The Female of the Species (1912)
This is one of the better of the one-reelers D.W. Griffith directed for Biograph. Shot in California, it takes good advantage of the scenery and also of three female leads, who refrain from any frolicking in this one to give powerful melodramatic performances. It struck me that the story is something of a reversal of the “Three Godfathers,” which of course wouldn’t be made for another 36 years (or at least 4 years, to speak of the original).
The few survivors of a mining camp in the desert consist of a miner (Charles West), his wife (Claire McDowell), her sister (Mary Pickford), and an “Other Woman” (Dorothy Bernard). Although everyone’s mind should be firmly fixed on survival, Charles is focused on getting rid of his wife in order to harass Dorothy. Claire catches them, and blames Dorothy, ignoring the fact that she clearly isn’t interested. In the ensuing struggle, Charles is killed. Mary and Claire bury the man and scowl at the woman. The trek across the desert continues, but the situation grows increasingly tense and Claire makes a point of brandishing guns and axes, preventing Dorothy from getting any sleep at night. Meanwhile, an Indian family of mother, father, and papoose are struggling across the same desert. The squaw falls down from thirst, and the father is killed trying to steal water from some white men. The baby is alone, screaming in the desert. Our trio stumbles across it, and find their humanity reawakened by its helpless innocence. Old grudges are forgotten as they cooperate to keep it alive in the harsh environment.
I found this to be a very effective telling of an emotionally charged story in a short running time. The acting makes a lot of it work. Claire McDowell chews the scenery with her desire for revenge, and Dorothy Bernard shows the hurt of being wrongly accused alongside the terror of being in a hopeless situation. Mary Pickford, surprisingly, winds up with little to do but sneer alongside her sister, but this obviously wasn’t her movie. Griffith uses close-ups occasionally, mostly on Dorothy, who is most frequently seen in isolation at any range, to emphasize how she is separated from her companions. Night is more implied than shown, and at times people appear to be lying down to rest in mid-day (which you might do in the desert, anyway: it’s better to move at night). The bleakness of the desert is shown clearly, and a cruel wind whips the foliage and the girls’ clothes and blankets. I also found the score on the DVD, by Zoran Borisavljevic, to be very affecting. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find an online edition with this music, so you’ll have to provide some sad, thoughtful music of your own.
Director: D.W. Griffith
Camera: Billy Bitzer
Starring: Charles West, Claire McDowell, Mary Pickford, Dorothy Bernard
Run Time: 14 Min
You can watch it for free: here (sorry, no music).
Also: Check out the review at Silentology for a different view.