1909 in “100 Years, 100 Films” sees the advent of the one director who is responsible for more films in this series than any other, D.W. Griffith. Looking back at film history in chronological order, it is very obvious that there be a B.G. and an A.G. after the dates (“Before Griffith” and “After Griffith”) — he is that pivotal in film history.
Griffith was less than a year in the director’s chair when he started advancing the language of film producing the remarkable series of short features that led up to his great (and perpetually controversial) 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation. One of the earliest of these mini-masterworks is Corner in Wheat, suggested (but not actually based upon) Frank Norris’s 1903 novel “The Pit.” The Pit is in the movie, as it is in the book, the wheat trading pit at the old Chicago Board of Trade. Film in 1909 was still a bit primitive to capture the nuances of a big novel. Intertitles were barely being used yet, and narrative techniques were still being developed, so films tended to be more of a pantomime of events in a book already familiar to the public than they were an actual filmic interpretation of the story. Still, Griffith does a respectable job of setting up the contrast between the lowly wheat farmers and the rich wheat speculators at the Board of Trade. The frantic trading floor scenes were straight from a novel that was probably passingly familiar to audiences at the time. The individual characters do not take on much life, but Griffith plays on broad stereotypes to get his point across. Unlike the novel, the movie takes a melodramatic turn when the wealthy wheat speculator, having cornered the market in wheat (thereby driving up the price of bread everywhere), falls into a grain silo and gets suffocated under a mountain of wheat. His hand, clutching for air above the rising tide of spilling grain, is the most memorable image in the film.
Griffith’s movie has outlived the novel upon which it was built. Frank Norris is still an essential part of the history of American literature, but mostly for specialists. While “The Pit” was regarded as his masterpiece during his lifetime, it is one of his less frequently read novels today. His novels “The Octopus” and “McTeague” have garnered much more attention in recent decades, and you will still see them on college reading lists. But overall, his antisemitism and general racism doomed his literary legacy almost a century ago.
Unlike the case of Frank Norris, allegations of racism against D.W. Griffith never completely sank his legacy, although glorification of the KKK does make The Birth of a Nation, for all its importance in film history, difficult to stomach for present-day audiences. Griffith was somewhat aware of the problem, although he never apologized for The Birth of a Nation. He tried in his own way to balance the racial portrayals in his work, such as by making The Chinaman a hero in Broken Blossoms (1919). Whether Griffith redeemed himself or not is a still a matter of debate. But for those who give Griffith a pass, the reason is that he is so essential to film history that you cannot completely dispose of him and still tell the whole story.