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EDGAR ALLEN POE (1909)
[aka Edgar Allan Poe]
|"My God! She's dead!"|
Director: D.W. Griffith
Starring: Herbert Yost, Linda Arvidson, Charles Perley, Arthur V. Johnson, Anita Hendrie, David Miles
Screenplay: D.W. Griffith and Frank E. Woods
Synopsis: A young woman, Virginia Poe (Linda Arvidson), lies dying in a barren room, shivering beneath a single inadequate blanket on a thin pallet bed. Her husband, Edgar Allan Poe (Herbert Yost), watches her in agony. He tries to prepare her a sustaining meal, but the cupboard is completely bare. He prays desperately. Suddenly, Poe notices that a raven has appeared in the room, perching upon its only ornament, a bust of Pallas. He is seized with inspiration....
In the second year of
D.W. Griffith’s employment by the Biograph Company, he was destined to
turn out no less than one hundred and forty-eight short films. It goes
without saying that
In the early days of twentieth century cinema, a significant shift occurred in the nature of commercial film-making. Cinema itself had developed almost as an afterthought, a means of selling technical advances in photography, cameras and projection to the public; most of those active in this new field used footage of real-life activities to illustrate their equipment’s capabilities. However, a few pioneers began to experiment with the staging of brief narratives, usually filmed on rudimentary sets with two or three actors. These brief fictions, commonly running between five and seven minutes, proved enormously popular with the public; so much so, that some new companies formed purely to produce and release them. Observing the success of these ventures, longer-established companies began to alter their output, adding fictional narratives to their program. One firm to follow this path was Biograph. From 1903 onwards, the company focussed increasingly upon staging short dramas and comedies for their cameras, and by 1908 was producing nothing else.
The relative simplicity of film-making at this time made it possible for an efficient director to turn out a short film every two to three days, a pace necessary to feed the appetite of the public, particularly at a time when film itself was considered essentially ephemeral, something to be enjoyed once and then thrown away. The imposed brevity of these films encouraged the studios to seek their material in the realm of famous novels and plays, and well-known current events, since little time was available onscreen for introducing characters or setting up the narrative. Sets were kept basic and re-used repeatedly. A film would generally consist of two or three scenes, each staged like a mini-play, without editing or camera movement. Acting styles were exaggerated, and emotions conveyed with little subtlety or shading.
Edgar Allen Poe
is very much a product of its time, although it does offer some slight
hints of the “language of cinema” that D.W. Griffith would subsequently
help to create. The film has a simple three-act structure, with scenes
of the Poes at home broken up by another of the husband-author trying to
sell his work to an indifferent publishing world. It opens with the
dying Virginia Poe dragging herself from her bed to inspect the family
larder, only to find it bare. She falls to her knees and prays for
assistance, then climbs back into bed. Edgar enters, presumably from a
day spent unsuccessfully trying to sell his writing, as we judge from
the crumpled papers in his hand. Essentially the same action then
repeats itself, with Poe also inspecting the empty cupboard, then
throwing up his arms in supplication. Poe’s own prayers receive an
answer, as a raven – a very motionless raven – materialises upon the
bust that is the apartment’s only ornament. Poe stares in astonishment,
and then is gripped by inspiration. Speaking reassuring words to
We next see Poe in an office, trying to interest two men – one a “publisher”, the other a “poet in residence” – in his work. The publisher laughs scornfully at the poem, while the poet takes a minute to point out exactly what is wrong with it. As he is unable to convince these men to buy his poem, a desperate Poe forces himself to beg charity, but he is turned away with contempt.
Poe enters a second office, occupied by another “publisher” and the “publisher’s wife”, working together at a desk. Poe shows his poem first to the publisher’s wife. Annoyed at being disturbed in her work, she runs an impatient eye over the paper in her hand and then bursts out laughing, reading a few lines out loud to her husband and gesturing to illustrate the ridiculous tempo of the work. The publisher, however, is intrigued, and calls Poe back from the doorway, where he is beating a disconsolate retreat. The publisher reads the poem through, and agrees to buy it. More importantly, however, he pays Poe for his manuscript on the spot, giving him a handful of paper bills. Poe reacts with rapturous disbelief, as the publisher’s wife looks on with veiled irritation.
But at the Poes’ home,
Edgar Allen Poe is an instructive work for those with an interest in the early days of film-making, as it features both the bluntly primitive roots of the embryo art form and its first stirrings towards a new kind of language. The camera remains stationary, and there is no editing within any of the scenes. Nor are there any photographic tricks such as fades: each scene jumps abruptly into the next. The acting of both Herbert Yost and Linda Arvidson as the Poes could hardly be broader; it is all sweeping arm gestures, clutching hands, wide eyes and gaping mouths. Yost’s main contribution to the film is not dramatic, but visual: his resemblance to Edgar Allan Poe is quite startling, and much more effective than his acting. (That said, it should be conceded that Poe himself was rather addicted to overly dramatic public behaviour.)
Ironically, Linda Arvidson’s best acting
moments come after her character is dead. We cannot know whether the
choice was D.W. Griffith’s or Arvidson’s own, but the dead
The most interesting aspects of Edgar Allen Poe are found in its two-act middle scene. Here we see the very beginnings of true film acting, as each of the four people to whom Poe shows his work responds to it differently. The performances here, although still a little crude, are far more restrained and believable than those in the bookending domestic scenes. The snotty condescension of the “poet in residence”, as he deigns to instruct Poe in the errors of his artistic ways, is particularly amusing. The poet was played by Charles Perley, whose first screen acting role this was.
However, the performance of the film is that of the “publisher’s wife” who, in the course of a fairly brief scene, conveys an impressive range of emotions. She is annoyed by Poe’s interruption and, probably as a consequence, rudely contemptuous of his poem. When her husband reacts to the poem with interest, she is at first taken aback and then exasperated, but quickly conceals her feelings with a falsely delighted smile when “the publisher” praises Poe’s work and agrees to buy it – although the mask does slip a little when the money starts changing hands. The “publisher’s wife” was played by Anita Hendrie, who made more than sixty short films between 1908 and 1912. Hopefully, at least some of Ms Hendrie’s other performances still survive. Her contribution here makes me want to see more of her work.
(A nice touch is that the publisher is played by Anita Hendrie's own husband, the actor/director David Miles. The two acted together in nearly fifty films. Hopefully their real-life collaboration was more amicable than the fictional one we see here.)
As the earliest of biographical films, Edgar Allen Poe is an intriguing work. There is a simple assumption made here that the audience is familiar with Poe’s writing, which in the case of the poem in question was almost certainly correct; the bird and the bust together thus convey everything that was needful, as indeed they still do. The poem itself cannot be recited, of course, but both the poet and the publisher’s wife mouth some of those famous lines, while the cadence of the latter’s accompanying hand movements is quite correct, as is the flicking of the poet’s quill as he points out the poem’s myriad faults.
Beyond this, however, Edgar Allen Poe and accuracy part company. Far from meeting with scorn and rejection, “The Raven” was of all Poe’s works the most immediately successful. The poem was enormously popular with the public, and attracted wide (if not universal) critical acclaim as well. Poe made money not just from its initial publication, but from recitations of his work. The character of Poe himself is another dramatic casualty of this film. Contemporary advertising for the film assured the public that it was “Founded Upon Incidents In His Career” and would show the author as “A Man Of Heart”. While the Poes were indeed frequently in desperate financial straits, the film’s portrait of a domestic Poe, an attentive loving husband whose every thought is for his wife’s welfare, is not exactly in accordance with the facts, although it is hardly surprising to find such a sentimental characterisation in a D.W. Griffith film.
The film’s most outrageous
re-writing of history, however, comes with the melodramatic juxtapositioning of Virginia Poe’s death with her husband’s artistic
triumph. Although already suffering at the time from the
tuberculosis that would finally kill her,
This review originally formed part of a series of "Compare / Contrast" studies conducted by myself, Zack Handlen and Chad Denton. Unfortunately, a combination of internet meltdowns and bitchy real life dismembered this ongoing project. However, the "conversations" that were the centrepiece of these studies have been preserved as a part of Etc., Etc., Etc. Click the banner below to access them.
Meanwhile, Chad can currently be found at Trash Culture, while Zack is a member of the A. V. Club.