Tag Archives: A Corner in Wheat

The Secret History of Chicago Movies: From the Submerged

Next to Charlie Chaplin’s His New Job, the most important surviving film made by Chicago’s Essanay Studios, and arguably the masterpiece of all of their extant movies, is From the Submerged, a drama released in November of 1912 that was written and directed by Theodore Wharton and starring the beautiful Ruth Stonehouse.

Theodore Wharton, a fascinating figure virtually unknown among cinephiles today, began his career as a director for Pathe Freres in 1910 and had the reputation of being something of an innovator. He was one of a crop of new directors that Essanay Studios had hired following an exodus of many of their top talent to the American Film Manufacturing Company. Wharton’s 1912 Essanay production of Sunshine, now lost, made a big impression on critics at the time for its creative use of superimpositions; one scene featured a character making a confession to a priest where the story of the confession appeared as an image within the same frame as the shot of the guy telling the story. A similarly visually flamboyant device serves as the emotional climax to Wharton’s From the Submerged, also from 1912, a movie that more than lives up to its evocative and poetic title.

From the Submerged tells the story of a young, homeless man (E.H. Calvert) who is prevented from committing suicide in a public park by a complete stranger, a young woman (Ruth Stonehouse) who reminds him that God loves him. In a melodramatic plot twist, the young man soon inherits a fortune and, two years later, becomes engaged to a wealthy socialite. With several of their friends, the couple attends a “slumming party” where they visit a bread line that offers handouts to the homeless. The young man confesses his destitute past to his fiancée, who laughs and says, “How funny.” Realizing her shallowness, the young man decides to break off the relationship. Remembering the woman who saved his life, the young man then dons his former shabby attire and returns to the public park where he almost killed himself years earlier. There, he runs into the same woman from the beginning of the film and reminds her of their previous encounter. After a quickie wedding, he takes her to his home where she realizes, for the first time, that her husband is actually a wealthy man.

While the plot of From the Submerged is similar to that of the contrived Victorian-style melodramas common to the era (a lot of narrative twists are crammed into a running time of less than ten minutes), the film is sensitively directed and well acted. There is also a lot more psychological and emotional complexity than what one typically finds in a movie from 1912. A scene of the young man tearing up a photograph of his fiancée, for instance, visually represents the end of their engagement. While this is, in itself, a familiar movie image, what really impresses about the moment is the way that E.H. Calvert slowly and sadly shakes his head while tearing up the picture, a subtle and exquisite bit of film acting. This is immediately followed by an even more impressive moment where the young man slowly starts to nod as he remembers his encounter with the young woman in the park, a flashback shot of which is superimposed above his head (a la Sunshine).

The film’s social criticism, the ironic juxtaposition of wealthy and poor characters, the bread line scenes, the musical editing rhythms and the use of an internally rhyming structure (e.g., bookending the film with scenes in the same park) all show the obvious influence of D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking A Corner in Wheat from 1909. In turn, the opening scene of From the Submerged may have influenced the Estonian-born French director Dmitri Kirsanoff, whose avant-garde masterpiece Menilmontant from 1926 (recently listed in my “Silent French Cinema Primer”) features a nearly identical sequence in which a character is prevented from committing suicide by a stranger in a park.

From the Submerged can be viewed in its entirety on Dailymotion below. Chicagoans should take note that the climactic park scene was shot beneath “Suicide Bridge,” the now-extinct high bridge over the Lincoln Park lagoon. The exterior of the man’s home at the end was almost certainly shot on Argyle Street in Uptown directly across from Essanay Studios.


Adventures in Early Movies: A Corner in Wheat

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.


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