D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Films at the Egyptian

American Cinematheque’s Retroformat began its series of early D.W. Griffith works at the Egyptian Theatre this past weekend with a handful of the films he produced for Biograph Films. This series will continue over the next few months and ultimately showcase more than 100 of Griffith’s films from 1908 to 1913, with this first night focusing on the period between 1908 and 1909.

Retroformat screenings take place in the smaller, Spielberg Theatre at the Egyptian, which means the projector is actually in the theater with the audience—part of the draw to these 8mm screenings is watching the methodical threading and focusing process as means of between-show entertainment. The rhythmic clicking of the reels was also a worthy percussive accompaniment to a great live piano score, provided by Cliff Retallick.

The first half of the evening included:

  • The Adventures of Dollie: A mother offends a traveler, who attempts to kidnap her child by putting her in a barrel—but the barrel falls off the wagon into a river, and the child is saved by nearby fishermen.
  • A Calamitous Elopement: An engaged couple run off to get married, not realizing that there’s a thief hiding in their trunk waiting to steal their stuff.
  • The Romance of a JewessA woman marries a man against her pawn-shop-owner father’s wishes. When her husband dies, she’s left in poverty and sends her daughter to sell her mother’s locket at the pawn shop. Her father recognizes the locket, and the family is reconciled briefly before the woman dies.
  • Those Awful Hats: Funny precursor to today’s “Turn off your cell phone” pre-show ads; in this early version, women with increasingly garish and obstructive hats are literally plucked out of the audience.
  • The Curtain Pole: Another funny short, in which a man goes to replace a broken curtain rod and runs into some slapstick-style trouble trying to transport the long pole back home in a taxi.
  • A Drunkard’s Reformation: Dramatic piece where an alcoholic man sees a play depicting an alcoholic man’s detrimental effects on his family, which inspires him to swear off drinking.

As the host described, many of these prints can only be seen today due to the fact that they were once copied on paper in the Library of Congress, for copyright purposes, and enterprising film historians were able to take those copies, photograph each frame, and make a print from there. So, the quality was obviously not perfect at times, but it’s incredible to think that these prints were preserved at all, let alone from a paper copy.

Those Awful Hats: The stage play was filmed separately and layered into the frame.

In some cases the original titles were lost and re-done in a more comedic style in the 1950s to air on television, but all of the films were entertaining and fairly easy to follow. I particularly enjoyed “The Curtain Pole,” which was a fun physical comedy, and an interesting precursor to the silent comedians that audiences would start recognizing within a few short years of this film.

The second half of the presentation included Her First Biscuits, starring Florence Lawrence and featuring Mary Pickford in her first onscreen role; Confidence, in which a young woman attempts to start a reputable life, but her past catches up with her; and Resurrection, which is an adaption of the Tolstoy novel, condensed into 15 minutes—which surely required some effort.

The program will skip February, but the series will continue at the Egyptian Theatre in March, moving on to the next few years of Griffith’s repertoire. Keep an eye on their schedule for more information on these upcoming events and more.

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