March 15, 2012  |  Artists, Behind the Scenes, Film
A Corner in Wheat

D. W. Griffith. A Corner in Wheat. 1909. USA. Film: 35mm, black-and-white, silent, approx. 15 min. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Actinograph Corp. Preserved with funding from The Lillian Gish Trust for Film Preservation


Ripped from the headlines! Based on a true story!

Oftentimes the story on which a film is based derives from real life events. Inspiration from actual historic or contemporaneous incidents is not a new phenomenon in the cinema. In November 1909 when D. W. Griffith was filming A Corner in Wheat at the New York studio of the Biograph Company, James A. Patten of Chicago had six months earlier cornered the wheat commodities market. The Biograph Bulletin, a printed chronicle of production at the Biograph Company, makes the following comment in the notes for A Corner in Wheat, production 3646, in 1909: “No subject has ever been produced more timely than this powerful story of the wheat gambler, coming as it does when agitation is rife against that terrible practice of cornering commodities that are the necessities of life. Laws are being framed with a view of suppressing such nefarious transactions, and no more convincing argument could be shown than that set forth in this picture.”

Jean-François Millet. The Sower. 1850. Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Quincy Adams Shaw through Quincy Adams Shaw, Jr. and Mrs. Marian Shaw Haughton

A Corner in Wheat, also based on Frank Norris’s 1901 novel The Octopus and 1903 story A Deal in Wheat, is an allegorical drama in which the humble farmer sows the wheat, the wheat gambler corners the market in this precious commodity, and then the impoverished consumer is forced to pay more for a meager loaf of bread. The cycle continues season after season until some element breaks down. In Griffith’s film, he takes a radical stand and kills off the cavalier wheat gambler in one of the grain elevators. The gambler’s hubris and disregard for the despicable rise in wheat prices is punished when he slips and falls into one of the sorting shafts and is suffocated by the tons of wheat that bury him alive. The next day at dawn on the farm, the farmer suits up and slings his basket of seeds across his back and begins his grueling walk sowing in the fields. Griffith and his cameraman G. W. “Billy” Bitzer even recreated a tableaux vivant of the Jean-François Millet painting The Sower (1850) as the valiant farmer walks his property.


Portrait of James A. Patten. 1920. Photographer: L. Fowler

The real wheat gambler, James A. Patten, was born in Illinois in 1852 and died in 1928. As an employee of the Illinois State Department of Grain Inspection in the mid-1870s, Patten learned the complexities of the grain and commodities industries. He was the mayor of Evanston, Illinois from 1901 to 1905 and became an infamous figure on the American business circuit in 1909 when it is alleged that he was in control of more than 20 million bushels of the American wheat crop. This huge acquisition naturally forced up the prices of wheat, flour, and bread. As a by-product of Patten’s business practices, mills were forced to close, workers were laid off and, with their wages curtailed, could not afford the rising cost of bread. Using a shrewd method of selling off his holdings to buyers in far-flung locations across the United States and demanding immediate payment and possession, Patten managed to keep prices high while quietly liquidating his assets. Wheat remained scarce, and in large cities the price of a loaf of bread rose from 5¢ to 10¢. Once divested of his wheat holdings, the price collapsed but Patten profited handsomely, earning nearly $5 million during May 1909. (In 2012 dollars that translates to about $120 million.) As in the film A Corner in Wheat in which we see an unrepentant gambler, Patten forged ahead and attempted to corner the cotton market. By this time, the commodities markets were aware of his dishonorable practices and he was not successful. James A. Patten’s reach extended beyond the United States, with business concerns in Liverpool, England. When he visited the Manchester Commodities exchange in 1911 his appearance caused a riot to ensue. Patten was notorious and egocentric—if he were alive today, he would probably be cast on a reality TV show.

Historians speculate that Griffith was probably familiar with the popular Norris literary works that predate the production of A Corner in Wheat by several years, but was reminded of them and their similarity to Patten when his story exploded in the press. When you combine Frank Norris’s social commentary, James A. Patten’s deceptions, and D. W. Griffith’s dramatic cinematic style, you have an enduring paradigm illustrating that financial greed and hubris are not a modern day phenomena.

A Corner in Wheat and three other D. W. Griffith short films are currently on view on the fifth floor of the Museum.