These days the name D. W. Griffith is not widely known. For most of the people who are aware of him, he has become one of those figures whose life is defined by a single act. Birth of a Nation is notorious, and rightly so, for its horrifying racism, and that one film has come to define Griffith’s image in the public arena. Because of the director’s reputation as a racist, and because the audience for silent films has shrunk to almost nothing, there’s little awareness of his importance as a filmmaker, his stature as an artist and his place in American history.
If somebody tells me they don’t want to watch Griffith’s films because of the racist attitudes they promote, I can understand that. But if somebody who cares about film says they don’t want to watch Griffith, it’s comparable to an English lit major saying they don’t want to read Shakespeare. They both occupy a similar place in their respective realms. Like Shakespeare’s plays, Griffith’s films do contain ugly racist propaganda, and like Shakespeare’s plays, Griffith’s films also speak powerfully of compassion, forgiveness and justice. How do we reconcile these competing tendencies, whether we’re talking about Griffith or Shakespeare? The answer is we can’t. Both were great artists. Both allowed prejudice to mar their work. And both men were a product of their time, just as we are a product of ours.
If people want to cross Griffith off their list for the way he portrayed African-Americans, that’s their right. That does, however, mean ignoring one of the greatest artists ever to work in film, and a central player in twentieth century American culture. It’s probably impossible to understand the development of American cinema (and maybe world cinema) without looking at the director’s work. Also, while Griffith’s films contain many insulting portrayals of Blacks, his attitude toward other groups could be surprisingly progressive. He made a number of shorts dealing with the violence inflicted on Native Americans by Anglos. Broken Blossoms may seem dated now in its portrayal of chaste love between an Asian man and an Anglo woman, but it was extremely daring for its time. And social justice was a major theme in his films, where he often showed the rich and powerful exploiting the poor and helpless.
Corner in Wheat is a prime example of his concern for those who struggled just to put food on the table. The film is under fourteen minutes long, but Griffith manages to pack a lot into this one-reel drama. Most of the movies made in the first decade of the twentieth century feature straightforward narratives laid out with blunt simplicity, and you could pretty much count on a happy ending. Not so with Corner in Wheat. Griffith attempts a multi-layered approach to telling the story. We have the poor family living on a farm, the ruthless businessman on the commodities exchange, and the market where people come to buy bread. There is no direct connection between any of these elements. The characters in these three scenes don’t interact, they’re just different aspects of the same system. I don’t know of another film from the period that shows a cross section of society in this way.
Most filmmakers of the time used the camera to record the action and connect the scenes so that the audience could follow the story easily. But even in this early effort Griffith was moving away from a strict narrative approach, and beginning to use images as poetry. To start with, the film is bookended by scenes of a farmer and his family. We first see the farmer sticking his hand into a bag of seed, letting it run through his fingers. His wife and daughter look on with stoic faces. Then the farmer and an older man (his father?) go into the fields to sow the wheat, scattering seeds as they move back and forth across the empty plain.
Cut to the businessman who plans to corner the market in wheat. Wound tight with ambition and impatience, he gives instructions to his traders. Next we see them on the floor of the exchange, where the entire crowd is caught up in a mounting frenzy of elation and desperation. The businessman’s plan works, he corners the market and makes a fortune. At a lavish party attended by society’s elite, everyone raises their glass to toast his success. But then Griffith shows us the impact this has on the common folk. A store that sells bread must raise its prices to cover the high cost of flour. Some can pay, but some can’t. The hungry poor invade the shop demanding bread. The police are called, first using batons to force the crowd back, and then pulling their guns.
Griffith tells his story with simple but powerful contrasts like these, and his images have a potency you won’t find in other films from the time. We see the affluent society crowd enjoying their party without a care in the world. We see the farmer holding out his empty hands to let his wife know that they have no money. And we see the businessman, having fallen inside a grain elevator, struggling for life as the wheat comes pouring down on him, until only his writhing hand is visible.
And the film’s final image sums up the bitter despair brought on by the businessman’s scheme. We see the farmer again sowing seed, now by himself on the lonely plain. Going down one row he nears the camera, then he turns, walks back in the opposite direction, and the image fades from the screen.
Corner in Wheat is one of many shorts that Griffith made for Biograph between nineteen eight and nineteen fourteen. During this time the director was constantly experimenting, constantly testing the boundaries of the new medium. These one and two reel movies show him searching for new ways to use the language of film, and the techniques he developed at Biograph would form the basis for his later features. Eventually Griffith’s work would change cinema forever. Corner in Wheat is one of his first steps along that path.
Watch the film by clicking on the title below.