The Miller’s Daughter (1905)
This early attempt at melodrama from Edwin S. Porter lacks sophistication, but manages to tell a story effectively through sequential editing. While not one of the bigger hits the Edison Studios had in 1905, it does show an attempt at increased sophistication and heightened drama from the studio, as well as a larger budget than many early films.
The movie tells the story of a girl who is seduced by an artist and loses the respect of her father when the man turns out to be married. As it begins, we see her picking flowers by the riverside when a tramp attacks her. A man (the artist, as we learn later), rushes up and pushes the tramp into the water, rescuing her. In the next scene, she sits in a field of cows and another man proposes to her, but she refuses. Then we see her sitting before a waterfall while the artist paints her. He comes over and flirts with her and she laughs and smiles happily. Then we see a barn dance where she and the artist attend and speak with the local pastor. The dance is similar in some ways to the one in “Watermelon Patch,” but without the racial undertones. An oddly dressed “spinster” is the source of some humor as she attempts to imitate the dance steps others are managing – finally falling when she tries a backflip. The next scene shows the artist and the woman riding horseback together.
Then an Intertitle announces the tragedy by introducing “Wife & Child of the Artist.” These characters emerge from a house and go over some of the same ground we saw the couple riding horses through. They go to the woman’s father and tell him who they are. He pantomimes his outrage at his daughter’s folly. Then we see the artist and the daughter speaking to the preacher, when the family rides up and confronts the artist. The daughter runs back to her father’s house, but he rejects her. She waves her arms about to express her sorrow and despair.
The “third act” begins with a title card that tells us that the daughter has attempted to earn her keep by taking in sewing, but the company repossesses the sewing machine when she cannot make payments. We then see her reduced to poverty, in a very nice shot of New York (around 23rd street, I think), with her wandering the streets in rags. Another scene shows her haunted by double-images of her father while she walks alone and friendless. A title card describes a missing scene in which she tries to reconcile with him, but he again refuses to have anything to do with her. Finally, she walks across a bridge over a freezing river in the snow and makes the decision to jump. The man who had proposed to her in the beginning of the film sees her fall in and jumps in after her to save her. An Intertitle tells us there is “A Lapse of Two Years” after which she and the rescuer are happily married with a child. The father comes to visit his grandchild, and the movie end with him embracing his daughter.
According to Charles Musser in “The Emergence of Cinema,” this movie was based on a popular melodrama called “Hazel Kirke,” which shares some elements that classical music fans will know from Schubert’s “Die Schöne Müllerin.” The story was therefore probably familiar enough to audiences that they could follow it even with only these few Intertitles, and perhaps some live narration from the exhibitor. I found it harder going, not least because I didn’t get that the fellow who rescues her at the end is the same one that proposed at the beginning, nor was there any indication that he was the man her father wanted her to marry in the first place. Without that, the resolution is difficult to understand, but with it, it becomes clear that the daughter has redeemed herself by re-submitting to paternal authority.
I made a point of emphasizing the over-acting in this movie. This is the kind of acting modern people think of when they hear “silent melodrama.” The daughter clutches her breast to show her sorrow, the father waves his arms wildly to demonstrate rage. Most silent acting is much better than this, but this was a very early attempt to draw an audience in to the emotional state of the characters without dialogue (as one would have on stage) and it is rather awkward. The lack of any close-ups or other cinematic devices to increase empathy doesn’t help. The casting choice for the title character seems a bit odd to me as well. I’m sure she was meant to be somewhat “plain” and simple, but she actually seems rather old for the part and is at least as broad-shouldered as the male characters, making her seem somewhat large and matronly. Her face, from what we can see at the distance the camera maintains, is heavy and stern. In short, she’s not the sort of demure, pretty actress we would expect from later Hollywood, which is part of what makes this movie seem strangely distant to a modern viewer.
These factors may have turned off viewers at the time as well. This was actually one of the less successful releases Porter made for the studio that year, far less so than the more action-oriented films he is remembered for.
Director: Edwin S. Porter & Wallace McCutcheon
Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter & Wallace McCutcheon
Run Time: 13 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music).