This early effort by D.W. Griffith is far from his most sophisticated work, but it does show real talent at an early point in his career. It focuses on immigrants and their differing responses to American culture, with a definite message concerning those responses.
The movie begins with a long scene that establishes most of the conflict – after spoiling this with a forward-facing Intertitle that reads “scorned by the heiress, the music master listens to the reasoning of the anarchists.” Arthur V. Johnson plays a character called “Von Schmitt,’ who is the music master. We see him in his modest home, and he is visited by a mustached fellow who shows him a pamphlet and makes some gestures describing the divide between rich and poor, and advocating equality for all. Von Schmitt is unimpressed, and shows him out before his pupil, a wealthy young lady (Marion Leonard), arrives with her maid (Anita Hendrie) in tow. This is Helen Walker, the “heiress” of the Intertitle. The two of them stand very close and speak animatedly while staring into one another’s eyes, demonstrating their apparent affection, and the maid interrupts by giving the heiress her violin and bow. When she plays, it is obvious that she has little promise as a violinist, but Von Schmitt continues to try to woo her. Eventually, he goes too far, and she is offended. Her father (Frank Powell), a wealthy man in a fur coat, then comes in and quarrels with Von Schmitt, taking his daughter away from the upstart. Now his friend returns with a more polished radical (David Miles), and they repeat the gestures and the slogan “No High. No Low. All Equal” is revealed in an Intertitle. This time Von Schmitt is more responsive, angry as he is at the rich for excluding him, and he sees this as a way to eliminate the barrier between himself and Helen.
The next scene shows a radical meeting, and signs are posted in the background to again communicate the slogan and aims of the organization. Many of the actors in this scene are made up to look like immigrants, and there is also a somewhat masculine woman (possibly a reference to Emma Goldman?) who leads some of the discussion. A poverty-stricken child is put on a table to demonstrate how wealth inequality hurts the innocent. When Von Schmitt and his friend enter, they are welcomed as comrades. The entire group repeats the high/low/equal gestures, and Von Schmitt echoes it. Then there is a drawing of lots to see who will plant a bomb against a “monopolist.” Of course, Von Schmitt and his friend are the lucky winners. After having their wrists cut to seal their oath, they are presented with a classic round black spherical bomb with a long fuse.
The next scene is on a New York street, in front of a brownstone festooned with American flags. We see Helen and her father drive up in a fancy car and enter the house, letting the audience know who “the monopolist” in question will be before the anarchists arrive. Von Schmitt and his friend walk up shortly afterwards and look around suspiciously. They go down to the lower level entrance and force open a basement window. The friend goes in while Von Schmitt stands watch outside. The scene cuts to the interior of the basement, and the friend sets up the bomb and lights the fuse, having some difficulty getting it started. As he hesitates, he points to the wound on his wrist, reminding himself of his pledge, and this gives him the fortitude to carry on.
We then cut back outside to see Von Schmitt, who hears music from inside the house. He peers in the window and we see Helen playing, inside her well-appointed home. He realizes at last whose home he has been sent out to destroy, and rushes down to the basement, desperate to convince his friend to douse the fuse, or to do it himself. The friend again makes the ritual gestures and also points to the wounds on their wrists, but Von Schmitt is determined to stop the bomb blast. So, the two fight and Von Schmitt is tied up and left in the basement. He wakes up as the time runs down and worms his way across the floor to the fuse, biting it with his teeth to prevent the explosion. In doing so, he makes enough noise that a liveried servant comes down to investigate, and he reports to Mr. Walker what he has found. Soon, the whole household is in the basement, and Von Schmitt is freed and thanked for saving everyone’s lives. Mr. Walker picks up the bomb carefully and takes it upstairs with him.
The final scene shows Von Schmitt and Helen at another lesson, this time in the Walkers’ home. The maid again intervenes when they get too close, but ultimately Mr. Walker comes in and encourages their embrace.
Now, I’ve been pretty critical on this blog about D.W. Griffith’s most famous features, but I’m generally a fan of the shorts he made at Biograph. To the degree that he did innovate and invent the “grammar” of motion pictures (I tend to consider this claim to be an inflation of his importance), I think it can best be appreciated in this early work. Here, although the tension is ruined by the Intertitles and there are other problems, we do see him experimenting with cross-cutting in the bomb-lighting sequence between the basement, the stoop, and Helen’s apartment. The biggest problem with that scene is the resolution – there is no insert shot showing Von Schmitt biting the fuse, so it’s hard to see what’s happening at that point. The first time I watched, I thought it was Walker who defused the bomb at the point when he picked it up. Still, comparing this to the completely sequential rescue scene in “The Black Hand,” it is undeniably the more sophisticated approach.
Anarchism and other forms of radicalism were associated at this time both with immigration and with terrorism, so one can see this movie as promoting a nationalist or even jingoist position. However, Biograph was aware that much of the audience for their movies came from urban immigrant areas, so this message is tempered by the “good” immigrant, who comes to be accepted by the wealthy Mr. Walker, once he has demonstrated his merit. Von Schmitt is only tempted by the radical message when class prejudice keeps him from Helen, but he isn’t basically evil or un-American. The portrayal of the radical meeting is interesting, showing both rabble-like agitation and also conspiratorial discipline. During the oath-taking, there are members dressed in dark robes reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan, which Griffith would later make into the heroes of “The Birth of a Nation,” but here the robed figures are undeniably sinister, but perhaps also a bit comic in their inappropriateness to the situation. Griffith may have intended this to show the corruption of symbolism through its appropriation by the enemies of justice, although to us today it seems like an unlikely depiction of urban radicalism.
Director: D.W. Griffith
Camera: Billy Bitzer and Arthur Marvin
Starring: Arthur V. Johnson, Marion Leonard, David Miles, Anita Hendrie, Frank Powell, Mack Sennett, John R. Cumpson, Dorothy West
Run Time: 16 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).