You may have noticed and been attracted or puzzled by the images in the header of this site. If so, they have served their purpose. They are three frame enlargements from “A Calamitous Elopement,” a short (738 feet) film shot in and around 11 East 14th Street in Manhattan on July 9 and 11, 1908. It was the fourth short film made under the direction of D. W. Griffith at the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. 11 E 14th St was the Company headquarters and film studio. In these three frames shot at the entrance to 11 East 14th St., you see four actors. Arthur Johnson (the tall man in the light suit and Griffith’s first “leading man”), Linda Arvidson Griffith (actress and wife of D.W.), an unknown actor grappling with the trunk, and D. W. Griffith portraying a not-so-friendly NYPD Officer. Frame three likely marks the last time Arthur Johnson, or any actor, gave direction to Mr. Griffith.
Eleven East 14th Street was the location, the numbered street address of a building in the City of New York that once served, legend has it, as the residence of a long-time dweller of Manhattan, a veteran of the Revolution whose memories of that City stretched back to its torching by the British Army. It was a three-story sandstone mansion constructed in the 1840s or early 50’s in the Federal Style, with sharp italianate cornices, and windows and doorways with sharp but shallow hooded overhangs.
On 14th Street, long stretches of similar buildings tight upon each other gave the appearance of row-houses as opposed to stand-alone mansions of the wealthy. (Is it fair to call them the “McMansions” of their day?) Set back from the street and wide sidewalk was a small front yard with just enough room for some greenery to give the feel of a country setting. And in the 1840’s and 50’s, most of New York City north of 14th Street was considered “the country!“
Number 11, like many on 14th Street, had imposing stone front steps bound by cast iron railings and brass fittings. These steps led to the large main entrance door and second floor, which could be a small reception space leading to the main living area or, many years later when converted for business use, an entrance foyer or lobby lined with small offices on each side. In the rear of the building was a large ballroom ideal for hosting large gatherings for dinner parties or local political rallies and charitable events. In its second life after serving as residence, this building, this ballroom, became a studio for motion photography. And it was here that it can be said, with as much certainty as our dissection and interpretation of the past allows us, a new art began to take form.
“When the Movies Were Young.”
Fourteenth street at the turn of the 20th century had changed dramatically from an upscale residential street, removed from the turmoil and traffic of the City’s business districts, to a mixture of shops, small businesses, taverns, and theaters on East 14th, while West 14th, to the west of Fifth Avenue, grew to include larger businesses, and an armory. Vaudeville acts, to which movies were merely a supplement, were the common form of entertainment at these theatres, located primarily on East 14th, and adjacent Union Square, which even then had long been a site for public gatherings, and particularly rallies for political and social causes. Broadway, running northwest to southeast and intersecting Union Square, had been associated with live theater entertainment since at least the mid-eighteenth century, but houses for the performance arts of all kinds had gradually moved northward, along with the upscale residential neighborhoods. In so doing, it left a trail of “lower class” entertainments straggling along behind.
Legitimate theater, that is, theater as a literary and performance art form, was by the late 19th century concentrated further north on and around Broadway in the streets of the 20’s and 30’s. The area we know as Times Square was just entering its long association with live theater, and the newly completed subway, the IRT line, began to carry theater patrons to new establishments — upscale restaurants, playhouses and hotels in what was then known as “Longacre Square.” With the completion of the subway in 1904 and the construction of the Times Building that same year, the crossroads of Seventh Avenue and Broadway between 42nd and 47th Streets, began to be called Times Square — and was well on the way to becoming, for better or worse, the New York City icon it is today (and, yes, with New Year’s Eve celebrations, too).
Left behind on lower Broadway, Union Square and Fourteenth Street, the vaudeville houses increasingly incorporated motion pictures into their programs and then, no longer a mere supplement to the live variety acts, the movies became their featured attraction. It was at such a venue, Proctor and Keiths Union Square Theater, that the first film directed by D. W. Griffith, “The Adventures of Dollie,” “premiered” on a warm summer evening in 1908. The occasion was eloquently recounted by Linda Arvidson Griffith, Mrs. D. W. Griffith, in her 1925 memoir, “When the Movies Were Young:”
“What a day it was at the studio! . . . No time to get home and pretty-up for the party. [We] rubbed off the grease paint and slapped on some powder; gave the hair a pat and a twist; at Silsbee’s on Sixth Avenue and Fourteenth Street, we picked up nourishment; and then we beat it to Union Square. A world’s premiere indeed — a tremendously important night to so many people who didn’t know it. No taxis — not one private car drew up at the curb. The house filled up from passers-by — frequenters of Union Square — lured by a ten-cent entertainment. These were the people to be pleased — they who had paid out their little nickels and dimes. So when they sat through Dolly’s [sic] seven hundred feet, interested, and not a snore was to be heard, we concluded we’d had a successful opening night.”
First, just imagine: in 1925 looking backward to a time when movies were truly young, in their infancy. Her memoir is poignant as much as eloquent, not only because it is written with the memory of their failed marriage still fresh, but because movies had not been the goal of either Linda or D. W. Griffith and, as she recounted that night in 1908, she believed that if he had known that his life would not be the theater, but instead,
“. . . movies, movies, nothing but movies, David Griffith would probably then and there have chucked the job, or, keeping it, would have wept bitter, bitter tears.”
But David Wark Griffith realized that if these movies and not the theater, the live theater which had been his life and the stuff of his dreams for nearly half his 33 years — if these “movies” were to be his niche, his lot in life, he would make them his way. From his vantage point on East 14th Street, or on location in Fort Lee, New Jersey, Cuddebackville in upstate New York, the Hudson Palisades, or the Atlantic shores of Connecticut (and soon the shores of the Pacific in California) — he looked out and saw the field was wide open.
Few people in the moving picture business in 1908 took movies seriously beyond the money they generated.. Even fewer saw them as art, as something permanent, as permanent as the works of Shakespeare or Dickens. Intuitively, Griffith did. If movies were to be his lot in life, he would make them something important, something permanent: something we would call, without hesitation or hedge, art. With Biograph as his laboratory for the next five years and 400 films, D. W. Griffith, more than any other single figure, transformed this 19th century sideshow novelty into the dominant art form of the 20th century.
Post #1 Postscript:
I honestly welcome discussion of this once nearly unassailable conclusion. For several decades now it has been clear that Griffith did not “invent” many things attributed to him by well-meaning co-workers, friends, critics and academics. Film study has moved away from the “Griffith-centric” theory of film that still ruled when I first became interested in the subject in the mid-1970s. Fortunately for Griffith’s legacy, unlike nearly all other film makers of his era, most of the 400-plus short films he made between 1908 and 1913 still survive, though many in the form of paper prints for copyright in the Library of Congress, and not readily viewable by the general public. But in the last two decades, many more early films that were thought lost, or were completely unknown to living memory, have been discovered, and so more film makers can now be studied as their films surface with time; as national archives and private collectors review their holdings to see if their nitrate-based film treasures are still intact or can be brought back to life with careful (and expensive) restoration. But I am not alone in thinking that we are nearly at the end of this discovery period. It is already 82 years since the last American silent film was made, and more than 115 since the first, and the preservation of this cinematic legacy is paramount. It is an often formidable task to understand the past, but an impossible one if evidence of that past no longer exists.