The Hessian Renegades (1909)
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Mary Pickford takes a turn to stand out, among the usual Biograph regulars, by dressing up as a soldier; not surprisingly, she is a very unconvincing young man! It's fun to spot director D.W. Griffith's other regulars. This story, aka "1776 or the Hessian Renegades" isn't one of the director's better early offerings - however, there are a few highlights. Watch for Mr. Kirkwood to suffer a split pants "wardrobe malfunction" in the last few seconds!
*** The Hessian Renegades (9/6/09) D.W. Griffith ~ James Kirkwood, Owen Moore, Mary Pickford
*** (out of 4)
D.W. Griffith short about a bunch of bachelors who try to impress a woman by buying her niece some toys since she's coming to town. What they don't know is that this young girl is actually an older woman (Mary Pickford). This is more of a minor piece for Griffith but the comic timing is nice.
*** 1/2 (out of 4)
D.W. Griffith short set during the American Revolution. An American soldier must get a letter of warning to George Washington while being cased by some British troops. Here's one where Griffith goes all out with an interesting story, great editing and some nice suspense. The film works very well as an early thriller. Mary and Lottie Pickford star along with Henry B. Walthall.
Pickford has a minor role in this short, but the part where she dresses up as a Brit soldier is funny/interesting.
The topic is also good and is one of the better Griffith films.
Its on screen title is "1776 or The Hessian Renegades". This is interestingly the #9 film on a tape of Hollywood's Attic (The Mary Pickford collection). The order of the films on the tape seems to be in decreasing order of how much Mary Pickford is in the film.
I recommend it, especially in light of increased amounts of 1776/patriotic/revolutionary films of late.
However, it is probably destined to get only minor viewing like so much early cinema.
My one dislike of the film is that it uses the same score as every other short on the tape and this monotony gets redundant.
Yet, the music score still helps and there are few titles throughout the show, so it flies by.
Although there is some evidence of the parallel editing for which Griffith would become famous, it does little here to create any sense of tension. The static camera shoots from a distance, and only one shot in which the pursued soldier runs towards (and to the right of) the camera followed by the thuggish Brits strays from the proscenium style of staging a shot. Despite it's short running time, the film is padded out to fill a one-reel duration - but, on the plus side, a young Mary Pickford looks fetching in a thuggish Brit uniform
We all get to see a rare glimpse of the tragic Florence Lawrence - a star at the time but unfortunate events and sickness would lead to her being on the outside and to suicide in 1938. We also have Owen Moore, the man who criticized Mary on her very first visit to biograph, also becoming Mary's first love interest and later, drunken abusive husband.
The ever present, solid and reliable Kate Bruce also appears. Mary gets her little sister Lottie into the scene. Kirkman was to be part of Mary's future life and of course Mac Sennett went on to be a producer - more than 700 movies and acting in 356.
It is a curiosity piece and should be judged on the standards and development of the day and 1909 makes this effort a good one.
The building used in the closing scenes of this film is used in the opening scenes of Willful Peggy 1910.
Griffith's experimentation at this time was mostly around the psychological impact of space and depth. Griffith realised that while the edges of the frame imposed stage-like limits (cameras did not move much in those days), the field of depth did not. In the opening burst of action we see a chase in which pursuer and pursued run towards the camera. This not only makes the most of the static camera position, but also involves the audience by having us overwhelmed by the enemy soldiers. You can see similar shots in Nursing a Viper which was made around the same time. It's likely these chase scenes lead indirectly to the development of the close-up, as for a brief instant faces are brought menacingly close to the screen.
Effective as it is, this kind of chase shot was more or less unique to its time in Griffith's cinema. Later chases would involve dynamic cross-cutting. Here however the editing is purely functional, to show changes from one location to another as the story demands. The central suspense scene - in which the soldiers search for the hidden messenger, is mostly done in one take because it mostly goes in one room. Griffith does of course begin parallel editing in the action-filled finale - but again this is largely functional, because he is showing different things going on in different places at the same time. Griffith must have noticed however that this actually made the sequence more exciting, because soon after this he would start to use parallel editing as a tension-building technique. The suspense sequence is actually one of the last long takes in Griffith's career.
What is really great about Hessian Renegades though is how purely visual it is. There are only two intertitles - one at the beginning and one at the end. The bulk of the story is conveyed through the acting, and all without resorting to the over-the-top pantomiming that mars many early films.
It's clear that some kind of visual language is beginning to appear. Of course, the importance of the Biograph shorts has mostly been realised in retrospect, but still it was around this time that Griffith was beginning to be recognised as an outstanding filmmaker.