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

title: Part 2 -- The Power of Editing

We have already considered Griffith’s first film, The Adventures of Dollie, in a separate article at some length in order to establish a baseline for considering his achievements. As would be expected, for his first foray into directing Griffith adopted existing conventions during his trial period. Although Dollie would not be placed into distribution until July 14, apparently the studio was satisfied and soon offered Griffith a one-year contract at $45/week plus a royalty of one mill per foot on every print sold, thus providing a strong incentive to cater to popular taste. Griffith did just that by selecting lurid tales with lots of action. Yet his artistic instincts arose immediately.

The Redman and the Child (shot June 30 and July 3, 1908) – There is a ten-day lapse between the production of Dollie and this movie. Among historians who have examined the Biograph studio records, there is some dispute as to whether Griffith directed the intervening pictures. In any event, each adheres to the standard formula of about seven rather lengthy scenes, all consisting of a single far shot beginning with entrances and ending with exits of principal characters, and strict chronological continuity – essentially an abbreviated filmed theatrical production. The construction of The Redman and the Child was far more sophisticated and already shows Griffith beginning to grasp the nature and power of film.

The story involves a boy who is kidnapped by two bad guys, who force him to point out the hollow tree trunk where an Indian stashes his valuables. The Indian just happens to be guiding some surveyors.
the establishing shot before the insert Griffith's first insert
The Redman and the Child – the first insert
Looking through their telescope, he sees the thieves at his tree, pursues them in a canoe chase, drowns one, swims after the other and fights him to the death on shore. (We should note that while here his treatment is far more benevolent, Griffith often depicted Indians as vicious savages bent on murdering white settlers.)

The most striking use of editing here is an iris shot that Griffith inserts into a scene of the Indian looking through a surveyor’s telescope. Once the main shot establishes that the Indian is looking through the scope, the insert enables us to actually see the same object he sees. (As the Indian first examines the scope suspiciously and quizzically, it’s also the first gentle bit of Griffith comedy we encounter, an element he had shunned for Dollie.) Yet the editing of this sequence is far from smooth – first we see the Indian reacting excitedly for several seconds as he peers through the scope, and only then does the insert begin just as the villains enter the frame and proceed to commit their evil deed.

The use of a subjective insert was no innovation. Biograph’s earlier A Search For Evidence (1903), for one, made extensive use of a keyhole matte to depict a jealous wife’s attempts to spy on her unfaithful husband from a hotel corridor. Indeed, nearly the entire film consists of her and a detective looking into each of five rooms and finding only innocent occupants (a mother and child, a stumbling drunkard) until they reach the sixth door and see her husband smooching with a girl, whereupon they barge in and confront the miscreants. While Griffith clearly did not discover the subjective insert, its use in Redman represents the first time that he achieves something on film that is impossible in the theatre – changing perspective within a scene. It also adds an important piece of grammar to his expressive film vocabulary, enabling us to more fully identify with a character, as we no longer must observe him from a distance and imagine what he feels, but rather can step into his shoes and experience the action from his viewpoint. That, in turn, fosters character development and weans film away from dependence on exaggerated acting and titling to describe what an actor is supposed to be experiencing.

Griffith also uses consistent blocking and editing to establish continuity in his chase.
swimming left to right running ashore right to left
The Redman and the Child – mismatched geography
All three shots of the Indian pursuing the thieves on the river show their canoes entering from the rear left and exiting to the front right, a geography that is preserved in the next shot as well, as the Indian swims after the escaping thief in the same direction. Yet, as with the insert, the editing is rough, as the shots surrounding this sequence reverse the direction of their action – the prior shot shows the Indian paddling away from his teepee to the left, and the shot after the swimming shows the Indian and villain running ashore from right to left, thus violating one of the fundamental continuity rules of later editing.

The canoe chase itself is intensified by carefully matching the distance between pursuer and pursued – the first of the three shots shows the thieves passing entirely through the frame before the Indian follows, the second shows him catching up, and the third begins as he is almost upon them (and overtakes them just as they reach the front of the frame, where they will fight in full view). In contrast, the comparable shots in Dollie, showing the barrel floating down the river, seem random and were downright languid – even the waterfall over which her barrel plunged was only a few feet high and thus posed little danger – and could barely have aroused much audience fear for her safety. Yet, there is no attempt to accelerate the pace through editing, as the length of each shot is strictly a function of the action it contains. Indeed, the climactic knife fight on shore is the second longest shot in the entire film and derives no intensity at all from its cinematic depiction.

At this point, Griffith kept his camera frozen for each shot, rather than panning or tilting to follow the action (as many other filmmakers of the time routinely did). Rather, he had to frame each action shot to include the entire area of movement, a particular challenge here, with many locations in the water, where the actors were unable to rely on markings on the ground for the permissible range of their activity.
the final thematic shot the final thematic shot
The Redman and the Child – the closing thematic shot
In two instances, the framing is awkward as a result, even if the shots are pleasingly composed. In order to contain all the action within the static frame, the final shot of the canoe chase begins with the two canoes so close to the top that they are barely visible. And the opening shot, to which we return three more times, obscures beneath the river bank the canoes into which the characters climb – they just seem to disappear and then emerge to paddle away.

Significantly, after the Indian kills the second thief Griffith adds a final shot – he shows a canoe floating toward us as the Indian gently caresses the boy and then paddles past the right front of the frame while striking a proud pose (and displaying a large cross on his chest, perhaps to assure viewers that he really is one of us). That final shot is a hugely significant signpost toward a Griffith hallmark. With the second thief dispatched, the story proper is over, but Griffith’s real conclusion is on a note of humanity that not only restores the social order but effectively proclaims that, while the action may have been compelling, the larger point of the film was to deepen the relationship between the boy and the Indian. Dollie had ended with her family unit restored, but that was a direct consequence of the plot. Here, though, Griffith adds a wholly new (and narratively gratuitous) concluding scene. Thus, already in his second film Griffith has shifted the emphasis to leave the audience not with pure plot but rather with its thematic overtone.

The Greaser’s Gauntlet (July 14 & 15) – After a few more unremarkable productions, we come to a little-heralded but landmark film – and perhaps Griffith recognized this, as it was the first movie he made that ran a full reel. (All the prior ones shared a 1,000-foot reel with a short comedy or documentary.)

A Mexican “greaser” is mistakenly lynched for stealing a wallet. (Lest you suppose the story to extend Redman as a further paean to racial tolerance, the real thief turns out to be a Chinese waiter.) The Mexican is actually being strung up (on a marvelously expressionistic tree) when a woman who saw the crime rushes up to proclaim his innocence. As the mob drifts off, Griffith jumps from the standard distant shot to his first full shot. And it is at this precise moment that Griffith’s artistic development begins.

The device of using editing within a scene was no innovation, nor was the use of a full shot. An example of both occurs in the pre-Griffith Biograph The Boy Detective (March, 1908). There, a boy stalks two robbers down a long street leading away from the camera.
the far shot the full shot
The Greaser's Gauntlet – the cut to a full shot
Nearly out of sight, the robbers turn to walk up some steps to a house. At this point, the director (Wallace McCutcheon) cuts to a full shot of the scene of entry. But there is a strong and meaningful difference between McCutcheon’s and Griffith’s use of the same technique. The cut to a full shot in The Boy Detective is strictly functional – there was no other way to have shown all that was going on (except, perhaps, through a bumpy and disorienting tracking shot). But Griffith easily could have kept his entire scene in a single far shot, as the action would have been quite clear. Rather, he chose to edit in order to enhance the theme. The change in perspective ignores the dispersing mob and forces us to concentrate on the protagonists’ intimate moment, as they symbolically fill the frame. More symbolically still, the new perspective emphasizes the Mexican and the girl as having been brought together and as being isolated from a hostile world.

For the first time in his career, Griffith used cinema to do more than merely record the enactment of a narrative. Instead, he used technique to create meaning not otherwise inherent in the story. This is where technique enters the service of art, and where the craftsman becomes a true artist.

But as if that were not enough for one film, Griffith also uses Greaser’s Gauntlet to introduce what would ultimately become his trademark – cross-cutting shots in a race to the rescue. Here is the sequence, which begins after the Mexican has been nabbed:

  1. SALOON EXTERIOR. The mob hustles the Mexican away from the door.
  2. A HALLWAY. The real thief (the Chinese waiter) counts his loot.
  3. A ROAD. The mob continues to drag off the Mexican.
  4. THE HALLWAY. A woman observes the waiter and rushes out.
  5. SALOON EXTERIOR. The woman runs out.
  6. BY A STARK TREE. The lynching begins.
  7. A ROAD. The woman runs.
  8. BY THE TREE. As the Mexican swings in the air, the woman rushes up and frantically explains. He is let down. (The full shot follows here.)
Not once, not twice, but three times Griffith cuts away from the progress of the lynching (shots 3, 5 and 8) to the events that could prevent it (shots 4, 6/7 and 9), thus creating suspense and excitement in one fell swoop. While the insert in Redman and the Child depicted one continuous action from two perspectives, here Griffith yanks our attention from the main plot to entirely different locations and characters, without a clue as to how they will relate to the story proper.

Years later, V. I. Pudovkin would theorize about the associative property of film – whenever you cut two shots together the viewer will tend to assume some connection between them. Thus, when Pudovkin cut from a woman pointing off-screen, whatever he showed next signified that she was pointing to that object. Griffith’s use of intercutting here is more sophisticated – rather than merely string together sequential portions of a continuous narrative, he shows us entirely unrelated events that only eventually will combine for a highly dramatic outcome. Typically, Griffith intuitively grasped properties of the new medium that theorists would elucidate only much later. Here, he felt that the audience would make a connection between scenes without any need to explain that they somehow were related. (We should note, though, that the release print had room for several titles not found in the paper print, so Griffith may not have relied entirely upon the power of his images.) By impelling us to work in order to make sense of his depictions, Griffith cleverly draws us into the creative process as a participant rather than a mere observer, and thus makes us feel that we have a personal stake in the outcome.

Yet, the movie is only half over, and the rest reverts to standard form of strict continuity (except for similar opening and closing shots that provide a nice frame for the story). But a crucial discovery had been made, and Griffith lost little time in exploring how to use it to best effect.

For Love of Gold (July 21, 1908) – But first, we must mention For Love of Gold only to debunk two persistent myths.
the rescuers
For Love of Gold – Zzzzz ...
First, although the final scene was a full shot rather than the more standard far shot, this was hardly innovative, as is sometimes claimed – indeed, as already noted, it wasn’t even Griffith’s first use. Second, as Kemp Niver was the first to insist based on the paper print he restored, there is no editing or change of camera position in the climactic scene so as to include both far and full shots, as so many history books claim. Rather, this film is a throw-back to the dullest type of filmed theatre (but with dreadful acting), as it contains only two sets and three shots within its eight minutes – the thieves plan a robbery, the robbery takes place, and then back inside their cabin they fight to the death over their spoils. Yet perhaps that, in itself, is significant, as it documents that Griffith’s development as a film artist was sporadic rather than a continuous process and that his main purpose at Biograph was to issue sufficient product to meet their grueling release schedule – a recognition that makes his artistic achievements in such an environment all the more remarkable.

The Fatal Hour (July 21 & 27, 1908) – Here already, a bare week after Greaser’s Gauntlet, we have Griffith’s first mature chase melodrama, and the first Griffith action film that is genuinely thrilling. For better effect, the scheme of Greaser’s Gauntlet is reversed, so that the excitement of cross-cutting is reserved for the end. This time, the first seven scenes show a girl snared and abducted by a white slave ring, another woman tailing an accomplice and leading police to the hideout, and the police freeing the girl and arresting the kidnappers – except one who proceeds to grab the heroic woman as the police depart and then drag her inside.

Up to that point, the action is shown in strict, step-by-step continuity.
the rescuers the victim
The Fatal Hour – intercutting rescuers and victim
But now the real excitement begins. The new victim is tied to a bed and the minute hand of a huge clock is tied to the trigger of a gun which, a test of the contraption demonstrates, will shoot the heroine on the hour. (The use of oversized props was a standard means to avoid the need for a close-up to show pertinent detail. Yet, here it functions effectively to emphasize that time is a constant threat that literally dominates the victim’s position.) The next scene shows the remaining crook recognized on the street and confessing. Then Griffith alternates three shots of the horse-drawn police wagon tearing along rural streets with three shots of the cowering victim as the giant clock hand approaches the fatal hour.

This is a highly-accomplished sequence that benefits from clever shot selection, powerful editing and effective pacing. The shots of the victim show the clock hand progressing all too visibly. Yet the three shots of her rescuers have no geographic clues to assess their location, and thus allow the suspense to mount, as there is no visible progress of the police toward a rescue. Indeed, without geographic clues any rescue will come as a surprise. All the while, the shots of the police are far briefer than those of the cowering victim, so the dramatic focus is kept upon her fate. The edited contrast between immobilized heroine and racing police further serves to underline the desperation of her plight.

Quite a neat little film! And yes, the rescuers do arrive in the nick of time.

For a Wife’s Honor (July 28 & 30, 1908) – Griffith’s very next film uses cross-cutting again, but with more subtlety. The first five shots comprise a single scene: a woman’s liaison with a man is observed by a vengeful maid she has just discharged. Griffith presents this in alternate shots of room interior and outside hallway, but this seems little more than a technical exercise, not at all necessary to the drama, since the maid’s spying is all done after she sneaks back into the room unobserved. As nothing really happens in the hallway, the entire scene could have been done in a single shot within the room. Even so, the fact that Griffith bothered to break it down, even without any plot-driven need, perhaps shows his eagerness to exploit this new (to him) technique whenever he could.

But later in the film, after the maid has tipped off the jealous husband, the same editing scheme is used for genuinely dramatic effect, as Griffith cuts repeatedly between shots of the enraged husband in the hall trying to break down the door and shots of the terrified wife and suitor within the room.
the far shot the full shot
For a Wife's Honor – more "alternate scenes"
The conventional method of depicting this situation in movies of the time would have involved a split set with a cut-away wall in the middle so that both room and hallway could be shown together, or perhaps a lengthy histrionic confrontation after the door had been broken down. But Griffith’s “alternate scenes” are doubly effective here, as he is able to focus attention on one part of the action while at the same time hiding the remainder, and thus leaving our imagination to fill in the obscured portion. In so doing, he lends dramatic emphasis to a portion of the scene while creating suspense over the part he chooses not to show.

This seems a far less obvious use of cross-cutting than in the earlier chase/rescue melodramas. There, geographic separation of events required that they be shot separately and edited together, whereas here Griffith uses the camera creatively to present dramatically relevant portions of a single scene. (Even so, since both sides of the door are shown in the extreme right of the screen, Griffith clearly was not bothered by the same sort of directional mismatch that we saw in Redman and the Child.) Yet, as with the Greaser’s Gauntlet chase, Griffith also draws us into the creative process, requiring that we infer the missing portion of the action.

In that way Griffith took another tentative step toward making his movies a personal experience by making demands upon the audience to actively participate in creating the story, rather than relegating them to a wholly passive status. But while the step itself may have been small, its implications were huge, as it began the transformation of the movies from a passing novelty of mere entertainment to a gripping vehicle for engaging an audience in a deeply emotional venture.

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 2010 by Peter Gutmann
{Portions of this article were published in Classic Images No. 81}

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