D. W. Griffith The Musketeers of Pig Alley 1912

  • Not on view

The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company emerged in 1896, co-founded by Thomas Edison’s former assistant and protégé, William K. L. Dickson. Biograph spent its early years battling Edison’s litigation over alleged patent infringement, until, in 1902, it became a license of the company. In 1908, Biograph’s fortunes rose when actor-turned-director David Wark (D. W.) Griffith joined and made his directorial debut.

Griffith’s films, among them The Musketeers of Pig Alley, were marked by such avant-garde formal experimentations as extreme wide and close-up shots and sequences of fragmentary, distinctly shot scenes. Since there was little precedent after which to model his approach, he invented it as he worked, collaborating closely with his cinematographer G. W. (Billy) Bitzer. Musketeers is part of a cycle of films through which Griffith criticized the violence and deceitful public officials plaguing America’s inner cities. It tells the story of gang warfare, police corruption, and the people at the mercy of these forces on New York’s Lower East Side. It centers on The Snapper Kid, leader of The Musketeers gang, whose criminality is tempered by a flicker of chivalry. This suggests a complex character, one that harbors a shred of social conscience that The Snapper Kid may have been able to develop fully had he not been the product of such a rough-and-tumble environment. Though he victimizes, he is also a victim of his circumstances, and this makes him a sympathetic figure.

The story unfolds in the cramped confines of ramshackle rooms, crowded sidewalks, and alleyways, the claustrophobia heightened by the camera’s tight framing. Intertitles work in concert with the filmed images to convey the dialogue between the characters, inflected by their mood and manner of speech. Gang members slink along walls and emerge through doorways in partial views that emphasize their stealth and omnipresence. Such scenes were aimed at broad audiences still unused to the language of film, and many moviegoers were living in the circumstances Musketeers dramatizes. So a shot toward the end—among its most radical—in which The Snapper Kid brings his face up to the camera and peers out as if he is casing the movie theater itself, would have felt harrowing for those contending with gang presence in their own lives.

During the five years Griffith remained with Biograph, he produced a body of popular films that made the company both financially solvent and America’s premier film studio. It would remain so until his departure in 1913, ultimately shuttering in 1916.

James H. Nicholson, Léon Arvel
Preserved with funding from The Lillian Gish Trust for Film Preservation
Object number

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