D. W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909)

To continue with our series of silent film titles which you can access for free online thanks to a number international archives during these strange times of lock down we look at an American classic . Our previous posts include the American drama The Italian (1915) and British drama Hobson’s Choice (1920). James Harrison intros D. W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909):  

Much can be said about the 14 minute short A Corner in Wheat (1909). To be honest, even more can be said about D. W. Griffith (1875 – 1948). Classed as the ‘father of film’ by many while also being criticised and villainised by others; Griffith is ‘that director’ of ‘that film’. But before the release of The Birth of a Nation (1914) Griffith had cut his teeth on an unspeakable amount of films way before he started production of the film which would establish him as one of most renowned film director’s in the history of cinema.

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D. W. Griffith in Action

Based on Frank Norris’ 1902 short story A Deal in Wheat as well as extra elements taken from two other Norris books, The Octopus and The Pit (two novels which would make up Norris’ incomplete The Epic of the Wheat trilogy) Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat was filmed during the first two weeks of a mild November in 1909. Actual filming was spread over the course of up to ten to eleven days, making the film a far more thought through affair compared to other standard filming schedules of the time; that standard for many productions being around the two to three days of filming. Filming included interior filming at the Biograph Studios situated in New York with exterior filming in the rural countryside of Upstate New York, although nearly 90% of the film is made up of the studio sequences.

Without giving the entire story away (it is only 14 mins after all) the film tells the story of the exploitation of others (represented here by ‘The Wheat King’: played by Griffith’s assistant Frank Powell) and how that exploitation can affect those lower down the business chain, particularly, key workers in the field.

A Corner in Wheat is a very simple film with a very simple story but with one hell of a point to make. The film is bold with a story which is beautifully told by Griffith. By cutting from one aspect of the story to another and showing ‘the ladder’ of power of and how greed from people in power can impact on other people’s lives, even if those people have never met or even know of their existence is one of the great aspects to this film. It is a film from 1909 after all and yet it is a film which has far more layers of storytelling than I have seen (or probably will see) from this first key period of American cinema. A Corner in Wheat is pioneering.

And don’t forget, after you watch the film, we technically have not one, not two but three endings. Who knows, maybe there is a fourth and fifth ending in there as well?!

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Cameraman G. W. ‘Billy’ Bitzer and D. W. Griffith

The film is also beautifully shot by Griffith’s regular cameraman G. W. ‘Billy’ Bitzer (1872 – 1944) and while you have the standard framing of the time (the camera feeling distant from the action and locked into a single position) the cinematography (especially the exterior shots) showcases Bitzer’s composition and depth, something which we would see more and more in the following decade as he worked alongside Griffith. And with the fact that Bitzer’s work on A Corner in Wheat has been connected to the work of French realist artist Jean-François Millet (1814- 1875), highlighted by Tom Gunning and Kevin Brownlow, then we are not just watching a film, we are watching art, giving even more reason to believe that Bitzer is America’s first great cinematographer.

It is down to you if you find A Corner in Wheat the masterpiece in which many, including myself, believe it to be. Who knows, you might totally disagree. But what is key when it comes to you watching this is not seeing how complicated it is, it is seeing how simple the storytelling is of such a complicated subject matter; especially if you try to watch the film with the view of cinema audiences in of 1909 and 1910.

D. W. Griffith only started directing films in 1908. By the end of 1909 Griffith had made 142 titles and that’s 142 titles that we know of. A Corner in Wheat is only but one of those titles and yet it stands out as another stepping stone in what would become the formation of storytelling within international film-making and for that, this film should most certainly have its own corner in the history of film. Enjoy!

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