The Short Films of D. W. Griffith Part 1

Those Awful Hats (1909)

A hilarious PSA about the obtrusive headgear of the ladies that patron the theatre. It’s a great visual gag, each hat getting progressively bigger and more ridiculous. And the way the film “resolves” the issue is just the right amount of outlandish and unexpected. If the film has a fatal flaw, it’s the inclusion of a heckler who is completely unnecessary.

The Sealed Room (1909)

This film amused me because I am a sick person. Two lovers get sealed into a room to die when the evil rich man who has eyes for the girl falls into a jealous rage. And that’s it. The film shouldn’t be nearly as long as it is because there’s nothing else to it. It made me laugh because I’m a sick human being, so kudos for killing off lovers in the name of dark humor!

The Hessian Renegades (1909)

The film is a bit too cartoonish and reminiscent of some of the more unfair vilifications of The Birth of a Nation. There’s a nice twist that leads to an interesting little plot arc, but overall, there’s not much to this film and it paints the British with such a broad stroke that the conflict comes off as a bit contrived. Perhaps I’m asking too much from it, but I was not impressed.

Nursing a Viper (1909)

A completely forgettable short, so much that even after watching it, I had to strain to remember it. A period drama about slaughtering off all those rich pigs. Some of the rich pigs hide, one of them makes a pass at a lady and gets ousted by a friend and he dies. Not particularly noteworthy.

A Corner in Wheat (1909)

There’s a bit of clever delivery of information visually and there is wheat to look at for a bit, but the film is too cute. The heavy-handed moralizing and poetic justice are too on the nose. Up the poor, down the rich, quite literally. But yea, there’s wheat to ogle, so not a complete loss.

As it is in Life (1910)

A sweet little film about a father having to deal with his little girl becoming a woman. Perhaps a bit too melodramatic, but I like me some melodrama. Also, the ending is sweet and made me smile. Not much more to it, but certainly one of the better shorts of Griffith.

An Arcadian Maid (1910)

A maid bedazzled by a con man decides to make a rash decision. Deception, love and social status are points of entry into this lean little film. And, of course, it’s wrapped up in some strong melodrama. On paper, it doesn’t sound that good, but the way Griffith creates a bit of parallel action and builds to the final moment makes it gripping. Fantastic stuff.

What Shall We Do with Our Old? (1911)

This is the granddaddy of Make Way for Tomorrow and Tokyo Story. A social drama about the way society disposes of its old when they outlive their use. This one goes down the dark path, showing what this desperation will lead to for the old. The film ends with a “resolution” that somehow ends up feeling satisfying even though it doesn’t actually resolve the core problem.

The Burglar’s Dilemma (1912)

When a man accidentally attacks and kills his brother in a drunken rage out of jealousy, he frames a burglar who just so happens to break into their home moments after the attack. Perhaps a bit too dependent on happenstance, it doesn’t hold back the film from being a gripping idea. One could easily see this being the basis of a longer feature, but it’s all condensed into a short and hits all the right points.

The Telephone Girl and the Lady (1913)

This is where Griffith kicks the parallel action into full force. When a rich lady is attacked in her home, the phone operator overhears and leads the cops on a race to save the woman. The film has a few too many characters and relationships which aren’t necessary to the final action, but the final stretch is strong.

Death’s Marathon (1913)

Two men compete for the affections of a woman, but once one man wins her love, he finds life doesn’t end up quite how he expects. This film has it all: A love triangle, parallel action and a fatalistic ending. It’s the best use of the parallel action of these shorts, the most consistent editing and story action that makes the most sense. Of all the shorts, this one stands a head above the rest.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing