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

title: Part 5 -- October, 1908 -- The First Summit

In the first four parts of this series, we have traced D. W. Griffith’s initial exploration of the potential and limitations of film editing. title: D.W. Griffith Portrait Having covered his first three months of filmmaking, we arrive at a point that represents both a summit of achievement and a plateau – three exceptional productions that require no defense and in which he defers further experimentation in order to consolidate his editing knowledge to date.

Until now, Griffith’s films contained technical advances, but generally in the context of trite stories told through largely standardized direction. Here, though, for the first time in Griffith’s output we have movies in which technique contributes more to the overall impact than do the literary and theatrical elements. In these three movies, Griffith relies upon the unique artistic qualities of the film medium (and especially editing) rather than upon non-cinematic elements.

After Many Years (September 22 and October 8 & 10, 1908) – This is one of the very few early Griffith films to be encountered in the film history literature. Unfortunately, though, it invariably is cited for the wrong reasons. The standard myths are that the film contained the first flash-back, the first facial close-up and a cut from that close-up to a shot depicting the object of the subject’s thoughts. No such shots or transitions are found in the paper print. Nonetheless, After Many Years is a notable achievement, as it represents the first time that Griffith structures nearly an entire film upon edited transitions that create emotional overtones powerful enough to transcend the clichéd plot.

Here is a description, adapted from the paper print. I have assumed that titles (omitted from the paper print) originally bridged the six obvious continuity gaps; these would account for the entire difference in length between the paper print and the advertised release footage.

  1. BESIDE A HEDGE. A man and a woman romance.
    (Missing title)
  2. PORCH. Sailors pull the man away from his wife and baby.
    (Missing title)
  3. BEDROOM. Another man describes bad news, shows the wife a newspaper [there may have been an insert here] and she becomes hysterical.
  4. BEACH. The husband is washed ashore on a raft.
    (Missing title)
  5. OUTSIDE A SEAWEED-COVERED HUT. The husband stumbles out.
    the establishing shot before the insert
    Griffith's first insert
    After Many Years
    shots 8 and 9
  6. BESIDE A HEDGE. The wife refuses another man’s attentions.
  7. BEACH. The husband attempts to signal something off-screen.
    (Missing title)
  8. OUTSIDE THE HUT. Frustrated, the husband paces and examines a locket.
  9. PORCH. The wife pines listlessly.
    (Missing title)
  10. LIVING ROOM. The wife, her little girl nearby, is pressed by a suitor; she turns to her husband’s portrait and he leaves dejectedly.
  11. OUTSIDE THE HUT. His hair now quite long, the husband gazes off in the distance, reacts wildly and runs off.
  12. BEACH. The husband waves and runs to a rowboat in the surf.
    (Missing title)
  13. – 15. Clean-shaven, the husband stumbles up the path by the hedge, sees a suitor with his wife and despairs, nearly knifes the suitor, tries to convince his disbelieving child of his identity, and then grabs the wife, convinces her, sends the suitor away and embraces his wife and daughter.

The editing of this film is masterful because nearly every transition not broken by a title is laden with emotional content. Thus, the cut between shots 3 and 4, linking the wife’s receipt of the news of her husband’s shipwreck with her husband’s rescue, does not show the object of her thoughts, as so many commentators have claimed. Rather, with some irony, it indicates the opposite – that what she is thinking turns out not to be true. The transitions among shots 5, 6 and 7 are more complex. Shot 5 shows the husband alone with nothing to do, while shot 6 shows the wife rejecting a suitor, so the transition contrasts their social opportunities while at the same time drawing an sardonic parallel between their lonely status, the wife by choice and the husband by default. The theme of loneliness is given a further ironic twist in the very next transition between shots 6 and 7, in which the wife’s desire to be left alone is contrasted with the husband’s desperate attempts to attract the attention of rescuers. The same contrast and theme is reinforced by the similar transition between shots 10 and 11.

The cut between shots 8 and 9 is Griffith’s most powerful to date. The shots themselves are stripped of nearly all action and are not at all essential to the plot. Rather, Griffith isolates the two characters and then compares them simply by editing their shots together, thereby implying an emotional bond that links them despite their geographic and societal separation. Both shots are close, so as to reduce our emotional distance, and are beautifully matched as complementary images – similar postures, but she bright against a dark background, he the reverse. Thus, for the first time, Griffith boldly foregoes plot altogether and uses editing solely to create a mood and thus enhance the theme. It is entirely appropriate that this pause in the action occurs at the mid-point of the film, thus lending a fine formal structural touch by lingering on the pivotal situation before proceeding to the denoument.

In sum, After Many Years does not simply benefit from editing, but derives nearly all its thematic meaning from editing. Although it is still episodic and the end reverts to standard melodramatic convention, the central portion leaves no doubt that an artist was at work. (Incidentally, to counter any suspicion that Griffith was showing respect for a venerable cultural source (in this case, Tennyson’s Enoch Arden), his next literary adaptation, The Taming of the Shrew (October 1 & 7) manages to reduce the sublimity of Shakespeare to a crude jumble of slapstick scenes.)

The Guerilla (October 12 & 14) – Immediately upon completing After Many Years, Griffith embarked upon a chase film that, for sheer sustained suspense created through editing, would not be surpassed for years. Here is a somewhat condensed version:
the establishing shot before the insert
Griffith's first insert
the establishing shot before the insert
Griffith's first insert
The Guerilla
shots 35 - 38

1. FULL SHOT. A wife bids goodbye to her husband/soldier on horseback. (10 seconds)
2. PAN FROM HOUSE TO ROAD as he rides off. (14)
3. OUTSIDE RUSTIC HOUSE. Several rowdy men engage in gunplay, then change into uniform and ride off. (54)
4 – 7. A letter is brought to the wife by messenger. (30)
8. PAN FROM ROAD TO HOUSE as leader of the rowdies rides up. (18)
9 – 12. As the wife cowers in fright, the guerilla barges in. (18)
13. KITCHEN – Abusively, the guerilla demands food and drink. (66)
14. PAN FROM HOUSE TO ROAD as a servant rides away. (12)
15 – 18. Wounded by a sentry, the servant eludes capture in a field. (81)
19. THE KITCHEN. The guerilla continues to harass the wife. (13)
20 – 21. The servant finds the husband, who marshals help. (64)
22. KITCHEN. The wife runs to the door. (22)
23. HALLWAY. She slams the door and blocks it with furniture. (28)
24. A ROAD. The husband’s troops ride toward the camera. (10)
25. THE KITCHEN. The guerilla tries to break down the door. (14)
26. THE HALLWAY. The wife cowers in fright. (8)
27 – 31. Warned by a scout, the rebels ambush the husband’s troops and fighting ensues. (84)
32. HALLWAY. The guerilla breaks down the door and enters. (8)
33. LIVING ROOM. The wife runs in. (3)
34. A ROAD. The husband slips away from the skirmish. (32)
35. ANOTHER ROAD. The husband races toward the camera. (8)
36. THE HALLWAY. The guerilla breaks down the door door. (6)
37. THE LIVING ROOM. The wife desperately pushes against the door. (8)
38. A ROAD. The husband rides toward the camera. (5)
39. THE LIVING ROOM. The wife continues to push the door. (3)
40. A ROAD. The husband rides toward the camera. (5)
41. THE LIVING ROOM. The door flies open and the guerilla attacks. (7)
42. PAN FROM ROAD TO HOUSE as husband rides up (at last!). (7)
43. THE HALL. The husband enters, hears sounds, rushes to door. (4)
44. THE LIVING ROOM. The husband enters and slays the guerilla. (18)

A catalogue of factors that create the genuine excitement of this picture include the strategic placement and sheer number of the scenes of the wife in peril (which occur with increasing frequency as the tale progresses); her escape from room to room (each time enabling the peril to begin all over again); the breaks in the central action (shots 15 – 18 and 27 – 31), strategically timed to diminish the intensity so as to enable it to rise once more; the suspense generated by the excruciatingly detailed depiction of the impediments faced by the servant and then the husband in effecting her rescue; the unprecedented number of shots (44 in 14 minutes) and their extreme brevity toward the end, which abet a feeling of excitement; the nearly musical rhythm of the editing, which both melds the shots together and establishes a pattern that the occasional lengthier shots disrupt and thus draw our attention; the symbolic pans away from the house that underline the wife’s solitude (shots 2 and 14); and the reverse pans that emphasize the approach of danger (shot 8) and, ironically, her ultimate deliverance (shot 42).

But perhaps the most remarkable feature is that for the first time Griffith devotes a film to pure action and suspense, shorn of the customary lingering farewell to launch the plot and the conventional final shot of a family embrace to restore social order. Rather, the movie begins with the husband already riding off and ends once the villain is slain, as if to emphasize that the real theme is not bravery, marital devotion, resistance to evil or any other abstraction, but rather pure visceral action. After the first half-minute we know something is amiss, after two minutes the danger is already present and with shot 14 the chase begins, consumes three-quarters of the entire picture and continues right up to the very end. For sheer concentration of action and sustained suspense, few Griffith productions – including many of his famous later ones – can compare.

The Song of the Shirt (October 19 & 20) – At last, we come to the most remarkable film yet produced – by Griffith or anyone else. Here it is:
the establishing shot before the insert
Griffith's first insert
the establishing shot before the insert
The Song of the Shirt
shots 11, 13 and 14

  1. BEDROOM. An elderly woman lies sick in bed. A younger woman reluctantly leaves. (50 seconds)
  2. AN OUTER OFFICE. The girl enters uncertainly. (11)
  3. HALLWAY DOOR. A sign reads “Acme Shirtwaist Co. – Hands Wanted.” The girl enters. (5)
  4. SWEATSHOP. She implores the boss but is pushed out. (17)
  5. THE HALLWAY DOOR. She pleads to the shut door. (4)
  6. THE OUTER OFFICE. The boss gets a note and sends a clerk out. (14)
  7. THE HALLWAY DOOR. The girl waits nervously. (5)
  8. THE BEDROOM. The old woman twitches in the bed. (21)
  9. THE SWEATSHOP. The girl ventures in. (4)
  10. THE HALLWAY DOOR. Reverse shot of the girl going inside. (1½)
  11. THE SWEATSHOP. She begs for work and is given a bundle. (22)
  12. THE HALLWAY DOOR. She exits. (4)
  13. A RESTAURANT. The boss drinks with an elegantly-dressed lady. (19)
  14. THE BEDROOM. The girl sews frantically while the sick lady languishes. (62)
  15. THE SWEATSHOP. A note is given to the boss. (11)
  16. THE HALLWAY DOOR. A man leaves. (4)
  17. THE BEDROOM. The boss enters, criticizes the girl’s sewing, grabs her work and leaves with it. She runs after him. (33)
  18. THE SWEATSHOP. The girl barges in and implores the boss. An assistant throws her out. (24)
  19. THE RESTAURANT. Elegant people are dining and dancing. (47)
  20. ANOTHER RESTAURANT. Two well-dressed men dine. (31)
  21. THE BEDROOM. The sick woman dies. (48)

We can only imagine the stunned reaction of audiences to a movie that offended every ingredient of Victorian drama, to which all previous movies had clung – no hero is rewarded, no villain is punished, no societal norm is upheld, no humanistic value is advanced, no catharsis is achieved. Song of the Shirt is a pure tragedy, but without the obligatory conclusion that at least offers a feeling of hope or redemption – here, the sick woman dies alone, the cruel boss lives it up and as for the girl – well, we aren’t shown what happens to her, although we certainly can guess that it’s not good. Indeed, the end is so powerful for the very reason that, in lieu of the expected denouement of showing the girl entering the bedroom and collapsing in hysterics and grief, Griffith leaves us with a feeling of numb emptiness. By forcing us to imagine her fate, he creates a far more potent impact than any actual depiction could ever attain. (In contrast, recall that Behind the Scenes ended with a depiction of the outcome and upheld the redeeming notion of professional sacrifice.) Even more than the technical prowess with which he enriched many of his pictures, the mere fact that Griffith would dare to make such an iconoclastic movie of unrelieved grimness and unfilfilled audience expectations attests to his growing maturity.

Even so, the scene selection and editing are extraordinary. Although Griffith still felt it necessary to depict the entire story without any gap in the action, note how short he cuts those shots that contribute little to the central plot (shots 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, 12 and 16), so as to save film for more crucial matters. By contrast, it is significant where he places the emphases through shot length alone – and notably not only by dwelling upon the protagonist but upon the perversity of the lavish dinners, which continue well beyond the length needed to convey their essence, so as to enable our feelings of revulsion to fester over their endless extravagance. Yet going to the opposite extreme Griffith also manages to add a striking touch through the 1½ second shot 10, which is not only the briefest shot here but the shortest one in any of his movies to date. In terms of the plot it is wholly superfluous, since we already see the girl entering the sweatshop in shots 9 and 11 (which might have been a single take before shot 10 was inserted). The additional setup for shot 10 – and its extreme brevity – add a telling detail by suggesting her disorientation and anxiety over her final desperate attempt to find work. And by momentarily reversing perspective to that of the girl, Griffith makes sure we leave our role as objective observers to briefly identify with her and her compelling situation.

The transition among shots 7, 8 and 9, contrasting the girl’s mission with the sick woman’s suffering, seems derived from the similar sequence in Behind the Scenes. But if we hesitate to consider this to be ideological editing (the juxtaposition of shots to create meaning inherent in neither alone), then no such reservation can apply to shots 13, 19 or 20. There, Griffith cuts directly to contrast the poverty, depression and helplessness of his vulnerable main character with the affluence, gaiety and frivolity of those who refused her appeal. These three shots stand apart from the story proper but instead function as bitter social protest that magnifies the girl’s plight. Thus, Griffith goes beyond After Many Years not only to transcend plot in favor of theme but to abandon continuity as well – a stride that paves the way toward abstract film in which plot is absent altogether and is arguably the purest form of cinematic art.

That said, we must note that the power of these direct cuts was modified to some extent by titles, although neither their texts nor any indication of where they were inserted seems to have survived. (Since the release length ran over a minute longer than the paper print, there was room for a half-dozen.) We do not know whether they strengthened the film (by perhaps explaining the otherwise obscure meaning of shots 6, 15 and 16) or diluted the bold implications of the bare visuals. All we have is a review in the New York Dramatic Mirror of November 28, 1908 (reprinted in Stanley Kaufman’s American Film Criticism) which notes:

The effectiveness of the story is enhanced by the insertion in the film of appropriate lines from the poem [by Thomas Hood], of which the following is not the least impressive: “Stitch – stitch – stitch! In poverty, hunger and dirt, Sewing at once with a double thread A shroud as well as a shirt.”
This suggests that whatever titles had been used were cast along similarly poetic lines, providing an oblique commentary on the action that the direct visuals, unflinching approach and bold structure of this extraordinary movie otherwise clearly conveyed to its audience.

These three films, all within the fourth month of Griffith’s career, clearly defeat the conventional view that at this early stage he was a primitive apprentice. Rather, despite his inexperience, he already produced some surprisingly mature results. Indeed, it was in part because of that very inexperience that he was able to fearlessly reach beyond the routine practices of his era to discover the expressive potential of film techniques.

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 2010 by Peter Gutmann
{Portions of this article were published in Classic Images No. 86}

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