Corner in Wheat
Reviewed in July 2009 / Click Here to Comment
Director: D.W. Griffith. Cast: Frank Powell, James Kirkwood, Linda Arvidson, Grace Henderson, Henry B. Walthall, W. Chrystie Miller, William J. Butler, Frank Evans, Blanche Sweet, Jeanie Macpherson, Dorothy West, Arthur V. Johnson, Charles Craig, Owen Moore, Billy Quirk, Kate Bruce, Edith Haldeman, Ruth Hart, Gertrude Robinson. Screenplay: D.W. Griffith and Frank E. Woods (based loosely on The Pit by Frank Norris).

Photo © 1909 The Biograph Company
Whatever went wrong or got rushed or failed to spark Griffith's imagination in The Sealed Room is more than compensated by Corner in Wheat, an incomparably more delicate picture that wastes no time flaunting how richly it's appointed itself. From the opening frames, as James Kirkwood's farmer stoops over a bag of seed and wife Linda Arvidson watches impassively, Corner in Wheat demonstrates a sensitivity and respect for the material as well as a restrained touch with the actors. Even better than that, from the dusty natural light and simple, tactful staging of this first shot, contrasted quickly with the oil-painting formality of a wheat baron's headquarters and then with the raucous, three-dimensional commotion on a trading floor, Griffith demonstrates how flexibly the film will spring from aesthetic to aesthetic, and how much these photographic styles will drive the story and its feelings. Even before we cut to the baron's office, Griffith spends a solid minute of the movie's quarter hour on the long, sluggish walk of the farmer and his father, spreading seeds in their furrowed field, starting at a great distance and loping ever closer to the camera, and just as they pass beyond the camera's point of view, they almost immediately re-enter, walking backward down the next row. The combination of the shot's duration and the feeling that the screen has almost repelled these men, trapping them inside a shot despite the ironically open vista of the rolling land, lends this moment a powerful affect that none of Griffith's florid intertitles or often indulged performances could have touched. You couldn't call the effect inconspicuous, any more than you could use that word for the gluttonous dinner banquet, or the doleful store where bread prices have doubled, or the late moment when Corner in Wheat introduces an abrupt swerve into wholly plausible horror. But these same scenes, pitched broadly in terms of tone and flirting with overstatement, are finessed with more minor-key touches that bring depth and texture to the film: the brief moment when the silent servant gazes out at the audience while the diners chatter among themselves; the economical way in which a storeroom sign imparts key context while being cynically hidden from the patrons who need to read it; the quiet suddenness with which a pure impression of light and motion inside a grain elevator becomes a scene of human peril.

The exploitation of the farmers and customers is nothing new for Griffith melodramas, but it's kept on a fairly tight leash. Besides, this borderline-mawkish narrative plinth has nothing on the sublime poetry of the direction: the sad, swift image of Kirkwood's shadow preceding him into a shot of his disappointed wife, or the way in which Griffith opposes the nearly bathetic climax (he just can't help himself!) with a mute tableau of someone whose life proceeds just as before (what a quick, restrained recovery!). Yes, it's amazing what 20 more years, an extra hour, and a move to the Soviet Union would achieve for this kind of material, but Corner in Wheat is a more than creditable take on Frank Norris, fifteen years before Greed and at literally 3% of the running time. But who needs Norris? Griffith's artistry thrives on its own merits here, and cinematographer Billy Bitzer's thrives even more. I'm sure Corner in Wheat could be smarter and more outwardly ambitious, but you could hardly ask it to be more confident, compressed, and stylistically nimble, braced together with movement, light, and poignant feeling. Grade: A–

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