Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Robert Harron

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 »

The Battle (1911)

This movie has a lot in common with the other early D.W. Griffith representations of the Civil War, with one big exception: the story is told from the point of view of a Union soldier (Charles West, who wore the opposite uniform in “Swords and Hearts” and “The Fugitive”), rather than a Confederate. The storyline roughly parallels that of The Red Badge of Courage – a young infantryman departs proudly for the war, but when he gets his “Baptism of Fire,” he flees in panic. Shamed by his cowardice, he becomes determined to redeem himself with acts of courage, and winds up saving the day by leading reinforcements and ammunition to his old regiment. Blanche Sweet (from “The Goddess of Sagebrush Gulch” and “The Eternal Mother”) gets a small but important role as his sweetheart – he runs to her home in his initial flight, and she scorns him and prays for his redemption when he returns to the battlefield. Obviously, themes are also present that we saw in “The House with Closed Shutters” and “Swords and Hearts” as well.

 Battle

It strikes me that of the many Civil War shorts that Griffith made, this was actually the most elaborate, in terms of staging the battle scenes, and certainly made use of the most actors and extras. He basically rehearses the seizing of trenches as it would be done four years later in “The Birth of a Nation.” The men on horseback riding to the rescue also mimics “Birth,” although Bitzer does not use a moving camera here. Some powerful images include the Confederates emerging from the smoke to invade a trench the heroic dash of the ammunition wagons, and the Rebels lighting fires to halt them, causing at least one to explode. Unfortunately, the slight storyline gets somewhat lost in all this action, and we lose track of Blanche Sweet after the wounded commanding officer requisitions her house as a medical station (had there been more time, I imagine her nursing the wounded and hear the story of her love’s redemption). This is certainly not a bad film, so far as it goes, and the editing and cinematography are at the top of their field for the time, but it winds up sacrificing character for thrills.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Charles West, Blanche Sweet, Robert Harron, Spottiswood Aitken, Edwin August, Lionel Barrymore, Dell Henderson

Run Time: 16 Min, 35 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Judith of Bethulia (1914)

Judith_of_Bethulia

This is the big contender from 1914 for D.W. Griffith and the Biograph Company. Biograph allowed Griffith to make this feature-length film, but then blanched at the cost and refused to make any more, causing Griffith to depart, taking most of Biograph’s big stars with him. Left with little to show for it, Biograph let the movie languish on the shelf for several months before releasing it to strong critical acclaim. I want to highlight one of the reviews from Moving Picture World, which said it “will not only rank as an achievement in this country, but will make foreign producers sit up and take notice.” This illustrates the degree to which American film was still regarded as “inferior” in the international film market, where it would be “dominant” just a few years later. Anyway, this movie is based on a story from the Apocrypha, about a devout young woman (Blanche Sweet, who we’ve seen in “The Avenging Conscience” and “The Last Drop of Water”) who saves a city from attack by the Assyrians by seducing the general (Henry B. Walthall, from “The Avenging Conscience” and 1915’s “Birth of a Nation”) and chopping his head off while he is drunk on wine. It’s pretty heady stuff for 1914, and the battle scenes and other large-scale scenes are impressive, even when compared to foreign works like “Cabiria.”

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Blanche Sweet, Henry B. Walthall, Mae Marsh, Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish, Robert Harron

Run Time: 48 Min

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913)

Battle_at_Elderbush_Gulch_Poster

This 2-reel Western wraps up my exploration of D.W. Griffith’s early shorts. Unlike “The Massacre” and other examples, this movie has no narrative of sympathy for Native Americans, using them as truly stereotypical villains – the poster seen above is vividly accurate, and could only be embellished if the “Indian” in the image had a half-eaten puppy in his mouth. The story is that two orphans (one of them is Mae Marsh, who appeared in “The New York Hat” and “Birth of a Nation”) arrive in a settlement town with their puppies, but are told by their strict uncle to leave them outside. One goes to see that they are OK, and finds two natives stealing them for a feast. The uncle comes to the rescue, and shoots one, who happens to be the chief’s son. This brings the whole tribe down on the village, and puts the one baby in town (its mother is Lillian Gish, from “The Mothering Heart” and “Intolerance”) into jeopardy, until the cavalry rides in. The baby is saved by one of the “waifs” and everyone seems happy at the end, despite the fact that the stinginess of one man has caused the deaths of dozens on both sides. It doesn’t seem to me that Griffith really needed the longer format to tell such a cliché story, although the battle scenes are undeniably impressive.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish, Alfred Paget, Robert Harron, Henry B. Walthall, Kate Bruce.

Run Time: 29 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Death’s Marathon (1913)

Blanche Sweet1

This short suspense piece by Griffith has a certain amount in common with “The Unseen Enemy.” Whereas there, we saw the telephone used to summon the hero to the rescue by motorcar, here wife Blanche Sweet (who we’ve seen in “The Massacre” and “The Painted Lady”) tries to talk hubby Henry B. Walthall (from “The Avenging Conscience” and “The Burglar’s Dilemma”) out of suicide while his friend and business partner Walter Miller (who was in “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” and “The Mothering Heart”) rushes to him with an automobile. The two were rivals for her heart prior, so there’s an added tension of whether Walter really wants to save Henry, and both are in trouble due to Henry’s gambling debts. On the whole, it seems that Griffith was trying to make a morality story about the foolishness of youth and wealth, but it doesn’t really come off as successfully as his more serious social message films, such as “The Usurer” or “Corner in Wheat.” What does stand out, again, is how far the film grammar has developed by this time, with shots in close up to establish intimacy and fast editing during the race to save his life.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Blanche Sweet, Henry B. Walthall, Walter Miller, Lionel Barrymore, Kate Bruce, Robert Harron, Alfred Paget.

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Massacre, the (1914)

Massacre_1914

Shot in 1912, this movie by Griffith had to wait almost two years for an American release, in part due to the increased acceptance of the longer (2 reel) format. It reminds me of “The Invaders” by being a Western which depicts the clash of cultures between Native and Euro-Americans without over-justifying the Settlers’ position. Events are precipitated when a troop of American cavalry makes an apparently un-provoked attack on an “Indian village,” and the camera lingers on a dead woman and her baby to make the moral point that US forces are not clean. We then move to a caravan of “innocent” settlers, escorted by General Custer to “the new country” to begin their lives, and the inevitable Native American attack begins. Among the settlers is new mother Blanche Sweet (who we know from “The Lesser Evil” and “One is Business, the Other Crime”), who, having chosen one of her two suitors earlier in the picture, must now be protected by the man she rejected. The cast includes quite a number of Griffith regulars, as you’ll see from the cast list below, perhaps most notably Alfred Paget (from “The Lesser Evil” and “The Musketeers of Pig Alley”) as the “Indian Chief.” The wide-shots of the battle scenes are complex and effective, and foreshadow Griffith’s famous battles from “The Birth of a Nation.”

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Blanche Sweet, Alfred Paget, Wilfred Lucas, Charles West, Robert Harron, Dell Henderson.

Run Time: 30 Min.

You can watch if for free: here (recommend you mute the soundtrack!)

Lesser Evil (1912)

Lesser Evil1

The beginning of this Griffith short looks somewhat like “The Unchanging Sea,” suggesting that it may have been shot in the same area of California where he made that one, but I have no definite information about this. Unlike that movie, this is not a story of love parted by the sea, but rather a classic “damsel in distress” scenario, in which Blanche Sweet (who was in “The Painted Lady” and later starred in “Anna Christie”) is abducted by a rowdy crew of smugglers, while her beau (Edwin August, who we’ve seen in “One is Business, the Other Crime” and also appeared in “The Girl and Her Trust”) rushes to the rescue. Griffith shows he has mastered cinematic tension at this point, putting the girl into additional peril by having the crew decide to take advantage of her, while the gruff but gallant captain (Alfred Paget, from “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” and “The New York Hat”) tries to hold them off with two pistols. He’s a notably bad shot, however, and soon he’s down to his last bullet, which he offers to use on Blanche as a “lesser” evil than the loss of her honor. Even as the police, along with the hero, are climbing aboard the ship, his hand trembles on the trigger…

Director:D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Blanche Sweet, Edwin August, Alfred Paget, Charles West, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh.

Run Time: 13 Min, 20 seconds.

You can watch it for free: here.

Friends (1912)

Friends Pickford

This short by Griffith is a classic love-triangle, set in a Western context, with Mary Pickford (who was in “Coquette” and “The New York Hat”) coming between close friends Henry B. Walthall (also in “Birth of a Nation” and “Corner in Wheat”) and Lionel Barrymore (from “The Burglar’s Dilemma” and “You Can’t Take It With You”). All of this takes place in the saloon in a California mining town, where Mary lives alone in a room upstairs, and she comes across to me as rather forward by the gender standards of the day. The Intertitle refers to her as “the little orphan whose eager eyes and bright smile make Placer Gulch Haven an Earthly paradise for the rough miners,” which may not quite be a euphemism for “prostitute,” since she shows no interest in the other saloon patrons and apparently the eponymous friends intend to marry her. Walthall is her foppish beau Dandy Jack at the beginning, but when he leaves her to seek his fortune, she takes up with the grizzled and burly Barrymore, soon replacing Walthall’s picture with his in her photographic frame. This is what tips him off when he inopportunely returns, but, of course, friendship wins out and Walthall gallantly concedes the fray, apparently to Mary’s disappointment.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Mary Pickford, Henry B. Walthall, Lionel Barrymore, Harry Carey, Elmer Booth, Robert Harron, Walter Miller.

Run Time: 12 Min, 45 seconds.

You can watch it for free: here.

Burglar’s Dilemma (1912)

Burglars Dilemma

DW Griffith directed this short crime-melodrama that, typically, has a hint of social message to it. In this case, a young man (Robert Harron, who we’ve seen in “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” and “Enoch Arden”) is nearly framed for a murder he didn’t commit when he conveniently breaks into the owner’s house to steal, at the behest of an older criminal (Harry Carey, Sr., also in “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” and “An Unseen Enemy”). The younger brother (Henry B. Walthall, later known for “The Birth of a Nation” and also in “The Avenging Conscience”), who is really guilty, turns him over to the police, who grill him mercilessly. The victim, the older brother (Lionel Barrymore, also in “The New York Hat” and later known for his series of “Dr. Kildare” movies), eventually revives and sets things straight, even getting his kid brother off the hook for good measure. The Gish sisters show up briefly before the heist goes down, but are barely in the movie. This seems like one of Griffith’s less innovative pieces, being constructed in a fairly linear fashion with minimal cross-cutting, and nearly all on square internal sets (often with the prominent “AB” for American Biograph visible on a wall!). No doubt audiences went more to see the now-familiar cast and simple morality play than for great originality.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Henry B. Walthall, Harry Carey, Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Charles West.

Run Time: 15 Min, 22 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)

Musketeers_of_Pig_Alley

This short movie by Griffith has been credited as the “first gangster movie,” and, although other films from the period dealt with crime as a social problem, it certainly has many of the familiar tropes of later movies about criminals. Lillian Gish (from “An Unseen Enemy” and later star of “The Wind”) gets an early starring role as “the little lady,” a married woman living in a tenement over-run with gangsters, including the dapper “Snapper Kid” (played by Elmer Booth, also in “An Unseen Enemy” and “The Painted Lady”) who runs the Musketeers. She resists his advances, and later he robs her husband (Walter Miller, who’s in “The Mothering Heart” and “An Unseen Enemy”). Poor Lillian makes the mistake of attending a “gangster’s ball” with a friend, and another gangster tries to slip her a drugged drink, which Snapper Kid sees and prevents, resulting in a gang rivalry. After a very tightly-staged back alley gun battle, the husband gets his wallet back and Snapper runs to the couple’s flat for refuge from the police, learning of their married status and renouncing his interest in the little lady. The couple pay him back for his decency by giving him an alibi for the police. The complex plot and use of closeups as well as an early follow focus device demonstrate the degree to which Griffith was innovating. A brief shot of Dorothy Gish passing her sister in the street reputedly made a big hit with audiences.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Lillian Gish, Elmer Booth, Walter Miller, Harry Carey, Robert Harron, Lionel Barrymore, Dorothy Gish.

Run Time: 18 Min

You can watch it for free: here.