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This is as good a film as any to track the development of editing and
camera placement in early narrative short films. "The Girl and Her
Trust" has the same story outline as, at least, three other Griffith
shorts: "Lonely Villa", "The Lonedale Operator" and "An Unseen Enemy".
All four are last-minute rescue suspense films, with few differences
between them. They all result in the setup of a girl, or a few girls,
locked in a room separate from thieves stealing money; the girl uses a
phone, or telegraph, to call men for help. I don't know why any of the
ditzes never thought of escaping out a window. At least in "The Girl
and Her Trust", there's the malarkey about her fulfilling her "trust".
By no means did Griffith invent this sub-genre; he mastered it with rapid editing. It's futile to attempt to exact the beginning of the sub-genre, but the aforementioned films, especially "Lonely Villa", are remakes of a 1908 Pathé film, "The Physician of the Castle". Suspense is absent in that film; there are only 26 shots in its 6 minutes. Biograph released "Lonely Villa" the following year, and there are approximately twice as many shots in its 9 minutes. In 1912, Biograph released "The Girl and Her Trust", which has almost as many shots as the 119 that appear in the subsequent film, "An Unseen Enemy". Furthermore, Keystone parodies (such as "The Bangville Police" and "Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life") of Griffith's last-minute rescue pictures displayed even rapider, if choppy, editing.
The reason for the additional number of shots has as much to do with staging and additional crosscutting as it does with drawn-out lengths. First, Griffith had criminals and innocents in separate rooms of the setting of the crime; crosscutting between rooms prevented plots from being dull, as he stretched suspense for longer lengths. Then, there's extended crosscutting between the crime and rescuers. Indoor shooting is also Griffith's greatest weakness; he never would get past the theatricality of a missing wall.
"The Girl and Her Trust" has the benefit of taking more of the action outside, as the girl must follow the criminals to fulfill her trust. Outside, Griffith and Billy Bitzer trucked the camera beside a moving train, creating a trademark tracking shot they'd return to in "Intolerance". There's also an overhead angled tracking shot of the criminals and Dorothy Bernard on a handcar. With such innovation and time and space constraints, however, Griffith made the fallacy of not respecting the axis of action (the train goes right, and then goes left, but it's supposed to be the same direction). That can disrupt suspense. Lastly, Griffith rarely, if ever, used medium shots and close-ups in his early films. By 1912, every Griffith film had them.
(Note: This is one of three short films by D.W. Griffith that I've commented on, with some arrangement in mind. The other films are "A Corner in Wheat" and "The Battle at Elderbush Gulch".)
I've just recently come across this tile while watching the Landmarks
of Early Film and I must say I'm completely taken by it.
OK, the visual effects are very dated, but then again, the effects themselves are not what makes the movie.
The thing that really impressed me was the character development of "The Girl". At first we see a girl working at the railstation and being the one who's in charge of keeping the money (one would more likely expect a man doing that in the wild west, not a woman). Next we see a man who fancies this girl and she's concerned for the money. He calms her down. I was sure that she'd be a helpless damsel in distress and he'd come in and rescue her. And here's the thing that surprised me most - it gets deeper then that.
The girl locks herself inside as the two tramps try to steal the money. She has the key to the strongbox. Handing the key over would surely save her, but she keeps to it. Also after locking herself into the room she doesn't faint or starts panicking. No! She actually tries to get help by telepraph. One of the tramps realizes it and cuts the line. Then she even finds a way to scare them off! Amazingly she puts a bullet into the keylock, places the scisors at the back and hammers away to fire the bullet off (something even MacGyver would be quite proud of).
And when the tramps take the strongbox she chases after them! She is a real heroine. But she is overpowered and the man from earlier on (with the help of rail employees) chatches the bad guys in a locomotive/handcart action chase sequence. And to make it a truly happy ending, they even have a little romantic scene when the girl is saved and the guy offers her lunch at the front bumper of the locomotive.
OK, it's shorter, black and white and with no sound effects at all, but at points it reminded me so much of the panic room... You know... People on the outside trying to get to what a "helpless" woman has in a room they can't break into. And over 100 years old - I was breathless!
The Girl and Her Trust, like all films made in the early 1900s, is very
simple and very short, but Griffith introduces a number of filmmaking
techniques that remain widely in use to this day. Earlier films generally
played like a stage play, with minimal cutting or editing, and each scene
taking place in the same location and generally in the same shot. The Girl
and Her Trust was one of the first films to suggest that editing could
create artificial environments by linking sets together, and it also gave a
better idea of what exactly was going on (the close-up of the girl as she
places the bullet in the keyhole is a great example).
Besides that, this film also had a very well-made chase at the end, in which the good guys are in a locomotive chasing the bad guys (the guys who stole the $2000 from the girl - her 'trust') who are pumping furiously on a railroad handcart. Although technically crude by today's standards, this scene had every necessary element of a good chase sequence, and it works very well. The film also introduced the idea of cross-cutting in filmmaking, as well as the idea of filming outdoors (a technique barely and clumsily employed by Edwin Porter in The Great Train Robbery). The Girl and Her Trust is a historic film, but as with all films that were made in the early 1900s, you need to keep its age in mind. It's not going to blow you away with visuals or sound, but if you keep in mind the time period in which it was made, you can begin to really appreciate its innovation.
This short drama is quite a masterpiece for its time, using every available
technique along with great skill in story-telling and photography, all of
which take a fairly simple story and make it interesting, believable, and
exciting. There is good detail that helps define and explain the
characters, expert use of cross-cutting and editing to heighten the
suspense, and a nice variety of indoor and outdoor settings. Dorothy
Bernard also deserves credit as the young woman willing to risk danger in
order to fulfill her trust.
Many of Griffith's short films show not only masterful technique, but also an impressive efficiency that wasn't always present in his later, longer features. "A Girl and Her Trust" is one of the best of all his shorter movies, and it deserves its place as one of the best-remembered and most praised movies of its era.
A highly attractive telegraphist at a country railway station spurns the suitor who brings her a soda, but allows the station porter several liberties. A message comes through that cash is being delivered. The porter loads his revolver from a box of cartridges, collects the money bag from the train, puts it in the station secure box, then goes off for lunch. Two tramps see the money and try to steal it by getting the box key from the girl. She barricades herself in her office and sends frantic messages down the wires for help. These are picked up at the next station, and an engine is given right of way to go to the rescue. Meanwhile the tramps try to break down the door. The girl puts a cartridge from the box into the keyhole, puts the points of some scissors to the cap and hits the scissors with a hammer. It is interesting that the cartridge case did not fly backwards and injure her. The bullet however fires into the room with the tramps and scares them. They lug the secure box out to a pump action trolley (like the one in The General), and head off. The girl rushes out intent on rescuing the money and is dragged onto the trolley. Meanwhile, the porter comes out of his house with his sandwiches in time to see the trolley vanishing. A few minutes later the rescue engine arrives; he jumps on and the chase begins. These railway scenes were especially well done, with a tracking shot of the racing engine taken from a parallel road, and shots both of the engine cab and the trolley taken from above. Eventually the tramps tire and the engine catches up with them and they are caught. In the final scene the porter and the telegraphist sit on the buffer beam of the engine as it backs up the line. They share his sandwiches, then a kiss which is shrouded in steam. That romantic ending has hardly ever been bettered.
A lot of Griffith's shorts around this period were remakes of earlier
Biograph films, which just shows how he was constantly trying to refine
and rework ideas. This, a retelling of the acclaimed Lonedale Operator,
is among the very best.
The gradual development of the acting in Griffith's films was now really beginning to bear fruit. Much has been made of use of props in this film. The props not only help to define character by the way the performers handle them, but they actually set up elements of the story drawing our attention for example to the box of bullets. This is a rare romantic lead role for Wilfred Lucas, seen a year or so earlier blacked up as the slave in His Trust, but he is very good. There's also a bit of comic relief from Walter Long as the snubbed suitor at the very beginning.
There is more speed and complexity to the cutting in The Girl and Her Trust than previous Biograph pictures. Griffith was now experienced enough at setting up spaces and sequencing shots that he could get away with this many angles and set-ups without it looking like a jumbled mess. The result is often exhilarating, and the ride-to-the-rescue really seems to have come of age.
The Girl and Her Trust also features a rare tracking shot. Many have cited the lack of camera movement in Griffith's work as a weakness. After all, they say, cameras had been moving since the early 1900s. But I think Griffith's approach was intentional and informed, and could even be considered a forerunner of the "invisible camera" technique of directors such as John Ford and Joseph Mankiewicz decades later (e.g. no camera movement unless following an actor or key object, so as to focus audience attention on the action, not the technical aspect). Whatever the case, these tracking shots certainly do the trick. It is particularly effective to show the train passing behind trees, posts and buildings, which help give the chase sequence a kind of beat and make it more intense.
What is really special about The Girl and Her Trust though is its tight, even structure. The tranquil beginning establishes the characters, the romantic angle and the possibility that danger may be near. The action then begins with a claustrophobic, "trapped heroin" scenario, which is followed up with the excitement of a chase. In the final moments, both the danger and the romance are resolved and, in perhaps the best closing shot of Griffith's Biograph career, the train backs away from us, the lovers embrace, there is a blast of steam and fade out. Perfect.
Dorothy Bernard (as Grace) is a railroad telegraph operator, admired by
all, especially by men. Though men like W.C. Robinson try to tickle her
fancy, she prefers Wilfred Lucas (as Jack). After the two flirt, Ms.
Bernard receives word that a $2,000 payroll will be arriving by train,
and placed in her trust. This attracts some bad elements; specifically,
tramps Edwin August and Alfred Paget; they are plotting steal the
Director D.W. Griffith's "cross-cutting" makes "A Girl and Her Trust" an exciting early silent, improving on the his earlier "The Lonely Villa" (1909); however, the story situation is not nearly as good as the forthcoming "An Unseen Enemy" (1912), with the Gish sisters, which also improves on "The Lonedale Operator", which this film is practically a re-make of... Bernard performs very well as the heroine; Mr. Lucas steals both her heart, and co-acting honors. Griffith's cast of "extras" is always extraordinary. Though memorable, the way Bernard uses: a bullet, a keyhole, and scissors as a gun may have you shaking your head.
***** A Girl and Her Trust (3/12/12) D.W. Griffith ~ Dorothy Bernard, Wilfred Lucas, Edwin August
A short film with simple story, but a clearly significant film. This
film is featured on the 'Landmarks of Early Film' DVD and is a must for
those with an interest in the cinema.
The lead female is played by Dorothy Bernard, an attractive lady of the time and showing an independence and assertiveness that can surprise some given the time period. Vintage films can often show that females were not always portrayed as the down-trodden gender, that the current politically correct vogue would have us believe.
The train chase in the film, taking into account the age of the film is a treat, and reminiscent of 'The General' (made some 15 years later).
In summary a must view for those interested in or studying the history of cinema.
One of D.W. Griffith's earliest works while still at Biograph. Really shows the inventiveness and desire to go further by Griffith, which would lead to works such as The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. Shows some early techniques that Griffith was experimenting with such as cross-cutting, close-ups, and outdoor filming. The Girl and Her Trust is a great representation of early 20th century film by one of the best directors ever, D.W. Griffith.
Girl and Her Trust, The (1912)
*** (out of 4)
D.W. Griffith short has a female telegraph operator being held up by a couple tramps who plan on stealing $2,000. Once again seeing a Griffith film from this period compared to what else was around just shows why they say the man invited film. Here Griffith uses the editing to build nice tension and some real excitement as the tramps kidnap the woman and head off with the good guy following. The train sequence is brilliantly done and this is 15 years before Buster Keaton's The General.
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