“My God, she’s dead!”
Director: D. W. Griffith
Starring: Herbert Yost, Linda Arvidson, Charles Perley, Arthur V. Johnson, Anita Hendrie, David Miles
Screenplay: D.W. Griffith and Frank E. Woods
Synopsis: A young woman, Virginia Poe (Linda Arvidson), lies dying in a barren room, shivering beneath a single inadequate blanket on a thin pallet bed. Her husband, Edgar Allan Poe (Herbert Yost), watches her in agony. He tries to prepare her a sustaining meal, but the cupboard is completely bare. He prays desperately. Suddenly, Poe notices that a raven has appeared in the room, perching upon its only ornament, a bust of Pallas. He is seized with inspiration…
Comments: In the second year of D.W. Griffith’s employment by the Biograph Company, he was destined to turn out no less than one hundred and forty-eight short films. It goes without saying that Griffith’s taste for his subject matter was not always a priority during this period of almost insane productivity, but in one instance he was given a project very close to his heart.
The year 1909 marked the centenary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe. Belatedly realising an opportunity, Biograph hurried into production a short film intended to pay tribute to the author; in doing so, the company created a new cinematic genre, the biopic. The hope was to have the film into cinemas and nickelodeons by Poe’s birthday, 19th January, but even given the rapidity of production and distribution at the time, this proved beyond the company’s powers, and the planned tribute did not reach the public until early February.
Nevertheless, the haste with which this specific short film was conceived, produced and distributed may be measured by the fact that no-one noticed the typographical error in its title; or perhaps they just didn’t think it was very important. In either case, the result was that D.W. Griffith’s homage to his idol was released as Edgar Allen Poe; while Griffith’s own subsequent contribution to the evolution of film-making would serve to ensure that this particular spelling mistake was preserved for the ages.
In the early days of twentieth century cinema, a significant shift occurred in the nature of commercial film-making. Cinema itself had developed almost as an afterthought, a means of selling technical advances in photography, cameras and projection to the public; most of those active in this new field used footage of real-life activities to illustrate their equipment’s capabilities.
However, a few pioneers began to experiment with the staging of brief narratives, usually filmed on rudimentary sets with two or three actors. These brief fictions, commonly running between five and seven minutes, proved enormously popular with the public; so much so, that some new companies formed purely to produce and release them. Observing the success of these ventures, longer-established companies began to alter their output, adding fictional narratives to their program. One firm to follow this path was Biograph. From 1903 onwards, the company focused increasingly upon staging short dramas and comedies for their cameras, and by 1908 was producing nothing else.
The relative simplicity of film-making at this time made it possible for an efficient director to turn out a short film every two to three days, a pace necessary to feed the appetite of the public, particularly at a time when film itself was considered essentially ephemeral, something to be enjoyed once and then thrown away. The imposed brevity of these films encouraged the studios to seek their material in the realm of famous novels and plays, and well-known current events, since little time was available onscreen for introducing characters or setting up the narrative. Sets were kept basic and re-used repeatedly. A film would generally consist of two or three scenes, each staged like a mini-play, without editing or camera movement. Acting styles were often exaggerated, and emotions conveyed with little subtlety or shading.
Edgar Allen Poe is very much a product of its time, although it does offer some slight hints of the “language of cinema” that D.W. Griffith would subsequently help to create. The film has a simple three-act structure, with scenes of the Poes at home broken up by another of the husband-author trying to sell his work to an indifferent publishing world. It opens with the dying Virginia Poe dragging herself from her bed to inspect the family larder, only to find it bare. She falls to her knees and prays for assistance, then climbs back into bed. Edgar enters, presumably from a day spent unsuccessfully trying to sell his writing, as we judge from the crumpled papers in his hand. Essentially the same action then repeats itself, with Poe also inspecting the empty cupboard, then throwing up his arms in supplication.
Poe’s own prayers receive an answer, as a raven – a very motionless raven – materialises upon the bust that is the apartment’s only ornament. Poe stares in astonishment, and then is gripped by inspiration. Speaking reassuring words to Virginia, he sits down and dashes off a few lines. He shows these to his wife with delight, then finishes his work and hurries away.
We next see Poe in an office, trying to interest two men – one a “publisher”, the other a “poet in residence” – in his work. The publisher laughs scornfully at the poem, while the poet takes a minute to point out exactly what is wrong with it. As he is unable to convince these men to buy his poem, a desperate Poe forces himself to beg charity, but he is turned away with contempt.
Poe enters a second office, occupied by another “publisher” and the “publisher’s wife”, working together at a desk. Poe shows his poem first to the publisher’s wife. Annoyed at being disturbed in her work, she runs an impatient eye over the paper in her hand and then bursts out laughing, reading a few lines out loud to her husband and gesturing to illustrate the ridiculous tempo of the work. The publisher, however, is intrigued, and calls Poe back from the doorway, where he is beating a disconsolate retreat. The publisher reads the poem through, and agrees to buy it. More importantly, however, he pays Poe for his manuscript on the spot, giving him a handful of paper bills. Poe reacts with rapturous disbelief, as the publisher’s wife looks on with veiled irritation.
But at the Poes’ home, Virginia’s last moments have come. She cries out unavailingly for her husband, stretching out her arms, then falls back and is still… Shortly afterwards, Poe enters triumphantly, carrying a basketful of groceries and a warm new blanket. Placing the groceries on the table and making assurances of a better future, Poe unfurls the blanket and tucks his wife in tenderly – only then to realise the truth of her awful silence. Recoiling in horror, Poe vents his despair and misery in the direction of the raven, then collapses across his wife’s body.
Edgar Allen Poe is an instructive work for those with an interest in the early days of film-making, as it features both the bluntly primitive roots of the embryo art form and its first stirrings towards a new kind of language. The camera remains stationary, and there is no editing within any of the scenes. Nor are there any photographic tricks such as fades: each scene jumps abruptly into the next. The acting of both Herbert Yost and Linda Arvidson as the Poes could hardly be broader; it is all sweeping arm gestures, clutching hands, wide eyes and gaping mouths. Yost’s main contribution to the film is not dramatic, but visual: his resemblance to Edgar Allan Poe is quite startling, and much more effective than his acting. (That said, it should be conceded that Poe himself was rather addicted to overly dramatic public behaviour.)
Ironically, Linda Arvidson’s best acting moments come after her character is dead. We cannot know whether the choice was Griffith’s or Arvidson’s own, but the dead Virginia’s blank-eyed stare directly into the camera is unusual and rather unnerving. At the time that this film was made, Linda Arvidson was Mrs David Griffith, and appeared in many of her husband’s films. However, the artistic partnership ended when the two separated in 1912, although they did not actually divorce for another twenty-four years, when Griffith wanted to re-marry.
The most interesting aspects of Edgar Allen Poe are found in its two-act middle scene. Here we see the beginnings of true film acting, as each of the four people to whom Poe shows his work responds to it differently. The performances here, although still a little crude, are far more restrained and believable than those in the bookending domestic scenes. The snotty condescension of the “poet in residence”, as he deigns to instruct Poe in the errors of his artistic ways, is particularly amusing. The poet was played by Charles Perley in his first screen acting role.
However, the performance of the film is that of the “publisher’s wife” who, in the course of a fairly brief scene, conveys an impressive range of emotions. She is annoyed by Poe’s interruption and, probably as a consequence, rudely contemptuous of his poem. When her husband reacts to the poem with interest, she is at first taken aback and then exasperated, but quickly conceals her feelings with a falsely delighted smile when “the publisher” praises Poe’s work and agrees to buy it – although the mask does slip a little when the money starts changing hands. The “publisher’s wife” was played by Anita Hendrie, who made more than sixty short films between 1908 and 1912. Hopefully, at least some of Ms Hendrie’s other performances still survive. Her contribution here makes me want to see more of her work.
(A nice touch is that the publisher is played by Anita Hendrie’s own husband, the actor / director David Miles. The two appeared together in nearly fifty films. Hopefully their real-life collaboration was more amicable than the fictional one we see here.)
As the earliest of biographical films, Edgar Allen Poe is an intriguing work. There is a simple assumption made here that the audience is familiar with Poe’s writing, which in the case of the poem in question was almost certainly correct; the bird and the bust together thus convey everything that was needful, as indeed they still do. The poem itself cannot be recited, of course, but both the poet and the publisher’s wife mouth some of those famous lines, while the cadence of the latter’s accompanying hand movements is quite correct, as is the flicking of the poet’s quill as he points out the poem’s myriad faults.
Beyond this, however, Edgar Allen Poe and accuracy part company. Far from meeting with scorn and rejection, The Raven was of all Poe’s works the most immediately successful. The poem was enormously popular with the public, and attracted wide (if not universal) critical acclaim as well. Poe made money not just from its initial publication, but from recitations of his work. The character of Poe himself is another dramatic casualty of this film. Contemporary advertising for the film assured the public that it was “Founded Upon Incidents In His Career” and would show the author as “A Man Of Heart”. While the Poes were indeed frequently in desperate financial straits, the film’s portrait of a domestic Poe, an attentive loving husband whose every thought is for his wife’s welfare, is not exactly in accordance with the facts, although it is hardly surprising to find such a sentimental characterisation in a D.W. Griffith film.
The film’s most outrageous re-writing of history, however, comes with the melodramatic juxtapositioning of Virginia Poe’s death with her husband’s artistic triumph. Although already suffering at the time from the tuberculosis that would finally kill her, Virginia lived another two years after the publication of The Raven. In its blithe disregard of the facts, and its stretching of “dramatic licence” into outright falsehood, Edgar Allen Poe managed to initiate a cinematic tradition that is still followed proudly to this very day, a full century later.