The Musketeers of Pig Alley
David Wark Griffith
1912. 35mm film (black and white, silent), 17 min.
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.
In photography and filmmaking, a shot that reveals much of the context or setting, or a large group of people.
A figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression; a significant or recurrent theme; a motif.
Dialogue or narration conveyed in text that is shown between scenes of a silent film.
The person who sets up both camera and lighting for each shot in a film, the cinematographer has a major influence over the look and feel of a shot or scene, and is often as highly esteemed as the director. Cinematography is the art of positioning a camera and lighting a scene.
1. A series of moving images, especially those recorded on film and projected onto a screen or other surface (noun); 2. A sheet or roll of a flexible transparent material coated with an emulsion sensitive to light and used to capture an image for a photograph or film (noun); 3. To record on film or video using a movie camera (verb).
A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.
A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.
A state of mind or emotion, a pervading impression.
A category of artistic practice having a particular form, content, or technique.
The method by which information is included or excluded from a photograph, film, or video. A photographer or filmmaker frames an image when he or she points a camera at a subject.
Relating to the shape or structure of an object.
French for “advanced guard,” this term is used in English to describe a group that is innovative, experimental, and inventive in its technique or ideology, particularly in the realms of culture, politics, and the arts.
Gangsters in Life and in Art
With The Musketeers of Pig Alley, D. W. Griffith established the gangster film genre. It contained elements that would become familiar tropes: shootouts between rival gangs; the sympathetic gangster character; and relationships between men and women heated by sexual tension and violence. Griffith drew the story from a newspaper article detailing vice scandals among law enforcement and a series of gang murders. According to the synopsis of Musketeers published in the Biograph Bulletin: “This picture production, which does not run very strong as to plot, is simply intended to show vividly the doings of the gangster type of people.”1
Griffith Leaves Biograph, Gains Freedom and Fame
Creative differences prompted D. W. Griffith to leave Biograph, for which his work had been such a boon. He wanted to move into feature-length production, but the company insisted on staying with shorter-form films. He left with a raft of critically acclaimed, extremely popular films in his portfolio but without the credit that filmmakers enjoy today, since Biograph did not publicize the makers and casts of their films. Once free of these constraints, Griffith deployed a showman’s knack for self-promotion to ensure his name would be known. By early 1915, with the release of his film The Birth of a Nation, he had become the most visible filmmaker of his day.