Monday, January 23, 2012

Griffith's Social Drama as Wish Fulfillment

One of the hundreds of films that D.W. Griffith cranked out for Biograph during the period between 1908 and 1913, ONE IS BUSINESS, THE OTHER CRIME (1913) is typical of his urban melodramas, dealing with social problems of the early 20th century. It’s a fairly routine picture, but what’s remarkable is how Griffith guides the otherwise routine story, and its predictable trajectory, into a last-minute transformation that would not seem out of place in a Frank Capra film.

Griffith sets up the dichotomy of the poor couple vs. the rich couple. The poor but honest man goes out to look for work. Meanwhile, the rich man accepts a bribe in exchange for his vote on a bill that will benefit corporate interests. Unable to find work, the poor man resorts to burglary. He ends up in the house of the rich woman, who holds him at gunpoint while he begs for mercy. At the same moment, she discovers the bribery note addressed to her husband, and decides to spare the poor man. She shames her husband into returning the bribe, and into giving the poor man a job with his company!

What’s most interesting about these early social dramas, and especially those by Griffith, is how explicitly they set up the inequality faced by different classes, while also offering idealistic and overly-simplistic solutions to the problems depicted. Still, it’s remarkable how bold Griffith was in tackling this problems head-on through the infant medium of film. Regardless of how he arrives at his conclusions, such films would almost certainly have spoken very strongly to audiences at the time, seeing familiar inequality and injustices depicted with such brutal honesty. The conclusions of these early 20th century social dramas can almost be seen to function as wish fulfillment.