“When the light comes, he will see me as I am, and I will lose his love.” (Intertitle, The Light That Came.)
“Does this dress make me look fat?” Vivian (Marion Leonard) seems to ask little sister Daisy (Mary Pickford) as the two “beauties” prepare for the big ball, while their mother (Kate Bruce) and their “homely” sister Grace (Ruth Hart) look on. The Light That Came (Biograph, 1909, dir. D. W. Griffith).
A “Pickford Biograph,” in this case, may be a deceptive description: The Light That Came does have Mary Pickford, though in a role that is no more than fourth in importance to this Griffith one reel drama from the Fall of 1909. Pickford had made over thirty short films for Biograph and Griffith in six months with the company, and was now sharing featured roles with Marion Leonard who had resumed her place as Biograph’s “leading lady” after Midsummer’s departure of Florence Lawrence.
The Light That Came is an excellent example of the Biograph/Griffith “repertory company” in action: Leonard and Pickford, Biograph’s top female players, appear in support of a virtual unknown, Ruth Hart. Less than a week earlier, Hart made her cinematic début — a bit part in Nursing a Viper, with Leonard in the lead. Days later, the newcomer was playing the central role in only her second appearance before the Biograph camera.
Clearly, Griffith had seen something in Ruth Hart he liked. Roles were often assigned after preliminary rehearsals that were more accurately “tryouts,” and Hart must have demonstrated that she was ideal for his conception of the film’s lead character. Further, he was likely aware that Hart had been in the cast of the stage adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s novel, The Clansman, several years earlier — it played two months on Broadway at the Liberty Theatre in early 1906, and toured nationally for a couple of years. The Clansman would become Griffith’s epic Birth of a Nation in 1915. Chances are that Griffith saw Hart in The Clansman, if not on Broadway, then at some point during its lengthy tour.
Griffith may also have been attracted by the contrast among the three actresses: Hart, a tall, very slender brunette, not conventionally pretty, but oddly striking, with the petite Pickford and voluptuous Leonard. They would play sisters in a melodramatic variant on the Cinderella theme. A dark variant, it would use blindness and deformity to illustrate the ultimate banality of physical beauty.
The first intertitles and opening shot introduce us to:
“The Three Sisters — Ease and Pleasure for the Beauties — Drudgery and Loneliness for the Homely One.“
The “Beauties” are Vivian (Marion Leonard) and Daisy (Mary Pickford), held fast by the mirror, fussing over clothing and makeup, while “the Homely One,” Grace* (Ruth Hart), watches from the edge of the frame. She hesitates, and then attempts to join her sisters in their mirth at the mirror.
[*Note: The Biograph Bulletin and the cast credits from the Biograph production records both refer to the Ruth Hart character as “Grace.” However, an insert of a letter later in the film uses the name, “Martha.” I have chosen to refer to her as “Grace,” although the “Martha” letter is apparently part of the paper print deposited at the Library of Congress for copyright purposes in November, 1909.]
Grace is drawn to the mirror, as if she expects to find whatever it is her sisters see that makes them so happy. But in its reflection seeing only her scarred face (indicated by a dark streak on her right cheek), she recoils.
Griffith takes pains to stage his actors so that we plainly see the separation, the gap between the “beauties” and the “homely,” even within the limited confines of this tiny studio setting. In emphasizing the closeness of Vivian and Daisy, we are treated to a display of the chemistry between his regular leads, Pickford and Leonard. There is a naturalness, a casual camaraderie between the two players. We see the little bits of “business” the two actors use to breathe life into their characters — the joking, laughter, teasing, playing with the powder puff, fussing with buttons and zippers. These are details unexpected in supporting characters in a single reel film, touches that add a richness to the basic narrative, without stealing a scene or overwhelming the central character.
Griffith precedes the next sequence with a blunt intertitle, “Saturday Evening — The Contrast,” and opens with a shot of Grace coming into the apartment, ostensibly from work, handing her pay to their mother, then conversing with her sisters.
However, if we are expecting to see two beautiful but cruel sisters abusing a “Cinderella,” we are quickly shown otherwise (and without the assistance of intrusive intertitles).
Vivian and Daisy clearly invite their sister to join them for their evening out. Grace, however, seems to be crushed by her own low esteem, and is absorbed in self-pity. She rejects her sisters’ invitation almost out-of-hand. We get the impression that Vivian and Daisy have been through this before with their sister. They resign themselves to it, and quickly return to their preparations for the evening. Note the subtle but distinct changes in facial expressions of both Leonard and Pickford, and the looks they exchange as their “sister” declines their invitation.
According to Florence Lawrence, by the time she had departed the company Griffith was allowing his actors more latitude in their interpretations, using “slow” acting (a more naturalistic style usually referred to as the “verisimilar code” by historians and scholars of acting) rather than mime or the gestural approach of melodrama (the “histrionic code”). Here we see the use of the verisimilar form, even in the performances of the supporting players.
Their mother (Kate Bruce), until now merely an observer in the background, decides to motivate her daughter — with a dress to wear to the ball.
Waiting in the foyer to the ballroom, a restless crowd of “gentlemen” erupts with a roar of approval when Vivian and Daisy make their grand entrance. Grace, still lingering at the door, is ignored.
In the ballroom, rather than giving us a broad establishing shot, Griffith brings the camera closer to the actors. We get a marvelous medium close shot of the four-foot-eleven Pickford dancing with six-foot-plus Arthur Johnson who, as a “young doctor,” will play a key role in a later sequence.
We also get a bit of comedy when two men (Billy Quirk and Mack Sennett) have a dispute over a girl (Dorothy West).
Grace has spent the entire evening in the lobby, not even attempting to enter the ballroom. Below, she meets the blind musician, Carl (Owen Moore), after the dance has ended. As he enters the foyer, he drops his violin and Grace assists him.
Later (how much we do not know), they express their feelings for each other. In this case, gesture and mime actually feel appropriate. Carl touches his heart, she pulls his hand to her face, touching her scar . . .
They agree to be married — the news stuns her sisters and their friends. The effect is comical, and I don’t think it was entirely unintentional. While the looks on the faces of Pickford and Leonard are priceless (especially contrasted with the goofy smile of Owen Moore), the reactions of the friends are hilarious. In particular, Arthur Johnson in the far rear against the wall (between Pickford and Leonard), suppresses a guffaw.
Johnson and the others can’t control themselves, prompting Vivian to wheel around to “SHUSH!” the unruly behavior.
Grace decides to use her life’s savings to fund Carl’s operation — then, after peering into the mirror and seeing her own disfigured face, she changes her mind: The explanatory intertitle is clichéd, but heart-rending nonetheless:
“When The Light Comes, He Will See Me As I Am, And I Will Lose His Love.”
Having a “eureka” moment, Grace decides to send Carl the money, giving it to her mother along with a letter explaining her desire to pay for his surgery. He apparently accepts, as the next shot shows the bearded, older doctor — presumably the surgeon — talking to the prospective patient and his fiancé.
Below, the unveiling. Unlike the comparable scene in The Broken Locket, a stiff, static shot where Pickford’s blindness is revealed, here Griffith and cinematographer Bitzer give us a painterly composition. The shot contains the three key elements of the film: at far right, the unpitying mirror; at far left, the doctors and their patient, the blind musician Carl; and at center the three sisters.
In the first shot, above, only Vivian is able to face the scene, while Daisy comforts Grace in her moment of anxiety over the outcome; not remaining static, the sisters shift positions throughout the shot.
Below, Grace finds the courage to face the unveiling of the bandages, still clinging to her little sister.
Above: The operation is a success — Vivian rushes to greet Carl — but Grace, fearing that Carl no longer blind will recoil at her scarred face, nearly disappears behind the diminutive Daisy.
Summoning the courage she goes to Carl, and it is he who turns her face to the mirror to show her that he now literally sees her not as imperfect, but as beautiful.
Her “blindness” has been cured as well . . .
* * *
Contemporary reviewers found much to praise in the tale, packed with detail and sensitive subject matter handled intelligently; characters portrayed sympathetically, with skill by the Biograph company of actors.
“A certain delicious and soothing tenderness pervades this film, which casts a hallowed influence over the audience and holds them in an impressive silence which lasts as long as the picture remains with them. It is a tender story. A young girl, disfigured for life by an accident, her beauty gone, must needs be overlooked, even neglected, when her handsome sisters are about. A blind violinist, shut out from all enjoyment which appeals to the sense of sight. Surely, the two are pathetic enough to rouse the sympathies of the most callous individual. They meet at a reception, their hands touch, and in that touch each recognizes the affinity of the other. But the girl must undergo a supreme test before she is permitted to enjoy to the full her new-found happiness.
“It is discovered that sight may be restored to the blind eyes, and in supplying the money from her own savings to remove the curtains from the eyes which may loathe her when they see her, the young woman rises to the standard of great dramatic interpretation. The operation is successful. The girl waits with fear the verdict; but the young man knows her soul. He sees not the disfiguring mark, and the happiness of both is assured. The development of character in this picture is so natural and is accomplished with so little effort that one seems to feel the story as it is illustrated. Living characters could not make it plainer and in places the silent drama seems even more impressive than spoken lines could make it. The imagination is stimulated and enables one to appreciate more fully the dramatic situations which are inherent in the picture. In some respects this is the greatest film of the week. Its suggestiveness is so strong that one does not forget it easily and it will serve as a basis of comparison for many days to come.” “Comments on the Films,” The Moving Picture World, November 27, 1909.
And The New York Dramatic Mirror once again placed the latest dramatic offering from Biograph at the top of their recommendations for the week’s releases.
“A NOTABLE WEEK —
“EXCEPTIONAL FILMS PRODUCED BY PATHE, BIOGRAPH, VITAGRAPH AND OTHERS.
“. . . ‘The Light That Came,’ Remarkable in its Appeal . . .
“A story of absorbing interest and of remarkable appeal to the higher nature is told in this splendidly performed picture drama. It deserves to rank with the best that the Biograph has presented in the past, which is high praise indeed. A young woman whose face is marred by a scar, and who is therefore doomed to have no admirers, while her pretty sisters are much sought by the young men of the neighborhood, follows them one night to a ball, where she sits alone, unattended until by chance she meets a blind violinist of the orchestra. They are brother and sister in affliction and their hearts warm to each other, although he cannot see the scar that gives her so much humiliation. They become sweethearts, and one day a young doctor declares that the blind man’s sight can be restored, although it will require money to do it. The girl is about to hand over her savings that the cure may be undertaken, when the thought comes to her that with sight he will see the scar and cease to love her. But she nobly makes the sacrifice, after a struggle, and the doctors operate successfully. Her fears are then proven to be groundless, for he rewards her faithful, self-sacrificing love by kissing the scar and folding her in his arms. One or possibly two early scenes might have been omitted without weakening the effect..” The New York Dramatic Mirror, November 20, 1909.
Modern observers, having the benefit of judging The Light That Came within the context of the more than 400 short films Griffith directed for Biograph, are less apt to use superlatives in assessing the film. As Griffith scholar Scott Simmon noted in his classic study The Films of D. W. Griffith (Cambridge, 1993), The Light That Came is extreme melodrama, but that the extremity is found in the improbabilities of plot rather than its execution by the actors. Although at least one contemporary reviewer found “one or possibly two” scenes were superfluous to the story, those scenes gave the Biograph ensemble of actors the opportunity to create life-like characters with small moments that stand out and give depth without adding weight to an already heavy slice of moving picture melodrama.
Where the film does lose focus — and this is probably one of the risks of making movies like “sausages,” two reels per week — is in the overall construction and, yes, too many scenes early in the film. Too much time elapses before we (and Grace) are introduced to the male, romantic lead. Not until the end of the ballroom sequence do we meet Carl, the blind musician. The couple does not get enough screen time to convince us of, or at least make us care about, the love that develops between them. Ultimately, the story bumps up against the hard limits of the single reel format. Griffith and Biograph would not break through those limits until the two reels of Enoch Arden in 1911 — which Biograph insisted on releasing in two parts.
Owen Moore does his best to underplay a character that would be tempting to overplay, but the result is blandness for the blind musician — we simply do not know enough of the character of Carl (as we do of Grace in her expository early scenes) to find him interesting beyond his physical condition.
In her characterization of Grace, Ruth Hart relies on the gestural approach of melodrama, which one would expect of someone touring extensively in a production such as The Clansman. But most of this is found in her solo scenes or those with Owen Moore (another strict practitioner of the “histrionic” approach). In her scenes with her “sisters” — early, at the mirror, and later during the “unveiling” — she demonstrates that she is more than capable of adapting to the less formal, more naturalistic form of expression.
The actors portraying the central couple would not remain much longer at Biograph. Owen Moore was discharged in late December or early January of 1910 — he would not make the first Biograph trip to California that January with his real life love Mary Pickford. The Light That Came was among the final dozen or so of the more than 100 short films in which he appeared for Griffith at Biograph.
Ruth Hart would appear in another 28 films for Griffith in 1909-1910, though she was not part of the core company of actors and technicians who made the California trip and would never play more than a supporting role in another Biograph production. This is unfortunate. Aside from the fact that during this period Griffith was giving opportunities to a number of actresses apart from his leads, Pickford and Leonard, there is no readily available explanation.
Marion Leonard continued to share leads with Mary Pickford until after the return from California. In the spring of 1910, Leonard left anonymity at Biograph for money and recognition at Reliance Studios — leaving the field wide open for Pickford to build a fervent following of fans who knew her only as “Little Mary.”
Biograph advertisement in The New York Dramatic Mirror, Nov 13, 1909. The Restoration starred both Mary Pickford and Marion Leonard, with Owen Moore and James Kirkwood. Ruth Hart played a bit part as “a servant.”
* * *
Paolo Cherchi Usai, General Editor, “The Griffith Project, Volume 3, Films Produced in July to December, 1909,” BFI Publishing, 1999;
Roberta E. Pearson, “Eloquent Gestures: The Transformation of Performance Style in the Griffith Biograph Films,” University of California Press, (1992, 1997, paperback, print-on-demand);
Tom Gunning, “D. W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film,” University of Illinois Press (1991, 1994 paperback);
Scott Simmon, “The Films of D. W. Griffith,” Cambridge University Press (1993, 1998 paperback).
The Internet Archive (internetarchive.org) at The Media History Digital Library (mediahistoryproject.org) for The Moving Picture World.
Archives of The New York Dramatic Mirror at fultonhistory.com, for The New York Dramatic Mirror.
The Light That Came, and 10 other Biograph shorts directed by D. W. Griffith in 1909 can be found at Grapevine Video on their DVD, The Biograph Series, D. W. Griffith, Director – Volume #4 (1909). The still frames used in this article are from that DVD edition.