THE “PICTORIAL” D. W. GRIFFITH

In one of the first California films from early 1910, "As it is in Life," Griffith fills the frame not with controlled motion but with pure chaos -- the unexpected surges of movement as pigeons on a ranch take flight, land, then fly again while crowding and sometimes obliterating the image of the two actors in the scene, the veteran character player George Nicholls and child actress Gladys Egan. These birds may not have been as frightening on-screen, but unlike Hitchcock's, they were all real.

In the relatively brief time I’ve been writing essays for this site, I’ve expended thousands of words on the work of D. W. Griffith, while maintaining from day one that it is not a Griffith site, or even a motion picture site.   But I’ve noticed in very recent years that with the tremendous volume of information now available about early film, the most familiar early film “icon,” Griffith, is ignored in favor of less well-known figures or those discovered in more recent years.  Don’t misunderstand — I like the exploration of new landscapes where few have gone before.  And it is probably an innately human tendency to discard the old in favor of the new.  Unfortunately, the old ideas and now-outdated information that SHOULD be discarded — the “old school” image of Griffith as the “father of film” — seem to me to have given people an excuse to ignore his place in film as if he were a 20th century “Columbus” beaten to the important discoveries by others, and now not only discredited, but reviled for his all-too-human shortcomings.

Arthur Johnson and Linda Arvidson Griffith explore the beach at Santa Monica while Director D.W. Griffith and cinematographer G.W. "Billy" Bitzer explore the cinematic possibilities of 35mm "motography." From "The Unchanging Sea," Biograph, March 1910, during the Company's first California trip.

Yet one doesn’t even have to get into the various theories, revised or not, or the arguments in favor of this over that to appreciate many things that Griffith did that have not been given proper emphasis, in the past and especially now.  And while you can say something similar about many important artists, Griffith’s work is so vast and deep and obvious — it has survived in nearly complete form (and even for this he seems a target for disparagement), that he seems perversely to have become as Melville’s “Ishmael” — he or rather his films alone are left to tell his story . . . well, not if I having anything to say about it — and definitely not the stories told by the film critics of the 30s and 40s and the one-woman band led by Lillian Gish.

This post is intended to give you a very basic look at one area of Griffith’s work that has not been given enough credit (or even study?) — his ability to “stage” his productions for the 35mm film camera.  Griffith’s experience was, of course, theater — acting and writing for the stage.  He knew what looked good and effective compositionally in the “proscenium” (the live theater equivalent of the film frame or the film projected on a screen) from the audience perspective.  Correspondingly, he was able from very early on to transfer this ability to the new medium of film and the film “frame.”

[I must mention before going any further that I am discussing here the short films — one and two reel movies — made by Griffith and the Biograph Company of actors and technicians from 1908 to 1912.  These Biograph shorts represent the majority of his work and as such have an inherent variety absent in his “epics,” his best-known films of the ‘teens and early 20s.  Those works, by their very nature go far beyond the intimacy of the early short films.  That is not to say they don’t have their intimate, “small” moments — of course they do.  But epics are made and painted with a broad brush and are generally composed of big moments interspersed with small ones.  The short films by contrast allow one to look at a film from start to finish without getting bogged down in one film, and several if not more of Griffith’s epics could have and have had entire books devoted to them.]

Having illustrated my posts with hundreds of single, still frames from his movies, I have noticed the composition of these shots much more than I ever did while they were in motion.  But Griffith was hardly the only — or even the first — maker of early film to come from the same theatrical background.  The difference?  His work in the short films format doesn’t look stagey to us, for the most part — even many of his products as a first year director (or of his first two months for that matter).  They have (even as stills) a feeling of movement and depth, a pictorial beauty and impact that few from that period can match.

Griffith’s most apparent influences in these early films are the theater and painting.  The opening shots of “Betrayed by a Handprint,” from mid 1908, provide an excellent example of stage-based composition with a painterly twist:

Immediately ABOVE and BELOW, "Betrayed by a Handprint," 1908. Heavy theatrical influences are evident in the composition of the frame and screen in the earliest Griffith films shot within the small confines of the Biograph film "studio" -- a converted ballroom in an early 19th century stone mansion on East 14th Street, NYC. Notice how Griffith stacks the figures from the front of the frame (where Florence Lawrence leans heavily on the table, to the rear where the "butler" watches the proceedings from the "darkness" at the rear left of each frame. Also, the figures are in various stages of a turning motion, with each figure in different position with respect to the camera, giving a strong feeling of motion even in these still frames. However, much of the remainder of the film is done in the "full-frontal" style of early narrative "story" film.

The influence of painting on Griffith's film composition is also evident in these early films (painting was also a major influence on photography nearly from its invention up to the advent of motion photography), and would become more evident in Griffith's later epic works, "Intolerance," 1916, in particular.

Although this sequence from "The Cardinal's Conspiracy," 1909 (with Florence Lawrence at right in the first two frames with an unknown actress at left), seems in these stills to be nothing more than a filmed stage play. However, the motion of just one or two figures, set against a darker background, prevents the scene from being static. Also, the curtain in the far right of each of these three frames adds another element, seemingly a passive element at first, will shortly serve to introduce another character (Frank Powell) who is observing the scene from the "sidelines."

Much more is involved in composing for the motion picture camera, regardless of format, than we normally think of, especially when viewing it in still form — the  three dimensions of the frame (side to side, top to bottom, front to rear) plus the lighting and the focus — even with a still, non-mobile camera.  Panoramic shots, or “pans,” i.e., those moving horizontally in one smooth motion, were almost non-existent in early film, and are not significant in Griffith’s work until mid-1909 and “The Country Doctor,” one of the more famous examples of a pan shot in early American film, especially one used for pictorial purposes, as opposed to following the motion of an object such as a moving vehicle, object, animal or person.

“3D” Filming in 2D and the West Coast exposure:

It is funny to hear the fuss, the debates pro and con over “3D” when any beginning filmmaker soon learns that he is shooting in the same three dimensions we all perceive every day of our existence.  Although the “final product” of “2D” film or video is perceived as a “flat” two dimensions, we know instinctively that varying the distances among objects in a given shot will add depth even to a 2D product.

Griffith found the open spaces and incredible variety of landscapes in California to be a limitless source of visual inspiration, as they are to even an average artist, and Griffith and the Biography company of California dreamers were hardly average.  Almost immediately, Griffith and Bitzer were drawn to the Pacific coast at Santa Monica and produced these very painterly slices of “motion photography” in “The Unchanging Sea,” from early 1910:

The Power of Three:

Griffith makes full use of this “power trio,” Claire McDowell, Mary Pickford and Dorothy Bernard, to propel the plot and the weird interaction among the “Female of the Species,” shot in California in 1912, and one of Mary Pickford’s final Biograph appearances.  As McDowell and Bernard fill the space nearest the camera,  Griffith uses Pickford who is slightly further back in the field to “comment” on the action as she reads the others’ expressions and emotions, shifting her gaze back and forth from one to the other of the two women in the near ground of the scene.  The effect this has on us as viewers is to focus our attention on Pickford even though she seems at first glance to be a passive element in the composition

Griffith also understands what I call for lack of a better phrase the “power of addition” to the film frame, in this case the introduction of a new,”fourth” element, BELOW:  A child of dead native American parents brings the estranged woman (Dorothy Bernard), who is suspected of being responsible for the death of McDowell’s husband, back into a previously “vacant” position in the frame, and thereby providing a “reunion” among the women and resolution to the story.

In the three sets of images BELOW, The use of a diagonally staged scene is something Griffith returned to again and again, with hills or mountain meadows providing the “slant” that is reflected in the composition of the characters, as in several scenes from “Renunciation,” 1909, with Mary Pickford, Harry Solter and James Kirkwood:

However, in the husband’s death scene, BELOW, in “Female of the Species,” 1912, the characters fill the foreground against an otherwise level (though mountainous) background in a diagonal from the lower left of the frame upward, with the characters filling the foreground, each at a slightly different distance from the camera to give depth to the front of the frame that would otherwise be dominated by the rugged Sierras:

This is also a good time to insert someone else into the discussion besides Griffith and his actors — not only his primary cinematographer, G. W. “Billy Bitzer, but also Arthur Marvin who served as cinematographer on many of the pre and post Griffith Biograph productions (who was also brother of Biograph Executive Harry Marvin).

If you are going to study and credit Griffith as a visual artist, the man taking the shots deserves credit — at a bare minimum — for setting up the shots to the director’s liking; or for actually suggesting them to the director.  Bitzer was with Biograph from the very beginning.  He was their chief technician and photographer and conducted the first exhibitions of the Biograph camera and film — when it used the 65mm film format from 1896 to about 1904 — as the new Company toured significant theatrical (primarily vaudeville) venues in the northeast in late summer of 1896.

Much of his early, non-narrative, “actualities” work is still available in the “American Avant Garde” collection covering films of New York City from the turn of the 20th century, such as the “Blizzard of 1899” photographed in Union Square in New York that I included to illustrate the “A Politician’s Love Story” post (see the “March 2011” archive).

“Politician’s Love Story,” 1909, was a film Griffith and Bitzer made by the seats of their pants after an overnight snow and ice storm blanketed New York and, of course the site that made a convenient “location shoot,” Central Park.  Although the first half of this short film takes place indoors and is largely a pretext for the visual charms of the remainder of the film, the memorable second half was shot in the park, and (judging by shadows, taking into account the time of the year, January, and the direction of the sun in the park) photographed between late morning and late afternoon.

The opening shot of the film’s outdoors sequence, with Mack Sennett taking a lunch-hour stroll through the Park, is a nice bright and crisp winter image, with a good amount of detail, even of the headlights of the approaching park “traffic”:

Next, the “elderly” couple (played by the not-so-elderly Anita Hendrie and her real-life husband, actor David Miles) annoys Sennett (and confuses future film historians in the concluding sequence of the film).

Below, Bitzer is still able to get some good shots in the opposite direction of the earlier shots, but is fast losing the light on a late afternoon in the short days of January:

Immediately BELOW, the sun peeks out into the faces of the new “couple,” Sennett and Marion Leonard, perhaps giving Bitzer a visual idea for the ending — to shoot the film’s final scene with his camera facing the waning light and his actors in near-sillouette.

Below are frames from the concluding shots of “Politician’s Love Story.”  Having shot everything except the film’s conclusion where the politician (Mack Sennett) and the lady cartoonist (Marion Leonard) finally get together and stroll arm-in-arm among the other couples in the park, Bitzer took a calculated risk and shot directly facing the setting sun as his actors approached from a distance, up to his camera, then past.  These were the results:

While their faces in near-sillouette are not as distinct as they appeared in the park scenes shot earlier in the afternoon, the softer focus works well against the bright snow and ice-covered landscape.  In this sequence, our couple emerges out of a mass of other couples, not distinct at first, and it is easy to confuse who is who until the final seconds (as seen in the last two sets above).  Some historians have debated whether or not the couple is being shown years later and much older, reminiscing about their first meeting.  The shots just preceding the above (some of which you can see in the first set of the three above) do show one of the elderly couples (played by Anita Hendrie and David Miles) that Sennett had encountered earlier in his stroll in the park, which may be the source of some of the confusion.   But by isolating these still frames, it is pretty clear to me that the entire scene takes place the same day, time and place, with the same newly bonding couple who had only hours earlier been such an unlikely match.  So who needed dating services in 1909 anyway (they did have “matchmakers,” though)?  A stroll on a beautiful snowy day would do just fine.

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About Gene Zonarich

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

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