Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Gladys Egan

A Trap for Santa (1909)

Trap_for_Santa_ClausWith Christmas coming at the end of his first year working for Biograph, D.W. Griffith released this one-reel seasonal movie with a heartwarming ending and a hint of social message. It shows the level that he had already achieved in terms of storytelling and film technique.

A family in want.

A family in want.

A family is destitute, and the situation grows bleaker as the father (Henry B. Walthall), unable to find work to feed his children, turns to drink in order to forget his worries. The mother (Marion Leonard) tries to make the most of the situation, but she scolds the father when he comes in drunk and wakes the children. Desperate, he leaves the house, fearing that he may be a worse influence on his own children if he stays. The bartender (Mack Sennett) at his usual dive doesn’t appreciate it when he tries to sleep on the table , and throws him out into the cold. The mother tries to find work, but is turned away from the employment agency. When she returns home, she finds that the hungry child she left there alone has eaten their last crusty loaf of bread. Then, some men arrive with some good news: her aunt’s estate has been settled at last, and she is the inheritor of a small fortune. She and the children move into a nice house with a maid (Kate Bruce). When Christmas rolls around, she explains to the kids that Santa will come in through the window, since there is no chimney, and the kids hatch a plan to “trap” Santa by leaving a basket covered by a picture frame right where he will step (it’s lucky he doesn’t break his neck!). Mom manages to get them to bed, but she sighs while trying on the Santa suit, wishing they had a father to play the role.

Trap for Santa1Then, in a typically Griffithian coincidence, the starving father now tries to break into the wealthy home to steal some money or at least food, but finds himself confronted by his estranged wife. The girls think their trap has worked, but mom convinces them to stay in bed. Immediately, the couple puts a new plan into action and the father puts on the Santa suit and acts like he is caught in the trap. Mother rouses the girls, who come out and dance with “Santa.” The family is reunited in love.

Santa is trapped.

Santa is trapped.

It’s a happy ending, and I found it emotionally effective, but after all, the drunk may continue being a drunk now that his wife has money. We can hope not, and clearly Griffith wants us to believe that he will reform, since it was only hunger and desperation that made him drink and (try to) steal. Billy Bitzer’s photography is effective and the camera is at least close enough to cut off the actors’ feet and give us some intimacy with the action. There are only a few camera set-ups, and these are static and set to mid-shot throughout, but the editing makes the story work better than a lot of the movies of the period. Where shots in 1909 generally followed one another sequentially, this movie allows for simultaneous action as the father first deserts the family, and then later when he is “trapped” by the children in the next room. Leonard somewhat overdid her acting, pointing and pantomiming to make sure that the audience knew what was said, but overall the performances were good. I was particularly pleased to see Gladys Egan (from “In the Border States”) show up as the daughter.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: G.W. Bitzer

Cast: Henry B. Walthall, Marion Leonard, Gladys Egan, Kate Bruce, Mack Sennett, W. Chrystie Miller

Run Time: 15 Min

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

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.

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.

In the Border States (1910)

In the Border States

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

 In the Border States1

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

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

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

Run Time: 16 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Adventures of Dollie (1908)

Adventures of Dollie

This is the very first directorial effort of D.W. Griffith, who would go on to become one of the major pioneers of the Classical Silent Period. It is a short film about a father’s hunt for his kidnapped little daughter, and in that sense resembles “Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest,” which Griffith had starred earlier in under Edwin S. Porter while working for Edison Studios. After joining Biograph as an actor, he was requested to direct something and agreed, on condition that he could return to acting whenever he wished. Apparently he never did. The most thrilling sequence in the film is that in which Dollie is sealed in a barrel by her Gypsy captors, which then accidentally falls off the wagon into the river, and proceeds through rapids and over a falls, before being recovered by a wholesome Huck Finn lookalike and reunited with her family. I was surprised that the father was not given the chance to heroically rescue her, as in the Porter film, but this was a pretty good example of an early multi-scene film, using editing and creative camera angles to tell a story with no intertitles. The Gypsies are definitely stereotypes here, with no depth or dignity, which I suppose also pre-sages certain aspects of Griffith’s career, while Dollie’s family are as white as snow.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Arthur V. Johnson, Gladys Egan

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.