Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Billy Bitzer

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.

Blanche knows how to keep a man.

Blanche knows how to keep a man.

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.

No, I probably won't need it!

No, I probably won’t need it!

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.

Competant and capable.

Competant and capable.

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.

Lonedale Operator3So, 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

Starring: Blanche Sweet, Francis J. Grandon, George Nichols, Dell Henderson, Joseph Graybill, Verner Clarges, Edward Dillon, Wilfred Lucas, W. Chrystie Miller, Charles West.

Run Time: 17 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

A Trap for Santa (1909)

Trap_for_Santa_ClausWith Christmas coming at the end of his first year working for Biograph, D.W. Griffith released this one-reel seasonal movie with a heartwarming ending and a hint of social message. It shows the level that he had already achieved in terms of storytelling and film technique.

A family in want.

A family in want.

A family is destitute, and the situation grows bleaker as the father (Henry B. Walthall), unable to find work to feed his children, turns to drink in order to forget his worries. The mother (Marion Leonard) tries to make the most of the situation, but she scolds the father when he comes in drunk and wakes the children. Desperate, he leaves the house, fearing that he may be a worse influence on his own children if he stays. The bartender (Mack Sennett) at his usual dive doesn’t appreciate it when he tries to sleep on the table , and throws him out into the cold. The mother tries to find work, but is turned away from the employment agency. When she returns home, she finds that the hungry child she left there alone has eaten their last crusty loaf of bread. Then, some men arrive with some good news: her aunt’s estate has been settled at last, and she is the inheritor of a small fortune. She and the children move into a nice house with a maid (Kate Bruce). When Christmas rolls around, she explains to the kids that Santa will come in through the window, since there is no chimney, and the kids hatch a plan to “trap” Santa by leaving a basket covered by a picture frame right where he will step (it’s lucky he doesn’t break his neck!). Mom manages to get them to bed, but she sighs while trying on the Santa suit, wishing they had a father to play the role.

Trap for Santa1Then, in a typically Griffithian coincidence, the starving father now tries to break into the wealthy home to steal some money or at least food, but finds himself confronted by his estranged wife. The girls think their trap has worked, but mom convinces them to stay in bed. Immediately, the couple puts a new plan into action and the father puts on the Santa suit and acts like he is caught in the trap. Mother rouses the girls, who come out and dance with “Santa.” The family is reunited in love.

Santa is trapped.

Santa is trapped.

It’s a happy ending, and I found it emotionally effective, but after all, the drunk may continue being a drunk now that his wife has money. We can hope not, and clearly Griffith wants us to believe that he will reform, since it was only hunger and desperation that made him drink and (try to) steal. Billy Bitzer’s photography is effective and the camera is at least close enough to cut off the actors’ feet and give us some intimacy with the action. There are only a few camera set-ups, and these are static and set to mid-shot throughout, but the editing makes the story work better than a lot of the movies of the period. Where shots in 1909 generally followed one another sequentially, this movie allows for simultaneous action as the father first deserts the family, and then later when he is “trapped” by the children in the next room. Leonard somewhat overdid her acting, pointing and pantomiming to make sure that the audience knew what was said, but overall the performances were good. I was particularly pleased to see Gladys Egan (from “In the Border States”) show up as the daughter.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: G.W. Bitzer

Cast: Henry B. Walthall, Marion Leonard, Gladys Egan, Kate Bruce, Mack Sennett, W. Chrystie Miller

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no mucic) or here (with music).

The House of Darkness (1913)

House_of_Darkness_(1913)1It’s not quite October, when I continue my history of horror films, and this short by D.W Griffith isn’t quite a horror movie. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s difficult to measure the development of horror as a genre, because early filmmakers appear to have been reluctant about overtly trying to frighten audiences, even though in other areas the public was quite willing to be frightened. By the time Griffith made “The Avenging Conscience” in 1914, he seems to have been willing to take the plunge, but with this movie – not exactly. I’m still tagging it as part of the horror fest, though, in part because of the title, and in part because it has certain parallels with “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” the movie with which most traditional histories of the horror movie begin.

House of Darkness2The movie is structured much like other progressivist message pictures we’ve seen from Griffith, beginning with a generalized problem and then closing in on a more intimate and personal storyline. In this case, the opening Intertitle assures us of a happy ending: this is the story of “how the mind of an unfortunate was brought to reason by music.” It begins, however, with a side story of a woman who suffers from mental disease, believing her baby is still alive when it is actually dead. The next sequence makes no sense to me at all – I actually wonder if it was shot for another movie. A clerk in an office seems distraught, then a young child with a doll comes in and he gives her some money (folding money, which would be a big deal in 1913). Then he breaks down and starts weeping and his co-workers gather around him. We don’t see him again. Next, we are taken to an asylum for the insane, where a doctor (Lionel Barrymore) and a nurse (Claire McDowell) carry on an accelerated romance and are wed. In the courtyard of the same asylum, a fight breaks out between two lunatics. Finally, an inmate (Charles Hill Mailes) emerges as the center of the action, as he breaks and runs, apparently meaning to escape. The attendants catch him when he stops to listen to Lillian Gish playing the piano. Once he is away from the music, however, his violent tendencies take over and he breaks and runs. Soon there are many attendants in pursuit, but he eludes them and manages to wrest a gun from some passers-by he accosts. Now he makes his way to the home of the doctor, where the nurse/wife is alone with a cat. He breaks in and threatens to kill her, but when she accidentally hits the keys of a piano, the man stops short. Now she soothes him by playing a tune, and the attendants and her husband show up to take him back to the hospital. In the most improbable sequence of an improbable movie, we now see Mailes “cured” of his malady by repeat sessions of “music therapy” in which McDowell plays the piano for him until he is rational again.

House_of_Darkness_(1913)The movie has a lot of problems, which I have to suspect Griffith would have been conscious of by this time. Really, it needs more than one reel for this story to unfold and be at all believable, and Griffith was campaigning for longer films at this time, so that fits. But, the bizarre sequence with the character who never returns is more likely an afterthought or an error of some kind, perhaps Griffith’s mistake, perhaps of other provenance. The premise calls for a more horrific treatment as well, if we saw the world, as in “Caligari” through the eyes of the madman, the illogic of it might well seem more appropriate. While it may have foreshadowed, or even inspired that film, it also resembles a 1904 Biograph comedy, “The Escaped Lunatic,” which also involves a chase after a mentally ill asylum escapee who stops and starts at unpredictable moments. It is quite possible that Griffith was familiar with this movie and decided (or was ordered) to try remaking it as a drama, which could explain some of its weaknesses.

House of DarknessNot to say that the movie is a total failure. There are some good parts. The acting, especially by McDowell and Mailes, is top-notch. Some of Billy Bitzer’s camerawork is fairly daring – notably a shot mirroring the famous one in “Musketeers of Pig Alley” in which actors approach the camera until they are in extreme close-up. In this case, Mailes “sneaks” toward the camera, at times concealing himself behind palm trees, until he emerges in very close range from behind the nearest of them, staring maniacally into space. Bitzer was unable to keep him in focus during the approach (adjusting focal length in the middle of a shot simply wasn’t possible with the technology of the time), but he did manage to set the lens to focus on him at this most frightening final moment. There are also good close-ups of the cat and of hands playing the piano. Griffith makes use of the editing techniques he was known for, especially cross-cutting, to keep the tension high as the pursuit advances. Finally, this is one of those silent movies where the soundtrack makes or breaks it, and the score by Sidney Jill Lehman on the Flicker Alley DVD-on-demand release is perfect for it.

House of Darkness1Director: DW Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Charles Hill Mailes, Claire McDowell, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Christy Cabanne, Kate Bruce

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music)

The Female of the Species (1912)

Female of the SpeciesThis 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).

Female of the Species2The 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.

Not really Mary's film.

Not really Mary’s film.

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.

The Girl and Her Trust (1912)

Girl and Her Trust3

…or are you just happy to see me?

This Biograph short is another “rescue” movie in the vein of “An Unseen Enemy,” and may actually be the more exciting to modern audiences, although it was made earlier and lacks the star talent of the Gish sisters. Director D.W. Griffith packs considerable suspense into a short time span on a limited budget.

Girl and Her Trust1Here, Dorothy Bernard (who we just saw in “For His Son,” and was also in “His Trust”) stars as a plucky young telegraph operator who seems to have several “gentleman callers” who stop by at the telegraph office. The first, a yokel, she dismisses politely, but she shows more interest in the Express Agent (played by Wilfred Lucas), though she chides him for thinking he needs to get out the office revolver when a cash box containing $2000 comes in. When the train comes in, it also carries two tramps (one played by Edwin August), who plan to steal the box! Dorothy locks herself into her office and refuses to give up the key, sending a wire to the next station calling for help. She scares the tramps by faking a gunshot and they decide to take the box and break into it later. They haul it to a railroad handcar and prepare to leave, but the girl runs out to stop them. They beat her and take her along for the ride. Now the tension builds and the locomotive, carrying Wilfred, races after them, both vehicles on the same track. The train rolls to a stop as the tramps leap off, but they are recovered and so is the money. Dorothy and Wilfred ride together on the locomotive’s cow-catcher, sharing a sandwich and, apparently, continuing to bicker.

What? I'm not helping any tramps.

What? I’m not helping any tramps.

Griffith puts cross-cutting to full use here, and in general develops the story visually with minimal intertitles. Actually, where titles do come in, they tend to be disappointments: I had imagined an elaborate SOS from the girl’s furiously bouncing telegraph fingers, but the title card says all it says is “HELP…TRAMPS…QUICK.” At any rate, while the “girl” in this picture is ultimately a damsel in distress, she is not above taking action for herself. First, she engineers her own salvation through her knowledge of technology and Morse code. Second, she comes up with a clever way to fire off a bullet with no gun, hammering a pair of scissors into the primer (I have no idea if this would work, or be safe, in real life, but it looked good on film). Finally, even though she has no way to stop the thieves, she bravely runs out of her safe office to try to stop them from stealing the money. The one criticism one might make is that there is obviously no way the handcart is going to outrun a locomotive, so the ending is a foregone conclusion, but the tension is heightened by the fact that the girl is on board the cart, and the men on the train have no way to know this, and so might smash into it with the locomotive. On the whole, I find this one of Griffith’s better efforts.

Girl and Her Trust

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Dorothy Bernard, Wilfred Lucas, Edwin August, Charles West, Walter Long

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here (with odd music) or here (better music)

For His Son (1912)

This is another of D.W. Griffith’s progressivist message pictures, made well into his career at Biograph studios, at a time when he was itching to use longer formats and express film as an artistic medium, but was constrained by his budgets and production schedule. The specifics of the story may appear a bit silly to modern audiences, but to best understand it we should keep our attention focused on the broader moral message of the piece, which is a critique of both over-indulgence of children by parents and of greed for profits that causes blindness to the harm that is caused in money-making.

For His Son2A middle-aged doctor (Charles Hill Mailes) has a wastrel son (Charles West) who keeps spending his allowance faster than the old doc can earn it. The doctor comes up with a get-rich-quick scheme: he’ll just mix in some of his therapeutic cocaine with a soda pop and make a mint! It works like a charm, and pretty soon drugstores all over town are carrying “Dopakoke,” the new soft drink sensation. The doctor has plenty of money to give his son now, and also to expand operations, hiring a PR man and a secretary (Dorothy Bernard), as well as quite a number of Dopakoke-loaders for all the trucks. The secretary tries Dopakoke, and decides it’s all right, even after she learns the secret ingredient. West and his cronies go out to a drugstore and decide to try it too; soon he is stealing from dad’s cocaine stash to spice up his sodas. West pays a call on his fiancée (Blanche Sweet), who detects that something is wrong when he starts showing off his track marks (apparently he has upgraded to injection now). When Blanche throws him out, he elopes with secretary so that they can shack up in a seedy room and indulge their true passion. Before long, they’re fighting over the needle until West makes like Sid Vicious and only now does his father learn his mistake.

For His SonAs goofy as the story may appear to us today, it is true that for some time (while it was still legal to do so), the Coca-Cola recipe did have some quantity of cocaine in it, and there was concern that its addictive properties might be transferred to the soda. Evidence suggests that by 1912, so little of the drug was present that it was probably negligible (and not as bad for you as all that sugar), but Griffith can’t fairly be faulted for not knowing that. What he attempted to do was to show the horrors of drug addiction in a movie long before this became an accepted genre of film, and, as I’ve suggested above, to speak to more universal moral concerns. As with his other shorts, the movie is an effectively intimate look at human beings affected by a broader social problem. The photography is fairly standard, once again being limited to small studio spaces and an occasional exterior of a doorway, and the large cast is at times cramped into small areas, but the editing is lively enough to keep the story moving forward. There may be a few unintended laughs in this one, but it’s still worth a look.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Cast: Charles Hill Mailes, Charles West, Blanche Sweet, Dorothy Bernard, Alfred Paget

Run Time: 14 Min, 40 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

What Shall We Do With Our Old? (1911)

In my opinion, D.W. Griffith was most effective in showing intimate vignettes in short format. Even when he wanted to deal with big issues, as is the case here, and in “A Corner in Wheat,” it is the human side of the story that compels. This movie was meant as a progressivist statement about the treatment of old people without families, and it works because it remains very much grounded in a personal story.

What_Shall_We_Do_with_Our_OldThe story begins with a doctor making a house call at the home of an old carpenter. His wife is suffering illness, and the doctor prescribes fresh air, which is lacking in their urban tenement. The old man leaves for work, determined to earn enough to get his wife to the country as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the new foreman is looking for people to lay off, and he decides to cull the oldest workers first, replacing them in their jobs with brawny younger men. The carpenter protests, but is sent out into the street, where he seeks work to no avail, finding that employers value youth over his years of experience. His wife takes a turn for the worse as the money (and food) runs out, so he tries stealing food from what looks to be the kitchen of a restaurant at night. He is caught and held in jail, and tells his sad story in night court, to the disdain of the lawyers and bailiffs who have heard it all before. But the judge, who must be an ancestor of Harry Anderson, sends a cop over to the old man’s house to check on the wife. The cop reports that she doesn’t look good, and the judge pays for the stolen groceries, releases the would-be thief, and arranges for a doctor to attend her in the middle of the night! Sadly, all of this charity is wasted, for when they arrive they find the old woman dead, and the old man hurls the stolen food on the ground in rage and despair.

What Shall We Do with Our OldThis movie is very simple and kept within a low budget by shooting almost entirely on small sets with artificial lighting. The night scenes are not lit differently to the day, we only know the time from the intertitles. Unlike many films of this period, there are rather a lot of intertitles, suggesting the limitations Griffith was discovering in telling stories with visuals only. The “AB” of American Biograph is prominently placed in the old couple’s apartment, but not in any of the other interior shots. Fairly little editing technique is shown, but during the critical scenes of the man’s stealing and arrest, there are cross-cut edits back to the old woman in her bed, to remind us of the seriousness of the situation. The concept of the protagonist desperately needing to get food to a sick family member, only to be arrested and detained would be re-used more effectively in “The Italian” four years later. This is nevertheless an emotionally effective film, and a good example of how much could be done with so little at the time. Notably, Griffith makes no effort to answer the film’s question, but simply poses the callous standards of modern urban society as problem to be considered, seeming to favor the kind of smaller community where people would be expected to look out for each other as an alternative.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: W. Christie Miller, Claire McDowell, George Nichols, Francis J. Grandon

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Son’s Return (1909)

Cinecon pulled a surprise on me and screened a bonus Century Film, in a beautifully remastered print. I appreciate this, but it was screened right before the 1918 Mary Pickford vehicle, “M’Liss,” so I hope I don’t get the plots of those movies confused.

Sons Return“The Son’s Return” is an early Biograph short by D.W. Griffith, who I think took on a rather too complicated story for his still-developing skills. Imdb identifies the source as “a novel” by Guy de Maupassant, but the short list of his novels on wikipedia includes nothing that looks like French for “The Son’s Return,” so I can’t confirm that. Pickford’s role is actually comparatively minor, though for some reason the movie begins with her frolicking through sunlit glades of flowers. Griffith was into girls frolicking, we know that. Then we are introduced to Charles West, her sweetie, who is the real center of the narrative. His parents are running an inn in New England that isn’t doing well, but he has decided to move to the city and seek his fortune. He does remarkably well, apparently getting a job on Wall Street or in a major bank, and he stays for five years, apparently forgetting his rural roots, and growing a beard. One day, a letter from Mary comes, telling him that his parents are on the verge of bankruptcy, so he announces to his boss that he’s taking some unplanned time off, and takes a train to town. No one (including his parents) recognizes him with his beard and expensive clothes, and he decides to “surprise” everyone by pretending to be a stranger and checking in to the inn. The landlord is threatening to turn the parents out into the street any day, and when this big-spending stranger shows up passes out fully clothed in his hotel room, they decide to take desperate measures. They club him and steal his wallet, only to decide that he’s dead after a cursory check of his pulse. Then they find the locket with the mother’s picture that demonstrates his identity. Grief- and terror-stricken, they dump the body and run back to the inn. Now Mary comes along and finds the “body,” which acts like it has a terrible hangover. Mary, who recognizes him at once, calls a doctor and the police, assuming that he’s been the victim of highwaymen. The parents decide they cannot live with their crime and show up to turn themselves in, but of course their son forgives them when they fall on their knees.

Sons Return1This isn’t necessarily a bad storyline for a movie, and it might even have worked in short format, given Griffith’s later skills, but it was a bit ambitious for 1909. The biggest problem is the suspension of disbelief that a man’s parents can’t recognize him after only five years because he has grown a beard. Even my extremely near-sighted mother never had this problem, even when I was dying my hair and cutting it in punk rock fashions. He needed a bit more of a disguise. It’s also unclear why he chooses to sleep in his clothes, and the question of day/night is never adequately settled by Billy Bitzer’s photography. When the parents sneak up to the room, they make a point of taking a candle, suggesting that it is night, but there is no attempt to show this through lighting (aside from which, there is a plainly visible burning candle in the room already when they enter, so the second one was unnecessary). The parents presumably dump the body at night, but when Mary walks up a minute later, it appears to be daytime – which is both an editing issue and a lighting one. Editing the whole story more tightly might have heightened the tension and also made it easier to ignore the other problems, but no doubt Griffith was still learning how to do this.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Charles West, Mary Pickford, Mack Sennett, Edwin August

Run Time: 11 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Redman’s View (1909)

Red_Man's_ViewThis film is sometimes held up (mistakenly, I would say, for reasons I’ll discuss below) in contrast to “The Birth of a Nation,” to argue that D.W. Griffith wasn’t really racist after all, he was simply misunderstood. It is among the movies he directed in his first year at Biograph and it does demonstrate his belief that the movies could be used to tell serious stories with messages. Even though he was to rebel against the short format for movies, is also demonstrates his ability to work effectively within that form.

Red Mans ViewIn the beginning of the film, a young Native American couple meets by the riverside. He shyly proposes to her and she shyly accepts (all in pantomime). When they return to their tribe, the young man is faced with a horrible choice between her or his father. A group of plundering white men suddenly arrive and insists that everyone leave the land. He protests that his father is to old and ill to move, and for a moment it looks like there will be a confrontation, but then the white men get ahold of his bride and keep her hostage. Reluctantly, the tribe begins their exodus. Whenever they stop to rest, suddenly the white men are there with guns drawn, telling them to keep moving. The girl tries to take advantage of this to escape, but is recaptured. Finally, the old man dies and a ritual is held to honor him. The young man returns to the camp to free his wife, but they are caught again. The white men appear ready to kill them both, but one white man stops the others and sends them on their way. They have lost their land, but they are together.

Red Mans View2Although Griffith tried hard to make this a powerful experience, there are a couple of flaws in this film. First, our sense of time and place is very ambiguous. We get the impression of a long trek (and even are given to understand that the natives reach the Pacific Ocean), but they never seem to be more than short walking distance from the white men’s camp, which never changes. At times it seems we are seeing simultaneous events cross-edited but then characters from one thread turn up in the other – as when the girl attempts her escape to be caught by the same men who are harassing her husband. The other problem is inherent in trying to make a silent movie about people suffering from walking. A lot of the movie is just shots of the Native Americans walking slowly across the screen, with sad expressions on their faces. It’d be hard to make this work with dialogue, but without it, it makes 15 minutes seem long. On the plus side, the New Jersey Palisades stand in nicely for the bleak yet unspoiled landscape Griffith wants us to believe of the West.

Red Mans View1So, doesn’t making a pro-Native American movie clear Griffith of the charge of racism? Well, not exactly, although it does complicate it a bit. This movie is steeped in the imagery of the “Noble Savage,” and the tragic-but-inevitable side of Manifest Destiny. In claiming to give us “The Point of View of the Red Man,” Griffith presumes to speak for numerous cultures, and he lumps them neatly together into a classic stereotype, albeit one less negative than that of “Gus,” the lustful African American. And, of course, he uses only white actors to portray them, although admittedly it would have been hard to find genuine Western Native Americans on 14th Street in New York, let alone good actors of that background. This is generally a less offensive movie than “Birth,” but that doesn’t make it un-biased.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Cast: Owen Moore, Kate Bruce, Arthur V. Johnson, Henry Lehrman, Lottie Pickford

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music)

The Battle (1911)

This movie has a lot in common with the other early D.W. Griffith representations of the Civil War, with one big exception: the story is told from the point of view of a Union soldier (Charles West, who wore the opposite uniform in “Swords and Hearts” and “The Fugitive”), rather than a Confederate. The storyline roughly parallels that of The Red Badge of Courage – a young infantryman departs proudly for the war, but when he gets his “Baptism of Fire,” he flees in panic. Shamed by his cowardice, he becomes determined to redeem himself with acts of courage, and winds up saving the day by leading reinforcements and ammunition to his old regiment. Blanche Sweet (from “The Goddess of Sagebrush Gulch” and “The Eternal Mother”) gets a small but important role as his sweetheart – he runs to her home in his initial flight, and she scorns him and prays for his redemption when he returns to the battlefield. Obviously, themes are also present that we saw in “The House with Closed Shutters” and “Swords and Hearts” as well.

 Battle

It strikes me that of the many Civil War shorts that Griffith made, this was actually the most elaborate, in terms of staging the battle scenes, and certainly made use of the most actors and extras. He basically rehearses the seizing of trenches as it would be done four years later in “The Birth of a Nation.” The men on horseback riding to the rescue also mimics “Birth,” although Bitzer does not use a moving camera here. Some powerful images include the Confederates emerging from the smoke to invade a trench the heroic dash of the ammunition wagons, and the Rebels lighting fires to halt them, causing at least one to explode. Unfortunately, the slight storyline gets somewhat lost in all this action, and we lose track of Blanche Sweet after the wounded commanding officer requisitions her house as a medical station (had there been more time, I imagine her nursing the wounded and hear the story of her love’s redemption). This is certainly not a bad film, so far as it goes, and the editing and cinematography are at the top of their field for the time, but it winds up sacrificing character for thrills.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Charles West, Blanche Sweet, Robert Harron, Spottiswood Aitken, Edwin August, Lionel Barrymore, Dell Henderson

Run Time: 16 Min, 35 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.