If I had to name a single favorite narrative film from the first decade of the twentieth century, it would probably be D.W. Griffith’s 14 minute A Corner in Wheat from 1909. Although it was made only one year after Griffith began directing, the film is uncommonly assured in its sense of composition, pacing, mood and tone. This is no doubt in part due to Griffith’s astonishing rate of production in the early phase of his career; between the beginning of 1908 and the end of 1909 (when A Corner in Wheat was released in December), Griffith had already made almost two hundred films. To examine Griffith’s evolution from his first primitive short The Adventures of Dolly to A Corner in Wheat in just two action-packed years is to witness the birth of a master. At the end of this period, Griffith had far surpassed his contemporaries in using narrative continuity techniques to impart meaning in ambitious and complex ways.
The most notable aspect of A Corner in Wheat is its audacious use of parallel editing (also known as crosscutting or intercutting), the technique of cutting back and forth between two locations in order to suggest simultaneous action. Although parallel editing has become so commonplace that it appears in the vast majority of movies made today, this wasn’t always the case; the earliest edited films all involved following a single protagonist or group of protagonists from the beginning of the film to the end. Edwin S. Porter is widely credited with popularizing parallel editing with his 1903 movies Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery. Six years later, Griffith (never an inventor but frequently an innovator) perfected the technique, employing it in ways that no one else had yet conceived. For example, most early instances of parallel editing involved cutting between different locations in order to generate suspense or to draw a parallel between different subjects. In A Corner in Wheat, Griffith uses the technique for the purposes of ironic counterpoint, cutting in order to contrast characters in starkly different milieus – and thereby delivering a damning social critique.
A Corner in Wheat begins and ends with scenes of a farmer sowing grain that visually quote Jean-Francois Millet’s painting The Sower. In between, we see a greedy businessman, W.J. Hammond (“The Wheat King”), corner the world market in wheat. As a result, the cost of flour rises and the price of bread doubles. Griffith’s parallel editing shows us a lavish party thrown by the Wheat King (in which his guests are identified by an intertitle as “The Gold of the Wheat”) juxtaposed with a series of tableaux-like shots in which poor people stand in line to buy bread (identified as “The Chaff of the Wheat”). Later, the Wheat King visits a grain elevator (presumably on a folly to see how the other half live) and, while there, receives a telegram from his accountant informing him of his current net worth. His excitement causes him to fall down the elevator shaft where, in a deliciously ironic example of poetic justice, he is literally suffocated to death by falling grain. If this last image sounds familiar, that’s because Carl Dreyer cribbed it for the climax of his great experimental horror film Vampyr 23 years later.
Griffith’s early masterwork has even continued to be paid tribute to right up to the present day. I’m not sure which is the more fitting 21st century tribute: that a shot from it appears in WALL-E (as an image used to define “Earth” to a futuristic people who have never seen our planet) or that it inspired someone in December, 2010 to write the comment “fuck wall street!!” in the comments section of this YouTube video: A Corner in Wheat
A Corner in Wheat can also be found on Kino Video’s essential 2 DVD set D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Shorts.