At Winter’s End, A Politician’s Love Story

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.

* * *

Here, and in the next three sets of images below, is Madison Square Park and the intersection of 23rd Street, Broadway and Fifth Avenue during an earlier snow storm, in 1902.

 

This film of the 1902 blizzard was shot by an Edison cameraman, possibly Edwin S. Porter, from the front of the construction site of the Flatiron Building.

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.

These three frames from the 1902 film of the blizzard capture the traffic on Fifth Avenue, with the construction site of the Flatiron Building (far left), and the Fifth Avenue Hotel (center and right) on the opposite side of the avenue.

 

Turn-of-the-century transportation in New York: rail, horse, foot. Left Frame: streetcar conductor at front of car approaching the intersection. Center Frame: a “work car,” a rail vehicle outfitted to maintain the right-of-way, heads in opposite direction (note rail worker with hand shovel at right of frame); Far Right: Horse-drawn carriages are in Madison Square Park, as pedestrians and a streetcar cross the intersection. Contrast these images with those below of Central Park seven years later, in 1909, as automobiles became common (even in bad weather). . . .

* * *

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.”

Political part “boss” Tim Crogan (played by future legend and self-titled, “King of Comedy,” Mack Sennett), furious over a newspaper cartoon, “Peters Corner,” linking him to corruption. He gets his revolver and charges over to the newspaper office to confront this cartoonist “Peter.”

Boss Tim’s appearance with gun in hand causes the newsroom employees to dive under their desks, all except cartoonist “Peters” (played by Marion Leonard),who nonchalantly turns and touches his gun admiringly, then removes it from his hand. Tim is stunned that ‘Peter” is a beaufiful woman and is instantly rendered a babbling idiot.

Peters hands back the gun, and calmly escorts Tim to the door . . .

Not giving up, Tim returns again, but this time asks the lovely cartoonist to have lunch with him. She says no, and again shows him the door.

Left: Back in his office, Tim now looks lovingly at the same cartoon by the lovely Peters with whom he is thoroughly smitten. Right: At the paper, Peters puts on her hat to go out.

Left, Tim leaves his office to go for a walk; Right, Peters heads out for lunch.

Tim, hoping the cold, fresh air will revive his spirits, goes for a walk in Central Park, and then rests on a park bench.

Here and immediately below, Tim watches as couples, arm in arm, walk by.

A young couple cuddles as they pass Tim (the woman in light coat is Linda Arvidson Griffith, actress wife of D.W. Griffith).

An elderly couple nuzzles close together, and Tim observing them with disgust, doesn’t wait for their inevitable kiss . . .

He bolts upright, and leaves to find a path less travelled by lovers, old or young.

As he sits down at another bench, the parade of couples continues, then . . .

Then Tim sees the lady cartoonist walking by with a female friend . . .

He attempts join her for a walk, but she’s not interested and walks on . . .

Tim walks alone; right, Peters is not alone — a sinister-looking stranger looms just ahead on the path . . .

The stranger makes an unwelcome advance, but Tim comes down in time to see if the stranger is giving her a problem . . .

Tim shoves the stranger off the path, into the snow, and out of the way.

Tim asks if he may escort her the rest of the way . . . a ray of sunlight shines on them, and she agrees . . .

. . . and they become one of many couples arm-in-arm on a snowcovered path in Central Park on a sunny afternoon in January

Advertisements

About Gene Zonarich

I'm the King of the silent pictures -- I'm hidin' out 'til talkies blow over . . .
This entry was posted in Biograph, cinematography, D. W. Griffith, Film History, New York, silent film, Urban History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to At Winter’s End, A Politician’s Love Story

  1. Daniel LoPilato says:

    Thanks for the wonderful article! Any chance these films exist in digital format?

    • Thank you!
      Yes, they do exist on dvd. For the Griffith/Biograph short films:
      http://www.grapevinevideo.com has a series of six “volumes” of selections from 1908 to 1910. Although this only covers a fraction of Griffith’s output from the period, it is the best option outside of the Library of Congress. Although you can also watch a number of them on You-tube (just search “D.W. Griffith”). The “Blizzard of 1899” film I believe is also on You-tube, but was included in a compilation dvd “Unseen Cinema – Early American avant-garde film, 1894-1941,” probably still available on Amazon or other outlets. The picture quality of all of these is highly variable. It took a fair amount of work to make the still frame captures from some of these look good enough to use for my purposes on this website.

  2. Daniel LoPilato says:

    I’ve seen a few on YouTube, but with compression and what not they’re definitely not in the best of shape, so I’ll have to look into the Biograph collection. The Unseen Cinema collection is fascinating; I recently picked up the disc “Picturing a Metropolis”, and looking back “The Blizzard” is right at the beginning. Thanks for the response!

Your Comments and Opinions are Welcome! Leave a Reply . . .

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s