American Silent Film
By William K. Everson (1978)
New York, Oxford University Press – 1978
The Birth of Film Grammar
In terms of assembling all of the editing and other techniques necessary for the chase, A Girl and Her Trust almost represents the zenith of Griffith’s experiments at Biograph. All that remained was to adapt it to an expanded and more sophisticated usage, which Griffith did in some of his last and most elaborate two-reelers at Biograph: Massacre (1912), a loose reworking of the story of Custer’s Last Stand, and The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913), a large-scale, complex western with Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, and Mae Marsh that was virtually a blueprint for the climax of The Birth of a Nation.
The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913)
Griffith’s methods were also being studied and used, though not always instinctively understood, by his subdirectors. The Telephone Girl and the Lady (1913), another variation on the The Lonely Villa/A Girl and Her Trust chase theme, was prepared by Griffith but actually shot by an assistant, Tony O’Sullivan, while Griffith was on the West Coast. All of the ingredients are there—the cross-cutting, the use of the moving camera in some extremely good running inserts of mounted policeman-hero Alfred Paget riding to the rescue, and a well-done fight between Paget and villain Harry Carey at the climax—but somehow, it does not flow as it should. Certain cuts are awkward, and devices to prolong suspense are held too long.
As we see more of Griffith’s Biographs and understand his methods, more of the apparently uninteresting aspects of some of the films fall into place. For years, one of the most consistently available Griffith Biographs was The New York Hat, a simple romantic story given distinction by its cast (Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore, and in minor roles, Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish, and others) and by the fact that it was written by Anita Loos. Although a pleasing subject with some nice human touches, it inevitably disappointed with its lack of obvious technique, and its apparent lethargy at times, especially when relatively few other Biographs were available for comparison.
In all of the shots of Mary Pickford’s home, for example, the camera was always placed in exactly the same position in the street outside the garden, and players always made their entrances and exits in the same way. At first, it looked at though Griffith merely shot, in one session, all the scenes involving that location without once bothering to move his camera. Such economy in time shouldn’t necessarily be discounted as the reason for those scenes. On the other hand, as one gets more and more into Griffith’s rural films, such as the lovely and only recently rediscovered The Country Doctor, one finds out how important the home is as a symbol to Griffith, and how he frequently shoots it deliberately and rigidly from one angle to impress the audience with its stability and consistency. (This certainly applies to the way Griffith shoots the two basic exterior and interior views of the home in The Birth of a Nation.) Establishing roots and permanence was apparently very important to Griffith. The Country Doctor, for example, begins with a pan across the countryside in which his story takes place. That story ( a partially tragic one ) told, Griffith concludes by going back to the beginning, and reversing that pan over the countryside.
The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)
The best Griffiths of 1912-13 are not merely milestones of technique on the way to a final development but outstanding little films that need no apology for age. The Musketeers of Pig Alley ( 1912 ) has compositions that Eisenstein and Tisse could have been proud of a decade later. The remarkable An Unseen Enemy, also made in 1912 and used to introduce Lillian and Dorothy Gish, has a surreal, nightmare quahty to its melodrama that almost certainly influenced the images in the French serials of Feuillade. And best of all, the mature, often almost Freudian The Mothering Heart ( 1913), with a superb performance by Lillian Gish as a mature wife and mother, is a totally modern and valid film today, with erotic symbolism in its last scene so advanced for its day that one would almost think it accidental, if not for the lingering close-up that Griffith utilizes to underline the point and assure us otherwise.
The Mothering Heart (1913)
One can appreciate exactly how far in advance of his time Griffith really was, and how almost singlehandedly he had created a language and grammar of film, by comparing a Griffith-Biograph genre film (western, Civil War, crime) with a similar genre film by another contemporary, or even later, film-maker. A particularly apt comparison can be made between Fighting Blood, one of the best of Griffith’s westerns, made in 1911, and Edison’s The Corporals Daughter, very similar in theme and structure, yet made in 1915. The Edison film gives no information or background about its characters, but merely throws them on screen. Titles telegraph the solution to suspense sequences even before they are under way. Moreover, the images frequently do not reflect the information conveyed by the titles. At one point, we are told that the cavalry is “gallantly fighting back against overwhelming odds,” and are then shown a well-equipped body of men, strategically placed atop a hill, with plenty of rocks for cover, shooting down at an exposed and numerically inferior group of Indians! Cross-cutting in the rescue ride is kept to a minimum. In fact, once it has been established that help is on the way, no further reference is made until the rescuers arrive. And since that wraps up the story, no time is wasted on humanistic, comedic, or romantic touches before the “End” title is flashed on the screen.
The Early Features
Few periods in film history are as sparsely represented as those years between 1912 and The Birth of a Nation in 1915, when the feature-length film ( of five reels or more ) replaced the two-reeler as the staple program ingredient and restructured both the art and the economics of film. Many film historians see this period as essentially one of commercial rather than artistic growth. It is certainly true that these years were marked by the mass creation of stars, the founding of the great production-distribution combines to come (Universal was formed in 1912, and Paramount, Fox, and Metro shortly thereafter), and the gradual construction of more imposing—and certainly much larger theatres to showcase the new, bigger, and longer product.
The parallel with the coming of sound some fifteen years later is quite astonishing. In both cases, the established directors and the leaders of the art as it then existed were unwilling or unable to forge ahead to the new medium. The experimenting was done by the second-raters, or in some cases by the stars, who saw the added length ( or later, the added dimension of speech ) as essentially a commercial and mechanical novelty rather than as an artistic advance. The first efforts were crude and simple, but because they were novel and caught the imagination of the public, they made money and thus seemed, for a while, capable of reshaping the whole structure of film. But both the very early features and the very early sound films, even on their own limited levels, were quickly made obsolete by rapidly advancing technology. And once the better directors were able to turn their attention to them, the initial endeavors became even more outdated. Just as there were no commercial or artistic reasons for sound films of 1928-29 to be exhibited after 1930, so too were the initial feature-length films of 1912-13 forgotten by 1915. They were swept aside, the few good along with the many bad, and later historians were forced to generalities rather than specifics in covering this period.
The generalizations on the whole are not unreliable, but they do perhaps lead to false assumptions. The early features were crude, reverting to the techniques of the stage and usually ignoring the great lexicon of film language built up at Biograph by Griffith, since his methods were not (by 1912) understood, indeed, nor even at their final fruition. More importantly, they had not yet been vindicated by overpowering commercial success.
Griffith was able to make a tentative entry into feature production only with one transitional-length film in 1913 and a more ambitious group of features in 1914. It’s all too easy to look at the tableau-like content and style of feature films in 1912 and 1913, skip to 1915, and then demonstrate the tremendous influence of Griffith on other filmmakers in that year, when the fantastic success (financial as well as aesthetic ) of The Birth of a Nation changed the physical look and pace of films for at least the next five years. One is tempted to equate the success of such notable 1915 films as Ralph Ince’s Juggernaut, Second in Command (a Francis X. Bushman vehicle, with some of the most deliberate and sustained use of the mobile camera of any American film of the pre-1920 years), and Allan Dwan’s David Harum with their directors’ espousal of Griffith’s methods. The next step is to conjecture that but for Griffith, film might have remained on its new path of imitating the stage and evolved a glossy but theatrical style that would have culminated with directors like George Cukor and John Cromwell rather than Griffith and John Ford.
The conjecture is not unreasonable, but it is also unfair to directors of stature prior to Griffith who did not see film as a parallel to theatre. Directors like Maurice Tourneur and George Loane Tucker were not dynamic enough to produce any radical change in film-making methods. And too, they did arrive on the scene after Griffith had made his major contributions to film language in his Biograph films of 1908-12. It is obviously impossible (and pointless) to imagine American film without Griffith, or to estimate the delay in the development of American film art without the catharsis of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance in 1915-16, and their influence on virtually all of the major American film-makers of those years: Ford, Stroheim, Raoul Walsh, Sennett, Fairbanks, and Henry King. On the other hand, in 1913-14, Tucker and Tourneur were doing things that were cinematically subtler than Griffith had done ( or had been allowed to do ) up to that time. Thus it is not unreasonable to assume that, given time, such directors would have made a similar contribution. (They were not alone; one should add Herbert Brenon, Cecil B. DeMille, and, of course, a major if scattered concentration of talent in Europe.) Moreover, European features, especially the Italian spectacles, such as Quo Vadis? and The Last Days of Pompeii, were being profitably exposed to American audiences from 1913 on. While their sophistication might be debatable, they did have size and relative splendor. Moreover, they used optical tricks and effects quite ingeniously, so that pictorially they were far more imaginative than their closest American equivalents, and ultimately had a stimulating effect on American film-makers.