Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Dorothy Bernard

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 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.

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.