The best of the short films made by D. W. Griffith at Biograph from 1908 to 1912 have the qualities of the best short stories in the literature of the period, stories of common people, their lives, loves, losses, hopes and regrets, tinged (or often singed) with irony that was, in some cases, quite bitter. It was melodrama — but in a stark, radically altered form adapted for cinema, with the close proximity of its audience — the camera — and its abbreviated format, the single reel of motion picture film.
Griffith was learning to tell his stories more effectively within the short medium by means of editing, sometimes using what seemed a radical approach. He would edit together images of stark contrast — disparate, yet connected scenes — to evoke an emotional response from his audience. One of the best early examples of this technique, is found in The Broken Locket, a single reel drama from 1909, a film that also gives us Mary Pickford working toward a new mode of motion picture acting.
It was a new art form that required new thinking by the artist, and it defied the best efforts of many of them — the actors and filmmakers. More often than not, early film actors and their directors gave in to the histrionic code — the gestural acting approach of classic stage melodrama — to tell a story. But in the early Biograph films from 1908-09, we see the director and his actors using whatever seemed effective, in a mixture of styles among the actors, and even within the individual performance of a single actor.
Mary Pickford, having learned the methods of melodrama in her ten years on its stage, gives us an excellent, early example of a performance balancing (or perhaps teetering) between the classic gestural approach and a new and more natural, method that she would later call “emotional” acting, and scholars and historians of theater would dub “verisimilar” acting. It was a new approach in film performance. Adapted from developments in theater, within a handful of years it became the artistic ideal for motion picture acting.
By the mid-summer of 1909, Griffith had directed more than 150 short films. For Mary Pickford, who joined Biograph in April of that year, The Broken Locket was her 28th appearance before the Biograph camera, about sixteen of which could be called “lead” roles, including Ruth King, the ever-patient heroine of this single reel drama. Filmed over a period of three days, August 10, 11 and 19, 1909, it is a story that could be told solely with interior scenes. But perhaps taking advantage of clear weather and wishing to flee New York for at least one hot August day, several sequences were shot outdoors in Edgewater, New Jersey, including those that Griffith uses to “bookend” the film, another technique he found especially expressive for the short drama format.
[A note on the commentary that accompanies the images: the narration in italics is from the synopsis of The Broken Locket in The Biograph Bulletin, No. 275, of September 16, 1909. The commentary in brackets [ ] beneath the pairs of images is mine.
The Biograph Bulletin was an in-house publication written by the story department of the American Biograph Company, issued weekly from 1898 to 1912. Intended for the film press and exhibitors, it gave a detailed synopsis of each new film release. In addition to advertising the latest Biograph product, the “Bulletin” enabled critics to better follow the story of each film for review purposes (in an era where movie reviews were often not much more than a synopsis of the plot), and aided the theater operator (who often had the synopsis read aloud during the screening) in promoting and exhibiting the film. Although most, if not all, Biograph films were issued with intertitles, some of these explanatory inserts no longer exist or exist separately from the actual film. In the case of The Broken Locket, accessible copies for viewing have no intertitles.]
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The Broken Locket.
A realistic story of man’s weakness.
George Peabody is a young man who has been giving free rein to his inclinations, the principal one being drink.
One might have concluded he was lost, but there was the chance which the hand of Providence always bestows in the person of pretty little Ruth King, who had secretly loved George since their childhood days.
[The opening shot, of Ruth (Mary Pickford) at her gate watching as the man she loves, George (Frank Powell) stumbles out of a local “beer garden” with his equally inebriated companion (Mack Sennett).]
She succeeds in persuading him from his reckless life, . . .
[Ruth separates George from his drinking buddy only after she falls on her knees, imploring George to stop, and George motions his pal to go on without him.]
. . . and he determines to cut off from his old loose companions by going out West and making a man of himself.
[George indicates he is through with liquor, and in the next shot, has cleaned up his act and is leaving for prospects “out West.” However, despite the positive spin given the situation by The Biograph Bulletin synopsis, George doesn’t seem to take Ruth all that seriously.]
Bidding Ruth and her mother good-bye, he realizes that he loves his little preserver and promises to return worthy of her love and confidence.
They plight their troth with their first kiss and a heart-shaped locket, which Ruth wears, she breaking it in two,
[Unlike similar, earlier examples — the bar of soap in Betrayed by a Hand Print (Aug. 1908) or the revolver in At the Altar (Feb. 1909), Griffith chooses not to give us a close-up shot of the titular object of the story, the locket! Instead we get something based not on a device of film editing, but of acting — the use of an object, in a careful, almost elaborate manner by Mary Pickford: Slowly, she holds the locket up to her breast with both hands, breaks it in two, holds up the two halves, kisses one and hands it to George. Rather than remaining a mere object, Pickford (and Griffith) imbue the object with a narrative power. We never see both halves again; the broken locket is established as, and remains, the symbolic core of the story.]
. . . giving George one side while she retains the other, which symbolized the reunion of their hearts with his return.
[George is halfway out the door before Ruth’s mother (Kate Bruce) — and Ruth’s sobs — call him back for a more sincere parting gesture, a kiss.]
[For a moment, Ruth’s face betrays her doubt — or is it merely sadness at George’s departure. Ruth will spend many hours (and several shots in the film) in contemplation at the window — Griffith will use the window as the fulcrum as his edits alternate between the two dramatically different lives being led on either side of it.]
George is fortunate to strike the West in the midst of a boom, and being an affable, bright chap, meets with success, and is soon a favorite with his employers. His life here up to this is without a blemish, but has he strength? We shall see, for as gold is tested by the fire, so a man is by temptation, and George’s trial comes with the persuasion to take a drink.
At first he holds out against it, but at last yields, and that drink was his undoing.
[Hard liquor and Marion Leonard as the “Mexican girl” prove too much for the weak George Peabody. His descent and degradation — and its impact upon his soon-to-be-forgotten girl back home — has just begun.]
Once more the craving for liquor is induced and his promise to his little sweetheart in the East is forgotten, he falls an easy victim of a Mexican girl, who pretends to love him, assuming him a rather good catch.
[The Mexican girl finds the half-locket that Ruth has given George. She mocks and teases him. He proves to her how little meaning the locket has for him as he kisses the Mexican girl’s hand. Griffith cuts immediately to the frames Below, the kiss of George and the Mexican girl “interrupted” by the prayerful pleadings of Ruth for George to be sober and faithful.]
Meanwhile, faithful little Ruth is counting the days as they drag on towards the time she imagines he will return.
[Ruth is on her knees (once again) praying/pleading for George. As she looks outside the window, we see in the next cut George and the Mexican girl, about to write her out of his life.]
The Mexican girl, to secure him as her own, writes a letter to Ruth purporting to come from one of his male chums to the effect that he had been killed.
[After an indefinite period of waiting, Ruth is thrilled to receive the letter from the West — until she reads the cruel hoax being played on her: that George is “dead.”]
The shock of this letter throws the poor girl into a delirium of fever,
[Shock, fever and blindness, literary metaphors for emotional breakdown and catatonic depression, grip Ruth; but in Ruth’s case, her all-too-real blindness is the culmination of her inability to see George rationally from the beginning.]
. . . and for a time her life is despaired of. She recovers, however, but is hopelessly blind.
What woe a man’s weakness may work, but we find he is rewarded for his weakness, and some time later we see George a loathsome parasite–a dirty, ragged, drunken bum — a pariah among his former associates. Back East he wanders, ignorant of the misery he has caused, and what a sight greets him.
[Without intertitles, we do not know for certain the passage of time. But George, now a wandering derelict (is there any other kind?), passes the old gate of the home where Ruth and her mother still reside, and as the mother recognizes him, and he her, he is taken aback, both by recognition of his own degraded state, and the vacant, unseeing stare of his little Ruth. He cannot seem to decide which is the greater horror.]
There is the ever faithful little girl, accompanied by her mother, standing at the gate, the beauties of the world forever shut out from her. How dark is everything to her,
but then how much darker would this world have been, had she viewed the awful condition of George as he stood there.
[George appears to plead silently with her mother not to tell her of his condition, but she cannot conceal his identity from Ruth.]
No, of this, at least, she is blissfully ignorant,
[In the remainder of this sequence, here and below, Mary Pickford reaches inward and gives an emotionally expressive, yet still physically restrained, subtle but powerful and effective performance of the joy and bewilderment experienced by Ruth at the dramatic climax of the story.]
and with a subterfuge, George slinks away, she imagining that he will soon return,
–but, alas, the locket is forever broken.
[Is George, as the synopsis states, “rewarded for his weakness as a loathsome parasite?” For a moment. Then with a shrug, he picks up a cigar butt from the ground, lights it, and with hands in pockets, shuffles on his way, likely never desiring to see Ruth again. Ruth, for now, will await his return, thinking that she, not George, is the lesser, damaged being.]
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Though it was many years before the blanket adoption of the “Hollywood” happy ending for American film, audiences of 1909, familiar with the conventions of melodrama, expected generally that good triumphs over evil, and that evil is punished and good is rewarded. In the new art form, however, filmmakers had an advantage over the old forms. Film was new — it was “realistic.” It photographed life, the very meaning of the names the filmmakers had adopted for their companies: “Biograph,” “Vitagraph.” Not every life story ends neatly and happily, of course, few really do. Therefore, there was not generally a rejection of such themes when presented in the new motion pictures. Nevertheless, audiences and critics struggled with the concept of realistic, rather than happy, endings. In consecutive issues of The Moving Picture World, two reviews of The Broken Locket appeared, the first being one of general praise for the Biograph production in all respects:
“‘The Broken Locket’ is a Biograph picture that redeems their high standing in the producing field . . . in ‘The Broken Locket’ we are introduced to the finesse of acting and staging which within the year has created a world-wide demand for Biograph subjects. The sad story of a young man’s downfall through yielding to temptation, the consequent blighting of the life of a trusting sweetheart, the repentance that came too late, are all presented in a manner so convincing that as a moral lesson ‘The Broken Locket’ ranks with any of the sermons in pictures ever issued by this company, which is the highest praise that can be given. Photographic excellence also prevails throughout.” “Comments on the Week’s Films,” The Moving Picture World, September 25, 1909.
However, the realistic and forceful drama was almost too powerful for the second reviewer, one week later:
“A Biograph picture which preaches a very powerful temperance sermon. Like many of recent Biograph films, this is a beautiful picture, acted with sufficient fidelity to facts to make it seem real, yet there is a sense of disappointment about it, a feeling of unsatisfied longing which causes one to almost wish he had never seen the picture. Of course this, in a way, is a tribute to the picture and the actors who made it, but one must admit that there is a feeling following one of these pictures which is likely to linger and continue the depressing influence long after the picture was seen.” The Moving Picture World, October 2, 1909.
It becomes clear, however, that the reviewer is able to see through disappointment at the ending, and recognizes the power of the drama by the “author” of this play, and that the accepted standards of melodrama, in which audiences and critics were so thoroughly steeped, will not always be those followed by the creators of this new dramatic art form:
“One must pay tribute to the actors and acknowledge their ability in interpreting their various parts, but to have the story left with the girl blind, the man still a drunkard and a tramp and the parts of the broken locket still separated is a violation of the expectations of most who see it. Here lies the secret of the disappointment. Most who see it are trained in melodramatic methods and forget that the drama knows nothing of this method unless it harmonizes with the conception of the author. The piece is strongly dramatic.” “Comments on the Week’s Films,” The Moving Picture World, October 2, 1909.
The New York Dramatic Mirror’s “Licensed Film Reviews” for September 25, 1909, proclaimed the merits of the film, acknowledging the power of its unvarnished realism, concluding that anything less would have been “inartistic:”
“Numerous Strong Subjects Released Last Week. Biograph’s ‘Broken Locket’ the Most Prominent.
“Last week witnessed the release of another group of very strong picture subjects, and the general average of all the releases was high. The film standing out most conspicuously is Biograph’s Broken Locket, a picture of unusual merit.
“The Biograph’s capable players have had no better story to present in many weeks than this one and they have never acted to better purpose. The film in all respects deserves to rank as a motion picture masterpiece. The ending of the story is not as we might have wished it to be, but it is, in all probability, as it would have been in real life, and the lesson taught is powerful and unmistakable.
“[T]he inartistic picture story teller would have had the fellow reform, but not so the Biograph’s author. Sad as is the blind girl’s lot, it must have been worse if linked to that of the poor derelict . . . The part is acted with fine character effect, and the blind girl also is most ably presented. Indeed, it is doubtful if more forceful pantomime has ever been seen in any picture.” The New York Dramatic Mirror, September 25, 1909.
The Broken Locket was one of many stark, tragic dramas by Griffith in 1909, concentrated in the second half of that year, including The Mountaineer’s Honor, The Redman’s View, A Corner in Wheat and The Rocky Road (released Jan. 1910), the last two also featuring Frank Powell — as the “Wheat King,” and as the father who nearly weds his own daughter, Blanche Sweet. Powell was hired by Griffith in early 1909 and immediately filled a need for strong, mature male leads. By the end of the year, Griffith made Powell a director of a second production unit at Biograph, giving him both Mary Pickford and Blanche Sweet for his directorial début in the comedy, All on Account of the Milk. Powell would later be instrumental in “re-hiring” Blanche Sweet after she left moving pictures for a stint as a professional dancer.
For Mary Pickford, events had moved rapidly. Only in her fourth month with Biograph, she found herself in a position similar to Griffith’s one year earlier — an almost unbelievable opportunity in a new art form. Florence Lawrence had been Griffith’s leading player when Pickford first arrived in April. At 23, Lawrence had been the most versatile of his female leads — until she was fired in mid-July for negotiating with another film producer. With “The Biograph Girl” gone, Griffith leaned on his two remaining lead actresses. Marion Leonard, 28, and a veteran of vaudeville and melodrama, played more mature roles, not ingénues, and ethnic types only occasionally (as in The Broken Locket‘s “Mexican girl”). Pickford at 17, a Belasco-trained actress with experience in stock melodrama, was the perfect ingénue. With her high cheekbones and brown eyes, she could more credibly play ethnic roles. She was also proving at least as adept as Lawrence at comedy. And her “Ruth” in The Broken Locket was a vivid demonstration of her abilities in a serious dramatic lead. Griffith now had his “go-to” player — Mary Pickford.