Thoughts On: Every Year In Film #30 - A Corner In Wheat


Every Year In Film #30 - A Corner In Wheat

Thoughts On: A Corner In Wheat (1909) & Other D.W Griffith Biograph Shorts

Today, we explore the start of "The Father of Film's" career.


There are many essential elements of film history that anyone wanting to confront the topic cannot avoid having to explore. The French New Wave, Italian Neorealism and German Expressionism are just a few of the essential movements. Hithcock, Kubrick, Welles, Bergman, Chaplin, Eisenstein and Kurosawa are just a few of the essential figures. But, the name, D.W Griffith, certainly looms over each of these figures and movements - over all of cinematic history. There is then no doubt that any regular reader of the Every Year Series (or anyone even slightly interested in film history) would have heard something--if not, a lot--about this man. If you've ever attended a film history class you may have even had to endured through one of his epics, Intolerance, or, more likely, The Birth of a Nation. A difficulty that we will have to confront today, as we already have numerous times in the series, is that of perspective. How does Griffith fit into film history?

From the initial emergence of moving pictures, there have been multiple epicentres from which film history has promulgated. As a result, to even begin talking about cinema, you have to juggle information that emerges from all over Europe and America. This situation only intensifies as film spreads across the world, and so, within a few years of cinema's emergence, you inevitably loose grip of even the most important happenings as there are simply far too many things going on that have been twisted by, and lost in, the annals of time. There is then an understandable polarisation of film history towards the most popular and best marketed figures and movies. So, when many think of film history, they think in terms of contemporary Hollywood, New Hollywood, Old Hollywood and the American silent era. At certain points, European art cinema will force its way into the picture as well as the epics of Japanese masters. In the same respect, the silent era is seen to be ruled by a few big actors, a few clowns, a cine-magician and Griffith. However, whilst many of these figures and infrastructures operate and are often presented as singular forces in an empty world, we are obliged to respect individual topics and times as we do modern film culture. After all, whilst the 2010s may be looked back upon as the age of the superhero blockbuster that advanced technology and commented on our progression deeper into the digital era, stuck in the fray, we probably don't see things in such a way. Whilst, yes, it is obvious that superhero movies loom over all of cinema today, we walk in their shadow quite comfortably and quite obliviously, looking for the next interesting horror, complex drama, brilliant comedy or genuine example of art. Griffith probably was, in a way, the Marvel of the 1910s.

It should be noted that audiences back then thought of film very differently to how we do in the present day, but it is nonetheless essential to remember that, whilst avid cinema-goers of the late nineteen-teens may have seen a tonne of Griffith's films, they would be aware of a much more nuanced network of the then-contemporary film culture - just like everyone that was apart of the world-wide film industry would have been. As a result, it must be emphasised that film history is about rules and exceptions. Sometimes we will talk about font-runners and unique artist who were an exception to current film culture, but came to be very influential later on. Other times, we will talk of the general rule of film culture that is only so nuanced. Whilst this implies that there is no film history - at least not a total one - this is not a mindset we can move forward with. It is true that there is always more to be said about, and found in, film history, and we should always respect this. However, cinema and film history can exist whilst continually developing. Cinema is then an individual's journey. Film history is a map. Maps are tools that will get you paces, but it is the individual's job to experience and reflect upon what is going on in the places that a map sends you to.

Let us then continue down this path today with an introduction to Griffith. We will not be diving into The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, etc, however. This will be saved for a second part on Griffith. Today we will touching on Griffith's entry into the American film industry and his years at Biograph. In such, today we will be looking at Griffith in a light somewhat similar to that which Lilian Gish shines:

"He was the father of film. He didn't do everything the first time, like a close-up, but, he developed--he gave us the grammar of filmmaking: the cutting, the handling of humanity before a camera, and understood the psychic strength of the lens."

By our current point in time, 1909, films would have their own internal logic that was often very idiosyncratic. In such, the novel cinema of attraction, the world of Méliès for example, was quite illogical - and such is the consequence of spectacle being the focus of early cinema, not necessarily articulation. Cinema wasn't then born under conditions that the book was; writing comes from practicality and a very strict and systematised mode of communication. Like painting, cinema could just show as it didn't need rules to be understood like writing did. However, if cinema was to tell stories, not just show things, it would have to develop some kind of formal language - even if this language was never going to be taught in schools like the written and spoken word are.

It was the development of narrative that then forced filmmakers, such as Guy-Blaché, Porter, Chomón, Zecca, McCutcheon, Tait, etc, to make sense of the techniques that their contemporaries and predecessors would have discovered and to turn them into a basic language. It was Griffith's generation of filmmakers who took this one step further and set the bedrock of cinematic language by the late 1910s. As a result, we will see films such as Porter's The Great Train Robbery, Zecca's Alcohol and its Victims, McCutcheon's The Moonshiners, Guy-Blaché's The Hierarchies Of Love and Tait's The Story Of The Kelly Gang be greatly improved upon by the language that was developed by figures such as Griffith. It is exactly this that Gish picks up on above and so to understand Griffith, we will have to keep in mind the previous posts of the series throughout.

One post in particular that we must remember alluded to the end of one story that saw Griffith's begin. Born in Kentucky in 1875 and raised by a Methodist family, Griffith's decision to become a stage actor and play-write as a young man wouldn't have been too well accepted by his family. Griffith nonetheless toiled with touring companies and would attempt to get his plays put to stage in the mid-1900s. He would manage to do this once with a play called A Fool and a Girl, but the production was a failure, which saw Griffith turn to the film industry.

Generally seen as burlesque and undignified, early cinema, a little like vaudeville (which it had a significant relationship with), was somewhat scorned in America and Europe. Partially due to figures such as Chaplin, old vaudeville halls are often looked back upon with a greater sense of gritty drama and romanticism than they probably deserve. In such, vaudeville halls in Britain, both to then-contemporary social critics and later retrospective commentators, were described as places of debauchery, prostitution, sex, drunkenness, drugs and disease - but also to those who liked it, places of energy, life, vitality and expression. Whilst much of the negative probably went on some of the time and whilst the stuffy halls wouldn't have been the most pleasant of places to be stuffed into with dozens of potentially grubby people for long periods of time, they - much like early nickelodeons - probably weren't as bad as they're sometimes painted out to be. Nonetheless, this reputation had been bound to these exhibition halls and rooms and it always reflected badly on early filmmakers and actors who appeared on the screen. With Griffith putting his dreams of being a play-write to the side, we can then understand what it would have looked like to his friends and family as they saw him unsuccessfully try to sell as script to Edison's studio before being employed as an actor in 1907/1908.

One of the first known and surviving films that Griffith appeared in (under the name, Lawrence Griffith) after having his script rejected was Porter's Rescued From An Eagle's Nest where he played the father alongside another actor, Henry B. Walthall, who would hold significant roles in Griffith's later films.

It is at this point that we see our story of today intersecting with the post on inter-titles and Wallace McCutcheon's The Moonshiner. Working on Biograph films after quickly transitioning away from Edison's studio, Griffith would develop a deep interest in cinema whilst coming into contact with numerous filmmakers - one of the most significant meetings being with Billy Bitzer (who is, arguably, as much of an important figure as Griffith). McCutcheon would have been one of the key Biograph directors in the mid-1900s. However, he was an old man, and so, in 1908, would pass the reigns to his son - who couldn't live up to his father's legacy. As the legend goes, one day young McCutcheon doesn't show up, which leaves the crew and cast sitting around, twiddling their thumbs. Soon Griffith stands and claims he can direct and, considering how inconsequential a production The Adventures of Dollie seemed to be, he was granted the opportunity by those in charge.

The Adventures of Dollie doesn't signify Griffith exploding into filmmaking like Méliès did. However, whilst this lacks character and detail, his directorial debut demonstrates some of the key elements of Griffith's filmmaking: a coherent narrative, dramatic expression and emotional engagement. Unlike most narrative films of the early 1900s, the cause and effect present in this story is clear, albeit a little muddled by the distant framing and long shots. By understanding the plot of The Adventures of Dollie, drama can emerge from the antagonist conflicting with the protagonist and his innocent family. Moreover, themes of family bolster the narrative, allowing it to pull you into the story and care about what the barrel rolling down a stream really represents.

These three elements of cinema are the keys to it becoming a viable medium of storytelling and an art form. Understanding this, Griffith would then develop as a filmmaker in the 5 years he worked at Biograph, making around two one-reel films a week and creating more than 400 movies in total between 1908 and 1913. What we will do for the remainder of this post is pick up on a few of these films to track Griffith's evolution that would make him Biograph's most important filmmaker, and Biograph themselves one of the most significant studios in America.

Starting with our subject today, we come to A Corner In Wheat. After a year of directing, Griffith wouldn't yet be utilising close-ups and camera movement too often (if at all). It is then clear that his work was still influenced by the theatre - and would always remain so to some degree - as Griffith had no real interest in exploring comedies, the trick film or special effects (during his years at Biograph, he left this to other filmmakers such as Mack Sennett). So, though he would make films such as Those Awful Hats, Griffith remained focused on dramas and melodramas. A Corner In Wheat is a strong example of this, one that emphasised Griffith's growing capabilities to frame a coherent narrative.

As a young man Griffith would read many books, most notably, those of Charles Dickens. Considering the significance of Griffith and the narrative techniques he adapted from Dickens' novels, film purists are obliged to tip their hat to the novel as they watch films with parallel plots. But, whilst Griffith's later films, Intolerance most famously, would utilise a collage of plots, this all began with films such as A Corner In Wheat. Juxtaposition was then the technique that Griffith pushed forward like few others did.

Unlike earlier narrative films that feature parallel editing, films such as A Daring Daylight Robbery and A Great Train Robbery, A Corner In Wheat has a succinct focus on not just showing multiple spaces effecting one another, but multiple ideas or themes interacting. As a result, it is not always directly important that the rich corporate owners cause prices of bread to rise for their own gain in this short. Instead, the fact that this profoundly impacts the average person is the purpose and point. Thus, from juxtaposition doesn't just come an understanding of a plot, but of themes of greed and exploitation. Thus, the scene in which the corporate leader falls into the vat of corn bears strong subtext of retribution whilst the pathos of the average farmers and people is simultaneously alleviated and extended - after all, death doesn't mean the end of their problems; which is what the final shot of the film suggests.

This complex narrative says much about the power of a cinema that doesn't even have dialogue yet, and it certainly had its impact in its day with Griffith's position in Biograph becoming much more significant as his films hit their mark with audiences. However, Griffith's use of the cut wasn't limited to this thematic juxtaposition, as we will find with the Lonedale Operator.

The Lonedale Operate, made in 1911, holds an early example of the iconic Griffith chase sequence. Following a formula of thematic juxtaposition topped by emotional catharsis, Griffith utilised cross-cutting to inject excitement back into cinema. After all, by 1911, we are many years away from a time when moving images alone were enough to generate awe. As can be understood through the manner in which audiences, distributors and studios together welcomed longer narratives, more was being demanded of cinema around the 1910s.

The reasoning for the success of Griffith in this period is implied with the idea that he was the first great American filmmaker. What this suggests is a subtle difference between a great French, Indian, Brazilian or Japanese filmmaker. American cinema is defined by entertainment. We cannot deny that great art comes out of Hollywood, but we can all easily gather why American cinema is considered the first cinema that was followed by the second European art cinema. With Griffith being considered the first great American filmmaker, we can infer that he was the first director to entertain like no other.

This is then where we come back to his structure, inter-cutting and The Lonedale Operator. It was Griffith's ability to use cinema as a sensory tool to engage audiences that made his films so popular and his techniques so innovative. What a film like The Lonedale Operator represents is then cinema forming a world of sensation within story. In the realm of Méliès, the world within a screen is detached from narrative and so the spectacle is singular; as discussed, this also means that its rules are very specific, illogical and lacking of real meaning. In the realm of Griffith, the world is bound to subtext and emotion, and thus we have the possibility of verisimilitude - there can be no such thing in a Méliès trick film; they are all about fantasy in the face of reality and verisimilitude, and such is there attraction.

In The Lonedale Operator, we see a few close-ups and mid-shots, but it is clear that Griffith's focus is not on the framing of his story, rather its editing. In The Musketeers Of Pig Alley, however, we will see him utilise the frame in more creative ways...

The Musketeers Of Pig Alley is sometimes considered the first gangster film, but, it obviously isn't. It is certainly an early gangster film that deals with American organised crime outside of the Western, cowboy context, but, films such as The Kelly Gang and The Great Train Robbery are clear predecessors; we cannot fully discount them as gangster films after all.

Nonetheless, with this film it is very clear that Griffith is constantly questioning what it is that a scene visually articulates. With the opening shot alone, we see this demonstrated.

With the reveal of the mother here, Griffith integrates meaning into the frame by providing characterisation and further context around the emotional state of Gish in the opening medium shot. Without the cut, merely with his blocking, Griffith then provides emotional subtext whilst progressing the story: textbook filmmaking. Moving forward with a densely cross-cut and elliptical narrative, Griffith continues to utilise his deep focus to bring greater verisimilitude, emotion and meaning out of his frame. His abundant use of extras is particularly expressive here as it builds a strong sensation of a complete and real world:

However, the most iconic part of this film is, of course, this close-up...

If you can find a good, crisp copy of a Griffith picture, you will see some of the greatest close-ups ever put to screen, close-ups that have such rich texture and light that is all too rare. This doesn't say too much about Griffith. He would claim that he 'invented' the close-up as to show the face of a beautiful actress all the better - but, to cut him slack, he used them with great expression and reason. However, what this close-up speaks to is Bitzer's (Griffith's cinematographer's) mastery of the camera and light. We will save Bitzer's story for another time, but his images both here and in films such as Broken Blossoms speak for themselves.

Moving forwards, we will touch on The Mothering Heart...

Griffith himself would become one of the most famous men alive in the 1910s - just about as famous as his United Artist co-founders: Chaplin, Pickford and Fairbanks. And this says an awful lot as, whilst he started out as an actor, audiences would not know him for his presence on the screen, rather, his omnipresence over it. So, in a way, Griffith would become one of the first true auteurs who made films that people would see because of him whilst consciously knowing he made it. After all, figures such Porter and Méliès, as famous as their films where, did not have their names written in lights.

Alas, whilst Griffith was an icon, the iconography of his imagery should be much attributed to actresses such as the Lillian Gish and Blanche Sweet, who were just two of the stars that he would have created. With Gish in particular, Griffith would be able to capture a powerful sense of innocence and sympathy in a plethora of films (The Mothering Heart, True Heart Susie, Broken Blossoms, etc.). Whilst he is infamous for his racism, Griffith's films are in fact very romantic and highly sentimental. To further the complication, his racism actually quite obviously stems from a place of misguided nostalgia. Less a rampant supremacist and more a fool, Griffith's racism is clearly a consequence of his upbringing - which explains how he could make a film that romanticises the KKK one year and one that paints a 'yellow man' as a tragic hero a few years after. Griffith was all about heroism and so his films are imbued with this sense of patriarchal and matriarchal honour and integrity. This is - rather ridiculously, especially by modern standards - how he saw the KKK, just as it was how he saw his less controversial heroes. However, we bring all of this up because the foundations of Griffith's thematic approach and his relationship with his actresses is incredibly crucial in The Mothering Heart.

Just as much a Lilian Gish picture as it is a Griffith picture, this is about as melodramatic as films can get: a baby's tragic death instantly brings a married couple torn apart by infidelity back together. However, as absurd as this sounds, Griffith somehow manages to make this ending viable with a mixture of extreme emotion all put upon the capable shoulders of Gish. The base of all of this is his thematic sensibilities that he would consistently utilise to inform his developing catalogue of film grammar and make films that exude woe, trauma and melancholy, yet also, strength, stoicism and integrity, and all through his powerful leads.

The last film we will touch on from Griffith's Biograph era is The Battle at Elderbush Gulch.

The Battle at Elderbush Gulch signifies Griffith becoming Griffith... master of the epics. From 1906 onward, feature films were becoming more common. Growing ever more aware of cinema's ability to assume grander scales, Griffith was itching to make longer movies at Biograph. However, the studio, of course, was not as enthusiastic as Griffith. And thus the end of their relationship was nigh. From the very start of his time at Biograph Griffith objected to making films "like sausages", and around 1912, he would be pushing to make films that exceeded 1 reel - which meant more money and red flags for Biograph.

Widely considered Griffith's best Western and greatest short film, The Battle at Elderbush Gulch, above all else, feels grammatically modern. And this is something that becomes more and more evident as Griffith moves further away from his second year of filmmaking: his cutting is economic, his shots are precisely framed, his structure is powerful, his characters are distinct and somewhat round and his narratives are defined. Far more than earlier attempts at epics, or even basic narrative storytelling, films such as The Battle at Elderbush Gulch then feel watchable. And in such, you don't have to put on your researcher's hat to get through them as much as you would with more primitive silent films. Whilst this isn't as true for his more demanding, far longer, features, when we look to at the best of Griffith's Biograph films, it really feels as if cinema as an art is being born.

However, knowing that he could do so much more and that Biograph wasn't going to allow this, Griffith, in 1913, left to journey into the most infamous, significant and rocky part of his career. But, as implied at the top of the essay, this is where we end our look at Griffith today.

To conclude, exploring Griffith's development as we have today has allowed us to see a radical shift in the silent era. Keep in mind, however, that Griffith was not working in a vacuum; he was not the the be all and end all of silent cinema around the 1910s. And so such, I'm sure, will be the subtextual point of the following posts in the series.

Before I let you go, to see a more biographical exploration of Griffith that far exceeds the scope of this more analytical post, I'd recommend the three-part documentary D.W Griffith: Father Of Film.

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