January 31, 2021 Subject:
Grinding the Poor
Why the poster for this film should show a young couple enjoying a romantic tryst in a wheatfield is hard to fathom. There are no young couples in the story, and there is no romantic sub-plot to this solemn screenplay about the evils of capitalism.
Rather improbably, a granary owner has managed to corner the entire world market for wheat, so he is able to screw-down the earnings of cereal farmers, while doubling the price of bread, reducing the poor to desperate straits. Griffith uses cross-cutting techniques to dramatise the contrast between the hardscrabble life of the poor and the lavish indulgences of the rich. At the bakery, humble families find they can’t afford a loaf, and a riot is brewing. At the granary, the wheat-king is proudly showing his friends around his office in the hour of triumph… until karma strikes.
Many have noted a biblical dimension to the story, with themes of sin and retribution, possibly with symbolic reaping and sowing referenced in the scenes at the wheatfield.
A one-reeler (15 minutes) was about all that cinema audiences could take in 1909, yet this short silent is enshrined as culturally significant by the Library of Congress, as it represented the peak of film art for its time. It was also one of the last films Griffith made in New York, before he and Mack Sennett discovered Hollywood, and Linda Arvidson, to whom Griffith was secretly married, plays the farmer’s wife. Finally, the wheat-pit at the Chicago trading floor is curiously recognisable today for its ‘gracelessness under pressure’ as the late Studs Terkel put it.