Friday, January 28, 2011

The Silent Oscars: 1906-1914—Part One

[To read the first entry in this series, The Silent Oscars: 1888-1905, click here.]

Must-See Movies: The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906);
A Corner in Wheat (1909); The Country Doctor (1909); The Lonely Villa (1909); Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics, a.k.a. Little Nemo (1911); The Land Beyond the Sunset (1912); Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora a.k.a. The Revenge of a Kinematograph Cameraman, a.k.a. The Cameraman's Revenge (1912); The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912); An Unseen Enemy (1912); Suspense (1913); Cabiria (1914); Judith of Bethulia (1914); Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914)
Recommended Films: Dream Of A Rarebit Fiend (1906); Le théâtre de Bob (1906); A Trip Down Market Street (1906); Fantasmagorie (1908); Moscou sous la neige a.k.a. Moscow Clad in Snow (1909); Afgrunden (1910); The Lonedale Operator (1911); Max Victime du Quinquina a.k.a. Max Takes Tonics (1911); The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913); Der Student von Prag (1913); Fantômas (1913-14); Ingeborg Holm (1913); Twilight of a Woman's Soul (1913); The Avenging Conscience: or "Thou Shalt Not Kill" (1914); The Rounders (1914)
Of Interest La vie du Christ a.k.a. The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ (1906); Swords and Hearts (1911); Richard III (1912); The Bangville Police (1913); Traffic in Souls (1913); Gertie The Dinosaur (1914); The Squaw Man (1914)

● The twelve years between The Great Train Robbery (1903) and The Birth Of A Nation (1915)—what the blog Film: Ab Initio calls "cinema's forgotten decade"—might be the least known years in all of movie history. Yet it was during these years that movies developed from a novelty into the most popular art form of the 20th century:

» D.W. Griffith took basic techniques introduced by his contemporaries and used them in ways so imaginative, he virtually invented the "language" of film we now take for granted.

» Speaking of language, a new concept entered the lexicon—"movie star"—with audiences for the first time flocking to theaters to see specific performers, among them Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Mabel Normand and Lillian Gish.

» And the idea of what constituted a movie evolved from brief, simplistic snippets viewed through coin-operated "peep shows" to ambitious, feature-length projects with complex storylines and characters.

● It's often difficult to discern evolution as it is occurring. It's especially difficult to see when the evidence remained squirreled away in studio vaults for half a century while critics and public relations men spun up easy to grasp narratives of film's history that sold tickets but did little to describe the true events. Fortunately, historians such as Kevin Brownlow and David Bordwell, among others, have devoted their careers to setting the record straight; and blogs such as 100 Years of Movies, Alt Film Guide, the aforementioned Film: Ab Initio, and others, have taken on the task of watching these early films and reporting on their efforts in thoughtful essay form.

And then there are crazy people like me who try to swallow the entire decade in one, 170+ movie sitting and boil it all down to a single, indigestible post.

● All of the movies on my must-see list (and many, many more) are now readily available to view. (I've only seen the first episode of the twenty-part serial The Perils Of Pauline, else it would make the list as well.) I can tell you from personal experience, if you watch movies in chronological order starting with those two-second fragments from Louis Le Prince in 1888 and work your way forward, film techniques so commonplace now as to be invisible to a modern fan will jump off the screen and you'll find yourself saying aloud, "Thank you, D.W. Griffith, for rescuing me from yet another static, single-shot movie where the actors mill around like ants."

D.W. Griffith and the Invention of a Film Language

● Speaking of David Wark Griffith, he was born in Kentucky to Confederate colonel "Roaring Jake" Griffith and Mary Perkins. He had aspirations of being a Broadway playwright, took small acting parts in movies for the money then switched to directing when he discovered it paid better. He directed his first movie, the twelve-minute short The Adventures of Dollie, in 1908 working from instructions written out on a single sheet of shirt cardboard by his cinematographer G.W. "Billy" Bitzer.

Over the course of the following five years, Griffith directed just shy of five hundred movies, mostly for the Biograph Company located in New York City.

● Like every other director of that era, Griffith wrestled with the problem of narrative—how to tell a story in a silent medium—but whereas other directors simply parroted the techniques that worked on stage and wound up with actors in togas milling around in front of painted backdrops, Griffith seemed to understand from the outset that film presented its own unique set of problems and opportunities. By composing his actors within the frame, by relying on revealing actions rather than words and, especially, by juxtaposing images and events through editing, Griffith was able to create within his audience an emotional involvement in his stories.

● A trio of short films from 1909 illustrate Griffith's gift at composing the frame, staging action, and creating suspense with pacing and editing.

» One of five Griffith films preserved in the National Film Registry, A Corner In Wheat is overpraised (to my mind) for being the first "message" picture, but its use of composition is masterful. Lone figures confined to the corner of the screen, overwhelmed by empty vistas, conveying through image alone the desperation the characters feel, could have come straight from an Edward Hopper painting—except that A Corner In Wheat pre-dates Hopper's breakthrough as an artist by some fifteen years.

» The Country Doctor opens with a panning shot which if you'd just watched 100+ movies from the years that preceded it,
believe me, jumps off the screen with its technical sophistication. Starting with a long shot of a valley, then panning to a house on a hill to focus on a family already emerging to walk forward until they stand in medium shot, Griffith establishes with a single uninterrupted camera movement both the story's setting and the identity and socio-economic status of its characters, the sort of camera shot we take for granted now but which pretty much didn't exist before him.

That only a year into his career as a director, he concluded the tragic story with a mirror of that opening shot, panning from the now-empty house as the film ends to that same long shot of the valley, underscores just how quickly he raced ahead of his competitors in using film to convey emotion.

» Griffith didn't invent intercutting (a.k.a. cross-cutting)—the use of editing to alternate between two locations, usually to show simultaneous action—but he took it farther than anyone before him, using it not just to, say, show a key prop or establish a location, but to create a narrative flow and a sense of anticipation that was sorely lacking in early movies. In the thriller The Lonely Villa thieves break into a secluded country home and terrorize a woman and her children while her husband and the police race to their rescue. Griffith cuts back and forth between three points of view to create genuine suspense—will the would-be rescuers arrive in time to save the day?—an editing technique still used to this day.

(Griffith would return to this theme time and again, most memorably in 1911 with The Lonedale Operator and in what is perhaps the most controversial sequence of The Birth Of A Nation, where the Ku Klux Klan rides to the rescue of Lillian Gish's virginity.)

● Griffith continued to develop new approaches to film storytelling throughout his career at Biograph.

» For example, in 1911's two-part short Enoch Arden—a wife stands on the shore waiting for her husband's return from the sea while at that moment the husband is shipwrecked and washed ashore on a tropic island—Griffith uses cutting not just to show the same action from different points of view as in The Lonely Villa, or even to establish that the action is simultaneous, but to show parallel storylines linked only by the emotional resonance between them. Griffith cuts back and forth between the two storylines—the shipwrecked sailor, the wife who waits—for the remainder of the film, showing the analogous plights of the castaway and his (presumed) widow as they each struggle to survive.

(By the way, I suggest that if you watch the copy of Enoch Arden I've embedded here, you mute the sound—the accompanying soundtrack doesn't fit the mood in the least.)

» The Musketeers Of Pig Alley (1912) (you can see it here) is credited with being the first gangster movie and while its story of a thug who robs the husband of the woman he fancies is well worth watching in its own right, the film is remarkable for another startling leap in film technique, in this case the likely invention of what is now called "follow-focus"—the practice of having the camera operator keeping moving actors in focus while allowing the background to go out of focus. At a time when cameramen prided themselves on keeping the entire frame in focus, Griffith's longtime cinematographer Billy Bitzer was reluctant to follow Griffith's direction in this instance and only acceded to his request after Griffith took him to an art museum to look at paintings where the foreground subjects were in sharper focus than the background. (Indeed, Griffith got many of his ideas while strolling through New York's museums.)

» Another of Griffith's innovations was the use of the iris shot, which Tim Dirks defines as "an earlier cinematographic technique or wipe effect, in the form of an expanding or diminishing circle, in which a part of the screen is blacked out so that only a portion of the image can be seen by the viewer." The iris shot was typically used to open or close scenes, and to focus the viewer's attention on a single character or action, but in more sophisticated instances (again, credit Griffith) it could be used to link characters thematically.

» Griffith also pushed his actors to adopt a more subtle acting style, eschewing the dramatic poses of the stage for something more reserved, which he thought played more effectively on the screen. The change was incremental, and sometimes you can see both styles in the same scene, but when compared to other films of the era, the difference is striking. Among those actors who worked with Griffith at Biograph were Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, her sister Dorothy, Henry Walthall, Mae Marsh, Harry Carey, Mack Sennett, Donald Crisp, Robert Harron, Constance Talmadge and Florence Turner.

● That we take Griffith's storytelling techniques for granted now—that every movie made in the last one hundred years has repeated these same tricks as a matter of routine—is a testament to just how innovative and influential he really was.

● In 1914, Griffith made his first feature-length film, Judith of Bethulia. Based on a book from the biblical apocrypha, Judith is the story of a beautiful young widow who sacrifices her own sense of virtue to seduce the leader of an invading army and save her people. Aside from its place in film history as one of the earliest feature-length films produced in America (the rest of world had been producing feature films since 1906), Judith of Bethulia features an early example of what is known as "classical continuity editing" or "classical Hollywood narrative"—the practice of cutting within a scene to make clear to the viewer at all times where the characters are in relationship to each other and to their surroundings, both in terms of the physical space and the chronology of the film story.

A good example comes early in the film. Griffith starts with a wide shot of seated figures threshing wheat, holding on them until Robert Harron enters the screen from the left—

and crosses to the far right where he sees something in the distance.

Griffith then cuts to a medium shot of Mae Marsh at a well, back to a wide shot to establish where she is in relation to her surroundings, then to the medium shot again to show Marsh's face as she struggles with the water jug. Griffith cuts back to the wide shot as Robert Harron enters from the left then cuts on his act of helping Marsh to a medium two-shot so you can see Marsh's face as she reacts to his kindness—

then finishes the scene with a wide shot as the couple walks off the screen, holding on the empty screen until someone else enters to draw water at the well. (You can watch Judith of Bethulia in its entirety here.)

The use of classical continuity editing—as opposed to the then-typical practice of having all the actors remain on screen in the same full shot throughout the scene, what David Bordwell calls the "tableau" style—became the industry standard by 1917, but its use in Judith of Bethulia was very advanced for its day and, again, I have to tell you that after plowing through more than two hundred movies made before 1915, all of them using the same tableau set-up, to suddenly see such sophisticated compositions and editing, well, the effect is startling. And a relief.

Although a critical success, Judith of Bethulia was extremely expensive to film and Biograph declined to finance Griffith's further ambitions in this direction. As a result, Griffith struck out on his own, taking his film crew and troop of actors with him. Within a year, Griffith would film The Birth of a Nation, the most lucrative film of the early silent era; Biograph was out of the film business by 1916.

● By ignoring this era of film history, critics have wound up overstating the significance of The Birth Of A Nation as a revolution in film technique. Every technique Griffith supposedly invented in The Birth of a Nation, he had already developed and mastered during his years at Biograph Studios. Likewise, because that film's racism wound up overshadowing his entire career, casual film fans have undervalued Griffith's impact as an artist and innovator.

● Ultimately, Griffith's reward for showing the world how to tell stories on film was to find himself left behind by filmmakers who used his techniques to tell better stories. To a great degree, this was his own fault. As you watch Griffith develop a film language, you can also see him develop the bad habits that would ultimately cost him his audience—his reverence for an outdated Victorian value system, his obsession with female virtue, particularly when Lillian Gish takes over the lead acting chores from Mary Pickford, and an appalling tendency in his Civil War films to sentimentalize, or worse justify, America's brutal system of racial apartheid—vices which have not only dated badly in our 21st century eyes, but which began to alienate audiences as early as the end of the First World War.

[Click here to continue to Part Two.]


Matthew Blanchette said...

Thank you for this essay; wonderfully detailed -- but, yes, Griffith's racism has kept me away from his films... but it didn't keep me from checking out one of his protege's works -- by protege, I mean Raoul Walsh, whose 1915 film Regeneration is on YouTube... or, at least, was, in December 2010. :-/

Anyway, helluva good movie, that. :-)

Mythical Monkey said...

Regeneration -- a definite must-see film from 1915, one of the best films of the era, I think.

I sometimes wonder why Raoul Walsh isn't better known, with such films as Regeneration, The Thief of Bagdad (1924), The Roaring Twenties, High Sierra and White Heat to his credit ...

Matthew Blanchette said...

...not to mention The Big Trail. ;-)

Mythical Monkey said...

Funny I forgot to mention The Big Trail, since it inspired one of my most popular all-time posts ...

Matthew Blanchette said...

That's why I brought it up. :-D

Anonymous said...

great eye opening essay!! thanks.. now to part two.

Damfino said...

I just found your blog and your essays are terrific!!! So glad to see your 1912 Best Actor winner was Elmer Booth - he's a favorite of mine and I wish there were more of his films available beyond the few Biographs that exist... He was quite the accomplished stage actor too!