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

title: Part 3 -- August, 1908 -- Inserts, Masks and Ideological Editing

In part 2 of this series, we saw how D. W. Griffith began to intuitively explore the rudiments of editing, including cross-cutting of different but related scenes, in July 1908, his first full month of filmmaking. Now he was poised for further discoveries, including one that would pave the way to the theories to be espoused by Russian filmmakers over a decade later.

Balked at the Altar (July 29 & 30, 1908) – The first five scenes of this film provide the pretext for a chase, as a shotgun-toting farmer rounds up an unwilling suitor for his homely daughter. At the church the groom bolts, precipitating a four-shot chase that gains nothing from editing, as Griffith keeps the camera grinding away on each location as the groom and then the entire congregation run by in small clusters. The extreme length of these unvaried shots, without any effort to accelerate the pace, tends to defeat the presumed mounting excitement of the chase. At last the groom is treed, dragged back to church and the ceremony is repeated – except this time the bride runs away. And that’s it – almost.

Griffith adds a final waist-shot of the bride reading a book Balked at the Altar -- the final wait shotentitled Three Weeks, a scandalous erotic novel by Elinor Glyn (who would create an even larger sensation in 1926 with It, immortalized on the screen by Clara Bow). This was Griffith’s tightest shot yet, although it was hardly unpredecented – its most venerable forebear was the very first movie ever copyrighted (the January 1894 Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, which was barely as long as its title), not to mention the concluding shot of Porter’s 1903 Great Train Robbery, in which a bandit shot point-blank at the audience. In a sense, here Griffith had little choice but to move his camera closer in order to be able to show the book’s title. Yet the shot is of particular interest not only because of the camera position but because of the complete absence of any background.

Even at the height of his career, Griffith rarely concerned himself with matching the backdrop of inserts and close-ups to the environment of their establishing shots. Presumably he was confident that viewers would link the two shots even without visual continuity. Yet here, the lack of background seems not a mere oversight but thematically appropriate, since without any setting the shot cannot be placed in space or time. The resulting abstract, disembodied quality enriches the shot with multiple possible meanings. Did the bride run home to seek solace in her fantasies? Does she prefer reading to men? Is she studying how to do better next time? Is she sublimating her frustrations years later? For that matter, is Griffith suggesting that dreams can be better than the real thing? Any of these or other interpretations would provide a suitable commentary and appendage to the story proper. By ending with a shot that has no clear connection to the rest of the plot Griffith manages to enrich his silly chase with an open and thematically rich final touch.

Betrayed by a Handprint (August 6 & 19, 1908) – Griffith again used inserts three films later.
the establishing shot before the first insert the first insert
the establishing shot before the second insert the second insert
Betrayed by a Handprint – the two inserts
Betrayed by a Handprint concerns the theft of jewelry by a guest at a society party where the entertainment had been a demonstration of making handprints. The thief conceals the stolen jewelry in a hollow bar of soap but is identified by a handprint she had left in the victim’s room, which matches the print she had made at the party. For the first time, Griffith uses close-up inserts – twice – to clearly show necessary details that would not have been evident from the establishing shots – first the hiding of the jewelry, and then a comparison of the two handprints. As with the final shot of Balked at the Altar, both inserts have only a black background. But if abstract implications could be seen as thematically appropriate in Balked at the Altar, no such enriched meaning can be found here, since by their very nature the inserts clearly are meant to depict closer views of the subjects shown in the surrounding shots. Otherwise, they are meaningless. The sudden disappearance of the setting defeats their intent and tends to call attention to the artifice of film. Even so, the close-ups remain effective since, by default, they focus attention on the object being shown. (The modern equivalent would be to de-emphasize the background by using a long lens to blur it or lighting to darken it.) Indeed, the absence of any distraction – including a background – enhances the impact, as the very purpose of the standard usage of a close-up insert is to direct our interest to a detail that otherwise would compete for attention with other elements of a wider shot. In any event, because we tend to associate adjacent shots of film and draw a logical connection between them, we are apt to ignore a disparity of this nature.

As Griffith’s first genuine close-ups these are hallmarks, even though they are mismatched, strictly functional and add no emotional content to the film. Griffith’s increasing fluency with this device to show detail would wean him from reliance upon the obvious situations, simplistic characters and broad acting gestures that afflict nearly all his early films.

Even while his close-up inserts are haphazard, Griffith manages to cut his action shots together quite well. After the hostess and guests retire for the night, he uses five shots to depict the thief crawling out her window, creeping along an outside ledge to the victim’s window, entering her room and committing the crime, and then reversing the process to return along the ledge to her own room with the jewels. The four cuts between room interiors and outside ledge are smooth and the action is matched quite closely.
the smooth cut between ledge and interior the smooth cut between ledge and interior
Betrayed by a Handprint – the smooth cut between ledge and interior
Griffith grasped the advantage of cutting in the middle of rapid action (here, ducking through an open window), so that any slight discontinuity between the two shots becomes less conspicuous. Thus, already at this point in Griffith’s development we have a sequence that flows smoothly among matched perspective shots, rather than broken into a series of disconnected chunks that require viewers to link, as in all his previous pictures.

The mechanics of editing were falling into place. Art would soon follow – but not quite yet.

Monday Morning in a Coney Island Police Court (August 7, 1908) – Before discussing Griffith’s most powerful film to date, we should mention this intervening production – a single, continuous six-minute shot showing the overblown comings and goings of various stock burlesque characters before a police judge. (The paper print runs nine feet short of the release length – just enough for the main title – so it seems safe to assume that this was not a master shot to be broken up by intertitles prior to distribution.) This could well be the least interesting movie Griffith ever made (assuming he did make it – perhaps out of embarrassment some researchers assume otherwise). Without unduly belaboring the point, it serves as a useful reminder that Griffith, whether inspired or not, had to adhere to a grueling schedule of three films per week. Typically at this stage, he lavished attention on one weekly production, which often contained multiple points of interest, at the expense of the others (although rarely to this degree). That Griffith chose to produce works of merit, when he could have gotten by with Monday Morning-type drivel, speaks well of his artistic integrity.

Behind the Scenes (August 10 & 13, 1908) – Griffith next continued his experimentation with cross-cutting, using the technique with greater subtlety than ever before. In the process he discovered a key that would transcend the mechanics of telling a story to transform film into an art. In an attempt to convey some of the flavor of this picture, here is a synopsis, derived from the paper print:

  1. SHABBY ROOM. A messenger draws a mother away from her sick daughter, attended by a grandmother.
  2. STAGE ENTRANCE. The mother hesitantly goes inside.
  3. DRESSING ROOM. With difficulty, the mother puts on her makeup.
  4. THE SHABBY ROOM. The grandmother receives a doctor, who briefly examines the girl and sends the grandmother off hurriedly.
  5. THE DRESSING ROOM. The stage manager grabs the mother to go on.
  6. REHEARSAL AREA. As another act goes on stage, the mother prepares.
  7. THE STAGE ENTRANCE. The grandmother pleads with a bouncer to get in.
  8. SECTION OF STAGE AND AN AUDIENCE BOX. The mother performs with a hula dance ensemble, bows and exits.
  9. THE REHEARSAL AREA. Distraught, the mother is forced on for an encore.
  10. THE STAGE AND BOX. The mother visibly struggles with her role.
  11. THE SHABBY ROOM. The doctor draws the girl up, lies her down and bows his head.
  12. THE REHEARSAL AREA. The grandmother grabs the mother as she exits and they run off.
  13. THE STAGE ENTRANCE. The grandmother and mother rush off.
  14. THE SHABBY ROOM. The mother rushes in, is intercepted by the doctor, panics and collapses in grief over her daughter.
Admittedly, much of the film’s impact is due to its credible plot which, for the first time in Griffith’s output, is genuinely humanistic and moving. Yet the editing undoubtedly contributes as well. The key transitions are among shots 3/4/5 and 10/11/12. It is this intercutting that directly contrasts the mother’s desperate moral struggle with her daughter’s silent passing, and thus crystallizes the theme of professional duty.

Griffith had intercut locations before, but always in the context of physically active races.
ideological editing ideological editing ideological editing
Behind the Scenes – the birth of ideological editing
Here, the only race is against the intangible forces of time and death. The result is a new quality in which the theme arises from a direct contrast of moods rather than actions or essential strands of a single plot line. By juxtaposing opposites, Griffith creates a genuine emotional tone of far greater intensity and character than either strand of the plot would have generated by itself. By inserting shots 4 and 11 into the detailed depiction of the mother’s job, Griffith not only reminds us of why the mother is working so hard, but adds a dimension of poignancy that otherwise would be absent. Indeed, this seems a forerunner, or perhaps even the first instance, of the theory of ideological editing or intellectual montage – where a new quality is suggested by editing together unrelated materials and where an idea or abstract concept arises from their clash – which Sergei Eisenstein would later exploit in the 1920s and claim to have discovered.

That, in turn, brings us to a critical juncture, in which technique is harnessed to the service of ideas rather than to mere storytelling. After all, for purposes of art even the most sophisticated technique without important ideas is a barren exercise. It appears that Griffith already was testing the extent to which a significant theme could emerge and infuse a movie through editing together carefully selected materials.

However … it seems only fair to acknowledge a textual problem with this sort of analysis. The release print of Behind the Scenes was 530 feet, but the paper print is only 485, suggesting that the missing footage consisted of four explanatory titles (in addition to the main title), which were routinely omitted from Biograph paper prints until late 1909. Thus, having attached great import to direct cutting between scenes, it is possible that an prosaic explanatory title intervened between shots 10 and 11, such as: “Her mother away, the poor girl dies in the arms of the doctor.” Another might have bridged shots 11 and 12: “Her performance at last over, the mother rushes home to her daughter.” Such titles not only would have dulled the effectiveness of the abrupt, dramatic transitions but might have ruined the suspense as well (and in particular blunted the surprise of an ending which audiences, then as now, expected to be happy, or at least redemptive). We only can be sure that something is missing from the paper prints – and that we don’t know what it was.

But does it really matter? The film makes complete sense without any titles, as its visual power is clear. In any event, unless we try to understand the resources we have, the only alternative is to repeat the unfounded errors of the past or, worse, to ignore this remarkably fertile period of development.

Where Breakers Roar (August 21 & 25) – Two weeks later, Griffith tried something altogether new:

Shots 1 & 2: A group of well-dressed young men and women chase each other playfully (total screen time: about 65 seconds)
Shots 3 – 5: A convict overpowers his guards, escapes from an insane asylum and steals a knife from a delivery boy (89)
Shots 6 – 9: The youngsters emerge from a bathhouse and try to dunk each other in the ocean. A girl runs off, playfully pursued by the others (148)
Shot 10: Running along the shore, she is pursued by the others, then after they are out of sight, by the convict (26)
Shot 11: Just as she reaches a rowboat, the convict runs up and abducts her (15)
Shots 12 – 16: She is ultimately rescued (125)
All of Griffith’s prior intercutting had been between strands of a single plot. Thus, the two threads of Behind the Scenes were combined at the outset, after which they diverged. But here, he begins with two separate and seemingly unrelated stories and joins them only for the climax.
shot 10 -- the girl is playfully pursued shot 10 -- the convict enters
Where Breakers Roar – shot 10
The contrast of moods between carefree amorous pursuit and deadly demented struggle is effectively conveyed in the abrupt transitions between shots 2/3 and 5/6. And yet the climactic scenes (10 and 11) are shot in traditional fashion – single takes without any help from editing. True, the mood of frivolity is effectively abruptly broken when the convict suddenly runs into the frame in shot 10, but it seems clear that Griffith did not conceive the climax in terms of editing.

Or did he? Just as Griffith was learning when to edit for maximum effect, he also had to discover when not to. Later theorists would point out that a sustained shot contains tension and a sense of realism that editing can only destroy. This movie is an early example. The Griffith of The Fatal Hour easily could have intercut shots of the convict approaching ever nearer to the beach with shots of the girl running ever further from her playful pursuers. But here, he made the right dramatic decision not to edit. The sheer length of shots 6 through 10 lulls us into becoming so engrossed in the youngsters’ frolicking that we virtually forget the convict’s escape. When he does intrude – quite literally running into the frame – it comes as more of a dramatic shock than if we had been reminded of his menace all along. In that light, Where Breakers Roar represents Griffith’s dawning awareness of the drawbacks of editing in ruining dramatically-appropriate tension.

Griffith also used this film to experiment further with the close-up. Shot 5 shows the convict, having eluded his guards, steal a knife from a boy. He then runs directly up to the camera, wavers briefly, and then lurches right past it. This is not a close-up in the traditional sense of a separate inserted shot.
shot 5 -- a closeup without editing shot 5 -- a closeup without editing shot 5 -- a closeup without editing
Where Breakers Roar – shot 5 – a closeup without editing
Rather, Griffith directs the actor’s movements to achieve a similar effect, enabling us to study the deranged face at close range but without breaking the continuity. While this could be viewed as a throwback to pre-editing times (recall the abduction in a single far shot in Griffith’s first movie,
The Adventures of Dollie), there is a clear difference – Griffith has already shown us that he could have conceived the sequence through editing but chose not to.

The concept of creating a close-up through movement is highly effective here – the camera/viewer remains stationary, as if petrified with fright by the approaching menace, from which we cannot escape. By crafting the perspective of a single shot to emphasize a certain detail and to preserve a sustained mood Griffith discovered yet another instance in which the avoidance of editing proves more effective than editing itself would have been.

The Stolen Jewels (August 24 & September 15, 1908) – In his next two films Griffith further explored the benefits of editing. The Stolen Jewels focuses upon a family on the verge of ruin due to the wife’s inability to find her jewelry, which she intends to hock to offset her husband’s grievous business losses. Griffith follows a shot of her frantic parents turning their living room upside down with a tranquil shot of their baby alone in its crib – playing with the very jewelry for which her parents are searching so desperately. This documents Griffith’s first use of editing to create a sense of irony – yet another emotion in his growing arsenal of effects achieved through editing – and a far more difficult one to convey than sadness, danger, surprise, or the other feelings his editing had generated so far. And unlike in Behind the Scenes, where Griffith created a tone that arose from editing together separate scenes selected from entirely different strands of plot, here the mood arises from emphasizing a detail from within a single scene. In essence, this is another extension of the concept of a close-up, in which a salient facet of a wider scene is highlighted, but with a difference – in Betrayed by a Handprint the establishing shots already suggested the features that the close-up inserts showed in detail and merely confirmed, but here Griffith delights us by revealing a facet of the far shot which we never had any reason to suspect existed at all.

A Smoked Husband (August 26 & 27, 1908) – This was the first of Biograph’s famous series of “Jonesey” comedies, starring John Compton as a philandering husband and Florence Lawrence as his ultimately forgiving wife. Its editing contains a subtle but significant advance. Here is the concluding sequence:

  1. LIVING ROOM: Police rush in, hear a noise, look up the chimney and rush outside for a better look. (12 seconds)
  2. GARDEN: The police stumble upon a burglar hiding in the bushes, arrest him and look up (20).
  3. COURTYARD: Two dandies pause to talk by a water trough (10).
  4. CUTAWAY VIEW OF FIREPLACE CHIMNEY: The husband climbs up the chimney and out of the frame (9).
  5. ROOFTOP: The husband exits the chimney, is chased by the police and jumps off the roof (21).
  6. COURTYARD: The husband falls on top of the dandies, knocking them into the trough.
The key shot here is # 10. Omit that shot and we have standard continuity editing to depict the husband’s capture, with shot 13 adding a slapstick ending. But shot 10 briefly interrupts the chase to add a new element of the dandies. Since we assume that they will have some relation to the central plot, we must infer that they will somehow interact with the characters we already know. The payoff comes at the very end, when the connection becomes clear and generates the final laugh.

This element of introducing a plot strand before it is needed serves to enhance the moment when the connection at last becomes clear. Griffith had already used this concept in Where Breakers Roar, but there the sheer length of the sequence introducing the escaping lunatic, as well as its early placement, signaled that it would be an important element of the emerging plot. Here, the relatively quick injection of a new element is more appropriate to the brisk pace of a comedy, and to the dandies’ relatively inconsequential role.
Griffith's first masked shot
A Smoked Husband
Griffith's first masked shot
Had Griffith inserted shot 10 earlier in the movie, it would have been forgotten and its effect would have been lost. Thus, Griffith was beginning to think of editing not in strict terms of the mechanics of maintaining continuity, but rather in more flexible terms of the dramatic suitability of the timing, placement and duration of introducing new elements.

A Smoked Husband also contains Griffith’s first attempt to alter the shape of the frame, a device that he would exploit in his great feature films. Shot 11 uses a vertical mask to enrich the claustrophobic feeling of the husband hiding in the fireplace chimney. This is the first instance in which Griffith would change the aspect ratio of the standard film frame (the 4:3 width-to-height ratio of pre-widescreen movies and analog TV) in order to add a sense of greater width or height. Here, the mask highlights the vertical ascent the husband must make through his chimney and is used literally, much as the irises in The Redman and the Child, to focus attention – and, on a more practical level, to block out wasted space (and to spare the set builders from having to fill it). Later, Griffith would use masks more expressively – in Birth of a Nation, horizontal bars would enhance the sweeping view of riders spread out along the horizon, and in Intolerance vertical masks would emphasize the stature of the tall Babylonian towers. But here Griffith already signals that he does not regard the standard shape of the screen as inviolate but rather, like all the other technical elements of film, ripe to be manipulated for expressive purposes.

Although A Smoked Husband remains a fluffy chase film, its editing paved the way for greater things to come. Part 4 will begin to explore these.

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 2010 by Peter Gutmann
{Portions of this article were published in Classic Images No. 83}

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