on a wall!). No doubt audiences went more to see the now-familiar cast and simple morality play than for great originality.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Henry B. Walthall, Harry Carey, Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Charles West.

Run Time: 15 Min, 22 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)

Musketeers_of_Pig_Alley

This short movie by Griffith has been credited as the “first gangster movie,” and, although other films from the period dealt with crime as a social problem, it certainly has many of the familiar tropes of later movies about criminals. Lillian Gish (from “An Unseen Enemy” and later star of “The Wind”) gets an early starring role as “the little lady,” a married woman living in a tenement over-run with gangsters, including the dapper “Snapper Kid” (played by Elmer Booth, also in “An Unseen Enemy” and “The Painted Lady”) who runs the Musketeers. She resists his advances, and later he robs her husband (Walter Miller, who’s in “The Mothering Heart” and “An Unseen Enemy”). Poor Lillian makes the mistake of attending a “gangster’s ball” with a friend, and another gangster tries to slip her a drugged drink, which Snapper Kid sees and prevents, resulting in a gang rivalry. After a very tightly-staged back alley gun battle, the husband gets his wallet back and Snapper runs to the couple’s flat for refuge from the police, learning of their married status and renouncing his interest in the little lady. The couple pay him back for his decency by giving him an alibi for the police. The complex plot and use of closeups as well as an early follow focus device demonstrate the degree to which Griffith was innovating. A brief shot of Dorothy Gish passing her sister in the street reputedly made a big hit with audiences.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Lillian Gish, Elmer Booth, Walter Miller, Harry Carey, Robert Harron, Lionel Barrymore, Dorothy Gish.

Run Time: 18 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Unseen Enemy (1912)

An_Unseen_Enemy

This taught little suspense thriller by Griffith introduced the world to the Gish sisters – Dorothy (who we’ll see in “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” and was later in “Orphans of the Storm”) and Lillian (later in “The Mothering Heart” and “Birth of a Nation”). What’s interesting to me is that, although they’re made up to be twins in identical wardrobe, makeup, and hair, they come across as highly individual actresses, with distinct screen presences even at this early stage (Dorothy would have been 14, and Lilian 19 at the time). The story is that they were introduced to Griffith through his leading star Mary Pickford, and he immediately signed them to work for Biograph, making them into equally big stars overnight. The story is essentially that the two are locked into a room at gunpoint while a “slattern maid” (Grace Henderson, who we’ve seen in “Corner in Wheat” and “The Usurer”) and her thieving henchman (Harry Carey, Sr. who went on to “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Musketeers of Pig Alley”) attempt to break into the safe with their inheritance. Meanwhile, they manage to call their brother (Elmer Booth, from “Friends” and “The Battle at Elderbush Gulch”) on the telephone in the room and he races to their rescue in an automobile – emphasizing the fascination of film audiences with technology and speed.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish, Elmer Booth, Robert Harron, Harry Carey, Grace Henderson

Run Time: 15 Min, 20 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.