Silent Film Week: The Short Films of D.W. Griffith

The great D.W. Griffith... who appears to have borrowed Buster's hat for the occasion.

The great D.W. Griffith… who appears to have borrowed Buster’s hat for the occasion.

I was really lucky that when preparing for this week focused on silent film, Arc Cinema at the National Film and Sound Archives happened to show a series of D.W. Griffith short films. I won’t give you a history lesson on Griffith, but rightly or wrongly, he is generally considered the father of the American feature film industry and is most (in)famous for classic silent features such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916)

Before features, Griffith also made literally hundreds of short films. The night at Arc showcased 7 of them and they really showed a huge range of interests from the director. They also illuminated him as a bit of a “leftie” as one of my friends put it, with concern for those in poverty, anti big business sentiment and searing indictment of white treatment of Native Americans all featuring in these films.

I have seen a fair bit of silent cinema and on a select couple of occasions on the big screen. But this screening was the first time I had seen silent cinema with a live accompaniment. And it was something else. The pianist they had there was amazing and her engagement with what was taking place onscreen was literally watching art being created right there and then. Not at all distracting from the films though, but managing to heighten them and elevate them. If you ever get the chance to see silent cinema with a live accompaniment, I cannot recommend it to you highly enough.

Luckily for those of you without an incredible archive style cinema nearby, all of the films I saw the other night are available on Youtube. So rather than write detailed reviews of the films, I decided I would share them with you here. I have ranked them from my least favourite to most favourite, and given you a couple of brief thoughts too. Don’t let some of the lower ranked ones pass you by. I would say that all of them, except for perhaps #7, are really well worth your time.

I really encourage you to take the time to check some of these films out. Let me know what your favourites and least favourites are below.

#7: The Sunbeam (1912)

The first film was the weakest for me and probably the only one I would say that I actually didn’t enjoy. Check it out for yourself, but I found it rather old fashioned (a silly thing to say about a film 100 years old I know, but the others did not feel that way) and a little simplistic emotionally. Tis a very traditional drama type film I thought, that was a little staid.

#6: An Unseen Enemy (1912)

This sort of a heist film is the first screen appearance by the Gish sisters, the iconic Lillian and her lesser known sibling Dorothy. You can definitely see why Lillian would go on to become such a star, because the two of them bring an incredible spark onto the screen. One of the slighter films that was shown, this is still worth checking out, for the leading ladies at the very least.

#5 The Mothering Heart (1913)

This one starts off rather melodramatic and dated, but once the plot kicks into gear over adultery, things get interesting. The two main characters, who seem so bland initially, add some layers of depth actually, especially as financial success changes one of them. Not harmed by having another excellent, and crushingly emotional, performance from Lillian Gish either.

#4: The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)

Often referred to as the first gangster flick in all of cinema, this is the film I had heard most about before seeing the screening. Whilst not my favourite, it is still utterly intriguing and it is fascinating to see just how much of the iconography that would go on to characterise gangster film is already here. It is a simple tale of the swaggering Musketeers, the local gangsters and their interactions with the fuzz and a young couple they terrorise. As well as being a historical curiosity, the film has some interesting things to say about crime as well.

#3: Ramona (1910)

The subtitle of this film is “White man’s injustice to the Indians” and it is an effective, but really quite bleak look at the mistreatment of the indigenous inhabitants of North America. The film also resonated with me as an Australian because it had so many parallels with what took place (and continues to take place) in this country. It is a love story, of a love that is forbidden but will not be denied. However this confronting film is not a happy love story and the lead female performance from Mary Pickford is harrowing in its execution. Definitely one to watch.

#2 A Corner in Wheat (1909)

After the disappointing first film of the night, this one blew me away. It looks incredible in comparison, the location shots on farms are especially great to look at. It is incredible that in such a short running time, Griffith manages to show a whole industry (in this case wheat) and the devastating effects of massive commerce. It is incredible how long we have worshipped money above all other masters. The crosscutting between a fatcat stockbroker and the salt of the earth folk just conveys so much. I really encourage you all to watch this one. Especially to see a rather shocking scene that I won’t spoil for you (I found it pretty intense though).

#1 The Painted Lady (1912)

As much as I loved the number 2 film, I just could not overlook this film as my favourite of the night. It is really something else and I cannot urge you enough to check it out. A love story of vague sorts. This is just the basis for Griffith to explore body image, the fundamental notion of popularity and loneliness. Astoundingly handled for a film of this vintage. The film also features a great performance from Blanche Sweet, who shows off some serious chops when portraying the wrenching conflicting emotions that her character is being subjected too. I struggle to think of a better performance in any silent film, short or feature, actually.

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