D.W. Griffith Before Hollywood

"Willful Peggy"
Note: Gary Martin, one of the Daily Mirror regulars, attended a special showing at the Neversink Valley Museum of History and Innovation of early D.W. Griffith films in 1909-10 shot at Cuddeback, N.Y., and files a guest post for all our silent film enthusiasts. Thanks, Gary! And here’s a link to his blog, Art ongoing.

As the crow flies Port Jervis, N.Y., is 75 miles northwest of New York City, at the very end of the commuter rail line and on the far edge of exurbia. Ten miles north of Port one passes through Cuddebackville, N.Y., It is decidedly …in the country. For the most part it is a collection of derelict buildings although here and there one can find a convenience store, an auto repair shop, an old church, a new modern school, and a country auction gallery. Less a very few exceptions there are no houses and it is rather odd to see signs posted for a village where there are so few indications of human habitation.

Behind the schoolhouse is a lovely park along the old D. & H., Delaware and Hudson, Canal, made obsolete by the railroads, and in addition to picnic facilities there is the Neversink Valley Museum. Seth Goldman is the director as well as the chairman of the Early Films Committee. Seth is a weekender living full time in New York City and at present very much engaged in building what he plans will be a very fine restaurant.

His interest of many years has made him an authority on the silent films made here. Clearly this is a passion. Thus during this program he was able to tell us that when the railroad supplanted the canal as the navigation of choice some of the old waterways, water sources and aqueducts were converted to hydro electric plants by John Roebling, builder of the Brooklyn Bridge. One of the workmen on that renovation later made his way to New York and found work with the Biograph Co. In 1908, knowing that they were looking for film locations, he suggested that they visit Cuddebackville as it had farm lands, mountains, the river, the canal and the tow path, as well as all the manifestations of community life …a school,  a church, a cemetery and large and small homes. All of this, I suspect, was so generic that it could be read as Anywhere USA and thus perfect for a hopefully wide market. It was also served by a railroad spur north out of Port Jervis and was merely five hours away from the city.

The area also provided the large Cuddeback Hotel which could accommodate actors and crew. Today the registers of the hotel are in the museum and given the date of film productions it is possible to find the cast and crew members who worked on those particular films through this source. One can also verify that these locations were used by the Thanhauser and Pathe Film Cos.

For this program the four recently acquired films, “Willful Peggy,” “The Little Darling,” “In Life’s Cycle” and “Muggsy Becomes a Hero,” this one directed by Frank Powell, were presented to the members of the Historic Society in order to ascertain the specific locations used in the films. There was an audience of about 25 local enthusiasts …no one that I could see was less than 60. Without exception there was unanimous agreement that the sites named were indeed the sites as seen.

The films came to the Society from the Library of Congress. Somewhere along the way Seth had crossed paths with Ben Model. Ben is a well known composer and piano accompanist for silent films affiliated for over 25 years with the Museum of Modern Art and for many years with the Library of Congress. Knowing of Seth’s interests, he found films in the Library collection that had Cuddebackville as their location. He was able to get digitalized copies made. At the moment not everyone can do this with every film in their collection…but that will be possible sometime in the future. They were shown via a digital projection machine.

One of these films, “The Little Darling,” was made from a nitrate negative, which, despite the common belief, can be successfully preserved if stored correctly. The other three films were made from paper prints. In the early days of film making the Library did not have the facilities to copyright films …they could copyright scripts and archival materials…and so paper prints were sometimes made of the films frame by frame. The Library has over 3,000 motion pictures in this format. The prints were contact prints made on strips of paper the width of the film. The present copies are digitalized versions of those prints. The quality is excellent …very sharp and with good distinction in the tonal values.

The films are typical of the escapist nature of the genre, what Debbie Reynolds in Singing in the Rain called “…just a lot of dumb show.” And while some of the actors later had fame and following, i.e.: Mary Pickford, for the most part the characters all read as dramatic stereotypes. There is also the sense of a passel of New York actors up in the country having a lot of fun.

What stands out in these films is the cinematic technique. Where the action cuts from one location to another, whenever the story returns to an earlier setting the camera is always in the same position as previously seen. Thus I would understand that all of the scenes in each location were shot from one position at one time, out of sequence with the storyline. This accomplished two goals: it reduced the time required to make the films …as ever time was likely money. But for the audience the return to a setting seen from the same earlier camera position established a sense of familiarity and reduced the opportunity for visual confusion; after all, these narratives were only two to 12 minutes long.

It was also interesting that while the cinematic approach was so “head on,” presentational, in all of the interiors, shot in the 14th Street New York studio, there is always a wall to the left or to the right making a corner with the back wall that indicates the depth from the picture plane. Showing only the one corner reduces the sense of our looking into a box; thus that “open” side creates a sense of air as well. This sense of depth is enhanced by having a table or chair in the center of the space around which the actors work. The exterior scenes with buildings always show those buildings obliquely, suggesting that their parallel lines meet at a distant vanishing point.

Many authorities on the development of cubism mention the influence movies had on the imaginations of Picasso and Braque, both of whom were avid movie buffs. It is often stated that they were impressed by the ability of film to make rapid cuts, change points of view and to see an object, or person, from many sides. Seeing these films, all of which were contemporary to the development of cubism, I think I would disagree with that. These films are too static to have had an influence that only later films would have had. (“Birth of a Nation” was made after the Cubist years.) But what these films do have is that pronounced sense of the flatness of the two-dimensional formant and the perception of depth specifically created on the picture plane…which was exactly the pictorial challenge that interested those two artists. Being in black and white they also have a pronounced sense of having been designed from tonal values, another element of cubism.

As to who was responsible for the cinematic technique, Griffith or Billy Bitzer, the cinematographer, requires further research. Film is often spoken of as a collaborative enterprise but it also has the potential to have its contentious power struggles. We are most commonly aware of the power of the star to have his/her way or of a director with callous disregard for the producer’s money. What we rarely hear about is the struggle for dominance between the director and the cinematographer. With 30 years experience in the industry I am well aware that this aspect of film making is extremely common. I have known Directors of Photography, DP’s, who are interested only in furthering their careers and who do as they damn well please, others who are truly collaborative, and those who are simply journeymen photographers making a day’s pay. I also know that most DP’s whatever their level of achievement merely repeat the acclaimed techniques they have known others to use …while they might successfully create a look or a style, very few of them are really very innovative. Perhaps this further justifies our speaking of film as a director’s medium.

But to give credit where credit is due it behooves us to ascertain the exact contribution each participant made to a film. John Ford is reputed to have told the 12-year-old Steven Spielberg that when you know where to put the horizon you will know how to direct films. What all the great film makers have in common …Eisenstein, Ozu, Fellini, Ford, Almodovar…is their understanding that fine art photography is the basis of motion picture ….moving picture …art. Did Griffith bring this photographic awareness to his filmmaking career or did Bitzer introduce the concept to him? Did G. make the cinematic innovations or did B.? Will there come a day when these will be seen as the early films of Billy Bitzer? Is he the unsung railroad to Griffith’s canal?

The other aspect of silent movies is the silence, or as we sometimes experience it, the musical accompaniment. At the commencement of the films I was initially startled that the tinny sound of the old upright piano was so loud …and more Scott Joplin than Erik Satie. But I remembered that early movie theaters were often only converted storefronts, likely the size of the room in which we were sitting, and I realized that this initially overbearing piano was probably very right for recapturing a sense of a rowdy past. (Ben Model did confess that piano accompaniment only came to films many years later.) In any event it was right on “in sync” with the action on the screen and I soon shifted my focus to the fluidity and ease with which Mr. Model played his part melding the two into a single event.

After each film was shown there was a brief discussion to ascertain the locations and then and later during the general discussion Ben Model quietly and respectfully displayed his confident and graceful character and the depth of his knowledge on the history of musical accompaniment of early films and the making of those films …all of which knowledge is so readily at hand for him: this is his niche, his world. He knows it inside and out and is so pleased that you have asked him to share it. It is very rare, despite the egocentricity of so many of our fellows, to realize that one is in the company of a very interesting and important person; so rare I will say as to be a privilege.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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3 Responses to D.W. Griffith Before Hollywood

  1. Seth Goldman says:

    Hi, Seth Goldman from the museum here. A few points: Cuddebackville has lots of residents (600 or so) one just doesn’t see the houses from the main road. I live full time up here…I commute to NYC for the restaurant project, and remain President of the board of the Museum and director of its Institute of Early Film Studies.


    • Seth Goldman says:

      I love this article and am very thankful to Gary for the original blog post and this re-posting.
      Anyone who gets a chance to come up our way can see the hotel guest register with Cecil B deMille, Mary Pickford, the Griffiths, etc. or reach out to us, and we’ll be happy to answer any questions.


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