Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Blanche Sweet

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).

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.

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.

Judith of Bethulia (1914)

Judith_of_Bethulia

This is the big contender from 1914 for D.W. Griffith and the Biograph Company. Biograph allowed Griffith to make this feature-length film, but then blanched at the cost and refused to make any more, causing Griffith to depart, taking most of Biograph’s big stars with him. Left with little to show for it, Biograph let the movie languish on the shelf for several months before releasing it to strong critical acclaim. I want to highlight one of the reviews from Moving Picture World, which said it “will not only rank as an achievement in this country, but will make foreign producers sit up and take notice.” This illustrates the degree to which American film was still regarded as “inferior” in the international film market, where it would be “dominant” just a few years later. Anyway, this movie is based on a story from the Apocrypha, about a devout young woman (Blanche Sweet, who we’ve seen in “The Avenging Conscience” and “The Last Drop of Water”) who saves a city from attack by the Assyrians by seducing the general (Henry B. Walthall, from “The Avenging Conscience” and 1915’s “Birth of a Nation”) and chopping his head off while he is drunk on wine. It’s pretty heady stuff for 1914, and the battle scenes and other large-scale scenes are impressive, even when compared to foreign works like “Cabiria.”

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Blanche Sweet, Henry B. Walthall, Mae Marsh, Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish, Robert Harron

Run Time: 48 Min

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Death’s Marathon (1913)

Blanche Sweet1

This short suspense piece by Griffith has a certain amount in common with “The Unseen Enemy.” Whereas there, we saw the telephone used to summon the hero to the rescue by motorcar, here wife Blanche Sweet (who we’ve seen in “The Massacre” and “The Painted Lady”) tries to talk hubby Henry B. Walthall (from “The Avenging Conscience” and “The Burglar’s Dilemma”) out of suicide while his friend and business partner Walter Miller (who was in “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” and “The Mothering Heart”) rushes to him with an automobile. The two were rivals for her heart prior, so there’s an added tension of whether Walter really wants to save Henry, and both are in trouble due to Henry’s gambling debts. On the whole, it seems that Griffith was trying to make a morality story about the foolishness of youth and wealth, but it doesn’t really come off as successfully as his more serious social message films, such as “The Usurer” or “Corner in Wheat.” What does stand out, again, is how far the film grammar has developed by this time, with shots in close up to establish intimacy and fast editing during the race to save his life.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Blanche Sweet, Henry B. Walthall, Walter Miller, Lionel Barrymore, Kate Bruce, Robert Harron, Alfred Paget.

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Massacre, the (1914)

Massacre_1914

Shot in 1912, this movie by Griffith had to wait almost two years for an American release, in part due to the increased acceptance of the longer (2 reel) format. It reminds me of “The Invaders” by being a Western which depicts the clash of cultures between Native and Euro-Americans without over-justifying the Settlers’ position. Events are precipitated when a troop of American cavalry makes an apparently un-provoked attack on an “Indian village,” and the camera lingers on a dead woman and her baby to make the moral point that US forces are not clean. We then move to a caravan of “innocent” settlers, escorted by General Custer to “the new country” to begin their lives, and the inevitable Native American attack begins. Among the settlers is new mother Blanche Sweet (who we know from “The Lesser Evil” and “One is Business, the Other Crime”), who, having chosen one of her two suitors earlier in the picture, must now be protected by the man she rejected. The cast includes quite a number of Griffith regulars, as you’ll see from the cast list below, perhaps most notably Alfred Paget (from “The Lesser Evil” and “The Musketeers of Pig Alley”) as the “Indian Chief.” The wide-shots of the battle scenes are complex and effective, and foreshadow Griffith’s famous battles from “The Birth of a Nation.”

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Blanche Sweet, Alfred Paget, Wilfred Lucas, Charles West, Robert Harron, Dell Henderson.

Run Time: 30 Min.

You can watch if for free: here (recommend you mute the soundtrack!)

Lesser Evil (1912)

Lesser Evil1

The beginning of this Griffith short looks somewhat like “The Unchanging Sea,” suggesting that it may have been shot in the same area of California where he made that one, but I have no definite information about this. Unlike that movie, this is not a story of love parted by the sea, but rather a classic “damsel in distress” scenario, in which Blanche Sweet (who was in “The Painted Lady” and later starred in “Anna Christie”) is abducted by a rowdy crew of smugglers, while her beau (Edwin August, who we’ve seen in “One is Business, the Other Crime” and also appeared in “The Girl and Her Trust”) rushes to the rescue. Griffith shows he has mastered cinematic tension at this point, putting the girl into additional peril by having the crew decide to take advantage of her, while the gruff but gallant captain (Alfred Paget, from “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” and “The New York Hat”) tries to hold them off with two pistols. He’s a notably bad shot, however, and soon he’s down to his last bullet, which he offers to use on Blanche as a “lesser” evil than the loss of her honor. Even as the police, along with the hero, are climbing aboard the ship, his hand trembles on the trigger…

Director:D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Blanche Sweet, Edwin August, Alfred Paget, Charles West, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh.

Run Time: 13 Min, 20 seconds.

You can watch it for free: here.

One is Business, the Other Crime (1912)

One is Business

In classic Griffith fashion, this short film uses cross-cutting to contrast the lives of two newlywed couples, one rich, one poor, in order to make a social comment about the way we treat dishonesty at different ends of the income spectrum. When the poor man (Charles West, who we’ve seen in “The Unchanging Sea” and “The Burglar’s Dilemma”) cannot find a job, he finally breaks and tries to steal from the rich man’s (Edwin August, also in “The Eternal Mother” and later appeared in “The Magnificent Ambersons”) home. Said rich man has just accepted an offer of a bribe for his “vote” (I assume on a committee of some kind, since surely his vote on a ballot measure wouldn’t count for more than anyone else’s) in favor of a new railroad. Rich wife Blanche Sweet (from “The Painted Lady” and “Judith of Bethulia”) catches the would-be robber and holds him at gun-point, but, finding out about her husband’s illicit dealings, lets him go and upbraids her spouse. Chastised, the rich husband returns the money and offers poor Charles a job, apparently in a brickyard he owns. The happy ending probably pleased both working class viewers, who enjoyed seeing the rich man shamed, and the more middle class of film audiences, who wanted to believe that honesty pays off.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Charles West, Dorothy Bernard, Edwin August, Blanche Sweet.

Run Time: 15 Min, 22 seconds.

You can watch it for free: here.

Painted Lady (1912)

Painted_Lady

This Griffith short can be read both as an indictment of the gender order and a frank portrayal of mental illness and its consequences. Blanche Sweet (from “Corner in Wheat” and later in “Judith of Bethulia”) is the eponymous woman, perhaps better described as “the Unpainted Lady,” since her strict father refuses to allow her to dress up or wear makeup. When she goes to the ice cream festival (?!), she is unpopular, because of her plain looks. Finally, a man (Joseph Graybill, from “The Last Drop of Water” and “Enoch Arden”) shows interest in her, but it’s only to find out if her father has anything worth stealing. When he breaks in to their home in a mask, Blanche shoots him first and asks questions later. This is where her mind starts to go, and she tries to introduce her father to her lover as he lies dead. Later, her mother (Kate Bruce, who we’ve seen in “The Sunbeam” and “The New York Hat”) catches her talking to herself. Finally, she puts on makeup and goes to their old rendezvous point only to collapse in shame. It seems as though the real tragedy here is a society that forces her to judge her value as a person only in terms men’s opinions and her family’s lack of understanding when the symptoms become clear.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Blanche Sweet, Joseph Graybill, Kate Bruce, Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Henry B. Walthall.

Run Time: 13 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Last Drop of Water

Blanche Sweet

Blanche Sweet

This movie, along with several others we’ve looked at from Griffith in the same year, was shot during a special trip to California. The Biograph company was located in New York City, but the executives were starting to see the advantages of shooting in an area with a great deal of visual diversity and few rainy days, and Griffith took full advantage of the location. This story concerns a wagon train in the desert, which runs out of water due to an “Indian” attack. The Indians in this movie are stereotypical villains, who attack without apparent motivation and are simply an evil which must be vanquished by the heroic settlers, unlike the more nuanced characters of “The Invaders” or Griffith’s own “The Red Man’s View.” The movie is nevertheless impressive, in the scope of storytelling that Griffith managed to accomplish in only 13 minutes, and the attack, as well as the inevitable rescue by the cavalry, are filmed on a larger scale than most pictures of the time. Blanche Sweet, who’s been in several supporting roles (for example in “The Miser’s Heart” and “Enoch Arden”) finally gets a lead romantic role, and Charles West (from “The Unchanging Sea” and “Enoch Arden”) is her husband, who redeems himself after being a drunken slob by saving the settlers with his last water.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Charles West, Blanche Sweet, Robert Harron, Dell Henderson, Linda Arvidson, Francis J. Grandon

Run Time: 13 Min, 15 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.