Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Joseph Graybill

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).

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.

Painted Lady (1912)

Painted_Lady

This Griffith short can be read both as an indictment of the gender order and a frank portrayal of mental illness and its consequences. Blanche Sweet (from “Corner in Wheat” and later in “Judith of Bethulia”) is the eponymous woman, perhaps better described as “the Unpainted Lady,” since her strict father refuses to allow her to dress up or wear makeup. When she goes to the ice cream festival (?!), she is unpopular, because of her plain looks. Finally, a man (Joseph Graybill, from “The Last Drop of Water” and “Enoch Arden”) shows interest in her, but it’s only to find out if her father has anything worth stealing. When he breaks in to their home in a mask, Blanche shoots him first and asks questions later. This is where her mind starts to go, and she tries to introduce her father to her lover as he lies dead. Later, her mother (Kate Bruce, who we’ve seen in “The Sunbeam” and “The New York Hat”) catches her talking to herself. Finally, she puts on makeup and goes to their old rendezvous point only to collapse in shame. It seems as though the real tragedy here is a society that forces her to judge her value as a person only in terms men’s opinions and her family’s lack of understanding when the symptoms become clear.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Blanche Sweet, Joseph Graybill, Kate Bruce, Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Henry B. Walthall.

Run Time: 13 Min

You can watch it for free: here.