The excellence of the films produced by Biograph in this period is well established in the modern mind. They had D.W. Griffith directing for them. Some interesting work from the Edison Company in this period has been made available on DVD. Likewise, French Gaumont has made a good deal of its work in this era available. However, Vitagraph, long the most successful of the Patents Trust companies, still turning out good movies when it was bought by the Warner Brothers in the mid-twenties, lacks exposure. Judging by the ones I've seen -- a few John Bunny comedies, some early women's pictures and this one -- it would be an eye-opener.
First, this is better scripted than a lot of Griffith's works. When you encounter a character in a Griffith piece, he acts pretty much as you expect him to. When there's a message of tolerance, it's that we should let other people alone.
In this one, a Mexican bandit breaks into a house where a woman and her sick child are waiting for her husband. However, the husband is out gambling and the bandit just wants something to eat. When he sees the child is sick, he immediately sets out to fetch a doctor. This sort of topsy-turvy playing with the audience's expectation is something Griffith rarely did. The story plays out in its its expected form, with the husband going after the bandit for the reward. However, the theme of this story is something that would rarely occur to Grffith: it's not who you are that matters, it's what you do. Griffith rarely recognized there could be any distinction between the two.
The editing is just as effective as the best of the era, with good cross-cutting for tension. The acting is subdued and telling. The photography is nothing to write home about; there's one pan shot, but it's all about efficiency and telling the story; there seems little effort at showing the beauty of the landscape this piece was shot in and the formal composition that ends the movie seems to use that composition solely to emphasize a neat end to the work.
Still, it gets the work done. In this obscure work which has barely survived the century since it was shot, we find evidence for the excellence of the rest of Vitagraph's library. If this was a standard piece, it must be a very high standard indeed.
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