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Image Entertainment presents
"The Boy, having paid the price for his offence, is helped to break with the old life and rehabilitate himself."
DVD ReviewWhile early pioneers such as Edwin S. Porter are certainly notable for their advances in film technique, it was not until D.W. Griffith arrived on the scene that America could boast its first truly great film director. This two-disc set (one disc RSDL, the other single layer) provides 22 of Griffith's early shorts for the American Biograph company. Most of these are one-reel films, at first churned out one or even two per week. But as time progressed, Griffith started to make longer and longer films until he exploded onto the scene with his epic-length Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. But here we see him honing his craft and developing his editing techniques and thematic materials.
The program begins with a novelty item, Those Awful Hats, which is a comic bit to request ladies to remove their elaborate and view-blocking hats. The short is notable for featuring Mack Sennett, who would go on to found Keystone a few years later, and for its rare (for Biograph) use of special effects. Three other shorts from 1909 are included, the first being The Sealed Room, a little historical costume scene featuring a cuckolded king who walls up his wife and her lover, with an obvious Edgar Allan Poe flavor. Those who are familiar with Griffith only for his reputation for racism because of Birth of a Nation will find The Redman's View interesting. Here Griffith takes a decidedly sympathetic view to the Kiowa, depicting the whites driving them off their land as thoroughly evil. No doubt much of this attitude was derived from the Rousseau concept of the noble savage, but the racial empathy is nonetheless instructive. Wrapping up the year is a marvelous short, A Corner in Wheat. Griffith examines the wheat industry in less than fifteen minutes, intercutting between the farmers producing the grain, the consumers of the grain, and the commodity tycoon who corners the market in wheat, paying no attention to the cruel economic disruption he is thereby causing on both sides of the equation, but he suffers a suitably poetic fate. Griffith doesn't just tie it up neatly there, he also demonstrates how the impact of the tycoon's market manipulation goes on long afterwards.
The Unchanging Sea (1910), based on a Kingsley poem, features Mary Pickford in the lead. This is particularly interesting as one of the first Griffith California films, years before Hollywood was established, when Santa Monica was just a little fishing village. The Civil War features prominently in His Trust (1911) and In the Border States (1910). The former of these features an Uncle Tom character whose nobility contrasts with the monstrous blacks of Thomas Dixon that would later be seen in Birth of a Nation. Griffith was also interested in social issues, as exemplified by his call for old age insurance (disregarded for 25 years) in What Shall We Do With Our Old? (1911). For His Son (1912) similarly critiques rapacious industrialists, using the cocaine origins of Coca-Cola as a basis for making a moral statement about the detrimental effects of greed.
In 1912 such topical films were no longer selling well, however, and Griffith turned to straightforward drama and comedy, but he still kept firm sympathies with the poor and tenement dwellers. The Sunbeam (1912) features a rare comic turn by Griffith as he looks at love amongst two middle-aged people in a tenement and the havoc wreaked by the neighborhood kids, including a scarlet fever quarantine scare. But prefiguring Chaplin, Griffith mixes a dollop of poignancy into the comic mix, for the little girl to whom the title refers (Inez Seabury) is orphaned early on. Griffith remade his justly famous The Lonedale Operator (1911) as The Girl and her Trust (1912), featuring Dorothy Bernard in the Blance Sweet role as the spunky telegrapher. But already in just a year Griffith's technique has improved substantially, using props as a linking device that gives the piece a unity the earlier version lacks. The Female of the Species (1912) is a harrowing tale of survival and jealousy in the desert, shot on location. Claire MacDowell is the jealous widow, Mary Pickford is the grieving sister and Dorothy Bernard the other woman whom MacDowell blames for her husband's death. The use of desert exteriors and a willingness of the actresses to look horrible contributes greatly to the effectiveness of the film.
One is Business, The Other Crime is a fairly pedestrian effort equating official bribery with burglary. An Unseen Enemy (1912) features the film debut of Dorothy and Lillian Gish, the start of a relationship with Griffith that would last ten years. The story is a bit of a mess, though, with the maid somehow threatening the Gishes with a gun poked through a door, and they remain completely ineffectual and clueless as to who is holding them hostage. The Painted Lady (1912) is an odd excursion into insanity through repression, in the guise of a condemnation of cosmetics. Difficult to follow, one wonders if segments of this film are not lost. One of the most celebrated Biograph films is The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), which prefigures the gangster film, at least in making the gang members highly romanticized (as if the "musketeer" reference weren't romanticization enough). Lillian Gish manages to get herself drugged and spark off a gang war in this one.
Many of these films were preserved in the original negative when the archives of Biograph were contributed to the Museum of Modern Art. Ironically, one of Mary Pickford's most popular Biographs, The New York Hat (1912), was not well-preserved because it was still in circulation over 25 years later and had never made it into the archives. Pickford is utterly charming in this, and Lionel Barrymore makes his film lead debut as the minister who holds a secret trust fund for Mary; when he buys her an elaborate hat she admires, scandal ensues. When Charles Hill Mailes as Mary's father tears up the hat in a rage, it's hard to keep a dry eye when you see Mary's reaction. The Burglar's Dilemma (1912) is an entertaining little piece about a society man murdering his brother (Lionel Barrymore) and pinning it on a burglar. This also marks one of the first film uses of the good cop/bad cop routine. The House of Darkness (1913), set in an insane asylum, is billed here as Griffith's darkest film. I beg to differ with this assessment, finding it appallingly naïve in the extreme in its concept that a few chords of music can cure mental illness. The whole thing smacks of excessive optimism. A far better candidate for the 'darkness' title is the next short, Death's Marathon (1913). In a variant on the usual formula, Henry B. Walthall embezzles funds to pay his gambling debts, and a friend makes a wild chase to stop him as he toys with a pistol, talking on the phone with his wife, Lillian Gish. Walthall's actions are black in the extreme, particularly during his portentous telephone conversation.
The package wraps up with a pair of two-reel films from 1913, when Griffith was already starting to move toward making full-length feature films. The Mothering Heart is a sentimental piece featuring Lillian Gish in her first major role; her husband begins seeing someone else as her infant becomes gravely ill. Gish is profoundly moving in the last few minutes, making this one highly worthwhile despite its sentimentality. Finally, the most elaborte Griffith Biograph is The Battle at Elderbrush Gulch (1914). A pair of orphans, including Mae Marsh, go out west to live with their uncle, but he refuses to allow their puppies to stay in the house. When Mae pursues a puppy she runs into an Indian, and provokes a full-blown war between the natives and the white settlers. The concluding gun battle is quite spectacular, and even during less intense moments the late great Gaylord Carter's organ score keeps up the tension effectively.
Shortly afterward, Griffith could no longer bear to work in the short form, and Biograph refused to make feature films. A parting of the ways was thus inevitable, but at least through these films we see Griffith putting in his dues to develop the cinematic art as few others have done before or since. The influences on the Russians, French and later Americans are obvious and are even seen today (the editing of the last four Star Wars films is directly derived from Griffith's concluding sequence to Intolerance). This peek at the early years is certainly edifying and worth owning for any silent film fan.
Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B-
Image Transfer Review: Most of the films are transferred from the original camera negative, and they look quite beautiful, with lovely black levels and excellent detail. A few, such as The New York Hat, are taken from old prints and look significantly worse, with that film suffering nitrate decomposition in several spots. The Painted Lady also appears to be from an overly contrasty print. Otherwise, moderate speckling is the only defect, quite impressive for these films, now nearly 100 years old.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: Most of the music is provided by Robert Israel on the piano, with occasional violin accompaniment. Some small orchestra accompaniments from Sydney Jill Lehamn also appear, and organ accompaniments by John Muri and Gaylord Carter are found on the last two films, respectively. The sound is excellent, with no noticeable hiss or noise. Israel's piano has very nice presence, and doesn't at all sound compressed. The organ segments have excellent range, with some challengingly low portions.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 22 cues and remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by film historian Russell Merritt
Packaging: Double alpha
Layers Switch: 01h:47m:34s
Extras Review: The principal extra is a commentary by film historian Russell Merritt of UC-Berkeley. While the content is good, he has little to say about some films. Most of the time his comments conclude long before the films do, and on occasion he only has 3 or 4 sentences of comment. Production notes by Merritt are also included, but they are almost entirely duplicated by the commentary. The layer change is very badly placed, right in the middle of For His Son. Why not in between films, or on an intertitle? While the one-reelers don't need to be broken down into chapters, the two two-reelers really should be, since they run nearly half an hour each.
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsA beautiful set of Griffith's early works, with a somewhat sparse commentary. Anyone interested in the history of cinema will want to take a look at these highly influential short works.
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