The Lonedale Operator (1911)
This is one of the most talked-about of D.W. Griffith’s early shorts, in terms of his contributions to film “grammar” and especially editing. It is a fast-paced action film in which a pair of non-descript hobo thieves threaten Blanche Sweet, who manages to use her wits and high technology to save herself.
The movie begins when “the young engineer” (Francis J. Grandon) is assigned to take out a locomotive. He seems to be hanging around the railroad tracks, hoping for work, and he gets up quickly to head out to the station, but not without stopping by to see his girl, Blanche Sweet. Sweet is shown reading a book, letting us know she’s smart, and her house fronts on the tracks, giving us a sense of her class and the likelihood that her family are railroad people. She walks to the station with Francis, but refuses him a kiss. When they arrive, Francis takes over his train, but Blanche stops in to visit her father (George Nichols), the wireless operator. He’s not feeling well, so Blanche offers to take over for him. He agrees, and offers her the revolver in his pocket, but she assures him she’ll be fine, and he leaves her alone and unarmed. She waves goodbye to her beau, excited to have this great responsibility thrust on her.
Soon, we see the arrival of the payroll for the local mine, which is delivered to her care, and the simultaneous arrival of two tramps (one of them is Dell Henderson, a Griffith favorite) who’ve been riding under the train. They hide out until the train has gone, and then try to get into the office to take the money. Blanche realizes what they are up to and locks the door, but with no gun, it’s only a matter of time until they break in. She quickly telegraphs the next station that there’s an attempted break-in going on and arms herself with a wrench. The boyfriend, hearing of his girl’s distress, now jumps on his engine and hightails it back to the station, but can he make it in time? Well, the tramps do break in, but Blanche turns the wrench around to look like a gun and holds them at bay until the train arrives and she is rescued. The tramps go to jail, and the money goes to its rightful payees. Presumably Blanche and Francis get hitched.
Now, this is a good movie, but I think its significance has been rather over-stated. For example, the Wikipedia entry says, “Unlike most films at the time which had a simple plot line set in one location, The Lonedale Operator “intercuts three primary spaces—the telegraph office interior, the criminals outside, and the rescue train.” Although audiences in 1911 were not used to such editing, the use of the telegraph helped them understand the crosscutting between scenes in such a way that they could follow the plot.” I think this kind of thinking comes about because the only movies people ever see from this period are D.W. Griffith and Georges Méliès. I mean, come on! Intercutting of primary spaces goes back to at least “Life of an American Fireman” (1902) and it’s done with greater sophistication in “The Great Train Robbery” (1903). Admittedly, neither of those depends on THREE simultaneous spaces (just two at a time), but I hardly think audiences were too dumb ten years later to figure it out. Even the claim that “most films” used only “one location” is ridiculous – by 1911, many films were shot on several sets, although I’ll grant you that many plots still unfolded sequentially.
So, while it’s maybe not so innovative as is suggested, it is a good example of what could be done with established technique, and I’m even willing to grant that in terms of editing it was better than what most audiences were seeing up to then. Griffith understood the potential editing offered, and used it well. But, he didn’t invent sliced bread. One of his major (real) contributions to film was his use of very young actresses. Blanche Sweet was only 15 at the time. Griffith seems to have understood that, with the greater intimacy the camera offered over the stage, audiences would be aware of the facial details of the stars, and so he shot for a kind of personal ideal that obviously had mass popular attraction. While that has some creepy or even misogynist undertones, note that in this movie the female star is not portrayed as utterly helpless. Even without a gun, she figures out a way to save herself and tricks the bad guys with a wrench. She’s obviously well-read, and knows enough about Morse to send a clear distress call. She’s not quite tough enough to clobber the tramps by herself (and that would have been a bit hard to believe), but she’s the equal of any boy her age, at least. One other thing stuck out to me on my latest viewing of this movie: there’s a stunt that most people probably don’t think twice about. Seconds after the train pulls into the station, Dell and his buddy crawl out form underneath it – showing that they were riding that way, clinging to the bottom of the car, for at least some distance. That’s a dangerous way to ride a large vehicle like a train! If one of them had slipped, no one could have stopped the train until the whole thing had rolled over them, easily removing an appendage or worse! Never let it be said that actors took no risks on these movies.
Director: D.W. Griffith
Camera: Billy Bitzer
Run Time: 17 Min