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Brutality (Biograph)

December 2, 2012

Brutality was a D. W. Griffith film with the same basic plot as his 1909 A Drunkard’s Reformation. Both films feature a bad father/husband who is transformed when he sees a representation of his own life on the stage. In Brutality, the play-within-the-film is Oliver Twist

Mae Marsh in Brutality. This still was printed in Pearson’s Eloquent Gestures, p. 4

You might have seen it 100 years ago today at the Queens Theater, at 933 Third Avenue in New York City. But if you waited too long, you’d have to go elsewhere because on December 22nd, that theater’s print was stolen, along with 5 other films out of the office of the owner, a Mr. Arthur Bradey (according to the Moving Picture World of January 4th, 1913).

In 1975, a print of the film circulated in a Museum of Modern Art touring program, but if you wanted to see it today, the only place I could find that has a viewing print is the Library of Congress. It might be worth the trip and the red tape that you’d have to go through to access it because according to film scholars it’s a pretty important document of the aesthetic transformation of American narrative cinema.

Since the plot is so similar to the earlier Griffith film, comparing the aesthetic choices like camera, editing, and acting styles reveals that these were indicative of a historical shift in aesthetics.

Here’s what Tom Gunning and Ron Mottram write in their program notes for  the D. W. Griffith Touring Show. (New York: Museum of Modern Art,  1975)

The sophistication of the acting style and editing technique [in Brutality] is greatly increased over the earlier film [A Drunkard’s Reformation]. As the action on the stage becomes more violent, we get a closer view of the play’s characters, as if to indicate the increase in the spectator’s attention. Nothing like this was attempted in A Drunkard’s Reformation, which filmed all of the stage scenes from the same camera position (38)

Roberta Pearson also discusses this film in her book Eloquent Gestures, which is about D. W. Griffith’s role in the transformation in acting styles in the American cinema that was transpiring 100 years ago (between 1908 and 1913). She performs a comparative reading of this film alongside Griffith’s A Drunkard’s Reformation. While Gunning and Mottram’s liner notes (above) describe how this film uses a different kind of camera and editing techniques, Pearson points out how this film juxtaposes two different acting styles — the histrionic, over-blown gesticulations of the stage actors of the play-within-the-film and the more restrained, “verisimilarly coded acting” style of the “real” characters in the film who watch the play (95-96).

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