Movie Of The Month by JB Kaufman

The Totville Eye (1912)

June, 2013

Edison, 1912. Director: C. Jay Williams. Scenario: Bannister Merwin. Cast: Walter Edwin, Yale Boss, Robert Brower, Edward O’ Connor, Bigelow Cooper, Harry Beaumont, Bessie Learn, Charles Ogle, Bliss Milford.
            No film enthusiast needs to be told the importance of the Biograph films of D.W. Griffith. In a series of nearly 500 short films, produced between 1908 and 1913, Griffith accomplished nothing less than the establishment of a language for telling a story on film—a language that has been so absorbed into our cinematically-oriented culture that we take it for granted today.
            One aspect of these films that I find interesting, but which is rarely commented on, is the immediate influence they had on other filmmakers. Not only did Griffith transform Biograph’s output virtually overnight, but as other studios studied and adopted his methods, their films suddenly showed a marked improvement as well. One excellent example is Edison, the largest and most powerful of American film companies at that time. Today we tend to think of Edison in terms of their earlier landmarks like Fred Ott’s Sneeze and The Great Train Robbery. But in fact the Edison company continued in active film production well into the late 1910s, and this DVD collection affords an excellent overview of their vast cinematic output. Among other things, it reveals that between 1908 and 1913 Edison went through a “Biograph” period of its own, producing a series of delightful and entertaining films that clearly bear the stamp of Griffith’s influence.
            One of my favorites is The Totville Eye, produced late in 1912. This charming one-reel comedy is based on an ingeniously simple premise. The editor of a small-town newspaper (the “Totville Eye” of the title), called out of town on a family emergency, leaves the paper in the care of his pressman. When the front page of the current edition, already set in type, is accidentally ruined, the pressman sees the opportunity, not just to recreate it, but to reinvent the newspaper and bring it up-to-date according to his own ideas. He sends the office boy out to scour the town for local news. The result is a series of vignettes: the local pastor unwittingly gets drunk and shocks the townspeople with his unseemly antics, a young couple quarrel and break off their engagement, a hard-hearted landlord evicts a poor widow from her home. The Totville Eye duly reports these stories in its new edition. The effect on the townspeople is electrifying, and ultimately salutary: the pastor, his full story explained, is exonerated by his parishioners; the young lovers reconcile; the landlord sees the error of his ways and restores the widow to her home. Best of all, the returning editor, angry at first over the changes in his newspaper, is mollified when the townspeople pour into his office to thank and congratulate him!
            Because of its structure—an assortment of episodes linked by a common thread—The Totville Eye is inevitably compared to such Griffith films as Pippa Passes. I’m not prepared to acclaim this film as another Pippa Passes (it certainly hasn’t the same literary pedigree), but taken on its own terms, it’s a thoroughly engaging little effort. Just as Griffith had assembled a company of familiar players who regularly appeared in his films at Biograph, so Edison by 1912 had a regular “stock company” of its own. Some of its most familiar faces are on display in The Totville Eye: Robert Brower, Edison’s resident curmudgeon (whose career would continue throughout the silent period), as the hidebound editor; lovely Bessie Learn as the young bride-to-be; Charles Ogle, best remembered today as the Monster in Edison’s 1910 Frankenstein, as the landlord.
            Like many films of this period, The Totville Eye packs a wealth of subtle incident and detail into its spare one-reel length. Audiences of 1912 were conditioned to a certain economy of style in their movies, and easily comprehended nuances which we, today, may miss on first viewing. Kevin Brownlow has written of the scene in The Musketeers of Pig Alley in which a gangster in a dance hall spikes Lillian Gish’s drink, not in closeup but as one of several actions simultaneously occurring in the frame. It’s a key plot point, but today’s viewer, unschooled in such refinements of technique, may miss it altogether. There’s an analogous scene in The Totville Eye, when a friendly drunk lurches into the drugstore and mischievously pours some whiskey from his own bottle into the pastor’s glass. The action is staged a little more conspicuously than that in Musketeers, but the scene does show us the drunk positioning himself between the table and the pastor and distracting him, the pastor soberly entering into the conversation, the drunk simultaneously holding the bottle behind his own back and emptying it into the glass, and the office boy standing in the background and observing the whole incident—all at the same time, and in the same shot.
            Devotees of early cinema will note with fondness another convention of the period: the company trademark inserted into the scene—not simply appended to a title card, but appearing onscreen as part of the scenery in the course of the story. This practice had started years earlier as a means of discouraging piracy; a film pirate could easily remove or replace a main title or intertitle, but a company logo fastened to a wall or a tree in the midst of a scene was much more difficult to disguise. By late 1912, with the advent of new copyright measures, this practice was starting to fade away, but it still appeared occasionally. As a rule it was kept as unobtrusive as possible; in The Totville Eye the Edison E is merely a tasteful wall decoration in the newspaper’s editorial office—also visible, in some shots, through the open door in the adjoining press room.
            The Totville Eye was well received in 1912; Moving Picture World called it “an unusually likable offering” that “will please everywhere.” There were, to be sure, many other delightful Edison films during this period; another 1912 charmer, Thirty Days at Hard Labor, directed by Oscar Apfel and based on a story by O. Henry, is also a personal favorite of mine. Gems like these are reminders of the refreshing surprises that await us in the still largely unexplored world of early film.

By J.B. Kaufman