Biograph became known as the studio with highest quality product and this was largely because of D.W. Griffith, a man who remained an anonymous force behind the best movies until he finally broke with the outfit in 1913. Paid by the foot, Griffith fits Malcolm Gladwell’s outlier theory: churning out volume, two one-reel films a week, he dominated the craft and perfected techniques: cross-cutting being among the most famous. More important, he recognized the movies’ potential as an art form when most everyone else looked down on the “flickers” as low-brow amusements for the uneducated masses. Here are five films that show Griffith’s strengths.
A Corner in Wheat, 1909
Biographer Richard Schickel wrote that A Corner in Wheat is Griffith at his artistic best, combining realism and lyricism with a narrative economy to make a point, to persuade. One contemporary reviewer wrote: “It is an argument, an editorial on a vital subject of deep interest to all.” The scenario is based on a Frank Norris story about the effects of wheat speculation on the small farmer. Griffith portrays the farmer’s life in moving tableaux reminiscent of the pastoral paintings of Jean-François Millet. If Griffith had kept adapting modern literary works in this vein, Schickel speculates he could have been on the forefront of pioneering a vibrant realism in cinema, instead, he calls the film “falsely promising.”
The Unchanging Sea, 1910
A “California picture” made the first winter the Biograph team went West to take advantage of the better weather, Griffith played with the narrative possibilities of Los Angeles’ vast surrounding landscapes. Far from nagging studio overlords who reined in spending and naysaid his experimentations, particularly in length, Schickel says that Griffith “allowed some of the creative tension to uncoil for the first time.” He set his actors against the wide open spaces not available to him in the tightly packed Northeast and slowed things down at a time when one contemporary reviewer summed up the era’s industrial-electric-movement madness: “speed was the thing.” The same reviewer also noted the film’s understated acting style. “Every thought and feeling is expressed with wonderful force but with scarcely a gesture and with perfect naturalness.”
The Musketeers of Pig Alley, 1912
Lillian Gish’s struggling musician husband gets a payday that becomes the target of a couple thugs. Here Griffith uses the density of New York’s Lower East Side as a bustling backdrop to the scheming of a gang of criminals, a major preoccupation in the nation’s newspapers. (Schickel compares the photography to the work of Jacob Riis.) A plot is hatched in a crowded alleyway as neighbors pass in and out going about their business. Snapper Kid enters the frame, smoke trail first, and seems to appear always out of nowhere. Here Griffith demonstrates his artistic use of the whole film frame, in addition to a sympathetic humanism and his skill with actors. It’s not the first gangster film but Elmer Booth as Snapper Kid does a move with his hat that’ll make you feel like you’ve seen James Cagney’s balletic wise guy decades early.
The New York Hat, 1912
Mary Pickford was still Gladys Smith the day she walked into Biograph’s New York studio looking to pick up some offseason work in the flickers. The fifteen-year-old, as she would for some much of her long career, specialized playing young girls on the theater circuit and Griffith was so impressed he quickly moved her from a daily wage to a weekly salary. Her biographers say she had an instinct for how to come across for the camera, perceiving early that subtlety and restraint worked better on film than on the stage, in the words of Eileen Whitfield, “using small well-chosen movements—biting her lip, perhaps, or fiddling with a shawl.” She fought constantly with Griffith, refusing to exaggerate in her gestures when he demonstrated how to do a scene. “I’m a young girl,” she once told him, “I don’t go into ecstasies.” Once he pushed her down, she once bite him, but she stayed with him on and off through 1912’s New York Hat, her final film for Biograph, having absorbed all she could with him. On the other hand, Schickel writes that Pickford’s time at Biograph was a lost opportunity for the director: “[H]e refused to learn anything from a young woman whose intelligence about the medium … was equal to his.”
The Girl and Her Trust, 1913
A remake of The Lonedale Operator, about a railway employee who risks everything to safeguard the payday lockbox, this film is not only a study in crosscutting (with a climatic chase between a train and a handcart) but also shows Griffith’s ingenious use of the frame to drive plot and develop a bit of character. Danger lurks in the first few minutes as one of the telegraph operator’s suitors leaves the office, crossing the entire back of the frame, moving left, while the stowaway robbers lie hidden in a ditch in the right foreground. Back in the office, Griffith frames the robbers in the grate-covered window just behind the operator’s head, while the majority of the image is taken up with the door, shot at such an angle that it looms large as a way in for the thieves. It’s masterful. We also get a McGyver-ish heroine, played by Dorothy Bernard, who shoots a bullet through the keyhole with a hammer and pair of scissors in a scene that still has the power to put you on the edge of your seat.
— Shari Kizirian © 2015
Originally published in March 2015 as a sidebar to “Kicking and Screaming: The Birth of a Nation at 100.”