Sunday, 1 August 2010

D.W. Griffith's Directorial Debut - 1908 The Adventures of Dollie - D.W. Griffith

It is a common mistake to over-emphasise the importance of a major artist’s first work, particularly when it is framed in the context of his oeuvre rather than the period he was working in. In a thoroughly comprehensive piece on The Adventures of Dollie, Peter Gutmann of Classical Notes overstates the importance of the film:
The Adventures of Dollie is assured of a permanent niche in the annals of art if only because it was the first movie directed by D. W. Griffith, arguably the most important director in the history of cinema. Yet, it is far more significant than a mere historical anecdote – as the starting point from which Griffith’s genius would flow it provides a baseline against which his remarkable achievements can be measured.
Among other first works, Griffith’s first movie leans more toward the technically competent but wholly imitative juvenilia of Mozart than the early works of Beethoven, in which glimmers of a mature, confident and innovative artist are already evident. (Or, to take two extreme examples from the world of film, contrast the soft-core porn that launched the careers of so many famous directors and stars with the astounding brilliance of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.) But even considering that film, by its nature, necessarily is a collaborative art that forecloses most private experimentation and development before embarking on a feature project, Griffith’s first film hardly sprung out of a void.  
(Before I deconstruct the above quote, it must be said that the majority of Gutmann’s piece is an essential read - particularly in regards to providing biographical information in regards to Griffith’s life when he made the film)

I am wholly unconvinced that Griffith is ‘the most important director in the history of cinema’. In fact, one of my major complaints with misconceptions of film in the second decade of the twentiethcentury is that it is viewed as being ‘Griffith’s decade’ and that he alone was moving film into the realm of the feature film and the more naturalistic style of film making that we are accustomed to today.

The framing of The Adventures of Dollie ‘as the starting point from which Griffith’s genius would flow it provides a baseline against which his remarkable achievements can be measured’ burdens this pleasant film 
with expectations it cannot live up to.

The Adventures of Dollie involves a gypsy kidnapping a young girl named Dollie in order to seek revenge against Dollie’s father, who had earlier attacked the gypsy for harassing his young family. The plot is almost identical to Hepworth’s 1905 film Rescued by Rover and quite similar Griffith’s acting debut Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest.

It is a film firmly rooted in its era’s conventions and genres. When we observe the film from this perspective rather trying to ponder whether it is more like the early works of Mozart or Beethoven, a more balanced reading of the film can be obtained. And the film does contain some impressive moments which suggest Griffith will go on to become a substantial director. The shot of the reflection of the surroundings before the horse drawn cart pounds into the water is elegant; the sequence of the film where the barrel rolls down the river adds a layer of suspense while also being an attractive framework for the sequence.

There is a logical flaw in an important part of the set up of the film. When the gypsy hides Dollie in the barrel, surely Dollie would have made some sort of noise to alert the search party she had coming looking for her?
Given the sheer inventiveness of several of the recent films we have looked at (e.g. the lightning-paced animation of Fantasmagorie, the birth of slapstick in Début d'un Patineur, etc.s), the Adventures of Dollie feels slightly underwhelming.

The Early & Silent film blog provides us with some useful information about the film as well as detailing its instant success:
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.
It is always interesting to learn about a major film maker’s collaborators as it provides the viewer with a more complete understanding of the creative genesis of a movie. The film was written by Stanner E.V. Taylor; it was his first writing credit – he would go on to write and direct films until 1929.

The commercial success of the film does suggest that Griffith had an intuitive sense of what the audience wanted to observe in the new medium of film. As with many commercially successful films that would follow in its steps for the next 102 years, the film plays on the fears of the middle classes as well as having a simple good-evil dichotomy.

The Adventures of Dollie is a solid yet unspectacular venture into filmmaking for Griffith. It will be interesting to observe him hone and develop his craft over the next decade. 
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