Early & Silent Film

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The Adventures of Dollie

Posted by keith1942 on August 4, 2009

D. W. Griffith on location later in his career.

D. W. Griffith on location later in his career.

(Biograph, US. 18/19 June 1908)
Dir.: D. W. Griffith; cast: Arthur Johnson, Linda Arvidson, Charles Inslee, Madeline West; 35mm, 830 ft., 15′ (15 fps), Library of Congress. Titles missing.

This first film by the US pioneer D. W. Griffith was shown at the start of the Il Giornate del Cinema Muto’s epic presentation of his entire output, in 1997. And it was re-screened in 2008 when the cycle of screenings finally came to an end. It is a simple one-reel film but what struck me on seeing it again was how so much of what became the recognisable style and themes of Griffith’s filmmaking could be discerned in this first tyro project.
The notes in the 2008 Catalogue commented:

A film that stands out for recognition and comment because it was the first motion picture directed by Griffith. Compared to competitive releases from Edison and Vitagraph in the same period, it has to be considered an unremarkable, if competently made film. -PL [DWG Project # 27]

In D. W. Griffith His life and Work (Oxford University Press, 1972) R. M. Henderson provides the description of the film that appeared in the Biograph Bulletin (July 14, 1908).

On the lawn of a country residence we find the little family comprising father, mother and little Dollie, their daughter. In front of the grounds there flows a picturesque stream to which the mother and little one go to watch the boys fishing. . . . While the mother and child are seated on the wall beside the stream, one of these Gypsies approaches and offers for sale several baskets. A refusal raises his ire and he seizes the woman’s purse and is about to make off with it when the husband, hearing her cries of alarm, rushes down to her aid, and with a heavy snakewhip lashes the Gypsy unmercifully, leaving great welts upon his swarthy body, at the same time arousing the venom of his black heart.
. . . [The Gypsy] seizes the child and carries her to his camp where he gags and conceals her in a watercask.
[Later] as they ford a stream the cask falls off a wagon into the water and is carried away by the current. Next we see the cask floating downstream toward a waterfall, over which it goes; then through the seething spray of the rapids, and on, on until it finally enters the cove of the first scene, where it is brought ashore by the fisherboys. Hearing strange sounds emitted from the barrel, the boys call for the bereft father, who is still searching for the lost one. Breaking the head from the barrel the amazed and happy parents now fold in their arms their loved one, who is not much worse off for her marvellous experience.

In the biography by Richard Schickel [D. W. Griffith An American Life, Touchstone Book 1984) we learn that Griffith directed his first one reel film for Biograph after receiving advice from the veteran cameraman Billy Bitzer. Bitzer was later to become a stalwart of the Griffith production team. The film was taken from a written synopsis at Biograph. Griffith was able to cast the film himself. The cameraman was a Biograph regular, Arthur Marvin. It was he who suggested the locations for the film. The filming took two days. And a month later it was released with apparent success. Biograph still sold its films outright at this period, before a rental system had fully developed. The best total for a film to that date was fifteen prints; The Adventures of Dollie sold twenty-five prints, a new house record.
The actual film is composed of fifteen shots, including the opening and closing Biograph credits. There are no surviving title cards. The camera shots are all in long shot, typical for the period. Characters enter and leave the frame as the plot progresses. Movements by characters tend to be towards the camera, which was placed in a frontal position. The majority of the shots are also long takes. Thus the second shot includes introducing the two boys, the entry in frame of Dollie and her mother, the entry of the gypsy, the purse snatching and the beating by the father. And the final thirteenth shot shows the boy fishing, the appearance of the water cask, the arrival of the father, the discovery of Dollie and the arrival of the mother for the family reunion.
However, shots seven to twelve are considerably shorter. This is the sequence of climatic danger as Dollie in the cask falls into the river, tumbles over the weir and floats towards the boys fishing. This technique of faster editing looks forward to the classic approach by Griffith of dynamic cutting for exciting situations of peril and rescue.
The embedded values of the film are also typical of early melodrama, but also typical of those that dominate Griffith’s film output. The focus of the film is the nuclear family. They are most likely petit bourgeois, as they have a large property and servants. Counterposed to them, in an almost Manichean division, are the gypsy and his woman. They are the typical villains of melodrama. The boys who assist in the rescue seem to be a piece of Americana, summoning up classic pictures from the likes of Mark Twain. And the location of the film provides natural settings, which were one of the appeals of his Griffith’s output at Biograph.
The melodramatic style, characters and plot remain typical of Griffith’s later and more sophisticated features. His most famous [or infamous] film, The Birth of a Nation (1915), retains these characteristics in a far more complex narrative. Stylistically Griffith has developed the close-up and shot lengths have shortened. But there is still a tendency to place the camera in a frontal position with movement towards it. The film contains a number of climaxes of peril and danger, which tend to rely on developing the excitement just as we see in Dollie’ situation. The primary focus of the story is on a nuclear family with similar class and “racial” characteristics to the first Adventure. And the opposing other remains; though now it is the enslaved Negroes who are seen as a threat to family and stability.
Both Griffith’s values and his approach to cinematic story telling were in tune with his majority audience, [though there was another black audience soon to be catered for by the race cinema]. From the start of his career Griffith was a successful filmmaker. This was one important factor in the immense influence he was to exert over the industry that developed in Hollywood.

Still courtesy of Il Giornate del Cinema Muto.

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