Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: DW Griffith

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 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).

 

Best Production Design 1916

In the silent era, production design reached monumental proportions. Before the development of advanced special effects that could allow actors to appear to be in outer space, Outer Mongolia, or anywhere a screenwriter could imagine, you pretty much had to build a space that looked like where your story was set. In the very early days, it was sufficient to paint a nice backdrop, but directors got increasingly ambitious, and money got poured into the sets. Soon, we had whole cityscapes, as in 1914’s “Cabiria,” and a number of the candidates for this year’s award.

In “Intolerance,” D.W. Griffith took a cue from “Cabiria” and even borrowed some of the style in order to reproduce the city of Babylon before its fall, and also used production design to transport actors and audiences to Biblical Judea, Early Modern France, and the factory towns of the contemporary USA. For “20,000 Leagues under the Sea” the designers built a mock-up submarine as well as the gates to an Indian city and other exotic locations. The set for “One A.M.” simply reproduces a modest apartment, but that apartment provides a complex series of traps and snares for Charlie Chaplin’s funny drunk character to run afoul of. In “Joan the Woman” director Cecil B. DeMille recreates 15th Century France, including castles, keeps, and hamlets. And in “The Captive God” star William S. Hart has an early Mesoamerican city to act in – including pyramids, altars, and complex stepped housing units.

The nominees for best production design of 1916 are:

  1. Intolerance
  2. 20,000 Leagues under the Sea
  3. One A.M.
  4. Joan the Woman
  5. The Captive God

And the winner is…Intolerance!

Intolerance Babylon

This was pretty much a given. The sets for “Intolerance” are so huge and iconic that they continue to produce gasps from audiences. They are also a good part of the reason that Griffith was never going to make his money back on the film, no matter how well it did at the box office. Today, we can see a reproduction of a part of this set in the heart of Hollywood, at the Hollywood Highland Mall, now one of the most recognizable features of the area, almost as symbolic as the “Hollywood” sign itself. I can think of no greater tribute to what may be the most successful example of production design in history.

Best Costume Design 1916

While we often talk about films in terms of photography and acting, what often stands out most clearly in memory about a movie is the style or idiosyncrasy of the clothing. Whether it’s Charlie Chaplin in the “Little Tramp” outfit or the Stormtroopers in Star Wars, costume often offers an instantly recognizable code for a character’s persona and position. When new and exciting costumes are created for the screen, new icons or symbols can be added to the repertoire of human imagination.

Intolerance” depicts four different ages of history, in part through creative use of costume, perhaps most memorably in the “Babylonian Story,” but also in the French and Judean stories. In “Curse of Quon Gwon,” traditional Chinese attire is sensitively mixed with Westernized clothing to help drive a story of the conflicts inherent in the immigrant experience. Russian actors contrast their own history with that of France in “Queen of Spades,” in part through nineteenth century costume. In “Sherlock Holmes,” actor/director William Gillette preserved an iconic look for the world’s most famous detective by filming his theatrical interpretation of Holmes. And Cecil B. DeMille recreates fifteenth century France with the assistance of well-chosen clothes in “Joan the Woman.”

The nominees for best costume design of 1916 are:

  1. Intolerance
  2. Curse of Quon Gwon
  3. Queen of Spades
  4. Sherlock Holmes
  5. Joan the Woman

And the winner is…”Intolerance!”

Intolerance_(1916)_-_2

I must admit I went back and forth on this quite a bit. Arguably, “Sherlock Holmes” should win for the same reasons “Kid Auto Races” did in 1914 – because when you want to dress up as Sherlock Holmes for Halloween, you turn right to the look William Gillette invented. But, he created that look on stage, which makes the actual design of costumes for the movie a derivation. Then there was “Curse of Quon Gwon,” which, to my mind, has some of the loveliest costumes of all time. However one suspects that a lot of them were just ordinary clothes for the actors involved. Besides, there was the sheer scope of “Intolerance” to take into account: rather than just a handful of actors costumed convincingly to represent another era or culture, there are hundreds in some shots. And, while I think that some writers have over-rated D.W. Griffith’s historical research, there’s no denying that the costumes are memorable and effective. I had to go with this choice this time out.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling 1916

As the close-up becomes an increasingly important piece of filmic vocabulary, the faces and hair of performers are increasingly visible and important aspects of what audiences see and go to movies for. At a minimum, good makeup is necessary to be certain that the camera’s eye sees the performer at his or her best, but hair and makeup can also transform a beauty to a monster, or vice versa. Our selections this year emphasize such extreme transformations.

In “Intolerance,” director D.W. Griffith uses exotic makeup and hairstyles to evoke distant ages, and more subtle styles to show more contemporary periods as he ambitiously travels through time to show the effects of human prejudice through the ages. The Russian production “Queen of Spades” shows us two grand periods in French history, and puts actor Ivan Mosjukine under considerable makeup to create his character of an obsessed soldier. In “Waiters’ Ball,” Roscoe Arbuckle shows that a little change in hair and makeup can make a baby-faced man into a woman, and Gloria Swanson goes the opposite direction in “The Danger Girl.” Finally, the characters of “Snow White” help to create a fairy tale environment with makeup and hairstyles that include an evil witch, a beautiful queen, and, of course, seven children playing grownup dwarves.

The nominees for best makeup and hairstyling of 1916 are:

  1. Intolerance
  2. Queen of Spades
  3. Waiters Ball
  4. The Danger Girl
  5. Snow White

And the winner is…“Intolerance!”

Intolerance_(film)

Although the work on all of these films is impressive, there’s no denying that the scope and attention to detail in this massive superproduction put it in a class by itself. The Babylonian Story, in particular, features some particularly striking and creative makeup and hairstyles. But, in the French Story and the Judean story, a similar amount of attention (if not as much originality) shines through, and the understated work on the Modern Story makes it a perfect contrast with the other three. While we all know Griffith is not my favorite director, I have to honor him and his crew for what they accomplished here.

The Americano (1916)

A somewhat heavy-handed plot and some unfortunate ethnic representations cheapen this rather slight early effort from Douglas Fairbanks. We see little of his physicality and exuberance in this film, although he does manage to represent an optimistic view of Americans, as usual.

americanoThe movie begins in the tiny Central American nation of “Paragonia,” where an uneasy truce between a popular civilian government and a corrupt military is endangered when the Minister of War (Carl Stockdale) opposes renewing a contract with an American mining company that provides work for most of the population. The Presidente (Spottiswoode Aitken) pushes the motion through, and sends a cable to the US, requesting an American mining engineer be sent to help them oversee the complex machinery. At the same time, the Premier (Tote du Crow) and the President’s daughter Juana (Alma Rubens) head to the USA for a visit. The mining school has selected Douglas Fairbanks, of course, as the best man for the job, but he’s not interested in relocating – at least until he gets a look at Juana. Back at home, the coup d’etat has been effected and the Minister of War is in power. The Paragonians return home quickly, leaving word for Doug to stay behind, but of course that wouldn’t be right, so he takes the next boat.

Wee are a poor peeepol Senor.

Wee are a poor peeepol Senor.

On arrival in Paragonia, Doug finds that no one wants to talk about the President, the mining offices have been ransacked, and the only American left is a demeaning caricature in blackface, played by Tom Wilson. He does manage to contact the Premier, who’s in disguise as a street vendor, and to scout out the prison where the President is being held. Juana is being forced to marry the unsavory colonel Garagas (Charles Stevens), on threat of her father’s life, and the Minister of War is now splitting the army’s payroll between himself and Garagas. Doug finds that the President has been throwing papers out his window with the date November 23, 1899, and he looks in the old man’s journal to find out what happened on that day. Turns out that there was a jailbreak using a secret tunnel that has since been walled up, and that the old man is in the very cell that tunnel leads to! So, Doug organizes a hasty breakout with “Whitey” and the premier. Along the way, he is arrested by soldiers and taken to meet the Minister of War and Garagas. They try to bribe him with 1/3 of the army money to re-open the mines for them, forestalling a popular revolt. Doug takes the money and pretends to go along with them, then knocks out the soldier sent to spy on him and re-joins his friends and the mouth of the tunnel.

americano2The party makes its way through the tunnel and Doug starts chipping away at the wall with a hammer and chisel. The President, realizing what must be up, starts pounding on his cane to cover the noise, but a guard sees the tip of Doug’s chisel penetrate the wall. He holds the President at gunpoint and moves to nab whoever comes in that way. Looking through the hole he’s made, Doug figures this out and tosses the captured soldier in ahead of himself, then grabs the guard from behind. Now they make their way back to the capital, using captured guns to threaten their way into the palace, where Juana’s wedding is to take place after a speech by the Minister of War. He’s trying to placate the people, who have been told that the “Americano” is now working with him and will re-open the mine. Doug joins him on the balcony and exposes the plot. When the Minister tries to get the army to join him, saying that Doug has stolen their pay, Doug returns it, explaining that the Minister was the thief all along. The Presidente is re-instated, the mine is opened, and Doug and Juana get married (Doug now appointed the new head of the army of Paragonia).

americano3This movie is a pretty clear argument in favor of American imperialism and the Monroe Doctrine, and it gets its facts a little confused, as far as governmental instability in Latin America at the time. It’s unlikely that a coup against a popular government would be held to oppose American economic interests, usually it was the other way around. And it’s unlikely that the people would be cheering for “the Americano” to come save them. But, for the purposes of a Hollywood fantasy supervised by notorious racist D.W. Griffith, that’s pretty much par for the course. I still find Fairbanks’s “all-American” hero character charming, and reminiscent of the all-American optimist that Harold Lloyd would soon bring to life in his “glasses” character, although he’s certainly not as funny here. I was disappointed that he didn’t perform more stunts in this one. All we see him do is scale a wall to get in and out of Juana’s house, leap down some rocks by the beach, and beat up a soldier or two. Other than that, he spends a lot of the time talking to people and chiseling at a wall. There is a heavy use of close-ups, particularly of Fairbanks, suggesting that the producers thought that his face was a major selling-point of the film. There’s one interestingly shot/edited section where Fairbanks tries to bluff his way past the guards at Juana’s house: they cross their bayonets to block him and he moves back and forth between single-shots of each of them as he tries to fast-talk them, ending up in alone in a shot with the tips of their bayonets behind him. Other than that, it’s a pretty middling production overall.

Director: John Emerson

Camera: Victor Fleming

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Alma Rubens, Spottiswoode Aitken, Carl Stockdale, Tote Du Crow, Tom White, Charles Stevens, Mildred Harris

Run Time: 56 Min

I have not found this movie available for free online; if you do, please comment.

Intolerance (1916)

Probably the most talked about film of 1916, “Intolerance” remains a kind of enigma to film historians. Despite the large amount of ink and computer bytes shed writing about it (see the bibliography at the end of this review for a small sample), it seems no better understood than most of the more typical releases of the year. What is this movie that has inspired so much discussion and debate? Is it one of the most important movies in history or just a giant flop?

Intolerance_(film)

Quick Summary

Regular readers of my blog know I usually begin each review with a recap of the action from the film – I don’t worry too much about “spoiling” 100-year-old movies, but if you want to see it first, you can always scroll down to the link and then come back and read the review. In this case, I’m going to be a bit less specific about the sequence of events and just give a summary of the stories, not accounting for the editing or sequence. In part,  this is because there are several different movies today calling themselves “Intolerance,” and deciding which is the “most authentic” is one of the sources of debate among scholars. It is complicated by the fact that the director, D.W. Griffith, kept making changes for each new re-release of the movie, beginning shortly after the premier on September 5, 1916. Some have argued that the 1917 re-release is more definitive, or even that the version Griffith reconstructed in 1922 after chopping up the print to release one of the storylines as a separate film is the most accurate. In 1990 the Museum of Modern Art attempted to reconstruct the movie based on the score written by Joseph Carl Breil for the opening night, in an attempt to get back to an “original” form, but it needs to be noted that this reconstruction is highly debated, and that it is possible that most viewers in 1916 were seeing a quite different movie. Read the rest of this entry »

Movie Nights in 1916

For this “context” post, I want to look at how exhibitors showed movies, and hence how audiences saw them, at the time under study. I’m not arguing that this is how these movies “should” be seen, or that there’s something wrong with us watching them today on cell phones, or high-definition TVs with Blu-Ray, or with modern music, or whatever. We live in the present, and the only way we can interact with the past is through that filter. Still, when asking ourselves questions about the past, like why a given movie was popular or why people in the forties thought silent comedies were “supposed” to run super-fast, it can be helpful to know something about how movies were seen in their original runs.

The Mark Strand Theater in 1914.

The Mark Strand Theater in 1914.

I’ve already written some articles about the transition from Nickelodeons to movie palaces. Read the rest of this entry »

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 Lamb (1915)

Douglas Fairbanks plays the soon-to-be-familiar role of a spoiled rich kid who has to prove himself a man in this early feature, written by D.W. Griffith and released by Triangle Film Corporation. Griffith’s new protégé, W. Christy Cabanne, directed, and we see some of the same problems as in “Martyrs of the Alamo,” in spite of the charming star.

LambFairbanks plays “the Lamb,” a rich kid whose father recently passed on. He is in love with Mary (Seena Owen)allowing the Intertitles to riff on “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, and he proposes to her at a fashionable society party held by his domineering mother. She accepts, and all seems well until Bill Cactus (Alfred Paget), a “Goat from Arizona,” arrives and turns Mary’s head with his firm handshake. Things only get worse when they all visit the seaside together and spot a drowning woman crying for help. The Goat leaps into action, discarding his jacket and swimming out to save her while the Lamb looks passively on. Now Mary has made up her mind: she needs a real man, and she heads out West with the Goat for an extended stay at his ranch. The Lamb, heart-broken, starts taking boxing lessons and Jiu Jitsu, to his mother’s obvious displeasure. Just as she’s getting ready to put a stop to all this, the Lamb gets a letter from the Goat, asking him to join them in Arizona, and he rushes out to the car to catch the train.

Lamb1The train lets him off for a tourist jaunt, similar to what we saw with Mabel Normand in “The Tourists,” and, of course, he misses his train, getting bilked by a couple of Indians for a blanket and some beads, and then gets shanghaied by a couple of white guys with a car who promise to help him catch up with the train, but club him and dump him in the desert. When he wakes up, he’s chased by rattlesnakes, cougars, and horned toads. Then, an airplane from the Goat’s ranch crashes down nearby and he thinks he’s saved, but the pilot and the Lamb are both taken prisoner by a desperate band of Indian rebels (the intertitles call them “half-caste” and “Yaqui” interchangeably. Most of them are white men in darkface). The rebels have recently captured a machine gun from the Mexican army and are feeling their oats, hoping to extort more money from the Lamb. Meanwhile, the rich folks from the ranch come looking for their pilot, but Mary gets separated and is also captured and threatened with rape. The Lamb manages to break his bonds during a counter-attack by the Mexicans and we see a bit of Fairbanksian swashbuckling before he gets to Mary, who refuses to be rescued by a coward (!). He drags her outside and commandeers the machine gun, cutting down huge numbers of rebels, but he runs out of bullets. Fortunately, the ranch-set have gone to a nearby US barracks and the Cavalry ride in to the rescue. Mary is convinced that her Lamb is a hero and all ends well, for everyone but the rebels.

Lamb2The problem with this movie, as with so much of the Western material from this period is its extreme racism. The rebels are dehumanized and made to look both evil and ridiculous, while the white woman is once again held up as the pure flower of innocence, while the US Cavalry is shown as the heroic forces of order and decency. I blame Griffith’s influence, although this movie is better than “Birth of a Nation” or “The Martyrs of the Alamo,” which Cabanne would direct just two months later. I was impressed by the frequent use of close-ups and the complex cutting within scenes, as well as the classic inter-cutting between scenes to raise tension, now a long-established Griffith technique. There’s also some simple camera pans and tilts, to keep actors centered, and a generally more “cinematic,” less “stagey” approach to the cinematography than in “Martyrs,” although we have the same cameraman, William Fildew, behind the lens. Maybe they gave him more time for this one.

Lamb3Fairbanks is enjoyable, despite his character’s flaws and the flaws in the movie overall. I haven’t seen an earlier performance by him, but he already seems to be comfortable doing the kind of comedy-action picture he would become famous for. If this really was a debut role (I can’t find an earlier one on imdb, but that’s not definitive), it’s interesting because it seems to me that the audience would be hungry to see some heroics by the time he finally does break them out in the final scene. That kind of risk would be more logical for an established star, where the audience thinks, “well, it’s him, he’ll pay off sooner or later.” In a couple of years, we’ll see him pull off a similar, but funnier, character and situation in “Wild and Woolly.”

Lamb4One last thing to mention about this movie is the martial arts sequence, including an instructor with Asian features. I’ve seen various movies (mostly from the 60’s) touted as the “first” movie to include martial arts. Sorry, folks, Douglas Fairbanks beat you all to the punch, or rather the flip.

Director: Christy Cabanne

Camera: William Fildew

Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Seena Owen, Alfred Paget, Kate Toncray, Monroe Salisbury

Run Time: 56 Min

I have not been able to find this movie for free on the Internet. If you can, let me know in the comments.