Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Dorothy West

The Voice of the Violin (1909)

This early effort by D.W. Griffith is far from his most sophisticated work, but it does show real talent at an early point in his career. It focuses on immigrants and their differing responses to American culture, with a definite message concerning those responses.

The movie begins with a long scene that establishes most of the conflict – after spoiling this with a forward-facing Intertitle that reads “scorned by the heiress, the music master listens to the reasoning of the anarchists.” Arthur V. Johnson plays a character called “Von Schmitt,’ who is the music master. We see him in his modest home, and he is visited by a mustached fellow who shows him a pamphlet and makes some gestures describing the divide between rich and poor, and advocating equality for all. Von Schmitt is unimpressed, and shows him out before his pupil, a wealthy young lady (Marion Leonard), arrives with her maid (Anita Hendrie) in tow.  This is Helen Walker, the “heiress” of the Intertitle. The two of them stand very close and speak animatedly while staring into one another’s eyes, demonstrating their apparent affection, and the maid interrupts by giving the heiress her violin and bow. When she plays, it is obvious that she has little promise as a violinist, but Von Schmitt continues to try to woo her. Eventually, he goes too far, and she is offended. Her father (Frank Powell), a wealthy man in a fur coat, then comes in and quarrels with Von Schmitt, taking his daughter away from the upstart. Now his friend returns with a more polished radical (David Miles), and they repeat the gestures and the slogan “No High. No Low. All Equal” is revealed in an Intertitle. This time Von Schmitt is more responsive, angry as he is at the rich for excluding him, and he sees this as a way to eliminate the barrier between himself and Helen.

The next scene shows a radical meeting, and signs are posted in the background to again communicate the slogan and aims of the organization. Many of the actors in this scene are made up to look like immigrants, and there is also a somewhat masculine woman (possibly a reference to Emma Goldman?) who leads some of the discussion. A poverty-stricken child is put on a table to demonstrate how wealth inequality hurts the innocent. When Von Schmitt and his friend enter, they are welcomed as comrades. The entire group repeats the high/low/equal gestures, and Von Schmitt echoes it. Then there is a drawing of lots to see who will plant a bomb against a “monopolist.” Of course, Von Schmitt and his friend are the lucky winners. After having their wrists cut to seal their oath, they are presented with a classic round black spherical bomb with a long fuse.

The next scene is on a New York street, in front of a brownstone festooned with American flags. We see Helen and her father drive up in a fancy car and enter the house, letting the audience know who “the monopolist” in question will be before the anarchists arrive. Von Schmitt and his friend walk up shortly afterwards and look around suspiciously. They go down to the lower level entrance and force open a basement window. The friend goes in while Von Schmitt stands watch outside. The scene cuts to the interior of the basement, and the friend sets up the bomb and lights the fuse, having some difficulty getting it started. As he hesitates, he points to the wound on his wrist, reminding himself of his pledge, and this gives him the fortitude to carry on.

We then cut back outside to see Von Schmitt, who hears music from inside the house. He peers in the window and we see Helen playing, inside her well-appointed home. He realizes at last whose home he has been sent out to destroy, and rushes down to the basement, desperate to convince his friend to douse the fuse, or to do it himself. The friend again makes the ritual gestures and also points to the wounds on their wrists, but Von Schmitt is determined to stop the bomb blast. So, the two fight and Von Schmitt is tied up and left in the basement. He wakes up as the time runs down and worms his way across the floor to the fuse, biting it with his teeth to prevent the explosion. In doing so, he makes enough noise that a liveried servant comes down to investigate, and he reports to Mr. Walker what he has found. Soon, the whole household is in the basement, and Von Schmitt is freed and thanked for saving everyone’s lives. Mr. Walker picks up the bomb carefully and takes it upstairs with him.

The final scene shows Von Schmitt and Helen at another lesson, this time in the Walkers’ home. The maid again intervenes when they get too close, but ultimately Mr. Walker comes in and encourages their embrace.

Now, I’ve been pretty critical on this blog about D.W. Griffith’s most famous features, but I’m generally a fan of the shorts he made at Biograph. To the degree that he did innovate and invent the “grammar” of motion pictures (I tend to consider this claim to be an inflation of his importance), I think it can best be appreciated in this early work. Here, although the tension is ruined by the Intertitles and there are other problems, we do see him experimenting with cross-cutting in the bomb-lighting sequence between the basement, the stoop, and Helen’s apartment. The biggest problem with that scene is the resolution – there is no insert shot showing Von Schmitt biting the fuse, so it’s hard to see what’s happening at that point. The first time I watched, I thought it was Walker who defused the bomb at the point when he picked it up. Still, comparing this to the completely sequential rescue scene in “The Black Hand,” it is undeniably the more sophisticated approach.

Anarchism and other forms of radicalism were associated at this time both with immigration and with terrorism, so one can see this movie as promoting a nationalist or even jingoist position. However, Biograph was aware that much of the audience for their movies came from urban immigrant areas, so this message is tempered by the “good” immigrant, who comes to be accepted by the wealthy Mr. Walker, once he has demonstrated his merit. Von Schmitt is only tempted by the radical message when class prejudice keeps him from Helen, but he isn’t basically evil or un-American. The portrayal of the radical meeting is interesting, showing both rabble-like agitation and also conspiratorial discipline. During the oath-taking, there are members dressed in dark robes reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan, which Griffith would later make into the heroes of “The Birth of a Nation,” but here the robed figures are undeniably sinister, but perhaps also a bit comic in their inappropriateness to the situation. Griffith may have intended this to show the corruption of symbolism through its appropriation by the enemies of justice, although to us today it seems like an unlikely depiction of urban radicalism.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer and Arthur Marvin

Starring: Arthur V. Johnson, Marion Leonard, David Miles, Anita Hendrie, Frank Powell, Mack Sennett, John R. Cumpson, Dorothy West

Run Time: 16 Min

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

 

Swords and Hearts (1911)

Swords_and_Hearts_1911

Several of the themes we’ve encountered before are present in this Biograph short by D.W. Griffith, including cross-dressing, blackface, questions of honor and loyalty, and rampaging Yankee looters. Here, we also get a comment on social worth, as the heroine (Dorothy West, who was in “The House with the Closed Shutters” and “His Trust Fulfilled”) is a member of the “poor white class,” which the male love interest (Wilfred Lucas, from “Enoch Arden” and “His Trust”) ignores for a more “beautiful, but calculating” wealthy neighbor (Claire McDowell, also in “His Trust” and “What Shall We Do with Our Old?”). She seizes the chance to replace him on a daring courier mission when Yankees are lurking about, and goes on a wild horse ride, with the enemy at her back, even shooting one of them down when he gets too close! Once again, Dorothy acquits herself well, and bears up under the wound she receives while doing her duty, but this time she doesn’t die for her efforts. A loyal African American slave hides away Lucas’s fortune and manages to save his father after the discouraged looters torch the house. Then, when Lucas’s lady love spurns him for a Yankee officer, he and Dorothy can have the last laugh – he’s rich again after all.

 Swords and Hearts1

All pretty typical stuff, and becoming redundant among the tropes we are used to seeing Griffith deploy. He uses editing to maximize suspense, particularly during the horse chase and also the rescue of the old man, which has elements in common with “An Unseen Enemy” as we anticipate the arrival of his savior – but will it be too late? Bitzer’s camerawork is more restrained here, with no panoramic shots of the scenery, but the chase is well covered. McDowell, as the fickle fiancé turns in a memorable performance, but West is once again the real focus. The problem is that this time she can’t top what she gave in “The House with Closed Shutters,” although her longing for Lucas from afar is convincing.

Swords and Hearts2

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Wilfred Lucas, Dorothy West, Claire McDowell, Charles West, Verner Clarges

Run Time: 16 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

His Trust Fulfilled (1911)

About a year ago, I briefly discussed the first part of this two-part story from D.W. Griffith when he was working at Biograph. It’s worth going back and looking at that post, because the two movies are a continuation of the same story. Griffith always was interested in finding way to work in longer formats (even though, as I’ve said before, his greatest strength seems to have been in making shorts). In this case, he did it by making a “sequel” at the same time as he shot the first part, although the opening intertitle assures us that “each is a complete story in itself.” I suspect that note was added by Biograph to assure its distributors and exhibitors that they would not require anyone to rent two-reel movies at a time when movies were sold by-the-foot, rather than by-the-story. At any rate, it is likely that some audiences only saw half of the story.

 His Trust Fulfilled

The story is that of “an old faithful negro servant” (read: slave) of a Confederate soldier (Dell Henderson, who we’ve seen in “The Unchanging Sea” and “The Last Drop of Water”), who takes on the role of protecting the widow and orphaned child after the father is killed in the Civil War. The main character, George, is played with understated dignity and humility by Wilfred Lucas, a white man in blackface, which will make it difficult at best for modern audiences to accept him. He saves the daughter (Gladys Egan again, from “In the Border States” and “The Adventures of Dollie”) from the burning house after a group of Union looters torches it, then running back in to rescue also the fallen hero’s sword, symbol of “his trust” and arguably a phallic symbol of his acceptance of white supremacy. He takes both back to his meager shack, and sleeps outside in the cold to preserve their honor. The mother (Claire McDowell, also in “What Shall We Do with Our Old?” and “The New York Hat”) nevertheless dies from the pain of her loss, apparently shocked to the core by her circumstances. George gives his meager savings to a white lawyer who refuses to shake his hand in order to see to it that the child is brought up and schooled with her own kind. She grows into a somewhat bouncy Dorothy West (from “The House with Closed Shutters” and “The Fugitive”), who attracts the hand of the lawyer’s young cousin from England. George, having fulfilled his life’s purpose – keeping the trust of his long-dead master – shuffles sadly off after the wedding and back to his quarters, where he holds the sword gently to his breast. In what may be a dream sequence, the lawyer appears and finally shakes George’s hand.

The screen's first "interracial" handshake?

The screen’s first “interracial” handshake?

In spite of the clearly racist content, I won’t deny that the story has some dramatic and emotional content that still works. The Civil War battle is less effective than what we see in “The House with Closed Shutters,” which may be attributable to a lower budget, but it’s also less central to the storyline. Lucas’s performance, which at first seems virulently stereotypical, takes on a more dignified cast as we see George age and face the trials of keeping his word. In a way, what Griffith is giving us here is the “positive case” for racism and Southern tradition – a world in which people knew their destiny on Earth and kept their honor by living up to their expectations. That this world is mythical makes it no less effective as a cinematic representation, although of course accepting it without criticism leads down the road that got us to “The Birth of a Nation.”

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Wilfred Lucas, Claire McDowell, Gladys Egan, Dorothy West, Verner Clarges, Harry Hyde

Run Time: 11 Min

You can watch it (along with “His Trust”) for free: here.

The Fugitive (1910)

No, this is not a movie about a man on the run seeking a one-armed assassin. Instead, it is another of D.W. Griffith’s pre-“Birth of a Nation” explorations of the Civil War. This time, we start with not one, but two tearful farewells, as a Confederate (Edward Dillon, also in “What Shall We Do with Our Old” and “In the Border States”) and a Union soldier (Edwin August, who appears in “The House with Closed Shutters” and “The Eternal Mother”) depart for the front in one of many examples of parallelism the movie provides. In a typical coincidence, they both get separated from their units and the Yankee kills the Reb, only to find himself on the run when his fallen foe’s enemies find the body. Stretching that coincidence even further, now the survivor seeks shelter in his enemy’s home from his victim’s mother (Kate Bruce, also seen in “The Red Man’s View” and “The Unchanging Sea”)! She nearly turns him in, but “thinks of another mother, awaiting her son’s return and does the decent thing. Dorothy West (who starred in last night’s “The House with Closed Shutters”) is the fiancé who loses her beau, and her while exuberance worked on the battlefield, it seems out of place in a bereaved lover.

 Fugitive

This movie was shot on a limited number of sets in New Jersey in the winter, and that may have limited the use of outdoor setups. There are some nice panoramas, I assume of the Hudson River area, but the porches of the two homes appear to simply be the same set shot from the opposite angle. The editing is less taut than we saw in “The House” or than would be the case in other Griffith shorts. Overall, it seems that the story suffers from a rather conventional approach, and there isn’t much here to pull it out of its banality. One historical footnote is that the original story was written about the fighting in Ireland, and that the writer himself died in 1916 during the Rising there, fighting for the Green side against the Orange.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Kate Bruce, Edward Dillon, Edwin August, Dorothy West

Run Time: 17 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

House with the Closed Shutters (1910)

House_with_Closed_Shutters

In some respects, this Civil War melodrama is a bit more of what modern viewers, familiar with D.W. Griffith mostly through “The Birth of a Nation,” will expect, than “In the Border States.” Its protagonists are loyal Southerners, the question of honor plays a central role, and the war itself is shown as implicitly justified, if a tragic necessity. There even is a white man in blackface portraying an African American servant, although his performance is not so explicitly racist as the “mulatto” or the role of “Gus” in “Birth.” It begins with a fairly lengthy tearful farewell sequence – a consistent way of introducing characters in these movies. Here, we get a heroic young son of the South (Henry B. Walthall, of “Birth of a Nation” and “The Avenging Consicence”) and his sister (Dorothy West, who was in “A Burglar’s Mistake” and “The Unchanging Sea”). The sister has two suitors, also going to war, portrayed by Charles West (star of “In the Border States” and “The Last Drop of Water”) and Joseph Graybill (who also appeared in “The Last Drop of Water” and “The Lonedale Operator”). General Robert E. Lee himself chooses Henry to be his courier with “an important dispatch,” but he panics at his first sight of death, and flees back to his mother. His sister, unable to bear the stain on family honor, puts on his uniform and dashes off to battle in his name. Of course, she is killed, trying to retrieve the Confederate flag she sewed with her own hands. Now the family has a deep, dark secret to hide. Their mother (Grace Henderson, who was in “A Corner in Wheat” and “The Usurer”) shutters the house and turns away the suitors, claiming that the sister’s grief is too great to be born, and the son begins a dreary life of hiding. Sometime near the turn of the century, he is at last found out, and he too, drops dead of horror and shame.

 House with Closed Shutters

The action scenes in this short film are nearly equal to the much-praised battles in “The Birth of a Nation,” although of course they are on a smaller scale, and there are some good chase scenes during the courier sequences. I think Ms. West acquits herself well as a woman warrior, with all the overblown enthusiasm and devil-may-care courage Walthall himself shows in the better-known movie. The final sequence has a Poe-like resignation to fate and horror, and at least in this case there is justification for the claustrophobically small, square set of the single room wherein the brother lives out his years of cowardly existence. Billy Bitzer’s camera is largely stationary, but in the outdoor shots he manages some creative compositions. It is really the editing that makes the story work, and at this point in his career, Griffith had worked out how to signal simultaneous action through quick edits between scenes, and to build tension by showing as much as was needed for as long as was needed. I didn’t find the story to be as moving as “In the Border States,” but it is certainly a good example of what Griffith could do effectively in the short format.

House with Closed Shutters2

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Henry B. Walthall, Dorothy West, Charles West, Grace Henderson, Joseph Graybill, Frank Evans, Gladys Egan

Run Time: 17 Min

You can watch it for free: here.