01 June 2009

Griffith at Biograph (1908-1914)

d. D.W. Griffith / USA / Five selected films: 127 mins.

Although I've never been much of a fan of The Birth of a Nation or Intolerance — the two films most regularly cited as D.W. Griffith's masterpieces — I've also never been dismissive of Griffith's legacy. Certainly he did more for the nascent days of American film than virtually anyone else, and an examination of those early days with the Biograph company between 1908 and 1914 reveals a pioneering cinematic mind at work in his most famous shorts. At Biograph he wrote and directed melodramas, comedies, westerns, thrillers, and social commentaries. Fortune would have it that he helped develop a coherent cinematic language in America. Not so bad for a man who had ambitions to be actor and a playwright.

During his years at Biograph, Griffith made somewhere in the ballpark of 450 short films — a staggering amount, approximately two or three every week. Biograph became the preeminent film company in America with Griffith at the helm. Although many of the earliest U.S. films have been lost, a surprisingly number of Griffith's survive, due in large part to an acquisition of the Biograph collection the Museum of Modern Art in the late 1930s. Only the smallest fraction of the films can be said to be genuinely good, and not all were influential. Maybe only a half-dozen fit that description, and my personal choices — from the ones I've seen, at least — include two of Griffith's most profound social commentaries, two of his most appealing action films, and a ground-breaking melodrama that helped pave the way toward his most famous films.

His earliest success is probably The Country Doctor (1909). It is a success in the sense that it demonstrates Griffith's incredible control in structure and pacing, but it is also a success in terms of fact that it's not excruciatingly uncomfortable to watch in a contemporary setting. Like many of Griffith's early films, this one demonstrates the director's penchant for populism. Structured around two houses — one rich, one poor — the story follows a rich country doctor forced to choose between helping his own ill daughter and the ill daughter of a neighboring poor woman. Griffith crosscuts back and forth between both houses and both girls, creating suspense and tension in not only whether the girls will live but whether the doctor will be able to help both. Film historian Tom Gunning notes that more than any other film from the period up until 1909, The Country Doctor showed what had become possible in movie-making. This film is among the first that demonstrates a fictional character exhibiting a judgment in ethics, a judgment that turns out to be at the detriment to his own daughter. And while the cutting back and forth in the film's midsection is done with great delicateness and skill, perhaps more impressive is the symmetry of the opening and closing shots. At first we're given a long shot of country hillside and then camera pans right until the house of the doctor comes into the view, and we see the happy family leaving; at the film's close, Griffith reproduces that same shot from in the opposite direction, leading us away from the death of the young girl and back toward the pasture. It is a rather simple camera movement, but still able to evoke a surprising amount of emotion in its relative stasis.

The same principles of The Country Doctor are on display in A Corner in Wheat (1909). Again this is a Griffith exercise in crosscutting and montage (and seeming socialist propaganda and moralizing), although the control is slightly less firm than in The Country Doctor. The comparison is again between rich and poor, this time between the rich barons who casually decide to make a pass at controlling the wheat market and the poor citizens, now unable to buy bread, who are unknowingly affected by this decision. (A Corner in Wheat is on preserve in the National Film Registry, though of the two, The Country Doctor would have seemed to be the more likely candidate.)

By the early 1910s, Griffith was capitalizing on his cinematic experimentation by working with material that felt inherently less focused on the manipulation of the actual film itself. The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) and The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913), two of Griffith's great action and suspense films, use the same tense editing and complex shot composition than A Corner in Wheat and The Country Doctor — both on a zoomed and zoomed-out scale — but as part of more complex stories, the techniques, while no less effective, rightly fade into the background. The Musketeers of Pig Alley is typically hailed as the proto-typical gangster film; a husband and wife living in an impoverished neighborhood of New York are tossed into the world of organized crime when the husband is robbed by two thugs. If Griffith asks us to notice too much within the frames with this densely built compositions, he can be forgiven by the powerfully focused and tense standoff in the second half.

Griffith considered The Battle of Elderbush Gulch to be his best film up to that point in his career, and from what I've seen I'll gladly agree. He had ventured into the western previously with shorts such as The Last Drop of Water (1911), but here is the film that in many ways seems to portent The Birth of a Nation in terms solely related to technical skill (and in terms of accusations of racism as well). So many essays point back toward that film as the moment American cinema changed, but it's not fair to assume all of its innovations suddenly sprang forth from nothing. The story is simple — a group of settlers are attacked by vengeful American Indians who are then held at bay by the last-second arrival of the cavalry — but it's remarkably well told with tight editing and grand, well-staged (for its time) cinematography. Limited in ability, financing, and time, Griffith nevertheless made a western that should continue to be looked at for as long as we're studying the genre.

Griffith's final film with Biograph, Judith of Bethulia (1914), is worth mentioning on two counts. First, although it falters at times from a lack of narrative comprehension in the early reels, it has held up well. I would not rush to place it on a list of the best silent films ever made, but I think there's possible a greater jump between The Battle of Elderbush Gulch and this film in the course of a single year than between The Country Doctor and The Musketeers of Pig Alley. Judith of Bethulia is an adaptation of a biblical story about a woman (Blanche Sweet) who gives herself to the leader of the Assyrians (Henry B. Walthall) to infiltrate his palace and kill him to avenge her slain countrymen. This is a film that, if nothing else, illustrates Griffith was still perfecting his skills of blending melodrama and action — the latter being rather impressive, though largely recorded through a static lens at first. Griffith's crosscutting here is now more effective with disparate narratives instead of evoking mere montage, a technique that would be absolutely necessary in The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. There are also a few impressive cinematic tricks, including strategic light adjustments. After it gets the unclear narrative under control, however, we're given a series of title cards and cut-to emotions that feel a little overbearing.

The second, and perhaps most important, reason for acknowledging Judith of Bethulia is the feud that erupted between Griffith and Biograph. The production company had a strict rule limiting their films to two reels, and with Judith, Griffith ventured into four-reel territory. Such a length is nothing compared to his later epics, but the breaking point between the two proved momentous. It was Griffith who took his skills into films of greater scope and ambition and ultimately succeeded, while Biograph — which thought longer films were nothing but a trend — never recovered from his absence and ceased making new films in 1916. In a rather ironic twist, it was Biograph that re-released Judith five years later with added footage, making it longer (and ultimately worse off) than Griffith's cut. And if nothing else it showed clearly that Biograph's success was wound by one man who parts ways and made a right turn toward history.


John 02 June, 2009  

Griffith’s use of “opposites’ was a common trait in his films, rich vs. poor, north vs. south, brother vs. brother, good vs. evil. You choices are certainly in line with my own as far as his works that hold up the best. “The Country Doctor” is extremely effective even today. Griffith should be essential viewing for anyone seriously interested in film.

T.S. 02 June, 2009  

John - I'm glad you enjoy The Country Doctor as much as me; Gunning's essay and commentary on the film that accompany its release on the second installment of "Treasures from the American Film Archives" is quite wonderful.

It's funny you should mention the diametric opposite motif that occurs so often in his films; I've never specifically thought of that until watching these shorts recently, but it actually sums up my own relationship with Griffith quite well. On the one hand I really do admire his artistic innovations and think he justly deserves the title of the pioneer of *American* cinema; but on the other hand, while I've been grateful to see nice prints of his films, I've struggled to embrace them as anything other than artifact — The Country Doctor probably excluded, and possibly Elderbush Gulch. Anyway, I think such "opposites" worked out well for him because they stand as big, bold, and easily understood conflicts that can power so many otherwise staid silent narrative. Usually I find the stories underwhelming in silent dramas but technically they are so accomplished; silent comedies are imminently more watchable but less innovative in terms of their sheer mechanics. Another noteworthy "opposite" indeed.

John 02 June, 2009  

Admiring Griffith is a problematic situation. His development and advancement of film language goes without saying, however along with that comes baggage; the values rooted in late 19th century/early 20th century society that seems so dated today, and then their is the ever present racism. I always felt unsettled when I have watched “The Birth of a Nation.”

I do remember being impressed with “A Corner in Wheat” and “Musketeers of Pig Alley” though I do admit the last time I saw these two films, and many other Griffith shorts, was back in the 1970’s at the Museum of Modern Art. “The Good Doctor” I saw within the last year with another short call “A Girl and Her Trust.” What I found particularly interesting and impressive about the second film was its lead female character who was no damsel in distress. She works in a railroad payroll office and her “trust” is $2,000 in cash. She fights off potential thieves including chasing after them. After they do finally steal the strongbox, she telegraphs for help, which leads not only to her rescue but also to Griffith doing some nice parallel editing between the damsel fighting with the crooks and the rescuers coming to her aid.

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