Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Dell Henderson

Ramona (1910)

This early short by D.W. Griffith was shot in California and adapts a highly popular novel which had come to be associated with the myth of Californian conquest. Although this is one of the longest movies released that year, Griffith was clearly feeling the constraints of the short format in trying to tell such a large story.

The movie begins with a Biograph title card, which includes the subtitle “A Story of the White Man’s Injustice to the Indian.” The next card informs us about the source, the novel by Helen Hunt Jackson, and the fact that the movie was shot “on location” in Camulos, California, “the actual scenes” where the novel is set. The first shot shows Ramona (played by a very young Mary Pickford) and her meeting with Alessandro (Henry B. Walthall), one of the Indians who works at her stepmother’s estate. Ramona is sewing, and as the Indian workers file past, Alessandro notices her and is struck by her beauty. Ramona goes into the church to pray, and Alessandro follows her. An intertitle informs us that the next scene is “the meeting at the chapel,” in which we witness their “meet cute.” Ramona also seems fascinated, but demure, and her stepbrother Felipe (Francis J. Grandon) introduces them and then leads Alssandro away. The next scenes show their growing attraction, and we learn that Ramona has rejected an engagement with Felipe over Alessandro. But, when Ramona sees Alessandro playing guitar under a tree, she runs away in horror, running to the church to ask forgiveness. But, after praying, she returns to him and embraces him, only to be violently separated by her outraged stepmother (Kate Bruce).

A sane Alessandro.

A sudden shift in the plot takes place as the next intertitle informs us that “The Whites” devastate Alessandro’s village. We see this event at a great distance, with burning tents visible from a cliff. The main focus of action is on Alessandro in the foreground, who emotes his loss with gestures.  Now, Ramona’s stepmother tells her the truth: she is half-Indian herself. This makes her love for Alessandro a possibility, and she goes to him to tell him, after somehow “intuiting” the burning of the Indian village. Again, they embrace, and now Ramona chooses his life over her own, joining him in poverty and effective exile. At first, Ramona’s stepmother wants to send workers out to search for her, but Felipe calls it off, forcing the family to accept Ramona’s choice. We see a brief scene of domestic bliss for Ramona and Alessandro, and they have a baby, but soon the whites come back to inform them that they now own the land. Now, they are homeless with a tiny baby to care for. They wander out into the mountains, and soon the baby dies and Alessandro is driven mad. In this state, he runs into one of the whites, who shoots him down. Ramona is grieving over his body when Felipe arrives to take her home.

An insane Alessandro

The movie as shown is very hard to follow without some background information or familiarity with the novel. Felipe’s role is particularly obscure, but also the “intuition” that drives Ramona to Alessandro the second time and various other events are hard to deduce from the intertitles. Scenes like the eviction from their house seem to drag on, but there are big jumps in the plot as it proceeds. Still, the movie has some interest. I’ve always felt that Griffith worked better in a short format (in part because he refused to write scripts or storyboards in detail), and this movie shows some of his developing strengths as a director. There is good use of inter-cutting to set up simultaneous events, and suspense is effectively established, as when Ramona prepares to sneak out of her stepmother’s house and one wonders if she will make it. Pickford is quite early in her acting career, and while she doesn’t dominate the screen the way she will later, she manages some nice touches as Ramona, especially when she seems to be vacillating between guilt over her feelings for Alessandro and a desire to give in to them. Walthall, who would go on to become a very successful leading man, still seems a bit rough around the edges to me. There’s no denying his screen presence, but he seems to go in for gesticulating over facial expressions. A bit more subtlety on his part would go a long way toward making this more watchable.

Once again, we have one of those D.W. Griffith movies that “prove” he wasn’t racist, because the whites are bad guys and the Indians are held up as noble. The problem with this is the degree to which the myth of the “noble savage” is bound up in American colonialism and the fact that this movie makes no attempt to depict the reasons behind the white people’s actions and the degree to which they are motivated by American values into attacking and victimizing the indigenous people. Reviewers at the time noted that it failed to truly transmit the intended message of the novel, focusing only on the elements of tragic romance that transcend race and situation. Undeniably a movie of historical interest, it may not live up to its reputation as a classic.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Mary Pickford, Henry B. Walthall, Francis J. Grandon, Kate Bruce, Mack Sennett, Dell Henderson, W. Chrystie Miller, Dorothy Bernard, Gertrude Clair, Anthony O’ Sullivan

Run Time: 16 Min

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

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).

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.

In the Border States (1910)

In the Border States

For my money, D.W. Griffith was always better at directing shorts than he was at working in the feature-length. One only has to compare this homely and touching Civil War story to the bloated and un-subtle “Birth of a Nation” for proof. Shot in Griffith’s second year working as a director at Biograph, it has all the humanity and innovation which his best work shows, even if it is at bottom a melodrama. A young father (Charles West, whose work I’ve discussed in “Enoch Arden” and “The Burglar’s Dilemma”) in a state on the border marches off to fight for the Union, leaving his family in peril as the war comes dangerously close. A band of disheveled Rebels “forages” near to the house, and is chased by Union soldiers. One of their number (Henry B. Walthall, who would later star in “Birth of a Nation” and “The Avenging Conscience”), staggers, desperate, into the family’s land just as the youngest daughter (Gladys Egan, who played the title role in “The Adventures of Dollie” and also appears in “His Trust Fulfilled”) goes out to fetch a pail of water from the well. The man begs for help, and she lets him drink and hide in the well, but refuses him a kiss in thanks. Later, the tables are turned when the father is being hunted, wounded, by this very same band of Confederates, and seeks shelter in his own home. The soldier is about to kill him when the little girl intervenes. He can’t kill the father of the child who saves him, and he convinces, or orders, the others to depart in peace (he’s the only one with Corporal’s stripes, so I guess he’s in charge). The girl and the soldier shake hands and salute one another, and she takes credit for driving the soldiers off single-handed.

 In the Border States1

For 1910, this is quite a sophisticated drama. Much of the movie is shot outside, which prevents the claustrophobia of having too many “square” compositions, as was often the case in studio productions. Billy Bitzer provides good camerawork, including a nice shot of the New Jersery Palisades that passes well for any vista in middle-southern America. Part of the pursuit of the Union soldier is shown as a night shot, by torchlight, apparently achieved by under-exposing the film, but it looks better than a lot of the “night” shots of the time. But the real key to the story is its editing. Griffith deftly cross-cuts between pursuers and pursued in both sequences to heighten tension. For the second sequence, there are two rooms in the house that each character must pass through to reach the ultimate hiding place, and Griffith keeps us aware of the situation in each as the danger develops. Each time we cut back to the wounded soldier, something in the former area has brought peril closer. Walthall’s performance is good, but Egan’s is the best in the movie. I also noticed that it was very easy to read Egan’s lips as she mouths the words “my father” to Walthall in the climactic moment. This was probably intentional, since silent filmmakers encouraged actors to enunciate lines for lip-readers, in lieu of a soundtrack.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Gladys Egan, Henry B. Walthall, Charles West, Frank Evans, Dell Henderson, Henry Lehrman, Owen Moore, Mack Sennett

Run Time: 16 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Over Silent Paths (1910)

Over Silent Paths

This was one of the movies D.W. Griffith made on his first journey to California for Biograph, and it makes good use of the desert outside LA for a bleak setting. An old miner and his daughter (Marion Leonard, also in “A Burglar’s Mistake” and “And a Little Child Shall Lead Them”) are preparing to pack up and return to civilization, when a Mexican-looking “desert wanderer” (Dell Henderson, who we’ve seen in “The Usurer” and “The Sunbeam”) stumbles into the camp. She’s off getting water, so the villain kills the old man and takes his gold. She buries him and vows revenge. Soon, he’s stumbling around lost and desperate for water, when the girl rides up in her covered wagon. She revives him, not knowing who he is, and soon they are in town and beginning a courtship. When he proposes to her, of course, he shows her all the money he has, in a purse she recognizes as her father’s! She overcomes her emotions and grabs his gun, bringing him in to the sheriff and apparently getting a reward to boot, but the only reward she cares about is the opportunity to go to a lonely grave and say, “I did it, dad.” A fairly typical example of the shorts Griffith was turning out like sausage at the time, boosted by Marion’s performance and the desert backgrounds.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Marion Leonard, Dell Henderson, Arthur V. Johnson, Alfred Paget

Run Time: 16 Min

You can watch it for free slightly edited: here (first scene missing)

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!)

Sunbeam, the (1912)

sunbeam

We don’t generally think of the death of a parent as a good opener for a light comedy about a child. Nor is the threat of scarlet fever outbreaks in tenements usually seen as a subject for humor. But, D.W. Griffith made it work in this, one of his most memorable early shorts. The “Sunbeam” is his nickname for an adorable 4-year-old child (Ynez Seabury, who would later appear in “The Invisible Ray” and “Reap the Wild Wind” during the sound era). When her mother (Kate Bruce, also in “The Mothering Heart” and “The New York Hat“) passes quietly away, she runs out in search of other playmates. She fixes on a spinster (Claire McDowell, whom we’ve seen in “The Usurer,” and who later was in “The Mark of Zorro”) and a bachelor (Dell Henderson, who was in “The Unchanging Sea” and “His Trust”), who conveniently live across the hall from one another. At first, the two are crotchety and resistant, but the Sunbeam breaks down their resistance and gets them to be nice to each other, and to her. Then some local kids stick up a “Scarlet Fever” warning on their door and they are forced into quarantine together for a time, ultimately assuring that the new family unit will gel. It’s pretty silly, but undeniably as charming as Ynez herself.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Ynez Seabury, Kate Bruce, Claire McDowell, Dell Henderson.

Run Time: 14 Min, 45 seconds.

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.

Enoch Arden (1911)

Enoch_Arden_(1911_film)

This two-part “featurette” by Griffith has a lot in common with his earlier film “The Unchanging Sea.” First of all, it’s based on a poem of the same name, in this case by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who was read by all educated people at school at the time. Secondly, it follows the story of a couple, separated when the husband goes to sea to seek his fortune, and shows their seaside romance as well as images of the abandoned wife staring out to sea forlornly while she waits for her husband’s return. Unlike that story, however, it does not end in reconciliation, but rather in tragedy, as the wife finally relents and marries her other suitor (a remarkably persistent fellow, who continues to court her as her children grow from babies to adulthood). It’s obvious that Griffith was becoming interested in more complex storylines and storytelling techniques: we see closeups, and there’s a pretty impressive ship, either built or hired for the shoot. The story stars and was written by Griffith’s wife Linda Arvidson, who we’ve seen in “Corner in Wheat” and “The Adventures of Dollie,” with Enoch portrayed by Wilfred Lucas, from “His Trust” and “The Girl and Her Trust.” The rival is Francis J. Grandon, who would soon turn to directing movies like “To Be Called For” and “The Adventures of Kathlyn.”

Director: D. W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Wilfred Lucas, Linda Arvidson, Francis J. Grandon, George Nichols, Grace Henderson, Blanche Sweet, Dell Henderson, Charles West.

Run Time: 33 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

His Trust (1911)

His Trust

This early melodrama is a good example of why modern audiences can have a hard time with Griffith, and with early film in general. It has many of the same problems for us as “Birth of a Nation” does, although it is much shorter and refrains, at least, from glorifying the Ku Klux Klan. The subtitle alone: “The Faithful Devotion and Self-Sacrifice of an Old Negro Servant” is enough to set our teeth on edge, although “Negro” was not considered an insulting term at the time, nor even a few generations ago. “Servant” here is, of course, a euphemism for “slave,” as the movie is set in the South during the Civil War, a period that lived in the memory of the older and the myths of the younger generations at the time (it was as distant to them as the Kennedy assassination is to us today). The “servant” is played by a white man (Wilfred Lucas, also in “The Girl and Her Trust” and later “Modern Times” with Chaplin) in black face, another practice that is no longer acceptable. I would encourage viewers, not to ignore their sense of discomfort with this movie, but to regard it as evidence of an important shift in American history. One African American commentator on film I heard observed that stories like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” were popular among black audiences of the time, because, in spite of the stereotypes, they at least suggested the possibility of noble action on the part of black people, and this movie falls into that category as well. Today, the stereotypes are no longer acceptable, and I’d say that’s a good thing, but this phase in history remains significant in understanding race in America.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Wilfred Lucas, Dell Henderson, Claire McDowell, Linda Arvidson, Mack Sennett, Charles West, Grace Henderson.

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here. (Along with the sequel, “His Trust Fulfilled”)