The Spirits of Biograph: Moonshine and Prohibition in the Age of Griffith
Prohibition left such an ugly scar on the American psyche that few people today can understand the grassroots support that made it the law of the land in 1920.
Many giants of early silent cinema reflected the passions on both sides, though only iconic director D. W. Griffith expressed the deep ambivalence of Americans at large.
For the past past three years I have been researching the Biograph Co. during this period for my novel, “The Designated Virgin.” The real story of silent movies during the rise of Prohibition makes for a fascinating study. The more I learned, the more my novel took on serio-comic overtones.
First, however, some background.
The 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act that gave it some teeth were the culmination of 100 years of America’s grappling with the problem of alcoholism. Life in colonial America can only be understood as a constant struggle between responsible citizenship and drunken abandon. Consider that clean community drinking water was often not available and everyone — even young children — drank fermented ciders and grogs to quench their thirst.
Taverns were a key component of all village life, and law officers often compelled husbands to return home where they were needed. Anti-alcohol sermons, novels and stage melodramas presented “the demon rum” as a curse on family life.
After the Civil War, beer breweries became a major industry, monopolized by a wave of new German immigrants. Tycoons of industry began to offer more potent whiskeys and hard liquors to the expanding urban populations.
Local governments enforced “blue laws” and adopted other measures to limit the social repercussions of inebriation. As victims multiplied they overwhelmed state-run “poor houses,” infirmaries and asylums, underscoring a need for more effective “safety nets.”
A radical age of anti-saloon activism was born. Carrie Nation and her axe became symbols of female empowerment long before women had the right to vote. Carrie Nation knew first-hand the curse of hard liquor and its toll on families. She watched the body of her own husband lowered, as she put it, into “a drunkard’s grave.”
Against this backdrop, silent film was growing in popularity as a mass amusement. Not since the invention of the printing press had a technology planted so much information in the minds of everyday citizens.
Edwin S. Porter of “The Great Train Robbery” fame took a satiric look at Carrie Nation in his 1901 film for the Edison Studio, “Kansas Saloon Smashers.” It poked fun at Carrie’s activism by having an actress reenact her famous raid on a Wichita saloon.
The majority of films at the time, however, offered a more somber take on the problem of drunkenness. A popular documentary imported from Great Britain titled “Manchester Band of Hope” showed an endless procession of protesters united by their stand against alcohol.
A 1902 Pathé film, “Victims of Alcoholism,” became another popular attraction, as did Siegmund Lubin’s unauthorized 1903 adaptation of “Ten Nights in a Bar Room.” That title had been made famous by an 1850s best-seller. It would be remade in 1910 by the Edwin Thanhouser Company and then again in 1911 by William Selig.
D.W. Griffith, however, was the only filmmaker to approach the subject from more than one angle.
Griffith had joined Biograph while reeling from a bitter experience as a playwright. In 1907 his first full-length play, “A Fool and a Girl,” opened and closed the same week in Washington, D.C. He blamed the closure on one unduly moralistic review. Theater critic Hector Fuller took him to task for showing young unmarried men and women co-mingling in one of the trendy new “liquor salons,” drinking spirits in broad daylight and bandying about slang phrases.
In Griffith’s view, that one notice ended his career as a playwright. He was still brooding over all such self-appointed defenders of “community standards” when he was hired by American Biograph in 1908 to direct its films.
Griffith was born in Bourbon whiskey country, Kentucky — as was Carrie Nation, by the way. But Griffith was an avowed social progressive who detested hypocrisy and small-mindedness. Perhaps taking his cue from Edwin Porter, the man who gave him his first job in movies, Griffith aimed two of his early “Mr. And Mrs. Jones” comedies for Biograph at anti-saloon activists.
“Mrs. Jones Entertains” (1908) showed the respectable Mrs. Jones (Florence Lawrence) attempting to ingratiate herself with the local temperance ladies. Her hopes topple when the staid gathering is served spiked tea by mistake and they all end up making fools of themselves.
This comedy was such a hit with audiences that Griffith followed it in January 1909 with “Mr. Jones Has a Card Party.” Here Mr. Jones (John R. Cumpson) takes advantage of his wife’s absence by throwing a male-only party. But Mrs. Jones and her temperance group miss their train and they return to find their husbands all “three sheets to the wind.”
The so-called “Jonesy comedies” are often cited as cinema’s first commercial serial. They established the formula for all situation comedies to come.
A different style of farce released by Biograph in February 1909, also concerned public drunkenness and was a big hit for Griffith. “The Curtain Pole” featured young Mack Sennett, a chunky, broad-shouldered hulk of a man, as an inebriated home decorator on a disastrous errand into town. It sparked Sennett’s own interest in directing movies devoted to a knockabout style of physical farce and extended chase scenes that would earn him the title “king of slapstick comedy.”
Something happened at this same time, however, that caused Griffith to reconsider the messages he was sending. The new state Board of Censorship might have reminded him of the influence film had on impressionable minds. Or perhaps he was moved by the recent suicide of a popular English actor named Charles Warner, celebrated on Broadway for portraying a dying alcohol addict in the play “Drink.”
Griffith had also been obsessed in early 1909 with his own pet project — a film honoring the 100th anniversary of the birth of his favorite American poet and writer, Edgar Allan Poe. His dramatic homage to Poe, released February 8, 1909, could not have escaped the notice of the Prohibition Party. Here were Griffith and Biograph thumbing their noses at their movement by glorifying American letters’ most notorious drunk!
Whatever happened in early 1909, it prompted a change of heart in Griffith. He set out to be a more socially responsible producer of motion picture entertainment. Never again would any of his films make light of public drunkenness or the temperance cause.
In March of 1909 Griffith released “A Drunkard’s Reformation,” a throwback to antique stage melodramas (though with a tip of the hat to Emile Zola’s brand of theatrical naturalism). Just so there would be no confusion he gave his drama the bold subtitle “The Most Powerful Temperance Lecture Ever Depicted.” It was a full declaration of Griffith’s new moralistic tone, and he soon followed it with the similar but less notable film, “What Drink Did.”
The ironic repercussions of Griffith’s temperance films are amusing to consider. They gave a national platform to what had long existed as a fragmented crusade confined mostly to large cities. Griffith did not subscribe to the idea of a prohibition amendment, nor to legislating morality in general. But for years afterward his temperance films played on Main Streets all across the country and were used by campaigns and fund-raisers to help fuel the American journey toward the 18th Amendment.
Ironic, too, in a heartbreaking way is the fact that D.W. Griffith would face his own alcohol addiction in later years. His last attempt at a “talkie” film, “The Struggle” (1931) was a drama about alcoholism that failed to engage Prohibition-weary audiences. He passed the rest of his life out of the public eye with his bottles and the spirits of Biograph.
Watch for coming announcements about the release of my new novel, “The Designated Virgin: A Novel of the Early Movies.”
© 2018 John W. Harding
(NOTE: I dramatize the beginning corruption of the Hollywood studio system under Prohibition with my previous novel, “The Ben-Hur Murders,” set in 1925. It shows how closed studio gates were forced to open to the influence of bootleggers and gangsters. My next novel, tentatively titled “Running With the Film Crowd,” will deal with the aftermath of Prohibition. You can get “The Ben-Hur Murders: Inside the 1925 ‘Hollywood Games’” on paperback or eBook here.)