I couldn’t allow winter to pass into spring without paying tribute to one of my favorite short films. It isn’t a film about winter or winter’s end and spring’s return — it takes place and was shot in winter, but this little movie and the story of its making IS uniquely a story of the weather, of winter in the city. It was made when the technology for making films was relatively simple and portable, but just a bit more challenging than pointing a digital video camera at a subject. Especially if your subject is a group of two dozen or so regular and part-time employees under your supervision. The employees are a company of actors and technicians on the clock, and your project for today — in the planning stage for several weeks — is to shoot footage for a film scheduled for release in little more than a month. But now your plans have been undone by a late-night/early morning winter storm. In New York City; in January. Not this past winter, bad though it was for New York and much of the Northeast. No, this storm hit the City in another January more than a hundred winters ago — January, 1909.
On that distant January morning at the American Biograph and Mutoscope Company, second only to Edison as the largest film production company based in America, David Griffith is personally responsible for today’s work schedule for this growing and increasingly profitable company, and their work force of actors, writers, technicians, bookkeepers, carpenters, seamstresses and general laborers. New York City, home to the “Biograph” studio and headquarters, and the center of film making in America, has been hit by a fast-moving, overnight snowstorm, followed by a freezing rain, all without the forewarning of doppler radar. It has made travel precipitous, and the employees are straggling in at well after 9:00 AM.
But the work scheduled for today is far from lost; because an outdoor, on-location shoot wasn’t planned — they could still work the remainder of the day in the studio having only lost a couple of hours’ on the schedule, and what wasn’t finished at normal quitting time could get done on overtime. But that would require approval by a company executive, maybe Harry Marvin, who only five months ago gave Griffith a vote of confidence, signing him to a written contract as film director — a contract for one year, at $45.00 per week salary, with an incentive: a “mill” — 1/10th of 1% — royalty for each foot of film sold. It sounds like a pittance, but before the year was up it amounted to more than $500 a month, astronomical for a time when one dollar well spent could feed a couple for a week.
* * *
Around Madison Square Park and the intersection of Broadway, Fifth Avenue and Twenty-third Street, in front of the construction site of the Flatiron Building (to the rear of the camera operator), the first work crews were out well before dawn in work cars, ahead of the passenger cars in revenue service. Not a single passenger car can get out and travel in service until the work cars forge ahead first, equipped with front-end plows, like “cowcatchers” for snow and ice, and workers on foot in gangs with shovels and wire brooms to clear ice from along the rails and switches — all necessary to clear the right of way and make streets passable for hundreds of thousands of men, women, even children, all trying to get to work on time and not lose a single hour’s pay.
* * *
Having neatly compartmentalized and tucked away for now those thoughts of business, Griffith begins to think of the creative possibilities, natural to someone who has been an actor and writer most of his adult life, and now a filmmaker. Outdoors this morning is a sparkling, icy white-crystal City. Gone is the grime, soot, ashes, manure — all invisible beneath a pristine winter blanket. From the rooftops and gutters and cornices and dormers, on the porch steps and railings, on the wide concrete sidewalks and on white-covered streets of brick and Belgian block, stone and brick surfaces where snow clings and stubbornly refuses to melt at the first touch of sun unlike modern asphalt pavement. It is 1909 and though automobiles are a common site on City streets, they do not yet dominate traffic and they are not the first concern of the city work crews sent out to clear and maintain the right-of-way on public streets.
Recognizing the artistic possibilities the snow and ice have given him, Griffith knows that if he can pull together the necessary elements within the next hour or so, he can shift today’s production schedule to another time, and use this “bad weather” to creative advantage. He can offset those couple of hours lost in the beginning of the work day and make something that couldn’t otherwise be done in normal conditions: a “location shoot” with ice and snow as backdrop for a story that could be shot in the City in all its snow-covered, white roof-topped, glistening wonder. Central Park is minutes away . . hmm, but a story what kind of winter story . . . he quickly rifles the file drawers for winter stories and scenarios . . Nothing there! Well, let’s just take the damn equipment up to the Park and shoot! Everyone keep your winter coats on, ladies if you need a cute winter hat and didn’t wear one this morning, check the costumes, find some gloves mittens, muffs, whatever’s there we’ll meet at front entrance in 15 minutes!. . And off they went to Central Park, to create early cinema verite, “Politician’s Love Story.”