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2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:

Straightforward and effective

6/10
Author: wmorrow59 from Westchester County, NY
23 August 2009

"If We Only Knew" was produced at Biograph in 1913 and bears the hallmarks of a D.W. Griffith film, but it's not known for certain whether he directed it. Griffith may have handed off this modest project to one of his assistants while he focused his attention on his first large-scale production "Judith of Bethulia." Whoever directed this short followed the established Griffith formula and delivered a succinct one-reel drama that tells a suspenseful story with a deep strain of sentiment. It's well photographed and cleanly edited, and the acting is fairly restrained by the standards of the day. If Griffith didn't direct this film, he may as well have.

The story concerns a prosperous couple, played by Griffith regulars Blanche Sweet and Henry B. Walthall, who live in a mansion near the sea with their young daughter. As the parents leave for a social event they notice their little girl playing in the yard next to the driveway, apparently against orders. The limo halts. Dad hops out and gives her a surprisingly severe swat and orders her into the house. The girl's nanny takes her inside as the parents depart. The girl, now accompanied by her nanny, takes her doll outside in a stroller. The nanny becomes engrossed in a book as the girl heads down to the beach, where some fishermen have docked their small boat and left it unattended. The girl climbs into the boat to play, and, sure enough, the tide promptly carries it out to sea. Soon the girl is rescued by mariners and taken safely into a fisherman's humble shack. Her nanny, meanwhile, has become aware of her disappearance and alerts the parents, who rush home. Finding only the stroller and the girl's bonnet, they are filled with dread at the prospect that their daughter has drowned.

I won't give away the ending, except to say that this is not one of those Biograph shorts that ends in tragedy. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this film is the way our sympathies turn as the story unfolds. In the opening sequence we're indignant (or I was, anyway) at the wealthy parents for the harsh treatment of their daughter, but when they come to believe she's drowned their remorse is instantaneous. Now they're lost and pathetic, and we pity them. Two moments underscore the parents' grief: first, when the mother marches into the surf, arms upraised, and her husband has to pull her back (a beautifully photographed scene), and second, when the mother gazes out a window, and we see a verse from the 19th century hymn "Scatter Seeds of Kindness" printed on the pane. This latter device acts as a kind of thought balloon, and the verse underscores the theme of the film: "If we knew the baby's fingers pressed upon the window pane, would be cold and stiff tomorrow, never trouble us again/Would the bright eyes of our darling catch the frown upon our brow, would the prints of rosy fingers vex us then as they do now?" Such explicit sentimentality would gradually go out of fashion in the 1920s, though to our eyes it's evidence that the attitudes of the Victorian era lingered well into the new century. In any case, while the use of the verse in the window is an interesting device, it's unnecessary here, for the filmmakers are clearly proficient enough with the tools of their 20th century art form to convey their message without having to fall back on a 19th century text.

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