The Violin Maker of Cremona
R: D.W. Griffith. B: Frank E. Woods, from the play by Françoise Coppée. K: G.W. Bitzer. D: David Miles, Herbert Prior, Mary Pickford, Owen Moore, Mack Sennett. P: American Biograph. USA 1909
“The new year brought a significant acceleration in the pace of Griffith’s activity. While he produced 30 films in the last quarter of 1908 (no mean feat in itself!), he issued the staggering total of 44 in the first three months of 1909. (That’s one complete picture every two days – including weekends!) The total release footage rose by only 20%. Rather, the increase seems to have stemmed from a change in company policy – more than half of Biograph’s twice-weekly releases now consisted of split reels (containing two shorter films) rather than a single full-length subject – and Griffith apparently was responsible for their entire output.
Not surprisingly, the accelerated pace took a toll in quality. The need for a greater number of stories resulted in a profusion of insipid drawing-room tales that are totally devoid of social significance. Production values plunged as well – of the 44 films, more than a third consist of only one or two sets and camera positions monotonously intercut. Predictably, Griffith lavished the least attention on the shortest films (some of which run a mere three minutes or so). Griffith’s distaste for these perfunctory shorts is further suggested by two facts. First, the total length of each Biograph release nearly always comes within a few feet of a full reel (1,000 35 mm feet – an important target for both Biograph, which sold its release prints outright to film exchanges by the foot, and to Griffith, who earned a royalty on each foot of film sold). Second, the shorter film in a split reel generally was shot much closer to the release date than the longer subject, and often was finished in a single day. All of this suggests that Griffith had to make films to order and put off the task of making the filler of a split-reel program as long as possible.
In the meantime, in several films of 1909 Griffith explored the creative potential of fade-outs. The first was A Baby’s Shoe (April 5, 6 and 12) in which a man discovers that his fiancée is in fact his long-lost sister and enters the priesthood. The final shot shows him and a senior priest kneeling to pray together as the background fades, leaving their faces fully illuminated. The effect is wonderfully suggestive of the world and its disappointments literally fading away, leaving the faithful suspended in a spiritual space free of earthly anchors. A similar concluding partial fadeout to suggest religious meditation would be found in A Strange Meeting (June 11 and 17). Next, though, was The Violin Maker of Cremona (April 21, 22 and 23), which ends after the title character loses his girl to a rival, foregoes a prize he has won, smashes his violin and returns alone to his room where the lighting begins to dim, thus clearly reflecting his state of mind. Somewhat less creatively, Fools of Fate (August 27 – 30) used a fade-out literally, but in the course of its story rather than only at the end, as two hunters bed down for the night. (Since the scene was shot outdoors, the effect must have been achieved by stopping down the lens rather than by dimming the light.)”
R: D.W. Griffith. B: Robert Browning (play). K: G.W. Bitzer. D: Gertrude Robinson, George Nichols, Arthur V. Johnson, Mary Pickford, Mack Sennett.
P: American Biograph. USA 1909
“Griffith made a number of technical innovations in this film that made it a cut above the average film offering of the day. But by far the most important departure from ‘cheap melodrama’ was the very adaptation of Browning to film itself, which was, as the Times reviewer noted, ‘the most rarified dramatic stuff up to date’. In the light of modern film adaptations of literature, the relative artistic merits of the two works are not difficult to judge: the Browning play is without doubt the better work of art. Moreover, there is no real evidence to suggest that Griffith would have rendered the story any more poetically or with less didacticism had the technical limitations he faced in the medium not existed. His most powerful and lyrical visual poetry was still ahead of him, and in any case, as James Agee observes: ‘He doesn’t appear ever to have realized one of the richest promises that movies hold, as a perfect medium for realism raised to the level of high poetry; nor, oddly enough, was he much of a dramatic poet.’ In Pippa Passes, in fact, he does much harm in many ways to the dramatic poetry of his source. The film is, despite its contemporary and popular success, one of those aesthetic failures in the oeuvre of an artist that reveals in its flaws the aesthetic problems besetting him, problems which, in later and more genuinely successful works, are not as readily apparent.”
Ferdinand Alexi Hilenski