East Bay View (a blog about several things)

now 98% free of substantive content

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Short shorts: Griffith Masterworks: Biograph Shorts

Here are some comments on Kino's double disk compilation of 1908 to 1913 one- and two-reelers. I hesitated at putting this up, 'cuz the literary quality's not high, but it might be useful to someone (most likely myself.) None of the factual information is double-checked, so quote at your peril. Shorts are listed in chronological order. The gist is you should at least some of these. If you won't don't worry, normal transmission will resume shortly.

If you don't care, you're a philistine, but that's alright 'cuz so was D.W.


The Adventures of Dollie
And even in his very first short, we see the formula - white bread family's beloved daughter imperiled by scurrilous ethnic types. Is the transfer really bad, or does the cameraman have Parkinson's? (Rating: 1/10)


Those Awful Hats
One of the first metamovies! And like so many metamovies after it, it takes a deus ex machina to resolve it! (7/10)

The Sealed Room
Inspired by Poe and Balzac! In anyone else this would be pretentious, but not in D.W. The Minstrel and the Count show you the difference between good overacting and bad overacting - the Minstrel is intentionally funny, especially in the way he puts down and picks up his ukelele, I mean lute. Plus, some real editing, as we cut back and forth between the Count and the hapless lovers. And cruelty! Love how they put the Biograph logo on the back wall of the sealed room. (3/10)

Corner in Wheat
Social protest! With a cast of several! D.W.'s worked out you can get a feeling of 3Dness by walking towards and away from the camera. But he also sets up a shot where there's a sign facing the audience telling of a rise in the price of bread. But the customers who walk in can't see the sign, so the shopkeeper has to point it out again and again. IF YOU MADE THE SIGN FACE THE CUSTOMERS... D.W. can't be a genius yet because he hasn't discovered camera angles.
"You have control of the entire market of the world." Spoiler: The rich guy drowns in wheat! Irony! Oddly mixed ending - like saying, it doesn't matter if the guy dies, the poor are still poor. Guess that's enough to let Rosenbaum et al call it great. (6/10)


The Unchanging Sea
"Inspired by the Poem by Charles Kingsley." Okay, if the poem features a man saying goodbye to his wife, going out to sea, getting washed ashore, suffering from amnesia, setting out to sea again twenty years later... it'd be a pretty shitty poem. (Firstly, "Enoch Arden" didn't have amnesia, and secondly, it was shitty, by Tennyson's standards or anyone else's.) But this is a movie, and this is D.W., so I cry. Mary Pickford has her first "meet cute". There's a tiny little pan as the man goes out to sea the first time, and one of the first obviously composed shots - three corpses on a beach, which seems appropriate somehow. (Oh! That poem.) And despite bad acting all the way through, somehow the finale is played just right. Who needs Sunrise? (9/10)

The Usurer
Nooooo, sentiment I can handle but social comment is deadly. Especially sentimental social comment... Hah! Evil usurer get trapped in own bank vault; that's TWO motifs in one go: poetic justice and death by suffocation. Alert Andy Sarris!... Another genius idiot moment: the usurer tries to light a cigar, but can't, because the room's running out of oxygen. This is clever, but WHAT IDIOT IS TRAPPED IN A SEALED ROOM AND TRIES TO LIGHT A CIGAR! (2/10)


His Trust
Blackface or no blackface, it's remarkably progressive - in terms of race, not gender (duh.) Even today, how many white men would trust a black man (careful, a servant, not a slave) to look after his family? (How many know a black man well enough?) Sadly it's not much a movie though, it's all diagramatic. (3/10)

Enoch Arden
Speak of the devil - this is more or less a remake of The Unchanging Sea, which in turn was more or less a remake of Griffith's original (1908) version of Enoch Arden. D.W. is now armed with a genuine vocabulary of shots and a biggish budget - not just rowboats, actual ships! - but that doesn't necessarily nake this an improvement - the material's too thin for the epic two-reel length, and the Victorian belief persists that tragedy justifies sentimentality. Some sweet shots though: Enoch hugging his kids goodbye, Annie wiping her tears off the eyepiece of the telescope, Annie leading her kids back to her hut, Philip proposing to Annie with her kids watching in the distance (almost deep focus!) And there's also a deep sympathy for the third wheel Philip character. Nitpick: no one can seem to keep straight whether Enoch has two or three kids (Tennyson offs the third kid, and I guess many in the audience would've known this) which makes it (deliberately?) vague whose baby turns up at the end. (6/10)

The Last Drop of Water
Whoa, inspired by Sir Philip Sidney! This is more heroic self-sacrifice, only this time, the self-sacrificer is a complete dick up until his one shining moment. Aside: how comes Birth of a Nation is considered more racist than, uh, every Western ever? And, are those Blanche Sweet's real eyebrows? (5/10)

The Miser's Lament
Robbers tie up little Kathy and dangle her out the window - will the miser give them the combination to his safe? (Answer: Not until they set the rope on fire.) With Lionel freakin' Barrymore as the good thief! He's neither particularly good nor particularly bad, which by his later standards is good. (5/10)


The Sunbeam
Aargh, more cute kids. This has a really high IMDB rating for some reason (7.6.) You can tell the old maid is an old maid because she wears glasses... "Only one way to solve their problem and hers also..." uh, lock her in a bank vault? (5/10)

One Is Business, the Other Crime
No, it's not a Hives song. Dorothy Bernard's waist seems impossibly small. Good, straight-up-and-down morality play with no ickiness. (8/10)

The Lesser Evil
Mae Marsh has a bit part in this one, apparently she was in the last one as well but I didn't see her. This is notable for its early use of the threat of rape (and gang rape at that.) The leader of a gang of smugglers turns hero... by preparing to blow Blanche Sweet's brains out rather than let his crew touch her. (6/10)

An Unseen Enemy
Idiot plot alert. The Gish sisters are threatened by an unseen enemy - someone pointing a gun at them through a hole in the wall.
It does allow a cool close-up of a gloved hand passing the gun through the hole, but still...
The Gishes are just a couple more cute gals at the moment, but that'll change soon enough. (5/10)

I can't work out if Mary Pickford is meant to be a whore or not... I don't think so, or maybe she's just really bad at it. This is a weird'un - I also can't work out what the point is. (3/10)

The Painted Lady
Blanche Sweet isn't having much luck with the fellas 'cuz she ain't a painted lady, although the only visible difference between her and the others is that she doesn't have a silly hat. Your typical morality play, except the moral is "If you're unpopular and suddenly a guy hits on, then he's only after your Dad's money and you'll end up shooting him, or going mad, or both." Aside: When Blanche tries to look older she looks way too much like Frankie Muniz. (4/10)

The Musketeers of Pig Alley
Lilian gets to play a non-wimp for a change - she gets to slap the bad gangster. This is pretty tense, with some cool shots: the bad gangster's cigarette smoke preceding his entry into the room; him walking right up to the camera in the gangland sneakaround. "One good turn deserves another" the titles say, but what exactly is the good turn? Not beating the crap out of them? Was he actually helping Lilian before? And how does that justify letting a murderous thug go free? (7/10)

The New York Hat
What is it with these girls and hats? Poor Mary even dreams about having one - in her sleep, she adjusts the imaginary hat on her head. So she finally get the ten dollar hat of the title - and it's huge, feathery and completely ridiculous. But her Dad wrecks it! Geez, Lilian Gish has to deal with gangsters and destitution; Mary Pickford has to deal with her Dad destroying her hat. Well, let them play to their strengths, I guess. (6/10)

The Burglar's Dilemma
This is a study of the alpha/beta, the dominant/submissive, the aggresive/passive, as a householder and his "weakling brother," an old crook and his bullied protege, and a bad and good cop are contrasted. It's also a misleading title - the only dilemma the burglar (the young crook) has is whether to confess to a crime he didn't commit or not - and if he confesses, one supposes he fries (did they fry 'em in those days?), so the decision is pretty easy. (4/10)


The Massacre
Not entirely sure what this has to do with General Custer, but it does has Blanche Sweet buried beneath a pile of corpses. Again, why does Ms. Pickford get off so easy? (7/10)

Death's Marathon
Lionel Barrymore's a gambler who's blown all his money, so he decides to kill himself through long-distance running. O.K., I made that last part up. He decides to shoot himself, and because he's really a dick, he call up him wife (Blanche Sweet) so she can hear him do it. This one's most notable for having a last minute rescue attempt that fails. And yet D.W. still manages to get a happy ending out of it. (4/10)

The Mothering Heart
Lilian Gish gives the first indications that she's something special - her expressions throughout, especially when she discovers her husband's infidelity, are superb. Great image: close-up of a pacifier on the remorseful husband's finger. (9/10)

The Battle at Elderbush Gulch
Young Mae Marsh fights with a couple of Indians over a couple of dogs, before her uncle solves the situation by shooting one of the Indian. He doesn't seem to realize this means war - dude needs some conflict resolution training. Mae Marsh's character is a nincompoop, but at least she gets to be a brave nincompoop; Lilian Gish is stuck being hysterical, a waste of her gifts. Great shot: a gun slowly descending from the top of the frame towards Lilian Gish's head. Once again, despite the fact that dozens of people on both sides have died, it's a happy ending. Well, as long as the baby and the puppies are safe. D.W.'s technique is fully developed now - when the cavalry comes (hailed by the expendable Mexican) this is at least as good as the Klanride in Birth of a Nation. The sorrow of the Indians at the death of one of their own is not shortchanged - Griffith makes it clear that he's cheering whitey because he's one of them, no other reason. (8/10)

EDIT: May 23rd, 2005: The Girl and Her Trust (available on the first volume of Landmarks of Early Film) is probably better than all of these. The ultimate chase on the train tracks ends predictably, but I've yet to see a more elegantly shot sequence predating Birth.


Post a Comment

<< Home