Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Francis J Grandon

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).

What Shall We Do With Our Old? (1911)

In my opinion, D.W. Griffith was most effective in showing intimate vignettes in short format. Even when he wanted to deal with big issues, as is the case here, and in “A Corner in Wheat,” it is the human side of the story that compels. This movie was meant as a progressivist statement about the treatment of old people without families, and it works because it remains very much grounded in a personal story.

What_Shall_We_Do_with_Our_OldThe story begins with a doctor making a house call at the home of an old carpenter. His wife is suffering illness, and the doctor prescribes fresh air, which is lacking in their urban tenement. The old man leaves for work, determined to earn enough to get his wife to the country as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the new foreman is looking for people to lay off, and he decides to cull the oldest workers first, replacing them in their jobs with brawny younger men. The carpenter protests, but is sent out into the street, where he seeks work to no avail, finding that employers value youth over his years of experience. His wife takes a turn for the worse as the money (and food) runs out, so he tries stealing food from what looks to be the kitchen of a restaurant at night. He is caught and held in jail, and tells his sad story in night court, to the disdain of the lawyers and bailiffs who have heard it all before. But the judge, who must be an ancestor of Harry Anderson, sends a cop over to the old man’s house to check on the wife. The cop reports that she doesn’t look good, and the judge pays for the stolen groceries, releases the would-be thief, and arranges for a doctor to attend her in the middle of the night! Sadly, all of this charity is wasted, for when they arrive they find the old woman dead, and the old man hurls the stolen food on the ground in rage and despair.

What Shall We Do with Our OldThis movie is very simple and kept within a low budget by shooting almost entirely on small sets with artificial lighting. The night scenes are not lit differently to the day, we only know the time from the intertitles. Unlike many films of this period, there are rather a lot of intertitles, suggesting the limitations Griffith was discovering in telling stories with visuals only. The “AB” of American Biograph is prominently placed in the old couple’s apartment, but not in any of the other interior shots. Fairly little editing technique is shown, but during the critical scenes of the man’s stealing and arrest, there are cross-cut edits back to the old woman in her bed, to remind us of the seriousness of the situation. The concept of the protagonist desperately needing to get food to a sick family member, only to be arrested and detained would be re-used more effectively in “The Italian” four years later. This is nevertheless an emotionally effective film, and a good example of how much could be done with so little at the time. Notably, Griffith makes no effort to answer the film’s question, but simply poses the callous standards of modern urban society as problem to be considered, seeming to favor the kind of smaller community where people would be expected to look out for each other as an alternative.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: W. Christie Miller, Claire McDowell, George Nichols, Francis J. Grandon

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Red Saunders’ Sacrifice (1912)

Clara Williams

Clara Williams

There’s surprisingly little gunplay in this Western short from Lubin. We do, however, get three-way cross-cutting and melodramatic romance story worthy of D.W. Griffith. Mary, played by Clara Williams (who we’ve seen in “The Italian” and who went on to star in “Hell’s Hinges”), meets a charming and very clean-shaven “outlaw” near her frontier home. The “outlaw” in question is the eponymous Red Saunders, played by Edgar Jones, who made quite a few Westerns at Lubin, most of which are now lost. To me, he looks more like a Mountie than an outlaw. When Mary’s house catches fire, he takes her and her aging mother in at his mountain hideaway, but then mom falls sick and he must go fetch a doctor. At first reluctant, knowing that he’s a wanted man and will be spotted in town, his inner decency gets the better of him and he goes for the doctor. He makes the mistake of asking the local deputy where he can find a doctor, and the deputy interrupts the sheriff, who’s busy reminiscing about a lost love, to tell him there’s an outlaw in town. The doctor tries to capture Red for the bounty, but Red disarms him and forces him to return to the cabin. The doctor quickly ascertains that the woman has been dead for hours and there was no reason to get a doctor in the first place. Red gives him back his gun and sends him on his way while Mary grieves. Now the sheriff and the deputy ride up, having tracked the doctor to the mountains. The sheriff bushwhacks Red and handcuffs him, but he does stop long enough to hear Mary’s story. When he goes into the death room, he recognizes the corpse – it’s the woman he was pining over in the earlier scene. Mary is his daughter! The three talk things out and the sheriff takes off the handcuffs and gives Red back his gun on his word of honor that he’ll turn himself in. Red serves his time and returns to marry Mary.

Red Saunders SacrificeOn the whole, I found this a pretty typical Western for its day, well-made, but nothing really special. Clara Williams is the best actor in the piece, although the doctor and the deputy are both satisfyingly oily and untrustworthy. The whole bit with the sheriff mooning over his memorabilia makes no sense until we get to the denouement. Edgar Jones, as I’ve mentioned above, just doesn’t come across as a desperado or a fugitive, although he’s a handsome enough side of beef for a Western hero. Tinting was used for the scene with the burning cabin, and we get an interesting close-up on the deputy and the wanted poster to make sure we know it’s Red they’re after – never mind the improbability of reproducing photographs of a random outlaw on posters in the 1860s. The cross-cutting I mentioned gives us Mary fretting over her dead mother while Red gets the doctor and the deputy and sheriff pursue. It’s not a tense sequence (we already know mom’s dead), but it is effective in terms of moving the story forward. There is some lush countryside footage, presumably taken near Lubin’s Philadelphia headquarters, but all made up to be passably Western.

Director Francis J Grandon

Director Francis J Grandon

One final note: I saw this movie screened with a live audience at the Cinecon film festival in Los Angeles. I mention this because my readers might be interested in Cinecon (I’ll do a more complete writeup of the festival when it’s over) and also because it has affected my review process. Normally, I’ll watch a short at least twice before writing it up, features I go back to key scenes for. Since this was a live screening, it means I had no such opportunities, so any errors that took place can be chalked up to a failing memory.

Director: Francis J. Grandon

Camera: unknown

Starring: Edgar Jones, Clara Williams

Run Time: 10 Min

I cannot find this to watch for free on the Internet. If you find it, please let me know in the comments.

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.