Arguably the first great American director in the cinema, D.W. Griffith was less than a year in the director’s chair when he started advancing the language of film, producing a remarkable series of short features that led up to his great (and perpetually controversial) feature-length blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation (1915). 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 were more of a pantomime of events in a book already familiar to an audience than they were an actual filmic interpretation of a book. 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 many in the audience at the time. The 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 the 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 is 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 lesser 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. His antisemitism and general racism doomed his literary legacy almost a century ago.
Unlike Frank Norris, allegations of racism against D.W. Griffith never really sunk his legacy, although glorification of the KKK does make one of his most important films (The Birth of a Nation) difficult to stomach. Griffith was aware of the problem and tried in his own way to balance racial portrayals in his work, such as by making the Chinaman a hero in Broken Blossoms (1919). Whether he redeemed himself or not is a matter of intense debate. But the reason people give Griffith a pass at all is that he is so essential to American film history that you cannot dispose of him.