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  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Art forms of a New Country

article number 418
article date 02-03-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
We Find Unique Style in D. W. Griffith’s New Films, 1909
by Terry Ramsaye
   

From the 1926 book, A Million and One Nights.

GRIFFITH EVOLVES SCREEN SYNTAX

WHILE the bosses and merchandisers of pictures were engaged in their wars of the patents and intrigues of business, evolving the business pattern of the industry, down at 11 East Fourteenth street in New York, D. W. Griffith was leading the motion picture art forward to a new and more effective technique.

The prosperity of Biograph under the Motion Picture Patents Company peace was maintaining a safe haven in which the art could flourish and be elaborated.

Griffith’s Biograph pictures now came to command the homage of the whole industry. They were studied by his competitors in the studios, licensed and unlicensed alike. And “Biograph Day” was a drawing card announcement at the little nickel show picture houses.

Griffith began to work out a syntax of screen narration. He started to use the close-up for accents, and fade-outs for punctuation. With cutbacks and manipulations of sequence, he worked for new intensities of suspense.

The motion picture spent the years up to 1908 learning its letters. Now, with Griffith, it was studying screen grammar and pictorial rhetoric.

Historically considered one of the most important pictures of the year was ‘The Little Teacher’, in which the title role fell to Mary Pickford. This picture was Mary’s first real hit. It established her possibilities rather clearly in the mind of Griffith. He began, probably unconsciously, to build a screen repute for her by designating her in the subtitles of Biograph’s subjects as “Mary.”

It was no clear intent, because Biograph steadfastly refused to give any screen credits at anytime anywhere.

Griffith’s Biograph family gathered at lunch about a rough table in the basement of the old mansion at 11 East Fourteenth street to eat sandwiches rustled from an adjacent saloon lunch counter by Bobby Harron, custodian of properties, general utility person and errand-boy-at-large.

A considerable part of the art of the motion picture was evolved in the lunch table discussion between the actors, cameramen and Griffith, the experimenting director. The talk was pictures, pictures, everlastingly pictures. Everything was new then and many, many things had yet to be tried.

Griffith’s pictures were conspicuous for the way in which he brought the action up close to the camera, frequently cutting off the actor’s feet at the bottom of the pictures.

This was considered by many of the critics as a terrible piece of barbarity. Some of the more conservative producers felt that it was waste of good money to hire an actor and then not photograph all of him in the picture.

The very simplest elements of motion picture story telling and the evolution of the use of the camera as an instrument of expression rather than of mere record all had to be tediously worked out. And some of the old fetishes of early day motion picture superstition still survive.

As late as 1922, Cecil Hepworth, one of the leading English producers, informed the writer that he held it a serious mistake to have any character appear on the screen without entering the scene full length, feet and all.

In these early experimental days Mack Sennett was an untiring student of picture technique, following every step that Griffith took. When no better provocation offered he carried the camera to be among those present.

When the supply of scenarios to his liking failed, Griffith called for suggestions from the company.

“Fifteen dollars for the best split reel comedy idea!” was a welcome announcement.

With pencils and paper, twisting their tongues and scratching their heads like schoolboys laboring over slates, the Biograph actors could be found in all corners of the studio trying to erupt with screen ideas.

Just one thing was inevitable in these sessions—Mack Sennett would come forward with a policeman scenario. It is not on record that Sennett ever sold one to Griffith, but he persisted with a patience that made Sennett’s policeman comedy scenario the best standing joke of the studio.

All who remember the Keystone cops that eventually came forth under Sennett’s direction some years later will admit that Mack made good his threat. It would seem probable that the extreme violence of Sennett’s Keystone cop comedy resulted from his early repressions and discouragements at Biograph.

   
“THE ITALIAN BARBER,” a Biograph comedy presenting Mary Pickford, Mack Sennett, Joe Graybill and Marion Sunshine, long before Sennett was discovered to be a director as well as a comedian.

Mary Pickford was a more successful contributor of scenario. She was the author of a surprising number of the early Griffith Biograph pictures.

Among Mary’s scenarios were several which will perhaps linger in the memory of some of the old followers of the screen, including ‘The Awakening’, featuring Arthur Johnson, ‘Getting Even’, with James Kirkwood, ‘Caught in the Act’, ‘Lena and the Geese’, ‘The Alien’, ‘Granny’, in which Lottie Pickford played, ‘Fate’s Decree’ and ‘The Girl of Yesterday’.

The rich eventfulness of Mary Pickford’s experience in road show melodrama gave her a fund of that special sort of material which Griffith desired.

In this wonderful school of the motion picture, Mary grew up with the art of picture making itself, learning it as fast as it evolved, and herself contributing to its evolution.

The world prefers to think of Miss Pickford as the pretty little girl with the curl, pursuing a dramatic pictorial destiny through a pollyanna world of just-so arrangements. But in point of truth she is as diligent a student of her business as any office-prisoned executive, dour with the weight of his responsibilities.

Among the best known players introduced to the screen in this period was Edwin August Philip von der Butz, who came with some stage repute and an experience that began with the role of ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’ at the age of eight.

To the motion picture he was known as Edwin August. He played for a few weeks with the Edison stock company and then went to Biograph, where he appeared in many a famous production, along with Mary Pickford, Kirkwood, Walthall and the rest.

The conservative minded chiefs of the Patents Company group were distinctly opposed to publicity for players. They had observed the salaries that theatrical managers had to pay for stars who caught the public’s favor, and they did not want a parallel experience for the motion picture.

But across the Atlantic the public wanted stars and personalities. The foreign selling agents of American film met the demand by inventing names for the favorite players, playing a bit upon patriotic preferences in their fabrications.

The foreign screen names for Edwin August afford an excellent example. In England he was billed in the pictures as Montague Lawrence, in Australia as Wilkes Williams, in Ireland as John Wilkes, in Germany as Karl von Bussing, and in the Orient as David Courtlandt.

Florence Lawrence was in that day the stellar light of Biograph casts. She began her screen career with her husband, Harry Salter, at Vitagraph and joined Biograph with the rise of Griffith to directorship.

Miss Lawrence’s screen appearances were so successful that the whole of the motion picture world came to know her as “The Biograph Girl.” It was an automatic, anonymous stardom—and presently to prove a factor in the Independent fight.

   
“THE WAY OF A MAN,” an old Biograph classic, with Mary Pickford, Florence Lawrence, and Arthur Johnson, the first famously romantic leading man of the screen.

Marion Leonard, an actress from the melodrama stage, in this brave year of 1909 set the high mark for screen salaries when she demanded an entire hundred dollars a week from Biograph, and compromised for seventy-five.

In the course of this summer, Florence LaBadie, an artist’s model, following in the footsteps of Mabel Normand, the fashion plate model, came to Biograph to play a bit and began the career which made her one of the great stars of the screen a few years later.

The demand for screen stories was growing with the industry and rumors of easy money “writing for the pictures” went through the gossip channels of the actor tribes, reaching picture patrons as well.

The beginning of the scenario writing craze was in sight. And through this, the motion picture added some notable figures to its personnel.

The technique of scenario writing began to evolve parallel to Griffith’s development of pictorial narration. Frank Woods was among the first and most famous of the scenario writers to come under this influence.

It all resulted from a chain of circumstance, beginning with the panic of ‘07, when Woods was on the staff of ‘The Dramatic Mirror’. The road shows suffered in that time of financial stringency and the Mirror’s advertising fell away to a whisper.

Just at this juncture a heated difference arose between Minnie Maddern Fiske, the actress, and her producers, Klaw & Erlanger. The K. & E. advertising support was withdrawn from the Mirror, which was controlled by the Fiskes.

As an emergency measure the Mirror sought advertising from the despised motion picture and Woods became the editor of a movie column to give support to the advertising solicitors. A few weeks of screen observation brought Woods in contact with Lee Dougherty, who was Biograph’s editorial department, and resulted in the sale of three “suggestions” for pictures, at $15 each.

One of Woods’ “suggestions” was a plot lifted from ‘Enoch Arden’, and entitled ‘After’ Many Years’. Griffith made it into a picture, with cutbacks and close-ups. Here contact was established between Griffith and the man who some years later was to bring him the script of ‘The Birth of a Nation’.

The whole ‘Dramatic Mirror’ office went scenario mad, when Woods’ success with “suggestions” became known. George Terwilliger, another member of the Mirror staff, also began a scenario writing career that led to directorship.

   
“THE RAVEN,” a production of Biograph’s “golden age,” with Herbert Yost in the leading role — He concealed his identity from the shame of the cinema under the name of Barry O’Moore, then.

Out in San Diego, Anita Loos, a sixteen year old high school girl, thought she had an idea for a picture and wrote an outline entitled, ‘The New York Hat’. She addressed it to “Manager Biograph Studio, New York” and dropped it in the mail.

Little Miss Loos of course had considerable knowledge of dramatic technique. Her father was R. Beers Loos, a newspaper man and the proprietor of a traveling repertoire show devoted to blood curdling melodramas. He belonged to that California school of the stage known as “The Coast Defenders” because of their travels up and down the Pacific shores west of the mountains.

It was in its way a famous dramatic region, too, out of which came such names as Laurette Taylor, Marjorie Rambeau, Blanche Bates, Frances Starr, and David Belasco.

Anita Loos was not permitted to play in her father’s wild and woolly dramas, but she had had a share of stage experience playing the part of a little boy with Nance O’Neil in ‘The Jewess’ some three years and again appearing in that ancient classic, ‘East Lynne’.

At San Diego the R. Beers Loos company had so improved its status, that Miss Anita was permitted to take a part. She attended school days and worked on stage at nights.

She had almost forgotten ‘The New York Hat’ when a check for $15 came through from Biograph in New York, along with a request for more scenarios.

Between scenes down in her dressing room in the San Diego theater, Miss Loos worked on her picture ideas, making notes for scenarios, on scraps of old lithographs, with the ardent ruby red lipstick from her makeup box.

In New York ‘The New York Hat’ had come to the attention of Griffith, who found in it a part that interested him. It fit the possibilities of a young actor he had met a few days before at luncheon, Lionel Barrymore.

Young Barrymore had just returned from a sojourn in Paris, where he had for a season been studying painting. Now he was ready to work.

So Barrymore and Mary Pickford appeared in ‘The New York Hat’, Anita Loos’ first scenario.

The motion picture was beginning to show evidences of an evolutionary tendency toward a much more complex form and a fuller development as a medium of expression. The relation of the printed word in screen titles to the ensuing action was yet undeveloped and the titling of 1909 and 1910 was crude in the extreme.

In many establishments, notably the Imp, big rolls of stock titles which could be used in most any drama were kept on hand, ready printed.

The stock title list included all such vital expressions as, “The next day,” “Ten years elapse,” “Happy ever afterward,” “Forgiven,” “Wedding bells,” and “One hour later.” The titles were hauled down by the yard and inserted where needed, by Jack Cohn, Imp’s film editor.

   
“A CORNER IN WHEAT,” presented by Biograph December 13, 1909, with Jeanie McPherson, in the plumed hat, Henry Walthall and Frank Powell, the director who later brought Bara to film fame.

The student of motion picture technique will find it of interest that the average motion picture of 1909-10 contained only eighty feet of titles per reel of a thousand feet. The same screen footage today requires ordinarily close to two hundred and fifty feet of titles. The screen story of today cannot all be told by the camera.

But the dramatic picture in 1909 had not yet come into the practically absolute dominance of the theatre screen which obtains today.

Topical subjects, camera records of actualities, still made up a pronounced percentage of the total output of motion pictures.

One of the topical screen sensations of the fall of ‘09 was the Great Northern’s pictures of the arrival of Doctor Frederick Cook at Copenhagen in Denmark, after his, then entirely accredited discovery of the alleged North Pole.

The Great Northern, as it was known in America, was the leading Scandinavian concern, better known in earlier days as the Nordisk. The Great Northern was represented in New York by Ingvald C. Oes, who figured in many of the movements of the Independents with whom the Great Northern was aligned.

The topical tendency which made so much of Doctor Cook on the screen was also exemplified in such pictures as Mark M. Dintenfass’ first production under his “Champion” brand, a picture purporting to cover the ride of Louis and Temple Abernathy, sons of Catch’em-Alive-Jack Abernathy, of Oklahoma, who came by pony from Oklahoma to New York, released in July, 1910. It was all made in New Jersey.

In story and topicals alike the one-reel picture had, by this time, become fairly well established, but there was abundance of “split reels,” which included a number of short comedies and sometimes scenic bits. Biograph, of the licensed manufacturers, issued many split reel comedies held in special esteem.

The first significant breaking over to multiple reels came from the European studios, notably with the ‘Fall of Troy’, and other like subjects equally unsuitable for American consumption.

The motion picture theatre was not yet prepared to believe that the public would be interested in any subject that occupied more than one reel, or fifteen minutes of screen time.

Europe’s efforts to make the screen the vehicle of the classics were largely wasted on the American market. The motion picture theatre men and their audiences wanted Indians and action. When P. P. Craft went out to roadshow a foreign production, entitled ‘Homer’s Odyssey’, a considerable pecentage of his patrons demanded to know if Mr. Homer was travelling with the show to make personal appearances.

A conspicuous effort at a realization of star values was made with a three-reel version of ‘Camille’, with Sarah Bernhardt in the title role.

The picture was loudly proclaimed in advertising by the agents of the amateurish French concern which made it, but it failed utterly of theatre attention. A curious sensation comes to the searcher into dusty files after Bernhardt’s death to find her quoted in those decade-old advertisements with the line: “I rely upon these films to make me immortal.”

Neither the great names of the stage nor of literature could make an impression on the motion picture mind of the time. The exhibitors, with their little nickelodeon shows and their audiences as well, were not of those who patronized the art of the stage or any form of literature, except, perhaps, the daily newspapers.

This world of the illiterati had to create its own stars, manufactured of its own fame with no share in and no relation to the renown and fame of careers and creations in the older arts.

‘Little Mary’ of Biograph, as they knew Mary Pickford, and ‘Broncho Billy’ of Essanay, were better known to this world of the motion picture than the late Mr. Homer, of ancient Greece, or Sarah Bernhardt, of modern France.

In the fall of ‘09 J. Stuart Blackton, at Vitagraph, produced ‘The Life of Moses’ in five reels. But it was released a reel at a time, one reel a week for five weeks, beginning in January, 1910.

No theatre thought of trying to present a full five reel show. They did not consider Moses a big enough drawing card.

   
“The Life of Moses” was presented by Vitagraph in 5 film reels beginning in January, 1910.

Vitagraph followed this pretentious effort with a three reel version of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, also released a reel at a time, in July of the same year.

What appears to have been the beginning of the feature movement, interestingly enough, is to be accredited to Pittsburgh, Pa., in 1909, where five years before John P. Harris and Harry Davis of the Grand Opera House had started the motion picture theatre movement in the East, liberating the film art from the constrictions of vaudeville programs. In this 1909, P. P. Craft, a showman of experience, with Colonel Cody, went into the film business with Harris and Davis.

Craft thought he saw opportunity for motion picture entertainment on a grander scale. He was full of the show instinct and an appreciation of the public’s liking for things done in a spectacular way. He arranged to put out a screen road show to be called “Harry Davis Motion Pictures—Direct from the Grand Opera House, Pittsburgh!”

The plan was fine, but pictures of a quality to support a road show charging fifty cents admissions in legitimate theatres were not to be had.

Craft’s next step was to plan production. If he could not buy the pictures he wanted he would proceed to make them. He was inspired of the notion that ‘The Life of Buffalo Bill’ would make a drawing title. He pursued the ‘Buffalo Bill’ show and overtook it on the lot at Williamsport, Pa.

Craft dickered for a contract and got it, paying Major Lillie, Colonel Cody’s manager, a thousand dollars in paper bills across the ticket wagon counting table.

In New York, Craft found P. A. Powers sufficiently alert to outside opportunities, amid the turmoil of the battles of the industry, to be interested. Powers and Craft became partners in the project. Paul Panzer, who had made his screen debut with Vitagraph, was employed as director. They proceeded to shoot large quantities of film.

When the shooting was all over and the dust settled in the editing room it was found that the only usable film was that portion of Colonel Cody’s story devoted to the Wild West show. The picture was assembled in three reels and offered for state’s rights sale.

Hyman Winik bought the first state, California, and opened with the picture in San Francisco. The picture was a pronounced success. Craft and Powers divided a net profit of fifty thousand dollars, which in that period was a sensational figure for a single picture.

This first feature was, of course, an Independent, or unlicensed, production. It caused many exhibitors to become Independents, sometimes against their will, as the Patents Company cancelled the licenses of all theatres playing unlicensed films. It is significant that the feature picture began with the Independents.

A tendency toward a sharper division between the creative dramatic pictures and the recorded topicals of the screen now developed with the rise of the first avowed news reels. The idea was imported, along with the establishment of an American studio by the French Pathé interests, identified with the Patents combine group.

In April, 1910, the American Pathé studio started in a remodelled cash register factory at Bound Brook, New Jersey. Among its first players were Paul Panzer and Octavia Handworth, who had been trained in the Vitagraph studios, Pearl White, a vaudeville performer with a dash of experience with the Powers Picture Play company, and Crane Wilbur. Louis Gasnier was sent from the French studios to be the first director.

As an incidental activity of this American enterprise, J. A. Berst, the manager, established the ‘Pathé Weekly’, with H. C. Hoagland as its first editor.

The news reel idea had first crystallized into defined form in France, somewhat earlier, with the establishment of the ‘Pathé Journal’, a little theatre devoted exclusively to the showing of news pictures.

   
Mary Pickford melodramatic with Arthur Johnson, 1909.
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