Film historians agree that David Wark Griffith (1875 – 1948) was the father of cinematic art. While most of the techniques he claimed to have invented in fact had been used long before his career began, the fact remains that it was Griffith who intuitively discovered and explored how the attributes of cinema could be used to evoke an emotional response. By being the first to translate functional mechanics into human expression, Griffith began the process of raising the new medium from craft to art.
Much has been written about Griffith, but the vast bulk tends to dwell on his stories he used, the industry he helped create, and even the actors and actresses he discovered. Even when the far more significant subject of film technique is meaningfully addressed, the focus invariably is upon the feature-length movies that comprise the prime of his career, occasionally prefaced by brief overviews of his development, but these routinely cite only a handful of his most famous earlier works (mostly toward the end of his period of growth) and thus leave a misimpression that his technique sprang fully formed from an artistic void. Yet, as in any creative process, Griffith’s art evolved gradually through experimentation and error.
In order to discover and document this process, which was perhaps the most important in all of film history, I have viewed all of the first year or so of Griffith’s output. While most of these films contain little of artistic significance, many deserve far better than the neglect of the past. In this series, I want to share with other film buffs the excitement of tracing the first, tentative steps by which our common love became an art form.
All of Griffith’s films are narrative, and so such theatrical and literary elements as plots, themes, characters, lighting, scenery and acting cannot be ignored. My primary interest, though, lies in Griffith’s development and use of inherently cinematic techniques for expressive purposes. Paramount among these is editing which, more than any other factor, has come to characterize film as a unique art medium, especially in the era before synchronous sound added its own complementary impact.
Watching Griffith’s early films in the order of their release is essential for the sake of perspective – while it’s impossible to fully ignore all we know of cinema nowadays, the sheer boldness of Griffith’s work only emerges from attempting to reset our perception to a prehistoric time before Griffith when techniques were used purely functionally. Only then can we appreciate the artistic progress each film represented over its predecessors and share the surprise and delight of contemporaneous viewers as the nascent medium progressed step by step.
Viewing the films themselves, depending on independent personal observation and intentionally ignoring the existing literature also affords a less pleasant but crucial need to correct the errors of the past. Some are relatively benign. Thus, in the standard film histories we read that Griffith’s first film, The Adventures of Dollie, combined studio interiors with locations in New Jersey (Terry Ramsaye: A Million and One Nights), that it contained the first flashback in any motion picture (A. R. Fulton: Motion Pictures), and that “each scene was played exactly as it would have been on the stage – entrances were made, as on the stage, from left or right” (Robert Henderson: D. W. Griffith – His Life and Work) – whereas in fact The Adventures of Dollie was shot entirely outdoors in Connecticut, its scenes were presented in strict chronological order, and most entrances were from the distant rear rather than the sides, a perspective denied on the shallow stage. Gaffes such as these are readily dispelled by viewing one of the many available prints of The Adventure of Dollie.
Other errors, though, require comparisons among films that are more obscure, go to the heart of cinematic art, and persevere. For example, in his seminal and much-quoted Rise of the American Film (Harcourt Brace, 1939), Lewis Jacobs ascribes great importance to a first close-up in After Many Years – which quite simply does not exist – and pinpoints a first cut within a scene from far to full shot in For Love of Gold – although the scene in question in fact is one long boring take with no editing whatsoever. These two glaring factual errors are repeated verbatim by modern authorities, as in David Cook’s A History of Narrative Film (Norton, 1981) and thus are perpetuated as fact. Worse, attribution of these ostensible innovations to Griffith reflects an ignorance of his predecessors. While it would be presumptuous to blame those who purport to write with scholarly authority about matters of which they have no reliable knowledge, I feel that it is important to set the record straight by rebutting these and other persistent myths that pervade film history but which the evidence of the films themselves does not support.
All this is made possible by a fortuitous legal hitch. When films began, copyright law severely lagged technology (a problem which endures to this day). It was not until 1912 that motion pictures were eligible for copyright. Eager to find loopholes to protect their work, early producers (and their attorneys) recognized that the existing law covered photographic prints – and, after all, a movie is just a series of slightly different still pictures viewed in rapid succession. Thus, they obtained indirect copyright protection of a movie by registration in the form of a portfolio of positive photographs and depositing the required copy in that form. Thus arose the paper prints, which are essentially contact prints of movie negatives on long strips of bromide paper. (The very first was filed by W.K.L. Dickson, from the Edison Laboratory on January 7, 1894 for the famous Record of a Sneeze.)
In retrospect, we owe virtually our entire body of genuine knowledge of the first two decades of film history to this fluke in the copyright law.
The paper prints are housed in the Library of Congress and are too opaque to view and too fragile to handle. Beginning in 1954, Kemp Niver spent a decade rephotographing them onto 16mm film, copies of which are available for viewing or purchase. Many are compromised by soft focus, weak contrast or jumpy registration, but since most are unique their quality is irrelevant. (Reportedly, they are to be retransferred to 35mm and video, and hopefully their image quality can be improved in that process.) What matters is that now anyone who cares can study the actual Griffith films – and has been able to do so for the last several decades. While early film historians can be forgiven for having had to rely on their own inaccurate memories and others’ distorted claims, it is sad that so few modern authors have bothered to view the films, preferring instead to perpetuate the flaws of the past.
But do the paper prints truly present the films as they were intended for release? There seems no reason to doubt it. The paper prints match the few films of which nitrate originals survive. The exception is the titles, which the paper prints generally omit. Yet in nearly every instance adding ten 35mm feet for each gap in continuity matches the length of a paper print to the corresponding release print as originally advertised for sale. (Since release prints at the time were sold by the foot, we can assume that the length listed in catalogs was accurate.) Thus, for example, the 16mm paper print copy of Griffith’s second movie, The Redman and the Child, is 328 feet long, which is equivalent to 820 35mm feet, whereas its advertised release length was 857 feet – just long enough for a main title plus three other titles to cover the three jumps in the otherwise coherent narrative. (In his book of stills and analysis (D. W. Griffith – His Biograph Films in Perspective; John D. Roche, 1974), Niver rather naively concludes that Griffith suddenly began using intertitles in November 1909 simply because they were absent from all his paper prints prior to then and always included thereafter, and often chides the director for failing to explain gaps in story chronology.) Further reasons to assume lost titles are that they reportedly were shot with a different camera directly onto positive stock that was spliced into release prints, and that some paper prints have handwritten flash frames to indicate placement of a missing insert (such as an explanatory letter or newspaper headline).
With the exception of titles and graphic inserts, the legacy of the paper prints provides an objective body of evidence against which the claims of the past can be tested and a reliable basis upon which a true appreciation of Griffith's achievements can be measured.
To set the stage, so to speak, the first segment of our survey will provide a detailed description of Griffith’s first movie, The Adventures of Dollie. Although it contains little of technical interest, Dollie displays the basic competence that Griffith brought to his movie story-telling and provides a foundation for assessing his achievements that would soon come.
Copyright 2009 by Peter Gutmann
copyright © 1998-2009 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.