For the next several weeks, I’ll be brushing up on my silent cinema, both American and international, and I figured I’d start with Griffith’s Way Down East (1920), a film that showcases his talent for melodrama about as well as anything he ever made, it seems to me. You can’t help but smile all through the damned thing, even while you’re aware of how egregiously hokey it all is. Eisenstein famously compared Griffith’s technique as a filmmaker to Dickens’ as a novelist, and it’s true that Griffith’s films have the wonderful expansiveness and sheer pleasure of good Victorian fiction—not intellectual novels like those of George Eliot, but page-turners like Jane Eyre. (Is it an accident that the plot of Way Down East, based on a popular American play, is a transparent rip-off of Tess of the D’Urbervilles?) The stock characters, the heavy sentiment, the rich tapestry of minor characters, the leisurely pace: Griffith’s films provide all of these pleasures in many of the same ways that the most compulsively readable 19th-century books do.
But what I really want to write about is the shameless exploitation of cute animals in Griffith’s films, as when, for example, he cuts in for a close-up of a kitten asleep on its feet between the legs of a dozing Huck Finn type—a real “awwwww!” moment. It occurred to me that a good percentage of Griffith’s famous close-ups, both in this film and in others, are of animals; the POV shot of little Flora looking up at a tree squirrel moments before she plummets to her death in The Birth of a Nation comes to mind, for instance. The farm scenes of Way Down East give us repeated shots of hens, pigeons, baby chicks. At one point, Lillian Gish bonds with a pigeon on her shoulder, a shot that calls to mind two lovers making love through a dove, so to speak, in Birth. See below.
And that close-up of the kitten reminded me of a whole set of similar “kitty!” moments in early cinema: the shots of the title “character” in The Sick Kitten (dir. George Albert Smith, 1903; see below), or the close-up of the cat in Grandma’s Reading Glass (dir. George Albert Smith, 1900; bottom). Is it possible that the visual pleasure experienced by looking at cute animals helped motivate the development of the close-up—that our desire to see kittens and birds and puppies is as powerful as our desire to see spectacular human bodies in motion (one of the main reasons we watch movies, according to Linda Williams)? Are these the first so-called “animal pictures”? And if so, can we trace a through-line all the way from these films to Big Miracle (dir. Ken Kwapis, 2012), the new endangered-whale movie that opened in theaters this weekend? For what it’s worth, Stephanie Zacharek complains in her review of Big Miracle that we don’t get to see enough of the whales. Maybe what’s missing in the movie are some good close-ups.