Sunday, March 22, 2009

Corner in Wheat (1909)

Corner in Wheat is 100 years old and 15 minutes long. It was made for the Biograph Company, where its director, D.W. Griffith, began experimenting with the film techniques that would make him legendary. It concerns the rise and fall of the Wheat King—a ruthless captain of industry who corners the market in wheat and is soon dispatched under a pile of it.

Story over. Pretty basic. But having committed your quarter-hour to Corner in Wheat, switch off your DVD player, turn on your computer and visit What’s the top story today? AIG’s crooked executives, clawing for extra cash, despite their roles as underminers of the U.S. economy. These men face death-threats. One congressman suggested they give back their money or ‘commit suicide.’ The New York Post’s front page offered this:

When I started this blog, I wrote a long list of silent films I wanted to revisit. Corner in Wheat was on that list, but I hadn’t planned on re-watching it this soon. The events of the last few weeks make it appropriate. I’ve never forgotten the image of the Wheat King writhing at the bottom of the grain elevator as the stream of grain buries him. He’s a greedy bastard and he smothers.

Do we really need more nuance? Do we want more? Exploring why the Wheat King could become ‘king’ of anything in a democratic society might deny us the opportunity to convict him fully. It’s so cathartic to set a blatant villain in sharp relief to blatant victims—those victims being us, of course. Griffith knew it in 1909, and we know it now. Nevertheless, there is a deeper lesson to be learned from Corner in Wheat, if we’re prepared to look for it.

On to the film, brisk as it is. Corner in Wheat’s opening scene introduces a Farmer (James Kirkwood), alongside his wife (Linda Arvidson), father (W. Chrystie Miller) and daughter (Gladys Egan), unpreceded by any establishing shots, and not requiring any, because they are universals. Kirkwood’s Farmer bends slowly over a bag of wheat seed, dipping his hands and letting the granules sift through his fingers. They are precious to him, and we are reminded, ironically, of a rich man plunging his hands into a chest of gold coins. The Farmer is humble, but he can still covet.

Griffith now cuts to a longshot of the wheat field, with the Farmer and his father in the distance. They plod toward the camera, seeding the rows. This scene would be tedious in the hands of many early-silent directors, fixing as it does on a slow-moving pair of labourers without a single cut. Griffith does better. He avoids tedium by having the pair of farmers reach the foreground, turn, then start down the next row while the horses and plough behind them continue to advance. The effect is to split our attention between two dynamic elements—one achieving a goal, the other approaching one—rather than forcing us to wait for even one goal to be reached. And still Griffith succeeds in expressing the monotony and strain of wheat farming.

We now move inside, to the office of the Wheat King, W.J. Hammond (Frank Powell). Hammond sits puzzling at his desk in one corner; behind him stands a row of suited flunkies, including (I think) his son. ‘I have it!’ Hammond suddenly gestures.*

On to the wheat pit, where frantic traders crowd the camera frame, buying and selling, or trying to. They look like penned-in swine. Hammond emerges from the mass of them, calm and victorious. He has corned the market in wheat. He is now a very, very rich man.

Fourteen minutes goes quick, so Griffith wastes no time showing us the victims of Hammond’s triumph. The first is not a farmer, but another trader, whom Hammond’s corner has bankrupted. “Get it in the pit, where I did!” the Wheat King tells him.

‘The Gold of the Wheat’ follows, featuring Hammond at a banquet, being toasted amid cigars, ladies and booze. Then ‘The Chaff of the Wheat’ shifts the action to a hard-hit bakery—the first of several scenes set there. Hammond’s corner has thrust the price of wheat so high that bread is barely affordable. Griffith first shows us a woman buying bread with her last penny, then a wife and child unable to buy any at all. Soon the bakery is serving a long line of hungry men. When the bread runs out, they riot.

Having revelled to the fullest, Hammond now decides to gloat—he and his wealthy friends will take a tour of the grain elevators. They arrive, dressed in suits and gowns not advisable for such a dirty place. The Wheat King flicks a bit of chaff absently. As his friends follow the tour guide, Hammond stays back to read a telegram from his accountant:

Dear Sir—

You have control of the entire market of the world. Yesterday added $4,000,000 to your fortune.

Hammond is thrilled. He throws his hands in the air, loses his balance, and falls into the shaft of the grain elevator. The grain pours over him, killing him. When his body is hauled from the shaft by rope, his associates, wife and even the labourers all grieve over it.

Back to the wheat field. The Farmer continues his march along the rows, alone. When he reaches the foreground, he pauses, sighs with fatigue, and continues on. The scene fades to black around the Farmer, and Corner in Wheat is done.

Now, the beauty of films this short is that you can watch them twice and spot new things. For example, you may notice how often the growing, processing and consumption of wheat forces the film’s characters to line up. The farmers march in rows; Hammond’s associates stand behind him like a row of hieroglyphic slaves. The poor wait their turns in a bread line that grows longer as the price of wheat rises.

Consider too Griffith’s choice of shades. In scene one, the Farmer wears a black coat over a white shirt, but is dressed only in white in the closing scene. The labourers who pull Hammond out of the grain are dressed in light colours as well, but the businessmen surrounding him (in life and in death) wear black.

I don’t see this as a crude representation of good and evil. In several of his later films, Griffith depicted conflicting forces as possessing nearly equal nobility, while demonizing a pernicious ‘third side’ that represented moral decay. I believe he’s doing the same thing here. Hammond’s greed destroys him, but no one jumps for joy when he’s killed; the businessmen are even unnerved when he berates the ruined trader. And the Farmer, for all his honest work, never expresses joy—at least Hammond was happy for a day or so. The real King is the wheat itself, and the tragedy of Corner in Wheat is that everyone is enslaved by a commodity. Look close, and you’ll see the Farmer’s plough pulled not by a light horse alone, but by a dark one, too.

*We know what he’s getting at, because Griffith introduces the scene with an intertitle: ‘The Wheat King—Engineering the Great Corner.’ It was typical of early silent directors to summarize a scene before it was acted out, much as a theatre program describes events you’ll see over the course of the show. Actual dialogue intertitles were rare. While this technique has obvious dramatic limitations, it is fun to watch. You get a sense of the spectacle moving pictures must still have offered for audiences back then.

Where to find Corner in Wheat:
Kino International’s dual-disc D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Shorts contains Corner in Wheat alongside almost two-dozen other short films the director made during his years as Biograph’s chief artistic force.

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