CORNER IN WHEAT, A
(D.W. Griffith, 1909, USA, 14m, BW)
A Corner in Wheat
Directed by D W Griffith
Written by Frank Norris (book)
Starring Frank Powell
W. C. Miller
H. B. Walthall
Distributed by American Mutoscope and Biograph Company
Release dates December 13, 1909
Running time approx. 15 minutes
Country United States
A Corner in Wheat is a 1909 short film which tells of a greedy tycoon who tries to corner the world market on wheat, destroying the lives of the people who can no longer afford to buy bread. It was directed by D. W. Griffith and adapted by Griffith and Frank E. Woods from the novel The Pit (1903) by Frank Norris. Intercutting (cross-cutting) between still tableaux of the poor in the bread line and the lavish, active parties of the wealthy speculator somewhat anticipates the collision montage which became a hallmark of the politically-charged Soviet cinema a decade or so later.
In 1994, A Corner in Wheat was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". This is the first film in which D.W. Griffith attempts social commentary. The scenario parallels the problems of a poor farmer and the dealings of an ill-fated "wheat king." Based on the novel "The Pit" by Frank Norris.
Corner in Wheat is 100 years old and 15 minutes long. It was made for the Biograph Company, where its director, D.W. Griffith, began experimenting with the film techniques that would make him legendary. It concerns the rise and fall of the Wheat King—a ruthless captain of industry who corners the market in wheat and is soon dispatched under a pile of it.
Corner in Wheat’s opening scene introduces a Farmer (James Kirkwood), alongside his wife (Linda Arvidson), father (W. Chrystie Miller) and daughter (Gladys Egan), unpreceded by any establishing shots, and not requiring any, because they are universals. Kirkwood’s Farmer bends slowly over a bag of wheat seed, dipping his hands and letting the granules sift through his fingers. They are precious to him, and we are reminded, ironically, of a rich man plunging his hands into a chest of gold coins. The Farmer is humble, but he can still covet.
Griffith now cuts to a longshot of the wheat field, with the Farmer and his father in the distance. They plod toward the camera, seeding the rows. This scene would be tedious in the hands of many early-silent directors, fixing as it does on a slow-moving pair of labourers without a single cut. Griffith does better. He avoids tedium by having the pair of farmers reach the foreground, turn, then start down the next row while the horses and plough behind them continue to advance. The effect is to split our attention between two dynamic elements—one achieving a goal, the other approaching one—rather than forcing us to wait for even one goal to be reached. And still Griffith succeeds in expressing the monotony and strain of wheat farming.
We now move inside, to the office of the Wheat King, W.J. Hammond (Frank Powell). Hammond sits puzzling at his desk in one corner; behind him stands a row of suited flunkies, including (I think) his son. ‘I have it!’ Hammond suddenly gestures.*
On to the wheat pit, where frantic traders crowd the camera frame, buying and selling, or trying to. They look like penned-in swine. Hammond emerges from the mass of them, calm and victorious. He has corned the market in wheat. He is now a very, very rich man. Fourteen minutes goes quick, so Griffith wastes no time showing us the victims of Hammond’s triumph. The first is not a farmer, but another trader, whom Hammond’s corner has bankrupted. “Get it in the pit, where I did!” the Wheat King tells him.
‘The Gold of the Wheat’ follows, featuring Hammond at a banquet, being toasted amid cigars, ladies and booze. Then ‘The Chaff of the Wheat’ shifts the action to a hard-hit bakery—the first of several scenes set there. Hammond’s corner has thrust the price of wheat so high that bread is barely affordable. Griffith first shows us a woman buying bread with her last penny, then a wife and child unable to buy any at all. Soon the bakery is serving a long line of hungry men. When the bread runs out, they riot.
Having revelled to the fullest, Hammond now decides to gloat—he and his wealthy friends will take a tour of the grain elevators. They arrive, dressed in suits and gowns not advisable for such a dirty place. The Wheat King flicks a bit of chaff absently. As his friends follow the tour guide, Hammond stays back to read a telegram from his accountant:
You have control of the entire market of the world. Yesterday added $4,000,000 to your fortune.
Hammond is thrilled. He throws his hands in the air, loses his balance, and falls into the shaft of the grain elevator. The grain pours over him, killing him. When his body is hauled from the shaft by rope, his associates, wife and even the labourers all grieve over it.
Back to the wheat field. The Farmer continues his march along the rows, alone. When he reaches the foreground, he pauses, sighs with fatigue, and continues on. The scene fades to black around the Farmer, and Corner in Wheat is done.
Now, the beauty of films this short is that you can watch them twice and spot new things. For example, you may notice how often the growing, processing and consumption of wheat forces the film’s characters to line up. The farmers march in rows; Hammond’s associates stand behind him like a row of hieroglyphic slaves. The poor wait their turns in a bread line that grows longer as the price of wheat rises.
Consider too Griffith’s choice of shades. In scene one, the Farmer wears a black coat over a white shirt, but is dressed only in white in the closing scene. The labourers who pull Hammond out of the grain are dressed in light colours as well, but the businessmen surrounding him (in life and in death) wear black.
I don’t see this as a crude representation of good and evil. In several of his later films, Griffith depicted conflicting forces as possessing nearly equal nobility, while demonizing a pernicious ‘third side’ that represented moral decay. I believe he’s doing the same thing here. Hammond’s greed destroys him, but no one jumps for joy when he’s killed; the businessmen are even unnerved when he berates the ruined trader. And the Farmer, for all his honest work, never expresses joy—at least Hammond was happy for a day or so. The real King is the wheat itself, and the tragedy of Corner in Wheat is that everyone is enslaved by a commodity.
This is an early example of D.W. Griffith directing a film with a clear social message, something he was to return to frequently in his career. In this case, a wealthy tycoon manipulates the market for wheat in order to give himself a monopoly, unconscious of the harm it does to less fortunate people. Through cross-cutting, we see the story unfold across the two worlds simultaneously: the “Wheat King” attends fancy parties in one scene while the poor line up for bread at inflated prices.
Another scene, the subtlety of which I missed on the first viewing, shows three people coming in to the shop to get the newly expensive bread: the first is a fop, who just shrugs as he hands over his extra nickel; next is a young woman, who seems reluctant, but pays anyway; finally a poor mother comes in with her daughter, she cannot afford the new price and is turned away hungry. At the end, the Wheat King suffers the ironic fate of being buried alive in wheat at a granary. Henry B. Walthall (the minstrel from “The Sealed Room” and later in “Birth of a Nation”) appears as the Wheat King’s assistant, and there are small parts for Mack Sennett (founder of Keystone Studios) and Blanche Sweet (later to star in “The Avenging Conscience” and “Judith of Bethulia”) as well.
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