Selections from a Retroformat Evening at the American Cinematheque
February 27, 2015
Did you know that there are two theaters housed in the American Cinematheque in Hollywood?
The Spielberg Theater is the smaller house of the two; in fact, most people don't even know the Spielberg exists: compared to the Rigler Theater, the Spielberg sits 541 fewer people (the occupancy is 77 vs. 618).
The Spielberg is used occasionally for screenings and events. Once every month, a series entitled "Retroformat" occupies the space, usually on a Saturday evening. Retroformat promises patrons rare silent films screened on 8mm accompanied by a live score, usually performed by Cliff Retallick.
The evening I attended in April 2014 focused on D.W. Griffith Biograph shorts from 1909-1910, which was Part 3 of a series on D. W. Griffith’s work at Biograph from 1908-1913.
Retroformat's poster from their Facebook page.
The first short screened was Lines of White on a Sullen Sea. Sounds like the title of a poem, doesn’t it? I held particular interest in this movie because it was shot in Seaside, NJ, a place I’ve been to before while growing up in New Jersey. The short was filmed in September 1909 and released the next month – to think how fast things moved back then! The film stars Griffith’s wife, Linda Arvidson, as Emily, a young woman who becomes engaged to Bill (James Kirkwood). Emily vows to wait for Bill until he returns home from a sea voyage, but unbeknownst to her, he marries another girl in another port. Years later, when Emily is on her deathbed, Bill shows up with his family. Joe (George Nichols), a young man who has pined after Emily for years, forces Bill to pretend that he returned to marry Emily so she can spend her last moments happy and at peace.
One of the most interesting tidbits pointed out about this short had to do with the actress who played the mother, Kate Bruce. Bruce appeared often in Griffith films, though not much was known about her. Apparently, Lillian Gish supported her in the 1920s, when she was in her 60s and living in a New York City hotel. Some thought she was a nurse or should be a nun, and she lived simply – she had no kids, no known family in the area, no plants, nothing. Since we're talking about the very early days of the industry, it doesn't surprise me that there are actors and actresses, even ones who worked frequently with the likes of D.W. Griffith, who we know little about today. However, the fact that Gish supported her is an interesting one, and I'd love to learn more about that relationship.
The second short shown was The Gibson Goddess. Of course, the Gibson girl is now a very iconic image, and one that clearly inspired – or at least propagated/contributed to - a culture of female worship and physical adoration. Thus, I feel like modern day women could identify with this 105 year old movie: a woman, portrayed by Marion Leonard, is persistently hounded by a group of men at a seaside hotel. To shoo them away, she appears on the boardwalk in a short bathing suit – gasp scandal! – that is stuffed with cotton. Her severely unshapely legs scare off all the men but one, the eventual winner of her affections.
This is what most people think of when they hear 'Gibson Goddess,' at least I do.
It was noted that the original Gibson Girl bore an uncanny resemblance to Ethel Barrymore. Created by Charles Dana Gibson, the woman embodied an upper class, fashionable spirit – a Grande Dame, yet an emblem of the new modern woman. Well, that was definitely the character portrayed by Marion Leonard in this film, taking her sexuality and image out of the minds of these men and into her own hands in a way that contrasts sharply with what some women do nowadays: that is, reveal more to show control. Rather, in a comical, tongue-in-cheek way, she gets back at them by controlling what they see of her body underneath that Victorian dress (and skewing it a bit).
Leaving the fashionable Gibson Girl behind, the evening turned to a simplistic and rustic Mary Pickford in The Mountaineer’s Honor. Where the preceding short was light and fun, this was anything but. A mountain girl (Mary Pickford) is seduced and harassed by a traveler (Arthur V. Johnson). Devastated, the girl’s family reacts: her brother (James Kirkwood) finds the man and shoots him. Obviously, murder can’t occur without consequences, so the town sheriff (Anthony O’Sullivan) finds the brother, and he's quickly sentenced to hang for his crime. However, his mother (Kate Bruce) saves him from the disgrace of hanging...by shooting him. Yes, that’s right. Tragedy all around in this one.
Mary Pickford in a blurry still from The Mountaineer's Honor.
This short sounds quite violent even for 2015 standards, doesn’t it? Well, back in 1909, it was also quite daring. Pickford, in the lead role, was incredibly green in the movie business. She had only appeared in films since the spring of 1909, and this was shot at the end of that year. While she would go on to become America’s Sweetheart, the actress was still afforded a wide range of roles this early in her career, which is how she landed this part, playing very much against her later type. Kate Bruce also returned in an incredibly juicy role. I mean, if a mother killed her own son in a movie today, that would most likely equal an automatic Oscar nomination (if not a win)! Also, the incredibly swift way in which the brother is condemned to death feels eerily close to home today, if perhaps not as harsh as death, then at least accusation wise. It is also interesting to note that the brother was defending his sister’s honor, yet he is so harshly punished for his actions, when you would think otherwise – at least I would – from early cinema. (Then again, as I've been viewing more silent films, I've noticed when violence is part of the storyline, it can be quite shocking).
Still on a slightly depressing bent, but not as bad as lynching and shooting, was Through the Breakers. The Gibson Girl, Marion Leonard, is back, this time as social butterfly Mrs. Nostrand. She and her husband, James Kirkwood, have a baby girl, but their focus doesn’t seem to be on her: he likes the club, and she indulges in cards. When their daughter falls ill, the husband stays with her, but Mrs. Nostrand has been invited to an important party- it would be rude to turn the invite down! While she enjoys herself at the party, her daughter struggles to survive, and by the time Mrs. Nostrand returns home, her daughter is dead. “You’re not fit to be a mother. I’ll leave you to cards and dances,” her husband tells her before walking out. Finally realizing her mistake (really? It took this long?!), Mrs. Nostrand begs for forgiveness at her daughter’s grave.
This was another surprisingly heavy film, particularly in terms of familiar social conduct of the era. In a time when women were expected to raise a family and keep a home, Mrs. Nostrand easily defies both of those conventions, and how! I thought it more likely to see a worthless father on the screen rather than a mother, so it was interesting to observe that reversal in the relationship the husband and wife shared. Once again, I feel like this is still a rather daring theme or setup today, and to see it unfold on the screen 105 years ago makes me realize how little, in a way, society has changed. These stories are still being told today, and to be put on film back then, I'm guessing this sort of thing happened to some family...somewhere.
One of the more well-known of Griffith’s early shorts was A Corner in Wheat. Besides the film's story and theme, which I will briefly discuss later, A Corner in Wheat is also famous for launching the careers of many involved, including Frank Powell, who played the Wheat King and later founded the Sunset Pictures Corp. in 1919, and Henry B. Walthall, the Wheat King’s assistant, who would later act in 1915's The Birth of a Nation.
The devastating effect of wealthy greed in A Corner in Wheat.
In the short, a tycoon, played by Powell, decides to take over the wheat market. His decision makes bread prices skyrocket, so much so that the bulk of the population can no longer afford the staple. The film intercuts between the poor people waiting in the (literal) bread line each day and the life of the wealthy tycoon.
Based on a book called The Pit by Frank Norris, this Griffith short was way ahead of its time in showcasing the massive class rift that could be created in society by simple greed and power. Since the film industry was still so young, this subject was one that audiences probably hadn’t seen portrayed before, especially on the screen. Norris, who also penned 1899's McTeague, was known for highlighting portrayals of anguish brought on by corruption and greed, the latter word accurately supplying the title for the 1924 film based on McTeague. Those themes were at full force in A Corner in Wheat, and Griffith expertly employed the new medium to emphasize the corruption and voracity in the story; in particular, his use of cross cutting the scenes between the rich and poor provided a stronger emotional effect than any spoken words could have contributed.
Though I believe Retroformat is finished with their multi part series on D.W. Griffith at Biograph, check out their Facebook page for information regarding future screenings. It looks like the next show in late March will feature a tribute to Chaplin's early work, including a 100th Anniversary screening of The Tramp.