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

title: Part 9 -- Structural Editing

It has been said that the key to great art is structure. If that is true, then Griffith’s initial experimentation with editing as a structural tool must rank among his greatest achievements. Indeed, in retrospect only his exploration of using the camera and editing to invest his audience with a compelling sense of perspective (discussed in part 8 is of comparable import in the history of film.

From the outset Griffith had been conscious of the power of editing as a structural device. His experiments ultimately would culminate in 1916 with Intolerance, perhaps the most audacious attempt to achieve thematic cohesion through editing in the first half-century of filmmaking (and perhaps equalled only by the 1929 Bunuel/Dali Un Chien Andalou). But as with most of Griffith’s technical innovations, structural editing began with his earliest efforts. Recall, for example, Greaser’s Gauntlet (July 14 and 15, 1908), that fabulously precocious product of his very first month (in which he first cut from far to full shot in mid-scene), which began and ended with matched shots of the hero leaving and then returning to his aged mother. Yet, even while this pair of shots added emotional resonance and a pleasing formal frame to the film, they had nothing to do with the story proper.

Title -- The Medicine BottleIn February 1909 came one of Griffith’s most striking artistic innovations – his first use of editing to create structure within a story. The Medicine Bottle (February 3, 4, 10 and 16) is a superbly compact thriller. While less than a half-reel in length, Griffith allotted an unprecedented four days from the pressing demands of his hectic release schedule to shoot it. At first glance, it appears to be yet another routine simple intercut race to the rescue. But there are two significant advances. First, this seems to be the first instance in which Griffith intercut three elements rather than two. In each previous melodrama, Griffith had intercut only two plot strands or locations – generally, victim and rescuer. (At the Altar, discussed in part 8, had two intercut sequences, but each involved only two locations at a time.) In The Medicine Bottle, though, he added a third element: an impediment. That, in turn, would pave the way to more sophisticated stories that could heighten suspense and rely more upon complex plot twists than physical chases (which wear thin after a few minutes). And so it is here, but with a striking difference – The Medicine Bottle has all the excitement of the most thrilling Griffith chase films – but no chase! Rather, Griffith substitutes a pure race against time for pursuit.

The film’s greatest advance is its structural editing. A mother, at a party, discovers that she accidentally has left her little girl with a bottle of poison disinfectant instead of the similar bottle of medication that needs to be given to an ailing grandmother. Here is the remarkable sequence that follows her awful realization:
The Medicine Bottle -- the poison bearer
The Medicine Bottle -- the desparate mother
The Medicine Bottle -- the chatty operators
The Medicine Bottle
the three-shot phrase of

  1. BEDROOM. The girl trips with the full spoon of poison and begins to repour it.

  2. PARTY. The mother agonizes as she tries to place a call. Her friends look on anxiously.

  3. SWITHBOARD. The operators are gossiping.

  4. BEDROOM. The girl trips again.

  5. PARTY. The mother keeps trying.

  6. SWITCHBOARD. The operators continue to gossip.

  7. BEDROOM. The girl spills the “medicine” just as she reaches the bed.

  8. PARTY. The mother turns away frustrated. A friend tries to call.

  9. SWITCHBOARD. More gossiping.

  10. BEDROOM. The girl tries again.

  11. PARTY. Still at the phone.

  12. SWITCHBOARD. An operator answers.

  13. BEDROOM. The girl, having reached the bed, points to the phone.

  14. PARTY. The mother rushes to the phone.

  15. BEDROOM – CLOSER SHOT. The girl answers the phone and reassures her mother.

  16. BEDROOM – SAME SHOT AS EARLIER. The girl runs to the grandmother’s bed, throws away the bottle and spoon, and they hug.

Note how carefully Griffith constructs the strict ordering of this sequence, which comprises four identical three-shot phrases of bedroom-party-switchboard (shots 12-13-14, 15-16-17, 18-19-20, 21-22-23). The repetition suggest both continuity and inevitability, much as does a repeated progression in music. Then, in lieu of what Griffith has led us to expect as the fifth such phrase (24-25-26) the pattern suddenly is broken by shot 26 as the “rescue” is effected (bedroom-party-bedroom). And just to be sure we don’t miss the climactic impact of shot 26, Griffith jumps in for a tighter shot of the girl at the phone to disrupt our perspective as well and plunge us deeper into the action.

In The Medicine Bottle Griffith also applies his growing awareness of perspective and its narrative uses (discussed in part 8) with full force.
The Medicine Bottle – editing for perspective
The Medicine Bottle -- moving the camera closer The Medicine Bottle -- moving the camera closer
Moving the camera closer to increase intensity
The Medicine Bottle -- retreating to relieve tension The Medicine Bottle -- retreating to relieve tension
Shots 26 and 27 – retreating to relieve tension
Thus, in lieu of shooting all the scenes at the party from the same camera position, Griffith begins with a wider shot as the mother enters and is introduced, then comes in to a closer shot as she pulls the bottle out of her purse to show a guest, and then to an even tighter shot for all the suspenseful efforts to make the crucial phone call. Although the differences are barely noticeable, and in context are further obscured by intervening shots of the bedroom, the increasingly closer perspective subconsciously contributes to the sense of urgency we feel in watching the progression. The last two shots reverse the process – shot 26 is a waist shot of the girl (played by the wonderful child actress Adele de Garde) receiving the mother’s call, which then retreats to the customary wide shot of the bedroom to ease the tension as the film ends.

We should also note the extreme concision of the film. Griffith easily could have stretched it to twice its length by drawing out the party and padding the opening scenes (a uniformed nurse suddenly has to leave, the mother has to decide whether to change her plans, she instructs her little girl and hugs her goodbye) – and, since Griffith earned a royalty on each foot of release print sold, surely he was tempted to do just that. But instead, his artistic integrity triumphed – the action begins seconds after the main title as the mother cuts her finger, applies the disinfectant and places it next to the medicine on a table, and it ends with a quick embrace between the girl and her grandmother, who barely grasps the fate she has escaped.

Speaking of concision, the paper print has one curious feature – shot 15 (of the girl making her way from table to the grandmother’s bed) is only 15 frames (less than a second) long, although this could be nothing more than a printing error in preparing the paper print. If intentional, though, it signals Griffith’s first use of shot brevity to evoke alarm. Otherwise, the technique occurs twice in The Drive For Life (January 15, March 23 and 30). The first is a 25-frame insert of a poison bottle (again!) that a jilted woman has sent to her rival, as if, by its sheer brevity, to suggest the alarming danger it represents. The second occurs after a rescuer hits a wagon with his auto. Actually, we only see him brake abruptly as he careens out of frame, followed by a brief flash of a wrecked wagon, after which we return to the rescuer racing around a bend in the road. Although its practical purpose may have been to avoid the cost of actually staging a crash, the combination of brief static shots to imply violent motion, while at the same time injecting extra emotion, would later prove of enormous importance both to Griffith and to others (including Russian theorists who would claim to have discovered it).

A further example of editing used for structural cohesion arose in What Drink Did (April 19 and 28). The film traces within a single day the downward slide of a man becoming victimized by alcoholism. First, a scene of beer being served at his factory lunch hour is intercut with a single insert of his wife and children at home. Next, a scene of the man at a bar after work is intercut twice with shots of his family readying the dinner table. Finally, after the man stumbles home and leaves after a fight, Griffith intercuts three shots of the grieving family into a sequence of the man drowning his sorrows at a local bar. Thus, the sheer increased frequency of intercutting symbolizes and underscores the mounting tension between errant husband and suffering family, and drives an progressively longer wedge into their isolation.

A variant of the scheme of interrupting a pattern for dramatic emphasis arose in The Note in the Shoe (March 13 and 16). First, we trace a box of shoes from factory to store to customer’s home, where he finds a note left by an indiscreet worker. Then the process reverses as he returns the shoes to the store and the complaint reaches the factory. The editing pattern is symbolically broken along with the problem itself – the scene next shifts abruptly from factory to home as the customer’s anger subsides and he resolves to repair the life of the worker’s family.

Admittedly, the structure of these pictures is tightly schematic, and such a rigid form is hardly suited to most stories. Frankly, it seems doubtful that Griffith, as an intuitive artist faced with crushing deadlines, deliberately assembled these movies with mathematical precision. And it’s equally clear that even audiences far more sophisticated than Griffith’s are not about to keep track of a dozen or more shots in order to realize the precision of their exact relationship. Yet these movies represent the dawn of Griffith’s use of editing to present his materials in a way that adds a layer of subliminal support to the effectiveness of how he depicts his narratives – yet another indication that he was becoming more an artist than merely a skilled craftsman.

Title -- The Lonely VillaDespite these extraordinary precedents, the most famous use of structural editing of this stage of Griffith’s career – and, indeed, the only Griffith film of the first half of 1909 to have attracted any mention at all in the standard literature – is The Lonely Villa (April 29 and 30, May 4, 6 and 14). Although hardly Griffith’s first chase film, as it has so often erroneously been credited, it nonetheless is one of his very best – and, indeed, his degree of care is reflected by the extraordinary time he lavished on its production, as it is the only film of the entire year that consumed five days to shoot (in only one of which he worked on another picture as well). Its formula of plot construction and intercutting to create suspense is strikingly similar to the October 1908 The Guerilla, discussed in part 5, but with greater intensity – more cowering victims (a mother and three girls), more villains (three), a far faster pace, and a more absorbing modern setting, all packed into a somewhat shorter film (750 35 mm feet, or less than 11 minutes).

Please click here for a synopsis and a still from each of the 11 basic shots, all based on my 16mm copy of the Library of Congress paper print.

The inexorable way the suspense builds, the accelerating pace, the placement of impediments, the interweaving of villains, endangered family and frustrated husband (three elements, as in The Medicine Bottle), and the nearly musical rhythm of the cutting are all apparent from the synopsis and need no further comment. Rather, there are other aspects that immeasurably enrich the film – and our ability to fully enjoy it even today.

The Lonely Villa would deserve its fame if only for its astounding opening shot
The Lonely Villa -- the astounding opening shot as evil lurks The Lonely Villa -- the second shot to contrast the innocent family
The Lonely Villa – the first two shots:
Outside, evil lurks – inside, the peaceful family
of thieves crouching furtively like famished animals in the shadows of bushes in the opposite corner of the frame from a bright upstanding home, separated by a winding road. One of Griffith’s most extraordinary gifts was to crystallize the theme (and, here, foretell the basic plot) in a single striking image. Here, the first shot not only literally depicts the opposing forces and forecasts their geographic separation (with a symbolically twisted road), but further creates an intangible feeling of lurking menace and tense apprehension. The very next shot cements the contrast as a father and his family (all girls, to increase a sense of vulnerability) peacefully read inside their comfortable, protective environment, unaware of any threat – decent folk, whose refined culture and calm demeanor are juxtaposed against the crude, tense menace lurking just outside.

The business in shots 2, 3 and 4 with the servants leaving serves a double duty – it not only isolates the wife and daughters for purposes of the plot but paves the way to the upcoming structure and intense pacing by setting up the essential geography of the home, showing us the layout of the principal locations – study, hallway, outside porch – as the servants walk through them so that Griffith later can intercut them freely and rapidly without confusing us or wasting time on establishing or transitional shots.

As in The Medicine Bottle, Griffith uses a structural rhythm to carefully set up an expectation of continuity that he suddenly interrupts for dramatic impact. Here, shots 30 through 37, each about 5 seconds long, regularly alternate the husband and wife talking on the phone, which shot 38 disrupts with a brand new scene of a robber cutting the wire that links them.
The Lonely Villa -- inside the inn The Lonely Villa -- inside the inn -- note the different perspective and background
The Lonely Villa – inside the inn:
Note the different perspectives and backgrounds
More subtly, once the action begins, Griffith regularly spaces his shots of the robbers forcing their entry in shots 21, 30, 38, 44 and 49, each about 5 seconds long, the consistent spacing suggesting the constant threat they represent. On the other hand, the final shot depicting the rescue takes on an added element of surprise, as Griffith for once dispenses with the shots of porch or hallway that preceded every other entry into the house and its inner rooms and instead accelerates the pace by cutting directly from the onrushing wagon (seemingly shown in the middle of nowhere, so as to bar any hint of proximity) to the saviors’ sudden arrival inside the home.

Also as in The Medicine Bottle, Griffith uses a subtle change in perspective to underline the growing desperation of the father’s attempts to communicate with his imperiled family – compare the two shots in the illustration, as the camera draws slightly closer. As in the earlier film, the difference is slight, and with intervening shots is hardly noticeable, but it could contribute subliminally to the overall impact. (Curiously, though, Griffith shifts to a slightly more distant shot of the mother and daughters cowering in the study, which would seem to lessen the tension of their situation. So perhaps all this was unintentional – nothing more than inexactly replicating a prior set up when returning to take more shots – and not amenable to the type of significance we might otherwise assign to such matters?)

One of the reasons that Griffith’s movies impressed audiences of the time as more realistic than others stems from the rich activity that complements his scenes.
The Physician of the Castle -- the thieves The Physician of the Castle -- the imperilled wife and son
The Physician of the Castle -- on the phone The Physician of the Castle -- on the phone
The Physician of the Castle (Pathé)
Thus, while the father speaks on the phone at the inn, the background is filled with a wedding party leaving, men drinking at a bar, and especially a nosy man with a pipe who draws progressively closer as the tension escalates. Even the single shot of the gypsy camp (and for once in a Griffith film the gypsies aren’t evil degenerates) is filled with costumed extras, although the frantic activity of the father in the foregrounds hardly gives us any opportunity to notice any of this other than subliminally.

Incidentally, although Linda Arvidson (Griffith's wife) credits Mack Sennett with the idea for Lonely Villa, which he ostensibly got from a newspaper story, a more likely source was a six-minute March 1908 Pathé drama, The Physician of the Castle (included in the Kino video The Movies Begin), in which thieves call a doctor away from his home with a forged note (and gain entry by murdering the maid!). Yet, the Pathé film has little intercutting and even less suspense, as it focuses more on the doctor's discovery of the ruse and his drive home (four shots) than his imperiled family barricading themselves (two shots) or the thieves breaking in (one shot). Interestingly, though, there are two matched shots of doctor and wife on the phone, both taken from a much closer perspective than Griffith's. (An interesting sidelight – the rooster in the background of several shots was Pathé's attempt to discourage unauthorized duping; Biograph often placed their device of "AB" in a circle on interior sets of Griffith films for added protection, even though they proceeded to copyright their productions.) In any event, comparison of the two movies provides a telling example of how Griffith's cinematic instincts immeasurably intensified an already exciting story.

All told, as we have noted in this series, The Lonely Villa is far from Griffith’s first notable achievement. Even so, it firmly merits its reputation, both as a fine movie in its own right, and a sign that clearly points the way ahead to blaze the path of cinematic art.

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 2010 by Peter Gutmann
{Portions of this article were published in Classic Images No. 92}

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