Thursday, April 23, 2009

Drama: What Shall We Do with Our Old? (1911, D.W. Griffith)

What Shall We Do with Our Old? (1911)
USA, 17 min
Directed by: D.W. Griffith
Starring: W. Chrystie Miller, Claire McDowell, Adolph Lestina, George Nichols, Elmer Booth, Donald Crisp, William J. Butler

D.W. Griffith's first film, Those Awful Hats (1909), was designed as a comical public service announcement of sorts. A few years later, the director continued to perform public services, but the complexity of his work had evolved exponentially. Much like A Corner in Wheat (1909), he is here using cinema to make a profound social statement, this particular issue highlighted in the film's title: What Shall We Do With Our Old? After an aging carpenter (W. Chrystie Miller) is fired from his job to make room for young workers, he is unable to find another job, leaving him, penniless, to care for his ailing wife (Claire McDowell). In order to survive, the carpenter reluctantly turns to crime, but is arrested and brought before a kindly, sympathetic judge (George Nichols). Despite the judge's understanding, it is too late for this elderly couple to be rescued from abject poverty: the wife succumbs to her illness, and the carpenter is left grieve his losses and ponder his lonely predicament.

A Corner in Wheat ends with an image of hope. What Shall We Do With Our Old? concludes with an image of despair, a pertinent social problem without any known solution. Griffith doesn't even attempt to propose any sort of resolution, which does admittedly come off as rather hypocritical – it is, after all, one thing to merely acknowledge a problem, and another to try and fix it. But the film is given emotional depth through an opening title that informs us that the story was "founded upon an actual occurrence in New York City," assuring Griffith's undeniable social relevance. Miller is very good in the main role, showing strong emotions in response to his character's hardship. Nichols, as the judge, also does well, playing the sort of sympathetic authority-figure role that Frank Capra might later have set aside for Harry Carey or Harry Davenport. McDowell, as the carpenter's sick wife, is adequate, but quite obviously far younger – 34 years old – than she was supposed to appear.

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