title: D.W. Griffith and the Dawn of Film Art

title: Part 1 -- 'The Adventures of Dollie'

The Adventures of Dollie is assured of a permanent niche in the annals of art if only because it was the first movie directed by D. W. Griffith, arguably the most important director in the history of cinema. Yet, it is far more significant than a mere historical anecdote – as the starting point from which Griffith’s genius would flow it provides a baseline against which his remarkable achievements can be measured.

Among other first works, Griffith’s first movie leans more toward the technically competent D. W. Griffith but wholly imitative juvenilia of Mozart than the early works of Beethoven, in which glimmers of a mature, confident and innovative artist are already evident. (Or, to take two extreme examples from the world of film, contrast the soft-core porn that launched the careers of so many famous directors and stars with the astounding brilliance of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.) But even considering that film, by its nature, necessarily is a collaborative art that forecloses most private experimentation and development before embarking on a feature project, Griffith’s first film hardly sprung out of a void.

Griffith was already 33 at the time he produced Dollie in June, 1908. He had been acting for a decade with only mild and sporadic success, had authored a failed play and, stranded in New York, had turned largely in desperation to movies. Lured by the $15 that studios paid for scenarios, he tried to sell a treatment of Tosca to the Edison studios but instead was cast in the lead of their Rescued From an Eagle’s Nest. He then managed to sell several scenarios to the rival American Mutoscope & Biograph Company, and appeared in a number of their movies. Biograph, as it was called, was struggling and in need of a new director. Biograph Bulletin ad for the Adventures of Dollie As recounted in a 1925 book by his wife, Linda Arvidson (When the Movies Were Young, E. P. Dutton & Co.), Griffith was offered the chance to direct, but he had so little confidence in his ability, as well as the future of movies generally, that he accepted only on condition that if he failed he could continue as an actor.

According to Arvidson, Dollie had been passed over and was considered a “lemon.” Griffith took his new assignment seriously, though, going outside the Biograph stable for his cast (recruiting Arthur Johnson as the father, based solely on his looks and bearing as he walked down the street). According to Billy Bitzer, the cameraman with whom Griffith would shoot his masterpieces (Billy Bitzer – His Story, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1973), Griffith came to seek his advice. (At the time, the cameramen were largely responsible for all aspects of a movie other than the acting and thus were most knowledgeable of industry practices.) Bitzer recalled that he outlined on a laundry cardboard the five elements Griffith should be sure to include – drama, danger, rescue, love interest and comedy – and suggested the parts of the Dollie story that fit each category. (In a mild harbinger of independence, Griffith omitted the comedy entirely and shot at Sound Beach, Connecticut rather than Bitzer’s suggestion of the Bronx River.) As it turned out, Dollie was shot by Arthur Marvin, Biograph’s other cameraman, who apparently was an easy-going fellow who resented Griffith stationing him in the middle of a stream to get well-composed shots.

For an impression of both the story and Griffith’s approach to visualizing it, please click here for a structural outline and please click here for a set of stills of Dollie. Both are based on a 16 mm copy of the paper print preserved by the Library of Congress Copyright Office, which is our most reliable and authoritative source for this key document.

I also find it helpful to compare Dollie to Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest, Griffith’s very first venture into film six months earlier, in which he played the lead role. Lacking any experience in movies, he had no opportunity to impose any individual touches. Directed by J. Searle Dawley and Edwin S. Porter, the most accomplished director of the time, Eagle’s Nest can reliably be taken to represent the state of the art at the time of Griffith’s entry. For further reference, I’ve attached a synopsis – please click here to view it and set of stills – please click here to view it, both derived from a Kino video of the 35 mm print held by the Museum of Modern Art.

In terms of what we have come to think of as film technique (thanks, in large part, to Griffith’s intuitive discovery of their impact), Dollie has little to offer. The plot unfolds in strict chronological order, with only slight abridgements of time, and each of its 13 scenes consist of a single shot, with editing simply stringing them together. Yet, in order to set the stage, so to speak, for Griffith’s development of film grammar, it is worth detailing Dollie in terms of its ingredients and in comparison to Eagle’s Nest.

Title -- The Plot Although the plot is the least important element of evaluating Griffith’s achievements in the esthetic evolution of film as an art form, and even though he had no control over the selection of Dollie, his movies were all narrative, and so the story here cannot be wholly ignored. Even setting aside more enlightened modern notions of political correctness, the story of Dollie seems ridiculous and incredible by any standard. Yet, in the context of its times, the notion of gypsies as evil incarnate was tantamount to an axiomatic truth. Thus, the review (really only a plot summary) in the July 18, 1908 New York Dramatic Mirror stated: “There has come into the neighborhood a band of those peripatetic nomads of the Zingani type, whose ostensible occupation is selling baskets and reed ware, but their real motive is pillage” and credited the father’s beating with “arousing the venom of [the gypsy’s] black heart.” (In fairness, prejudice was an equal-opportunity force back then, with early films full of stereotyped lazy blacks, greedy Jews, deceitful Mexican “greasers,” savage Indians – and of course malevolent gypsies.) I won’t venture an opinion as to whether the human or avian perpetrator of Dollie or Eagle’s Nest is the more improbable, if not outright ludicrous, villain.

Title -- Editing The fundamental editing scheme is simple – each scene comprises a single shot that conveys a complete segment of the narrative, sequentially presented so that each piece of activity leads to the next. Yet, there is a subtle variation – Griffith accelerates the pace and ties his scenes together by beginning each shot as the action is about to start with the characters (or barrel) entering only after a few seconds to establish the setting, while ending it before the action is entirely completed. Particularly effective is shot 7, in which we wait several seconds on a peaceful stretch of rural road before the gypsy wagon breaks the pace by suddenly emerging and galloping by, shot 2, which is clipped in the midst of the father’s and gypsy’s threatening gestures and shot 4, which ends just as the father and his friend are about to run off to find Dollie. Eagle’s Nest, by comparison, is more rigid, with all but one scene (# 2) beginning just as the characters enter and not ending until they all have completely left the frame, with the result that the pace is generally slack and never builds any sense of excitement, even in shots 6, 7 and 8, which seem lethargic for a race against time. Indeed, shot 7 seems almost incongruously comedic, as it lingers on the wife huffing and puffing as she covers the same terrain as the much faster men with her awkward, matronly effort at running.

Eagle’s Nest contains what may have been the last gasp of an alternative approach to editing that Porter had pioneered. The most famous example is in his 1902 Life of an American Fireman. The last two shots in the copyright deposit print depict a fireman rescuing a woman and her child from the second floor of a burning building – first from the inside and then all over again from the outside.
Scene 1 -- the Woodsman departs Scene 2 -- felling a tree
Rescued From an Eagle's Nest
overlapping action in shots 9 and 10
For quite some time it was assumed that these were master shots submitted for copyright recording purposes and intended to be inter-cut for the release prints. As recounted by David A. Cook in A History of Narrative Film (Norton, 1981), widely circulated copies of the only surviving print indeed had cross-cut these shots 14 times, as a modern editor would tend to do, so as to repeatedly alternate perspective between victims and rescuers. Yet the Edison catalog at the time clearly described the sequence as two uninterrupted sequential views of the same action, an approach finally confirmed when an original print emerged in which a continuous shot of the interior as the victims are discovered and carried out through a window is followed by a continuous shot of the exterior. Indeed Life of an American Fireman contained further overlap between earlier shots as well – all seven firemen are shown descending the top of a pole after being aroused from their upstairs sleeping quarters, followed by a shot showing the bottom of the pole as each arrives at ground level where the fire engines are being readied; and then the engines all depart from their stalls, followed by an exterior shot showing them emerging once the doors have been opened. This same technique of showing overlapping views of the same action repeated from a different viewpoint is found between shots 9 and 10 in the Museum of Modern Art print of Eagle’s Nest. After the father is lowered over the cliff, shot 9 continues for another nine seconds as the workers (anchored by the mother!) play out many more yards of rope, thus suggesting that the father has now been lowered that much farther down the cliff. Yet shot 10, reversing the perspective to show the cliff face itself, begins as the father is just starting over the edge, and then continues to pan down with his descent. (Other prints edit this in a more conventional fashion by clipping the end of shot 9 and/or the beginning of shot 10.) Interestingly, when the action is reversed the editing adds considerable suspense – shot 11 ends as the father is hauled up from the ledge and disappears at the top of the frame, while shot 12 begins with the workers and wife pulling in the rope before he finally appears after twelve tense seconds.

Title -- Pacing While not breaking his scenes down into separate shots, Griffith does some virtual editing by condensing the natural timing within lengthy shots. Thus in scene 2 the father runs in right after the purse is snatched, in scene 4 the gypsy snatches Dollie the moment her mother steps out of frame, in scene 5 the searchers enter the frame a split second after the gypsy runs out, and in scene 6 they arrive just as the gypsy finishes nailing down the barrel head. While credibility suffers – the movie may be silent but the characters seem deaf – Griffith apparently felt compelled to abide by the studio directive that no screen time be wasted and that action be constant. Eagle’s Nest, too, combines several pieces of action but far more convincingly in a single lengthy shot 11, depicting the father’s arrival on the ledge, checking his baby, vanquishing the eagle and being hoisted back up.

Both movies pay little attention to pacing as an element of suspense, as their shot length is dictated solely by the action being depicted. Yet despite the compulsion to move the story along, each does pause for a respite of sorts – the multiple shots of the barrel leisurely flowing down the stream consume nearly one-fifth of Dollie’s running time and seem to manifest more a savoring of the outdoor scenery than any demand of the plot, and scene 2 of Eagle’s Nest achieves little more than a title to signify a break in time. Even so, we should also note the extreme efficiency of Griffith’s work – according to studio records, Marvin shot 894 feet of film of which 713 went into the release print. While this was hardly Griffith’s choice – film was very expensive – it does suggest a nearly complete absence of retakes or trimming of extraneous portions – as well as the need for careful planning before rolling the camera.

Title -- Continuity As a further function of efficiency, while most shots follow in real time as the action unfolds, both movies bridge gaps in time and location early in the narrative through direct cuts. In Dollie, the gypsy arrives at his camp seconds after his threat outside Dollie’s home (shots 2 and 3) and he returns soon after departing from his camp (shots 3 and 4). In Eagle’s Nest, the father is found already at work in the forest right after he waves goodbye to wife and daughter (shots 1 and 2), and the wife rushes up to him moments after running off from the cabin (shots 5 and 6). Note, though, that in this era Biograph submitted prints for copyright without titles (even the main title), so it is possible that an explanatory title card was inserted into release prints. Yet, audiences used to flexible editing – including Porter’s temporal overlapping – might not have needed any verbal clues to understand the continuity.

Title -- Trick Photography Both movies rely on some sleight of hand – both the barrel in Dollie and the giant bird in Eagle’s Nest reportedly were manipulated by wires. But the latter movie also contains an extremely effective and barely discernible cinematic trick – just as the eagle swoops down and grabs the baby in its talons, a splice hides the substitution of a dummy, with which the eagle flies off. (But apparently these were the days before concern (and laws) for child welfare – the character screaming in terror suspended below the eagle’s talons in scene 4 and on the ledge throughout the long climactic battle of scene 11 appears to be a real baby.) Griffith shied away from such camera tricks – although he would return to them in 1916 to depict beheadings during the sword battle in the Babylonian sequence of Intolerance.

Title -- Acting Eagle’s Nest preserves a record of Griffith’s own acting – it was his first film role and one of only two surviving examples of his style. As analyzed by Roberta E. Pearson (Eloquent Gestures, University of California, 1992), early film acting derived from standardized European stage gestures which were in the midst of transitioning from a histrionic style of isolated conventional gestures, posed attitudes and heightened emotions to a verisimilar approach in which a continuous flow of movement was composed of details appropriate for a particular character or circumstance. Although in time Griffith’s movies would become known for the restraint and subtlety of the latter, modern style, his own acting at this point clearly was mired in the old-fashioned histrionic tradition. His long-time cameraman Billy Bitzer recalled that he was “called on the carpet” when they saw the results of the first time Bitzer filmed Griffith, who “acted with so many gestures … that he seemed to have three or four arms instead of the usual two.” Actually, Griffith’s work in Eagle’s Nest isn’t nearly so extreme – his motions certainly are broad but largely appropriate, as they were easy for an audience to perceive in the absence of dialog and on the relatively small screens of the time. Thus, he may wave farewell and point ahead before he runs with a bit too much repetition and enthusiasm, but his exhausted staggering after retrieving his baby is wholly apt to the emotional content of the final scene. Indeed, if anything it is the acting in Dollie that seems the more dated, as the gypsy makes several fruitless lunges before snatching Dollie, and the fisher boy and father leap back in surprise when they hear something inside the barrel.

Title -- Shot Composition While Griffith soon would break down scenes to insert closer vantages and eventually close-ups into distant establishing shots, it can be seen from the Dollie stills that already he is placing the camera closer to the action, which reduced the need for broad gesticulation and drew his audience in to identify more closely with the characters. He also reveals an eye for composition – compare the painterly composition of the river bank shots (2 and 13) and the balance of wagon and grazing horses (shots 3 and 6) with the rather random layout of most of the Eagle’s Nest shots. While the shot of the eagle’s ledge (11) could be seen as stressing the dangerous narrowness of the precipice, it pushes the action to the extreme left edge for no apparent reason. Griffith, though, demonstrates his extraordinary sensitivity to the emotional resonance of his settings – the gentle float of the barrel downstream, broken by the plunge over the waterfall, creates a mini-drama using only nature. Yet, Griffith’s camera was entirely stationary, while shot 10 of Eagle’s Nest features a downward tilt of nearly the entire height of the frame so the camera can follow the father’s descent down the cliff face.

Title -- Titles While Porter often is disparaged for an ostensibly “stagey” scenic arrangement in which actors enter from and exit to the foreground sides, as if on a theatrical stage, in several shots here he uses the depth of his natural settings effectively, even though the painted backdrops to the cabin and cliff scenes add an inappropriate sense of artifice. Griffith used his exteriors more adeptly, with every one of his shots blocked creatively – either the actors (or barrel) approach us from the rear and come forward to engage our attention, or the central activity is enriched with some item of interest in the background (shots 3, 6 and 10). Admittedly, Griffith claimed to have used only exteriors for Dollie in order to avoid scrutiny of his novice directing effort by the studio bosses and most of his next films would revert to the crude flats and painted scenery of the studio, but his creative scenic intuition was already apparent, albeit in nascent form, as a means to evoke thematically appropriate emotional overtones.

In sum, while generally dismissed as a valiant but largely primitive and ineffective first try in filmmaking, The Adventures of Dollie already presents in microcosm many of the traits that would come to distinguish Griffith’s mature art and show that he had begun his extraordinary journey of intuitive discovery of how to use the properties of film to create meaning to enrich the themes and emotions of his narrative material.

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 2009 by Peter Gutmann

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