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

title: Part 10 -- D. W. Griffith's 'A Country Doctor' (June 1908)

A Country Doctor was filmed in late May and early June, but released on July 8, 1909, and thus came at the end of D. W. Griffith’s first year of filmmaking, a period in which he produced the staggering total of nearly 130 movies. (And just to be clear, Griffith was directly responsible for writing (or adapting), casting, rehearsing, directing, editing, titling – and supervising the locations, sets and photography – as well as overseeing distribution, since his earnings included a royalty for each foot of positive prints sold for exhibition.) A Country Doctor affords us an opportunity both to consider the extent to which Griffith's artistry had matured during this period, and to summarize the features of his filmmaking at this juncture.

In considering our analysis, please refer to the structural outline – please click here to view it and set of stills – please click here to view it that will open as separate windows for ease of reference.

Title -- The PlotLet’s begin with a sad but necessary concession – the plot of this film is awfully trite. Indeed, Griffith’s plots are generally the hardest aspect of his work to accept today and often defeat a full appreciation of his films. Contrary to the impression given in so many film histories, Griffith’s plots do not all target social evils or culminate in heart-stopping rescues (although the few that do have the greatest modern appeal and attract the most notice.) The vast majority consist of silly romantic mix-ups, desperate attempts to preserve chastity, revenge kidnappings and similar nonsense. But these plots seem flawed only when viewed from a sophisticated and perhaps elitist modern perspective.

Up to this point (and indeed for many years to come), Griffith was a mere employee. His producers had but one goal: to make money. Griffith’s arty pretensions were his own business, but on company time he was to grind out a continual string of profitable successes. That he did, far more consistently and prolifically than any rival. And prior to the feature era (established by Griffith’s own Birth of a Nation more than any other factor) motion picture audiences were not a cross-section of society, but rather heavily skewed toward the lower classes, urban dwellers and recent immigrants, most of whom kept close ties to simple, conservative “Old World” values. Griffith knew his audience and his shorts catered to their demand.

At the same time, it would be wrong to suggest that Griffith was uncomfortable with such material. Born in Kentucky and raised a Southern Gentleman, Griffith sincerely believed in and subscribed to the strict Victorian moral code that underlies all of his pictures. It is also worth noting that Griffith was an experienced actor (albeit a poor one, according to both of his principal cameramen) who had traveled with a number of mediocre touring road show companies. Not unexpectedly, many of Griffith’s plots were derived from those of the cheap theatrical melodramas that formed the staple of theatrical mass entertainment at the time, and with which early films tried to compete.

In that light, the plot of “A Country Doctor” is a refreshing departure from the norm of its time. Virtually all of Griffith’s dramatic plots are predictable and reinforce social stability – they find a hero triumphant and a villain defeated, morality upheld and iniquity thwarted, virtue rewarded and sin punished. But here, there is no battle of good against evil, no one to cheer and nothing to hiss. Rather, all we have is a race against time – which is lost! And although the introductory title proclaims that the doctor’s sacrifice will somehow yield some spiritual reward, the film fails to deliver the promised uplift. The moral ambiguity of the plot of “A Country Doctor” is thoroughly modern.

Title -- StructureThere is far more to “A Country Doctor” than the story proper, which does not begin until shot 4 and ends with shot 35. Keeping in mind that Griffith constantly chafed against the conventional limitation that no movie could run more than a single reel, why did he “waste” over one-quarter of his valuable screen time on the lengthy scenes 1, 2, 3 and 36, which seemingly have nothing to do with the story and look like they were tacked on from someone’s home movies? The answer lies in the film’s theme.

Scenes 2 and 3 at first appear to be the least important in the entire movie. Yet, they illustrate one of the peaks of Griffith’s artistry – his ability to crystallize the entire theme of a movie into a single compelling image (here repeated). Just what do these scenes show? First, how healthy Edith is, with all her frisky, buoyant activity. Second, how immersed her family is in nature, barely visible as they emerge from a tall, windswept field, their lives integrated beautifully in the settings of ripening grain and blossoming flowers. Third, how much she means to her adoring parents, who literally surround her, follow her and derive such joy from her presence. And fourth, what nice people these are, nonchalantly romping toward the camera (and thus coming ever closer to us) – people with whom Griffith wants us to fully identify. Thus, while extraneous to the plot, these two scenes deftly set us up for the story to come, as they deeply contrast with the immobility, illness, suffering and loss of the outcome and deepen the feeling we will attach to it.

Scenes 1 and 36 contribute to the structure in a more subtle yet even more powerful way, as this framing device functions on a number of effective levels. On the surface, the opening and closing pans provide a unifying decorative effect, equivalent to the raising and lowering of a curtain. Yet, they are not mirror images – when the film opens, we see a happy family emerge from their home, appealingly nestled in a bucolic valley, while the reverse shot is bereft of any people, so as to reinforce the extreme progression of the plot from the shared joy of vibrant health to the somber loneliness of undeserved death. On a thematic level, the two scenes suggest that these particular characters are an integral part of their community, and so their experience which we are about to share cannot readily be written off as an isolated event, but rather is part of a wider society with which we can identify. Yet the superficial similarity of the two scenes provides an unsettling commentary on the plot, suggesting that nature is utterly indifferent to the scope of human activity upon which we focus our attention and energies.

Nor do the framing pans carry the same emotional weight, as their vastly different impact arises from what we read into them. The final title notwithstanding, the final shot is not darkened to reflect the tragic denouement but rather is as bright as the opening. Yet, even despite their apparent resemblance, they seem to begin with light-hearted expectation and pleasure, but conclude with a numb, empty, stillness of defeat and grief. In that way, they exemplify the wonder of cinema, which personalizes the universal by extending the physicality of depictions into the realm of imagination and coloring actuality with our emotional longing. Here, we endow each of the two shots with far different overtones that we deem appropriate to resonate the feelings generated by the plot and thus invest them with a striking contrast in mood and connotation. By requiring us to provide meaning to otherwise ambiguous depictions, Griffith induces us to become active participants in the creative process, and the result is far more personally significant than if we were mere passive observers to an otherwise wholly-formed work. (And we know that Griffith succeeded with at least one viewer of the time – the reviewer in The New York Dramatic Mirror reported: "At the opening we see the valley bathed in sunshine. At the close we see it in the gloom of a darkening cloud.")

Title -- Camera MovementAs for the first and last shots, it is significant that these pans are the only unusual technical effects used in the entire production. Although it often is erroneously implied that Griffith films are chock full of fascinating cinematic devices, in fact few of his shorts contain more than one or two, and often none at all. But when Griffith does use a device, it invariably is appropriate to enhance the narrative or, more importantly, the mood or theme of his movie. Equally important, Griffith rarely uses a device gratuitously. Here, he easily could have injected poignant close-ups of the suffering Edith, her protective mother, the pleading servant or the conscience-torn doctor, but would these really have contributed anything substantial to the inherent drama of those scenes? Rather, they might have been counterproductive by relieving the sustained intensity of those incidents.

So when a technical device does appear in a Griffith short, it is well worth considering its significance in the context of the dramatic development or to transcend the immediate need of the narrative. Here, the two pans are a brilliant meeting of technique and effect. We have already noted that the vast emotional gulf between the two shots far transcends any minor objective differences. The opening pan depicts the family’s relationship to its environment and community and raises expectations of domestic joy – and it does so far more economically and effectively than would have been possible with extensive titling, subplots and the like. As for the final shot, does it suggest the family’s acceptance of its grief and its reintegration into its community? Or does it show nature to be wholly indifferent to the human tragedy we have witnessed? Or perhaps it represents the viewer turning away from a situation too painful to endure any longer? The genius of this final shot is that it simultaneously implies a wealth of meaning on a number of levels – all appropriate to the theme – without limiting our attention to only one.

Title -- TitlesThe titling in “A Country Doctor” is one of two indications that Griffith’s art had not yet fully matured. None of the titles really is needed. Only the titles before scenes 4 and 5 are functional, but for reasons having nothing to do with their texts – rather, they represent a separation of time and space in the unfolding of the story which otherwise would have been confusing had the shots been joined together. All the other titles are downright damaging. Thus, the titles before scenes 1 and 2, which name the valley and the doctor, only serve to particularize (and thus, in a way, trivialize) a tale that seems far more effective when seen as a slice of life that could occur anywhere. The title before scene 12 is wholly gratuitous, as the doctor’s professional duty is obvious from the images, and indeed it ruins the suspense of the three scenes that follow. Similarly, the title between scenes 30 and 31 interrupts the visual rhythm for no apparent purpose, as its content is fully apparent from the surrounding scenes, and there is no need to provide any separation between shots 30 and 31. The worst offenders are the opening and closing titles. The first promises some ultimate vindication or mystical reward, but none is ever delivered, and the final title only serves to defeat the complex magic of the closing shot by imposing a single, and woefully simplistic, interpretation upon it (and a rather inappropriate one at that – the valley itself is no darker than before, thus suggesting that the forces of nature are utterly unaffected by the fate of the protagonists).

Indeed, elimination of all the titles would have no adverse impact upon “A Country Doctor” at all. Above all else, this is a tribute to Griffith’s artistic instincts, as his visual sense was so acute that titling was rarely needed. That, turn, leads to one of the most puzzling aspects of Griffith that would persist through his entire career. Perhaps because he fancied himself an author, Griffith nearly always hobbled his films with gratuitous titles. At least, they rarely interrupt or spoil his climaxes, when, as here, he lets the images carry the full meaning. And in all fairness to Griffith, most other directors of the era were far worse offenders in that they relied upon titles to overcome the weaker expressivity of their visuals.

Title -- EditingThe other major sign of Griffith’s evolving skill is his editing. “A Country Doctor” relies upon a basic and economical format of one shot per scene, with no changes in perspective (different camera angles) or proximity (close-ups) to break a scene down into component shots that could draw attention to salient aspects. Even so, Griffith uses rudimentary editing here to accelerate the tempo of the film. Toward the beginning, he devotes a substantial number of shots to the servant, grandmother and doctor running back and forth between the house and cabin. These shots always tend to be paired, showing both an exit from one building and an entrance into the other (shots 6/7, 15/16; 19/20), and serve to add a degree of suspense by stretching out the action. But beginning with shot 22, and again in shots 26 and 28, only the exit is shown, with the corresponding entry shot dropped. The action is accelerated yet further by cutting directly between cabin and house (shots 17/18, 23/24/25 and 29/30) at points where, appropriately, the heightened tempo presents the most hectic stage of the plot development. This affords an early glimpse of Griffith’s development of cross-cutting, in which he would directly splice together scenes representing two or more locations separated in time and space. Although its most evident use would come in chase melodramas to keep track of villains, victims and rescuers, here he applies the technique to enhance a more domestic story with psychological, rather than sheer physical, suspense. (As an added touch, the layout of the two scenes is similar, as both depict concerned mothers bending over their ailing daughters, thus reinforcing their parallel narrative and emotional content.) The use of both exit and entry shots is resumed in shots 32 and 34, effectively winding down the dramatic pace for the somber denouement (while adding poignancy to the climax by contrasting the doctor’s joyous anticipation of returning home with the tragedy he will find there).

For the most part, though, the editing here is strictly functional, linking scenes that are complete in themselves. Again, the only exceptions are dramatically appropriate – shots 29 and 31 (the doctor finishing his task) and shots 30 and 33 (the mother trying to keep Edith alive) are really each single shots interrupted by the other pair. By breaking up the beginning and end of these continuous scenes, Griffith creates suspense, thereby heightening the uncertainty of the outcome of the crucial race against time.

Title -- Shot LengthGriffith’s shot length, too, is largely functional, as each shot runs only long enough to show the significant action of a scene. Conversely, when a Griffith shot runs longer than the action requires (notably in the three opening shots here), the viewer can safely assume that the intent is to give us an opportunity to absorb the atmosphere, or to focus more attention on some aspect of the action, or perhaps just the setting, that might otherwise be overlooked.

By controlling the amount and pace of the action shown in each shot, Griffith is able to vary their length in a way that contributes to the formal structure and dramatic development. A glance at the timing of each shot listed in the synopsis reveals the general trend of using longer shots at the beginning and end and more concise shots toward the middle, thus establishing an overall formal structure of an arc that is entirely appropriate to the shape of the story’s pacing, which begins on a pastoral note, accelerates to a moral crisis, and then ends in tragedy. Tellingly, rather than rely upon the rather obvious equation of shot brevity with excitement, here Griffith takes the opposite route, using the longest shots to denote significance. Thus, in the central section of the film, the short shots are inconsequential, while shots 14 and 27 (showing the doctor leaving Edith and then deciding to stay with the other girl) are by far the longest, comprising highly appropriate points of emphasis, as these two scenes embody the thematic focus of the film. Unlike most directors, Griffith was not afraid to use the length of a sustained shot, rather than rapid editing, for dramatic emphasis.

Rather than a matter of laziness, Griffith clearly understood that editing for the sheer sake of editing often is a poor choice (a lesson that should be taken to heart by nearly every director of modern concert movies, in which constant rapid cutting destroys any sense of the authenticity of a performance). In that way, despite his well-deserved reputation for rapid editing, Griffith’s reluctance to break up continuous action illustrates the theories of André Bazin and others who would insist upon the integrity of a single uninterrupted shot to depict emotional reality.

Title -- ActingGriffith’s contribution to film acting generally is either overlooked or misunderstood. Film inherited the theatrical tradition of acting, in which broad gestures were needed, as subtle nuance could not be seen from the more distant seats. Movie cameras also kept a respectful distance from the actors (often in order to replicate the accustomed perspective of a theatre audience), and without the ability to provide fundamental meaning through dialog, early film directors simply exaggerated the standard demonstrative stage gestures even further to an extent that now appears ridiculous. The problem was further compounded by reliance upon inexperienced or unskilled actors, as no respected professional would deign to appear in the disreputable new medium.

Against this background, Griffith is generally credited with introducing “restraint of expression” or “natural” acting (and indeed in a 1913 trade press advertisement he would so boast), but that is only partly true. Even at the height of his career, Lillian Gish’s hysterical scene locked in a closet in Broken Blossoms is hardly restrained, and Mae Marsh’s spastic stumble through the woods to escape the rapist Gus in Birth of a Nation is far from natural. Rather, Griffith’s main contribution to film acting was to introduce stylization, whereby each role was assigned a specific type of exaggeration that was dramatically appropriate, but this would not emerge until many months after “A Country Doctor.” In this film we have a prime example of Griffith’s other contribution to screen acting – expressivity: the use of gestures that are not natural but that manage to convey meaning clearly and powerfully without the contrived exaggeration that was typical of the era and which seems so alienating nowadays (and, indeed, by striking us as outlandish – and hence comical – erects a barrier between modern audiences and early silent drama).

Scene 27 contains an outstanding example. Here, the doctor is torn between returning to his needy family and remaining at his duty, and he symbolically stands between the representatives of each choice – the family servant and the sick girl’s grandmother. The grandmother physically restrains him from leaving, and so it is the servant who must plead for him to return home. The conventional, theatrical way to have depicted the servant’s desperation would have been for her to throw herself at the doctor’s feet, to claw at his clothes, and to try to overpower the grandmother’s hold and pull him away – that is, to depict the depth of her feeling through the utmost physical exertion. (Indeed, the mother’s hysterical reaction to Edith’s death in shot 33 typifies the overwrought acting of the era.) Griffith’s expressive method is far more moving. He has the servant stand with dignity in the doorway, extending her right arm toward the doctor. As the situation becomes more fraught, she stiffens her arm and clenches her spread fingers into a fist, as if to draw him in. As his decision to stay becomes apparent she unclenches her fist, as if to show that he has slipped through her fingers, and then drops her arm limply, as if drained of all hope. This complex yet restrained gesture is hardly “natural,” but it serves as a remarkably clear barometer of changing emotion that is entirely in keeping with the understated tone of the drama and manages to involve us far more movingly than would a more effusive set of motions.

Coming only one year after Griffith’s first foray into producing movies, and in the heat of a breakneck pace that left little room for artistry, the relative sophistication of “A Country Doctor” is remarkable for enhancing the bare mechanics of telling a story with the capabilities of the new medium of film. While cinematic masterpieces lay well into the future, it was becoming clear that Griffith would lead the way toward developing film into an art form.

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 2009 by Peter Gutmann

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