“A Drunkard’s Reformation:” A Morality Play within a Photo-Play

David Miles tosses Florence Lawrence aside like a wet rag when she attempts to stop his drinking binge. "A Drunkard's Reformation," Biograph, 1909, directed by D. W. Griffith.

It is a one-reel, 983-foot, ten minute long movie from 1909.  Yet “A Drunkard’s Reformation” seems to carry about a half ton of socio-psychological baggage that almost begs parody in an introduction, something like John Lydon’s litany of “-ologies” in his intro to the Sex Pistol’s cover of The Stooges’ lonely-punk anthem, “No Fun” (” ‘ere we go now, . . a sociology lecture . . with a bit of psychology, a bit of neurology, a bit of f**k-all-ogy, . . no fun . . .”).  But “A Drunkard’s Reformation” is fun if you have a slightly twisted sense of humor.  It also has an early, “classic American movie” happy ending that is only one of many elements that are of more than passing interest.

“A Drunkard’s Reformation” (“drunkard” is such a  beautiful, archaic, but still dignified, descriptive word for one of the messiest of addictions and addiction-related illnesses and deaths) was filmed the last week in February, 1909, barely a month after the sunny snow-filled “Politician’s Love Story.”  I can’t think of a film that could be as much its polar opposite than this one.  “Drunkard” can rightfully be called a morality play, a temperance propaganda film, a temperance melodrama, a cautionary tale about substance abuse and addiction, and the pointlessness of choosing the nice girl (Florence Lawrence or Linda Arvidson) over the (not too) bad girl (Marion Leonard).  You can’t go wrong calling it a “morality play within a photoplay” — a melodrama “two-fer,”and that’s how it strikes the first-time viewer.

“A Drunkard’s Reformation” uses two forms of dramatic art, the stage play (a filmed stage play, of course) and the new-and-still-developing art of narrative  film, i.e., one that tells a story (as opposed to other fast-fading genres of the time, the “actuality” mini-documentary film and the “trick camerawork” film, or the “chase” film, someone running from and/or being chased by someone/something).  It also gives us clear examples of contrasting styles of acting in early film.

In this case the contrasting styles are used for two distinctly different purposes: the stage players in the film rely heavily on pantomime (a gestural form used in classic melodrama that was gradually disappearing in film acting), and the photo-players — the ones around whom the story revolves — use the “verisimilar” style in vogue on stage, a style less reliant on gesture that was rapidly becoming the dominant style of film acting.  Although there may be more than one reason for this, it suggests to the viewer that the filmmaker wants us to be able to clearly distinguish between the stage players and the film actors in the story, and Griffith wasn’t taking any chance of being misunderstood by the audiences of “A Drunkard’s Reformation.”  Yet another important element is the film’s use of advanced (for its time) editing concepts to show the reaction of the movie audience watching the play on stage, and to involve us — the audience watching the film.

“A Drunkard’s Reformation” has its own niche in film history as one of the first movies reviewed and approved by the brand new National Board of Review, a censorship body that had been created as a result of pressure from, well (what else), “pressure groups” about the negative effects movies were supposedly having on both middle class impressionable audiences, and the as-yet unassimilated immigrant trying to figure out how to be an American.

Some film and cultural historians have suspected that Griffith, not a man known to look kindly upon social progressives and “uplifters of morality” (he based an entire film on the subject in 1916: “Intolerance”), deliberately used the Temperance crowd as cinematic grist for his own purposes, and that he was not so much interested in the cause of temperance as he was the cause of film as a new art form ideal for, and particularly suited to, the “masses.”   If so, “A Drunkard’s Reformation” was Griffith’s end-run around film censorship by engaging and winning the support of the most important social progressives of the era, the Temperance Movement.  Griffith already knew that he didn’t have to re-make the works of Shakespeare to demonstrate that film could be art.  But with films like “A Drunkard’s Reformation,” he proved to the “uplifters” of culture and social “progressives” and to audiences seeking entertainment, that movies were in themselves an art form.

Whatever Griffith’s personal motivations, it is undeniable that the film is an artifact of its era and the important role played at the time by the Temperance Movement  It is a film-as-temperance-lecture, and was promoted and sold as such by the Biograph company: “THE MOST POWERFUL TEMPERANCE LESSON EVER DEPICTED.”  Pro-temperance loved its message of “hearth and home” over “saloons, booze and floozies” (not sure about the order).   It was one of the first early films to later be re-released due to its popularity and its always-timely subject matter.  But it was re-released with wrong credits for the cast members (Biograph, like most film producers of 1909 did not yet give name credits to their movies).  It was also a film Griffith himself “remade” several times, in both short and long film formats, before becoming his own case study of alcohol addiction as his life and career went in ways he could not or did not control, and I won’t criticize him for that.

The play within our film is itself an extremely truncated version not of  “L”Assommoir,” by the French writer Emile Zola as stated in the film’s rerelease introduction and as it was originally promoted, but an English adaptation of Zola’s story, dramatised as “Drink,” and starring a popular English actor of the late 19th century, Charles Warner.  (See David Mayer’s notes on “Drunkard” in “The Griffith Project, Vol. 2, as described in “Suggested Further Reading,” at the end of this post.)  Warner, much celebrated for his role as a drunk in the final stages of alcoholism in the play “Drink,” committed suicide in a Manhattan hotel room just two weeks before filming of “Drunkard” began by Griffith and company at Biograph.  The close timing of events has prompted speculation that Griffith was moved by that event — in addition to whatever other motivations he may have had — to make “A Drunkard’s Reformation” as a tribute both threatrically and cinematically to the late actor.

John Wharton (Arthur Johnson), is by all appearances a successful young man, well dressed with similar friends as they share some time   and have a few after-work drinks; though John stays a bit longer than he knows he should, just to be polite when his “friends” offer him an additional round or two . . .  while at his home,  . . . wife (Linda Arvidson) and daughter (Adele de Garde) await him for evening dinner.

John, thoroughly wasted at this point, checks the soup pot, and not seeing something to his liking, tosses the lid . . .

then takes a slap at his wife.   After he sobers up a bit, his daughter asks him to take her to a play (his wife starts to cringe in expectation of another explosion).  Notice how it is the daughter who asks her father to take her, not the mother asking her husband (“Mommy bought me tickets . . . Will you take me Daddy?”).  A perceptive and very clever child.

Daddy grudgingly agrees to take her to the play, and his wife becomes a blur of action to get her daughter dressed and ready to go out for the evening with her father.  We are not told how much time John has had to sober up, so I’m guessing — hoping — they took public transportation . . .)

As the wife sits down with great relief, just before her head touches the table, she suddenly drops to her knees in (silent to us) prayer.  Some see this as a gesture belonging to the histrionic code of acting of 19th century melodrama, which technically it is, but it demonstrates convincingly the relief and now the hope, the possibility of change — “Thank You (and help us) JESUS!” — that this woman is feeling, and is as effective now as it would have been 100 years ago.  Is it just that the average academic isn’t used to the sight of people dropping to their knees in prayer, or in thanks . . . right?  Wrong?

They arrive at the theater and are shown their seats by the ushers (one of whom is young Bobby Harron, soon to be silent film star at Biograph and later with Griffith in many of his best known films).  They quickly settle in to enjoy the evening’s entertainment (which the Biograph program notes tell us is a story of the destructive effects of late-stage alcoholism, “L’Assommoir,” by Emile Zola.  Someone in the Wharton household has an intellectual bent!)

The play opens with a scene of a man (David Miles) talking with his friends outside of a tavern, “Ye Black Owl Inn.”  They invite him to join them at the tavern, he demurs . . .

The man encounters a pretty young woman (Florence Lawrence) and her friend.  The pretty young woman offers to go to the tavern, he is more interested in her than in the tavern . . .  and here we see the first example of the histrionically coded gestural acting of melodrama, which for our purposes, I’ll just call, “hard-core pantomime.”  The young lady clearly wants to have a drink.  He does not.

Fortunately for him, before she can get really irritated with his apparent inability to have fun, a Temperance Parade interrupts their good time . . . and the man seems like a natural Temperance National Convention Delegate, and signs up for something . . . but it makes the pretty young woman all happy and goose-pimply and . . . maybe he’s gotten a good read on what she’s Really looking for in a Man . . .

And John and his daughter clearly see the humor thus far . . .

[As Eileen Bowser points out in her notes on the film in “The Griffith Project, Volume 2,” Griffith is not cutting from the players on stage directly, but is cutting from the vantage point of the viewers (us, the man and little girl) to show the reaction shot of the viewer to what is being seen from that vantage point, i.e.,”stage distance.”]

And for me, the high point of the “play within the photoplay” is the entrance of  . . . (she doesn’t have a name . . . so) . . . Hot Young Temptress (played by Marion Leonard).  Now, I MUST digress.  You see, people, when you hear someone say that, “Oh they liked ’em fat back then!”  No — Lillian Russell was a late 19th, early 20th century exaggeration of female beauty.  Mae West was a 1930 caricature of that.  THIS is what they (meaning heterosexual males) LIKED:

Descriptions of the above sets of frames are completely unnecessary (aside from the abundantly clear meaning provided by the hardcore pantomime of the hardcore lovely Marion Leonard) — the man is clearly an ass and deserves what’s coming to him  . . . oops no spoilers . . .

Above, the pretty young woman appears again, and seems to mock the solicitations of hot young temptress, who, below, appears again to scowl at the Man and his choice of pretty young woman over “her hotness” as the curtain draws to a close on the first act.

Above two sets of frames, father and daughter share a laugh at the scene with the Man and his now pretty young woman wife and Daughter, reminding them of their own family . . . [and from here on, notice that virtually all of the daughter’s acting is with her eyes — something that can only be done as it is here with film acting, and it is a subtle variety that is seen here] . . .

. . . but the Man runs into some old friends, and as they renew acquaintances, they invite him to join them for drinks at the Black Owl.  The Man wisely and tactfully declines their invitation.

But father sees something troubling, something that he recognizes . . .

[Cutting in the film prior to this point has  been limited to shots of the play’s audience, including the father and child, between scenes or “acts” of the play in the beginning, but as the action in play increases so do the shots which now occur in mid-“scene” of the play on stage when we begin to cut to the audience, and our main characters’ reactions to the action on stage.]

But they are a persistent pair and, trying to be courteous, the Man finally agrees to . . . “Just One.”

And after “just one,” and another polite but firm refusal . . .

. . the father in the audience seems to recognize the trouble coming . . .

Our Man in the play, now many drinks later, is found by his wife and young daughter, drinking still, and by now is blind stinking drunk.  As she tries to prevent yet another drink, he lashes out, and our audience father recognizes . . .

. . . the same drunken mind as his own in which he had lashed out at his own family . . .

. . . and he sees himself, his own future if he does not change soon.

[And for one of the few times in the film, we see one of the non-stage characters using a gesture of (subtle) pantomime — in this case, a somewhat deliberate tapping himself on the chest as if to say — “that (man on stage) is ME.”

His clever, resourceful daughter sees that her plan (“will you take me . . . Daddy?”) has had an effect on her father . . . who, once back at home (again points to his chest, himself, as if to acknowledge what he has done in the past), pledges, “Never Again,” . . .

and tosses away the bottle of “demon drink.”

The final shot, (most sources say this final scene takes place “two years later,” though my copy of the film does not indicate this, and has probably had at least one other scene edited out).

The film ends in a tableaux, not a completely still classical tableaux, but with the addition of a  small gesture by one of the actors.  Griffith and other silent filmmakers used the “tableaux,” a device used in drama, probably deriving from painting and sculpture to show a still scene of figures.  But Griffith nearly always adds motion to them, especially the more intimate scenes with few characters, such as this in which the wife reaches to put her arm around her husband as he gazes at his daughter.  The use of indirect lighting, especially from the side — in this case a glowing fireplace created with an arc lamp — was still rare in film, and is one of the more notable examples of lighting a scene entirely with one indirect lighting source, in this case the “entire” short, final tableaux shot.  It may be a cliché now but, as with much of “A Drunkard’s Reformation,” it was cutting-edge in 1909.

Suggested Further Reading:

Usai, Paolo Cherchi, General Editor, “The Griffith Project, Volume 2, Films Produced in January – June, 1909,” BFI Publishing, 1999; “A Drunkard’s Reformation,” pp. 57-60.

Griffith, Mrs. (Linda Arvidson), “When the Movies Were Young,” E.P. Dutton and Co., 1925; (Later editions including a paperback “facsimile” from Dover Press, 1974, are available used and also in e-book format);

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).

Schickel, Richard, “D. W. Griffith: An American Life,” Limelight Editions, 1996, paperback;