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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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) –
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) –
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Copyright 2010 by Peter Gutmann
copyright © 1998-2010 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.