With late 1909 we at last are afforded an opportunity to consider one of the most important aspects of Griffith's silent film art: his use of titles. This is because in September 1909 titles were first included in the paper prints which Biograph submitted to the Library of Congress for copyright purposes, and these are the only versions of most early Griffith productions that survive.
But before exploring the titles themselves, one point must be emphasized: the fact that no titles appeared in the paper prints prior to September 1909 does not mean that they were absent from the release prints prior to that time. Incredibly, this misconception was fostered by the one Griffith scholar who was best positioned to have known better – Kemp Niver, who spearheaded the paper print restoration project at the Library of Congress in the 1950s and was the first of his generation to have seen Griffith's entire body of early work. Remarkably, Niver assumed that since the paper prints submitted before September 1909 had no titles, then none existed. Niver speculated that Griffith:
staunchly maintained that the addition of subtitles to his films would be an affront to his integrity as a director. He felt that if subtitles were necessary, something must be lacking in the way he managed his actors during the filming of a picture. There is no way of knowing what influenced Griffith to change his mind in mid-1909 to design his productions for the inclusion of subtitles. He had added a single subtitle to one or two of his films prior to that time, but once he decided to make them a standard part of each film, subtitles remained an essential element of all his silent pictures.That assumption is (and even at the time was) unwarranted for multiple reasons:
Nowadays it seems clear that the sudden appearance of titles in the paper prints had nothing to do with Griffith's intermittently evolving esthetics, but rather with a precipitous change in Biograph's practice of submitting materials for copyright. In any event, the fact that the late 1909 paper prints are complete with titles and inserts affords us a reliable opportunity to assess Griffith's use of such devices. Indeed, after viewing the paper prints in chronological order, and having struggled to infer the full plots of the untitled films for so long, the importance of titles is striking.
Their most immediate effect is to explain the premise and development of the plot and characters, which often is far from evident (at least nowadays) from the generally weak acting of the period. (Scholars are aided by weekly "Biograph Bulletins" that contained not only a sales pitch but a detailed plot summary for each new release.) At the same time, the titles lend some interest and variety to the stock situations upon which Griffith relied. Thus in the very first titled Griffith film in the paper print collection ("His Lost Love," filmed September 7, 8 and 10, 1909 and released October 18) a title announces a character as "the brother returned from England" and thus helps to distinguish the opening scene from dozens of others that depict a man and a woman excitedly discussing something. Thus the most fundamental function of titles was to enable Griffith to reuse standard plot formulas with greater variety than was possible through images alone.
Consideration of the three dozen films of 1909 that followed "His Lost Love" demonstrates that Griffith's titles were already sufficiently developed so as to constitute a microcosm of their use that would emerge in his mature productions. Thus, in "A Mountaineer's Honor" we find a girl identified as "The Harum-Scarum," a harbinger of the saccharine nick-names given to principal characters in Griffith features (such as "The Little Dear One" in Intolerance), while in "The Redman's View" an instructive title – "The burial. His head to the East, a fire to light his way, food that he may not hunger" – is far more than is necessary to merely describe the action and harkens to the historical explanations that would inform (or perhaps glut) The Birth of a Nation.
Yet Griffith's titles present a paradox. While some enhance the otherwise obscure or uninspired meaning of Griffith's typical productions, they also threaten to undermine the very basis of his artistry. Silent film buffs and theoreticians will forever debate whether titles are an integral part of the silent art form, or whether, as Niver surmised, they impair the fundamental purpose of communicating through visuals. To take a famous example, does Murnau's 90-minute The Last Laugh (which contains only a single text title and a few inserts) illustrate silent film in its purest form, or does its extremely simple plot testify to the severe limits of an audience's ability to grasp complex ideas without literary explication? Thus it is highly ironic that Griffith's titles, while functional, are highly intrusive into the visual imagery upon which his fame rests. An extreme, but by no means unique, example is "Nursing a Viper" (September 24 and 29, 1909). Here are all the titles of that film:
We might call this film "illustrated titles," as the titles provide such a complete explanation of the story that the visuals seem superfluous. Indeed, viewing the film while ignoring the titles provides considerably less meaning than the titles alone. As a result, here the titles are dominant and the visuals seem nearly redundant. In addition, since the titles precede each scene they destroy any suspense otherwise inherent in the plot and so the images seem to merely illustrate the titles, rather than the titles enhancing the visuals.
Fortunately, most of Griffith's late 1909 films do not rely so heavily and consistently upon their titles for meaning. Even if their opening and exposition sections depend upon titles to set the scene and introduce the main characters, they tend to rely primarily, if not exclusively, upon images for their climaxes. Thus in "The Light That Came" (September 30 and October 2 and 4, 1909) titles establish the situation:
At this point, the relatively heavy flow of descriptive titles ends. It is typical of Griffith and all to his credit as a cinema artist that even at this early stage his titles do not anticipate or intrude upon the two climactic actions – the girl's difficult decision to provide the funds for the blind musician's treatment and, upon the success of the cure, his ultimate delight to see her and accept her as she is.
Yet the fact remains that so many of Griffith's titles appear superfluous and contribute little to his films. Titles such as "Crushed in spirits, the man seeks solace in drink" (from "A Trap for Santa Claus"), "His bitter cup is filling" (from "Two Women and a Man"), "The quarrel" (from "In the Watches of the Night") or "He resolves upon desperate means" (from "The Restoration") all are utterly unnecessary to advance the obvious meaning depicted in the scenes that follow. Even so, such titles serve an essential function: to permit Griffith to convincingly condense a story unfolding over several years or even decades into a single reel. Viewed without titles, the abutting scenes would imply direct succession and the time-frame would be quite confusing. Rather, the mere fact of a title, regardless of its text, signifies to an audience accustomed to Griffith's method a lapse in time and/or place. A title may read, "The quarrel," but all it might really mean is "elsewhere" or "later."
Perhaps to preserve this coded meaning of announcing a change in time or place, Griffith rarely inserts a title into the middle of a shot. Rather, he consistently tends to use a compound title to introduce a lengthy shot or sequence in which multiple significant events are to occur. Thus, the final title of "In the Watches of the Night" advises: "The policeman for double reasons allows them to say goodbye alone, but the desperate workman at the last ditch determines to end it all." And in "Through the Breakers" a single title announces two developments which Griffith will proceed to intercut: "The father at his club. The mother at her whist party."
The irony of Griffith's titles is that they provided necessary separation so as to avoid improperly conflating disparate scenes. Thus they enabled him to expand the temporal and spatial scope of his story-telling. Yet the titles imposed a steep cost of detracting from the fascination of watching the stories unfold in compelling visuals that ideally would trigger the imagination far more effectively than literary description could ever do.
Following his first year of remarkable growth and discovery, Griffith's productions during the last half of 1909 can seem disappointing for their near-absence of innovative technique. Yet in context their straight-forward, standardized method is notable for enabling Griffith to keep pace with the sheer demand to provide about 2 1/2 films per week. Indeed, considering that he was personally responsible for nearly all aspects of planning and production – well beyond what we now consider the role of a director – it seems amazing that he could consistently produce such a quantity of even minimally-competent output during this period.
The absence of experimentation aside, the overall quality of Griffith's productions is consistently high and shows a marked advance over the first half of 1909. There are no longer any "two-set quickies" with stories so simple that they could have comprised a single long shot but which Griffith mounted on two sets intercut to lend at least a modicum of surface sophistication. In the latter half of 1909 only a handful of films have as few as three sets even when one still might have sufficed. One of the simplest is "Wanted – A Child" in which the editing is as formulaic as the anecdotal plot. The first shot shows a destitute couple receiving some sort of offer (in an insert missing from the paper print) that apparently requires one of their children. The remaining shots are of the children's bedrooms as the couple go from bed to bed, unable to select a sleeping child they are willing to spare. But this is atypical; virtually every other film of the period uses intercutting as an integral component of its structure.
The haste of production does reveal itself in a number of technical flaws that would persist even into Griffith's high-budget feature productions. Perhaps the worst gaffe occurs in one of the most moving and best-known films of the period, which bears the lovely title of "Lines of White on a Sullen Sea." It tells an Enoch Arden-type tale (a Griffith favorite) in which a sailor's wife remains faithful despite the many years of her husband's absence.
Overall, the films of this period have a rather modern, well-made look. The one consistent exception is Griffith's hesitancy to break scenes down into component shots. Indeed, only a few of the films contain cuts to a different camera perspective within a scene. In "The Last Deal" he cuts from a long to a medium shot of gamblers (and then back to the long shot as their game ends) and in "The Mended Lute" he cuts from a medium shot of a couple embracing by a gorgeous waterfall to an extreme long shot of the same scene in which they can barely be seen in the lower right. While the first instance is purely functional to focus on detail of the card-play, the second pauses to emphasize the natural resonance of the human activity, and thus enhances the emotional overtones well beyond the immediate need of conveying the story.
Especially from our modern perspective, Griffith's refusal to break down lengthy scenes into multiple shots gives his early films a rather primitive look. This is most evident in many opening scenes, which often seem uncomfortably lengthy. The first shot of "A Cloister's Touch" runs a full three minutes and the opening shot of "Sweet and Twenty," a half-reel comedy, lasts for nearly one-fourth of its total length. It is possible that Griffith used the lengthy opening shots as a convenient pad to assure that each film (of which prints were sold to distributor exchanges strictly by the foot) would reach the full 1,000 feet a reel could contain (and it's amazing how many films come within a few feet of that goal). Indeed, many such shots begin with repeated standardized gestures, such as a couple bickering, that could have been easily trimmed to begin at any point. Rather ironically, although Griffith's comedies are generally dismissed as less interesting than his dramas (probably because he rarely included trailblazing or unusual technical devices in the comedies) they appear better constructed and more modern merely due to their faster pace and the consequent overall absence of unrelieved lengthy shots.
In any event, once the films get going, the one-shot-per-scene format becomes less troublesome, since Griffith now routinely cross-cuts locations and situations. Thus "In the Window Recess" contains what is essentially a one-shot climax but gains visual excitement as Griffith cuts five medium shots of a bay window in which a convict holds a girl hostage into an otherwise lengthy shot of her mother being forced to turn away would-be rescuers one by one. And although the two views presumably are part of the same room, Griffith provides no establishing shot to tie them together and so they serve as two intercut discrete locations.
A distinctive hallmark of Griffith's early technique of film construction is that he rarely cuts during a climactic scene. In that regard, Griffith derived a powerful benefit from his generally reticent editing. It seems highly ironic that Griffith so often is cited as a forerunner of the proactive "Eisenstein School" of editing theory rather than that of Andre Bazin, who emphasized that editing serves to destroy the integrity, and thus the believability, of filmed subjects. While much of Griffith's editing in his later features would become rather haphazard, he seems solidly in the Bazin camp during the Biograph years, since he rarely if ever interrupts the sustained emotional tension of a scene with unnecessary cutting. This may seem sadly primitive in view of the constant (and let's face it – superficially exciting but meaningless) fast editing in recent films and (even worse) videos to which we have become accustomed and even expect. Yet, in the process of discovering the power of what editing could achieve, Griffith also learned an equally valuable lesson: what editing can destroy. Griffith understood that the best way of underlining the drama of a scene was to minimize artificial technical intrusion and to force the audience to focus its attention on the sustained tension of the unchanging frame. As a result, he compels us to enter into the action in an emotionally powerful way.
This is not to suggest that Griffith was ignorant of how to break scenes down into component shots when appropriate to highlight the dramatic sense. Thus, in "In the Watches of the Night" he establishes the theme – a father's inability to find work and his ensuing desperation – by showing in extreme detail the process of his frustration. Here is the sequence:
By showing this sequence in excruciating detail when a single title or just shots 9 and 13 would have sufficed, Griffith paints a far more effective and involving motivation for the "desperate acts" to which, a title announces, the father will turn.
Perhaps Griffith's most sophisticated use of editing is in "Sweet Revenge" in which a spurned woman sends a note with her love letters to her former suitor's new fiancee. A title then announces: "Gloating, she follows with her mind's eye the bearer of her malice." Next, shots of her eager anticipation turning to anxiety and then remorse are intercut with shots of the messenger leaving her building, travelling, and ultimately losing the package. Although seemingly constructed in routine cross-cut style, the title clarifies that the inserted shots depict the woman's imagination rather than actual events that transpire.
While Griffith's greatest (and most celebrated) achievements still lay ahead, in his first year and a half of intensive filmmaking he had begun the voyage of discovery in which he intuitively invested emotional resonance in technical devices that others had already discovered and used. Although nowadays most film fans and (sadly) critics barely notice them and focus entirely upon narrative elements, the expressive potential and overtones of these devices can be traced back to Griffith's first ventures into molding the new medium of film into an art.
Copyright 2017 by Peter Gutmann
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