The Musketeers of Pig Alley. 1912. USA. Directed by D. W. Griffith

Newly named to the National Film Registry of The Library of Congress, this 1912 Biograph Company production demonstrates how far D. W. Griffith had taken the language of cinema in the four short years since his debut as a director. Often identified as the first gangster film, Musketeers is in fact a complex, multilayered narrative, set in a teeming, ethnically diverse Lower East Side (though it was most likely filmed in Fort Lee, New Jersey). Lillian Gish is a young sewing-machine girl married to a feckless musician (Walter Miller); Elmer Booth, in a charmingly cocky performance that anticipates James Cagney, is the street tough who steals the musician’s wallet, but rescues Lillian from a fate worse than death when he frustrates a rival gangster’s attempt to drug her. A gun battle breaks out between the two rival hoodlums and their henchman, filmed by Griffith in a rush of densely detailed, masterfully composed long shots. Rich in plot, characterization and social observation, Musketeers pushes the limit of the one-reel format of early cinema, looking forward to the feature-length films that would conquer the industry one year later.

MoMA’s restoration of The Musketeers of Pig Alley is derived from the original camera negative, which was acquired by the Museum in 1939, along with all other surviving Biograph negatives, by Iris Barry, the first curator of MoMA’s Film Library.

The Musketeers of Pig Alley. 1912. USA. Directed by D. W. Griffith. 16 min. Music by Ben Model.

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