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

title: Part 6 -- Late 1908 -- Editing, Panning, Close-Ups and the Dissolve

In part 2 of this series we considered three of Griffith’s films from October 1908 that presented a plateau of achievement and artistry, a summing up of his explorations of editing to date. title: D.W. Griffith Portrait In this installment we will again depart from a strictly chronological survey in order to review Griffith’s editing work for the rest of 1908 within six broad categories of technical discovery, and then conclude with a more detailed look at An Awful Moment to characterize his work after his first half-year of filmmaking. Please bear in mind that our focus is upon cinematic techniques rather than story development, acting, set design, lighting and other theatrical and literary elements.

Title -- Intercutting

Jones at the Ball (filmed September 23 and 24) – Until now, Griffith had reserved his intercutting exclusively for dramas. Jones at the Ball represents his first application of the comedic potential of the same device. The plot is simple: Jones splits his pants while dancing, is taken to the ladies room so his wife can try to sew them, and must struggle gallantly to keep other women from entering. The lazy way to depict the struggle would have been in a single scene using a split set showing the entrance doorway with the contending parties on either side. Instead, Griffith devotes 16 of his 23 shots to quick alternate views of the guests in the foyer trying to barge in and Jones in his underwear desperately trying to bar them. The hectic pace of the editing and the frantic switches of viewpoint enhance the pandemonium of the scene, add a sense of vitality to what otherwise would quickly have become a tiresome situation and, perhaps most importantly, draw us in by requiring us to imagine the intensity of the folks not shown in each separate shot.

Concealing a Burglar (September 26 and 28) – Griffith’s very next picture concerns a wife who precedes her husband home from a party only to discover a burglar in their apartment after she undresses for bed. There follows a nicely edited sequence in which the husband’s approach down the hall is intercut with the wife’s realization that her honor would be better served by avoiding any explanations, and so she hides the burglar. The rest of the film consists of a single three-minute shot in which the wife tries to distract her husband in order to give the burglar an opportunity to escape unnoticed. While seemingly a throwback to uninspired theatrical convention, the extreme contrast between the lengthy continuous concluding shot and the brisk editing that preceded it is quite effective, as it creates a sustained tension that is entirely appropriate to focus attention on the difficult moral dilemma being presented, which editing between separate shots of insistent husband and flustered wife would have dispelled.

A Woman’s Way (October 3 and 6) – A similar scheme is used here, as a relatively quick ten-shot chase between a rescuer and an abductor is followed by a final 2¼-minute shot.
the middle frams is where the action reverses
The Curtain Pole
the action reverses
(How was it done??)
Again, the lengthy final scene underlines inescapable moral anguish, as the rescued woman must decide whether to accept or reject the advances of her deliverer. (She ultimately turns a gun on her rescuer and runs off with her abductor!)

Title -- Intercutting

The Curtain Pole (October 16 and 22) – It is curious that Griffith never used intercutting to depict what would seem to be its most obvious application: to accelerate the pace by rapidly switching between pursuers and pursued in a comic chase. In fact, the pursuit segment of his only comic chase film of the period, the well-known Curtain Pole, is presented largely as dull formula, as Griffith mostly strings together lengthy shots of crowds running past each static camera position (some of which is poorly framed as much of the action occurs off-screen). Yet the rest of this wild movie is edited far more fluently. Mack Sennett stars as a French decorator (with a penchant for imbibing and for kissing everyone in sight) who breaks the titular curtain pole while hanging drapery, gets soused, and wreaks havoc carrying its replacement on the way back. It contains two crudely executed pans to track the main character walking from house to sidewalk and back again (the first of which barely keeps up with him) and a close-up inserted into the final shot of the decorator biting a chunk out of the pole in frustration (which contains only a black background but at least is precisely matched to the surrounding action).

More remarkably, The Curtain Pole also contains one of the very few instances of trick photography – in this instance, reverse motion – in the entire Griffith canon. The sequence begins when a galloping wagon from which the curtain pole protrudes is hooked by a pedestrian’s cane, at which moment the action reverses at the point of capture so that the wagon continues by traveling backwards, as if the cane yanked it into reverse. To enhance the realism of the shot, the pursuers appear to run in and tumble down, although to achieve the effect they began on the ground, got up and ran backwards (as is apparent from projecting the footage in reverse). The surreal effect continues through another shot before the forward motion suddenly resumes as the wagon rounds a tree in the street. (Ft. Lee, New Jersey – home of the congested George Washington Bridge approach – was quite rural back then!) There is a slight jump in the first transition with the cane, which occurs just out of camera range, and thus suggests that another shot of the wagon driving to the same spot was filmed or printed backwards and then tacked on to the first. But the other transition at the tree is exceptionally smooth with no perceptible change in background or position, and leaves me as perplexed as the original audience must have been as to just how that effect had been achieved.

Title -- panning It is apparent that Griffith was becoming increasingly sensitive to situations in which a sustained scene could be more effective than edited shots. In a similar vein he continued his exploration of camera movement through panning, which appeared in several films of late 1908. In addition to The Curtain Pole, The Clubman and the Tramp, The Honor of Thieves and The Girls and Daddy all contain functional pans – while the camera rotates back and forth to follow a character’s actions, there seems to be no expressive purpose. Rather, all the shots accomplish is to stay closer to the action than would have been possible had the camera retreated a sufficient distance to encompass the entire scene at once. But there were two exceptions that continue in the thematically-significant tradition of the pan in The Call of the Wild, discussed in part 3, so as to achieve an effect tantamount to editing, but without the sudden disruption of perspective. In addition, the pan suggests an integral relationship among all the portions of the extended view, which the editing together of separate shots can obscure.

The Ingrate (October 2 and 28 and November 2) – At first we see a trapper and his wife standing in front of their overgrown cabin.
the thematic pan begins the thematic pan ends
The Ingrate – the thematic pan
Then, the camera follows them as they walk a few paces to a lake from which the wife draws water, and then reverses the movement as they return home. The pan does not cover much ground (perhaps 15 degrees or so), but the change in content is significant. At the lake end, the cabin is completely out of the shot, and vice-versa, thus symbolizing that the trapper is caught between two separate worlds – when at home he is isolated from his work, and when he ventures to the outdoors upon which he depends for survival he must leave behind the security of his home. That turns out to be a precise thematic foreshadow of the story to come – while he is out trapping his wife is abducted from the cabin!

The Salvation Army Lass (December 26 and 28) – There are two pans here that have an even clearer thematic attachment to the story, which depicts a grief-stricken widow who first rejects, but ultimately embraces, the aid of the Salvation Army. Both key scenes are prefaced by pan shots. The first shows a Salvation Army parade almost literally running into the distraught widow, who gets frightened and runs off; the camera follows her, leaving the parade behind and reflecting her emotional intent to spurn help. When at last she changes her mind the reverse shot is used, beginning as she is alone and ending as both she and the camera join the head of an on-coming parade.

Title -- Contrast Editing Despite his increasing sensitivity to situations in which editing proves less effective than continuous shots, Griffith continued to explore the power of editing in two films produced virtually together.

The Reckoning (November 9 and 10) – This is a standard tale of a wife who invites her suitor in as soon as her husband leaves for work, but he finds his factory closed by a strike and heads back home, hitting a bar along the way.
contrast editing contrast editing
The Reckoning – contrast editing
A magnificent use of editing follows. Shot 6 shows the interior of the tavern, with the husband and a friend standing as they quaff beers. We then cut to shot 7, which shows the wife and her suitor as they drink beers. Despite their diverse contexts, the two shots look nearly identical – similar sets, camera placement and action. By simply joining the two scenes together Griffith compares them to show their connection and leaves us to draw whatever conclusion we wish. In this way he draws us into the narrative process while declining to limit the implication of his comparison to only one reading (which could range all the way from comic or wry to shameful or shockingly immoral).

Incidentally, The Reckoning concludes with an odd but highly effective touch. After the husband returns home he kills the suitor and then himself. As the wife reacts in mute horror the police barge in and the film concludes with a frozen tableau as if to emphasize the shock of the tragedy – almost a literal realization of the cliché about being so scared one can hardly move. Griffith further gives viewers an opportunity to pause with their thoughts and thus challenges us to actively participate in interpreting the story on a personal level – much as Francois Truffaut would famously do a half-century later to end The 400 Blows. While not literally a freeze frame (in which the same frame of a negative is printed multiple times), bringing the action to a halt provides a highly dramatic way to end a story fraught with moral concerns on an open-ended yet highly emphatic note.

One Touch of Nature (November 13 and 18) – The editing here is more subtle. Shot 7 shows several frolicking couples enter a theatre in a snowstorm followed by a ragged woman beating her daughter. Shot 8 depicts a policeman’s wife deliriously grieving over her own recently-deceased child. Shot 9 begins with more revelers, then shows the policeman come upon the beaten girl to protect her. (He ultimately adopts her.) The direct cut between shots 7 and 8 compares two women, the first with an unwanted child and the other desperate for one. This is powerful enough. But Griffith deepens the emotional impact with the beginnings of shots 7 and 9, which have nothing whatever to do with the story. Rather, they provide a sharp contrast of mood between carefree joy (to which the wife frantically aspires) and the misery of the battered girl. Griffith achieves this in two different ways. The edited transition between shots 8 and 9 operates by suddenly cutting between different scenes, while shot 7 is self-contained, implying a heartbreaking continuum of human experience in which carefree merriment and oppressive cruelty are literally steps apart. Both the edited and non-edited approaches are highly effective - the first for its abrupt impact and the second on a more subtle and realistic level.

Title -- The Close-Up Unlike the pan, at this point (and for some time to come) Griffith used close-ups in a strictly functional manner to reveal an essential plot detail, rather than to enrich the emotional content of a scene, even though this technique was reputed to be one of his most important contributions to early filmmaking.

The Valet’s Wife (November 10 and 13) –
An insert from The Marked Timetable first closeup with background
The Valet's Wife
the first close-up with a background
Although painfully unfunny by modern standards, this comedy was built upon what seemed to be a common gag of the time. To impress others with his affluence, a man sends for a baby from an orphanage. When all his guests are assembled the baby is brought in so the proud “father” can display it – only to discover that it is black. Shock and pandemonium ensue. The significance lies in the punch line being revealed in Griffith’s first close-up to show any background, thus making this insert far more credible as a detailed view than all the ones he had previously used which had only a dark background.
establishing shot
The Marked Timetable
An ironic note, given the racial notoriety that would attach to Griffith’s 1914 Birth of a Nation – although it’s sometimes hard to be sure, despite the mismatch with the complexion of his white actors Griffith seemed to use the hands of blacks in numerous subsequent close-ups, presumably because they registered better against a light background. See, for example, the frame enlargement from A Marked Timetable (May 1910).

Perhaps out of embarrassment over its content, some scholars contend that The Valet’s Wife was not made by Griffith. So, for revisionist historians, we should note that Griffith also used backgrounds for two of the four close-up inserts in The Sacrifice (December 11 and 21). The other two have the standard black backgrounds, so Griffith indisputably had come at least half-way toward matching his insert close-ups to their establishing shots.

Money Mad (October 28, November 2 and 16) –
the quasi-close-up the quasi-close-up
Money Mad – the "close-up" – and the final "curtain"
the smokey curtain
In this remake and expansion of Griffith’s prior For Love of Gold, a beggar robs a passerby of her purse and is himself robbed and murdered by two thieves who proceed to kill each other. Seemingly the long climactic scene would have been an ideal vehicle for close-ups to scrutinize the faces of the scheming characters as they each plot to dispatch the other. Even so, Griffith achieves a similar effect earlier in the film by blocking three successive shots of the thieves stalking the beggar so that they approach the camera. Indeed, the impact of these shots is downright creepy, as these repellent brutes keep coming ever nearer to invade our space. Griffith further finds a neat option to the usual letdown of ending a movie abruptly once the action concludes – here, a drunken landlady staggers in, spots the stash and in her excitement knocks over a candle which sets the entire room on fire. Griffith keeps the camera running for ten seconds as the flames swell and obscure the scenery with roiling smoke, providing both a natural curtain and a literal depiction of evildoers being consumed by their own greed.

Title -- Shot Length We have already noted how Griffith began to use the length of his shots for dramatic emphasis – longer shots for sustained tension and quick ones for excitement (or for needed transitions to maintain continuity). One further experiment with brief shots warrants mention.

A Wreath in Time (December 1 and 8) – This cute comedy has the same basic plot as Laurel and Hardy’s iconic 1933 Sons of the Desert – a wife thinks her husband has been killed while in fact he is out carousing with the boys, having played hooky from the doomed location where he was supposed to have been. Griffith presents some fine but predictable intercutting between the “widow” making funeral arrangements and the husband getting progressively soused. But the most interesting touch occurs at a girly show – for a full minute the camera stays on the husband reacting with enthusiasm to the presumably bawdy performance. Into this lengthy take, Griffith cuts two very short flashes of the stage action. Without sufficient time to fully register, these glimpses serve to suggest far more than the rather tame legs-and-bloomers routine they actually show. That, in turn, suggests a further use of shot length – to deny viewers the time to fully absorb a scene and thus compel our imagination to fill in the missing detail more powerfully than the actual depiction would have shown.

Title -- The Dissolve In one of those breathtaking proofs of his artistry, Griffith discovered the ideal use of a technique the very first time he utilized it. In part 2 of this series we already noted an example in The Greaser’s Gauntlet, in which Griffith his first full shot to such fine effect. Now he does the same for the dissolve.

The Christmas Burglars (November 28 and 30) – Slated for holiday release, the plot concerns a shady pawnbroker who discovers a destitute girl’s pathetic note to Santa Claus that fell out of her mother’s pocket when she had tried to pawn her coat.
the metaphoric dissolve begins the mid-point of the metaphoric dissolve the metaphoric dissolve ends
The Christmas Burglars – the metaphoric dissolve
His heart softened, he and his criminal associates break into her apartment and leave a tree bedecked with presents, to which the girl delightedly awakens. The final shot is a gem. It begins with the pawnbroker and his clerk dealing roughly with customers. Then the pawnbroker gazes at the letter. At that point, the picture dissolves for just a few seconds to the poor girl and some neighbor children dancing around the tree. The picture quickly dissolves back to the pawnshop, with the broker and his clerk looking decidedly more content than before. (Kemp Niver points out that the paper print shows two sets of perforations in this scene only, thus indicating that the effect was made in the printer rather than in the camera, which would have necessitated fading one scene out, backing up the film and then fading the next scene in.)

In later use the dissolve would become drained of any import beyond two conventional meanings. Either it served as a smooth, decorative transition between shots that otherwise might have jarred through a sudden cut (and was already quite familiar in that context to Griffith’s audiences from Melies and others’ routine use) or as a pure emblem of changed time or location (equivalent to a fade-out followed by a fade-in). But here, it is used both literally and subjectively to suggest the emergence and evaporation of a passing thought – as the reverie coalesces so does its image, which then fades from view as does the thought itself. Thus the dissolve here functions as metaphor – it does not merely enhance the depiction of something else, but it actually is the meaning.

Title -- Summing Up

An Awful Moment (November 19 and 21) – An Awful Moment provides a fitting opportunity to summarize Griffith’s art toward the end of his first half-year of filmmaking. Typically, while the story itself is absurd (a gypsy’s revenge exacted through a far-fetched contrivance), its credibility is redeemed by Griffith’s dramatic instincts and technical prowess. Here is a synopsis, based on the paper print:

  1. COURTROOM. After the judge orders a male gypsy to be taken away, a gypsy woman pleads to no avail, struggles with the bailiff and is thrown out. (48 seconds at an assumed projection speed of 18 frames per second)
  2. OUTSIDE A ROW OF BROWNSTONES. The judge approaches and then walks up his stairs, the gypsy following and watching furtively. (17)
  3. JUDGE’S STUDY. His wife and daughter enter as he reads, then all play together. (40)
  4. WALL OUTSIDE BALCONY. The camera TILTS UP as the gypsy climbs up a vine, crawls over a railing, looks around warily, jimmies open a window with her knife and peers inside. (41)
  5. shot 21
    shot 22 -- the split set
    shot 23
    An Awful Moment
    shots 21, 22 & 23
  6. THE JUDGE’S STUDY. The wife comes in, they hug and exit. (12)
  7. MIDDLE ROOM. They pass through the room. (9)
  8. BEDROOM. They examine their Christmas tree and the judge picks up a bundle and leaves, as their daughter sleeps in her bed at the rear. (16)
  9. THE MIDDLE ROOM. The judge passes through as the gypsy peers through the window. (6)
  10. THE JUDGE’S STUDY. The judge enters, sits and begins to read. (20)
  11. THE BEDROOM. The wife unwraps a shotgun (a thoughtful gift!), places it under the tree, takes off her robe and gets into her own bed. (24)
  12. THE MIDDLE ROOM. The gypsy enters from the window, makes threatening gestures toward the judge, peers through the door to the bedroom, gets an idea and passes quietly through the door. (43)
  13. THE BEDROOM. The gypsy looks around, sees the shotgun, figures out a scheme, takes the hose from the gaslight and approaches the sleeping wife. (37)
  14. THE JUDGE’S STUDY. He reads some more. (15)
  15. THE BEDROOM. The gypsy replaces the hose, sets up a chair, brings the groggy wife over to it, sits her down, gags her, ties her up and positions the shotgun on a table aimed toward her head. (93)
  16. THE JUDGE’S STUDY. He naps in his chair. (5)
  17. THE BEDROOM. The gypsy secures the shotgun, revives the wife with some water, ties a string to the trigger and exits holding the end of the string. (47)
  18. THE MIDDLE ROOM. She carefully closes the door, securing the string to the doorknob and hides behind a curtain. (20)
  19. THE JUDGE’S STUDY. The judge wakes up, takes the bundle and exits. (20)
  20. THE MIDDLE ROOM. The judge takes a coat out of the bundle, examines it approvingly and heads toward the bedroom door. The gypsy emerges from behind the curtain, and the judge turns to see her. (23)
  21. THE BEDROOM. The daughter wakes up, goes to the tree, takes a stuffed bear and examines the mother. (43)
  22. THE MIDDLE ROOM. The judge struggles with the gypsy. (10)
  23. SPLIT SCENE BETWEEN BEDROOM AND MIDDLE ROOM. Just as the judge opens the door, the daughter slips off the string. (8)
  24. THE BEDROOM. The judge rushes in, unties his wife and puts the gun away. Two policemen enter and haul the gypsy away. The parents hug the daughter. (20)
  25. WAIST SHOT BEFORE THE TREE. The joyous parents place ornaments in the daughter’s lap. (13)

Aside from his obligatory shots 3 and 24 to establish and then reconfirm family unity, Griffith devotes his entire ten minutes to the central situation - and note that he defers the family shot in order to begin the movie in the thick of the action. Nor does he require titles to explain the action or continuity, which is quite clear from the images alone. (Since the release print runs only 17 seconds longer than the paper print, there was just enough room for the main title plus one interior title, perhaps at the very beginning.) Transitional shots, while needed to preserve the geography, are kept as short as possible. The end is so foreshortened that the police, never having been summoned, arrive instantly.

This film presents one technical innovation for Griffith – his first tilt shot.
shot 4 -- the tilt up continues
shot 4 -- the tilt up
An Awful Moment
shot 4 – the tilt up
Although related to the pan, the tilt (in which the camera moves vertically on its axis) was used far less frequently in films of the time. From a subjective standpoint, a pan mimics glancing around as we commonly do and thus is fairly functional, while a tilt is a more unusual human gesture that can be imbued with emotional overtones – looking up for inspiration or down in depression. Here, the tilt (shot #4) is remarkably sinister. Not only does it come right after the serene shot of the judge’s family but by following the gypsy’s sinuous progress toward the balcony Griffith adds a sense of animal menace, forcing us to crawl along with her as she struggles toward her evil goal. By making us participate with her motion, Griffith puts us in the scene and thus compels us to become unwittingly complicit in her scheme.

The editing of the main sequence inside the judge’s home is thoroughly fluent, constantly cutting during action as the characters pass among the three rooms. (Niver, who restored the paper prints, notes that these productions required careful advance planning, as Griffith filmed all the shots he would need from a given camera position before moving on to the next setup.) By twice cutting away to the judge oblivious in his study, Griffith breaks up what otherwise would be an excessively long and extremely dull three-minute shot of the gypsy carrying out her plot, and adds both irony and suspense (and possibly a gentle dig at the intellectual jurist oblivious to the real-world problem in his own home). (Incidentally, ever wonder how short Griffith’s – or any other – films would be if people just killed each other outright without resorting to preposterously convoluted plans or, during the sound era, delivering long philosophical lectures?)

The climactic scene once again shows that Griffith accepted the primary shortfall of editing. In sequential shots exploiting the geography he has carefully established among the three rooms, Griffith shows the judge awaken in his study, struggle with the gypsy in the middle room and then head to the fatal door, while his daughter, having awakened in the bedroom, begins to move around. Just before the crucial juncture, Griffith shifts to a split set showing both sides of the door, as the daughter slips off the string at the precise moment that the judge pulls the door open. As in The Devil, this theatrical contrivance solves an otherwise impossible problem – how to depict portions of an action that must be shown simultaneously from two geographically isolated perspectives. To this day, the only modern attempts (extremely rapid cutting, split screens, etc.) are just as artificial as Griffith’s split set and, if anything, call attention to themselves while detracting from the story. Griffith intuitively realized that he had no choice but to show both actions in the same shot, artifice notwithstanding, and that the fundamental film technique of editing was unavailing.

In shots 19 – 21 Griffith finessed the issue but in an historically interesting way. Shot 19 ends just as the gypsy emerges from hiding and the judge turns to confront her, while shot 21 picks up that action as he moves toward her, even though in the interim shot 20 has intervened with 43 seconds of activity in the bedroom. This is an echo of the "overlap editing" style that showed the same action sequentially from each of two different perspectives, and which Edwin S. Porter had used in his 1902 Life of an American Fireman as well as in the 1907 Rescued From an Eagle's Nest (in which Griffith played the lead). By the time of An Awful Moment, though, audiences expected editing to present a tale in strict continuity sequence. Indeed, all the other editing in this movie (and in Griffith's other work) preserves a continuous chronology across all locales without any comparable interruption of the time-frame.

All told, An Awful Moment is a nifty picture that documents Griffith’s emerging mastery of telling a story effectively and efficiently through film and its inherent techniques – and, equally important, his recognition of when those same techniques were unsuitable.

So far we have explored Griffith’s first half-year of production. His period of initial discovery was nearly over, but his journey toward mature artistry had barely begun.

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 2010 by Peter Gutmann
{Portions of this article were published in Classic Images No. 87}

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