MOTHERING HEART, THE
(D.W. Griffith, 1913, USA, 23m, BW)
The Mothering Heart
Directed by D. W. Griffith
Starring Walter Miller
Cinematography G. W. Bitzer
Release dates June 21, 1913
Running time 23 minutes
Country United States
A 1913 drama about marriage and infidelity directed by D W Griffith.
The film opens by showing a young woman (Lillian Gish) in a garden. She is tender hearted, demonstrated by her appreciation of the flowers and the rescuing of a puppy. A melancholic young man (Walter Miller) woos her and she is foolishly swayed more by his pain of rejection than her love for him and eventually agrees to marry. Later in their new home together she takes in washing to help support them when her new husband has little income. Things change when he finds some success in a well paid job. He insists they celebrate at a restaurant where there is an Apache dance cabaret. He wears a new suit but she her plain street clothes. Her husband's eye is caught by a sophisticated single woman (Viola Barry) at the next table. Later, encouraged by the woman, the husband begins to deceive his wife and have clandestine meetings with her. She is rich and has a chauffeur-driven car at her disposal.
The wife, now pregnant, as evidenced by her interest in baby clothes, discovers a glove in her husband's coat pocket. She follows him and uncovers his deceit. After confronting her husband she leaves him and returns to the home of her mother (played by Kate Bruce) where the baby is born. We now see the husband being dropped by the sophisticated woman for a new richer male companion (Charles West). The dejected husband sitting alone at home receives a letter from the wife telling him of the birth. He resolves to make it up with her.
We learn next that the baby has becomes ill and is attended by a doctor (Adolph Lestina). The husband arrives at the wife's mother's house and she allows him to see the wife and child. However the wife wants none of him and angrily rejects him. While the husband sits dejected in the garden the baby dies. The wife vents her anger on the bushes in the part of the garden in which the film opened. She returns to find her husband bent in grief over the crib. He is tenderly holding the baby's dummy. Their hands touch and the husband sees she is still wearing her wedding ring. They are reunited in an embrace and the film ends.
Walter Miller as Joe - the Young Husband
Lillian Gish as The Young Wife
Kate Bruce as Young Wife's Mother
Viola Barry as The 'Idle Woman' / Outside Club (as Peggy Pearce)
Charles West as The 'New Light' / Among Waiters
Adolph Lestina as The Doctor / Club Patron
Jennie Lee as The Wash Customer
Charles Murray as Male Apache Dancer
Gertrude Bambrick as Female Apache Dancer
William J. Butler as Club Patron
Christy Cabanne as Outside Club
Donald Crisp as Undetermined Role (unconfirmed)
Josephine Crowell as Woman Collecting Ironing
Edward Dillon as Club Patron
John T. Dillon as Club Patron
William Elmer as Doorman
Dell Henderson as Club Patron
Harry Hyde as Outside Club
J. Jiquel Lanoe as Outside Club as Club Patron
Charles Hill Mailes as Club Patron
Mae Marsh as Undetermined Role (unconfirmed)
Joseph McDermott as Among Waiters
Alfred Paget as Club Patron
Gus Pixley as Club Patron
W. C. Robinson as Club Patron
Henry B. Walthall as Club Patron
This short melodrama by Griffith has certain elements of the “lost girl” melodramas of the period, and also demonstrates considerable technical sophistication, particularly in terms of camera angles and editing. Lillian Gish (we’ve seen her in several Griffith films at this point, including “An Unseen Enemy” and “The Musketeers of Pig Alley”) stars as a young woman with a “natural” mothering instinct, demonstrated by her affection for puppies and love of flowers. She is wooed, “against her better judgment,” as the intertitle says, by Walter Miller (also in “The Musketeers” and later “The Shadow of the Eagle,” with John Wayne), a young man struggling to make a living. Once he has a little success, he throws her over for a more exciting woman he meets in a restaurant/night club, and poor Lillian, pregnant, moves back in with her mother.
The child becomes ill, and the husband realizes the error of his ways too late to prevent tragedy. The most remarkable scenes are those in the night club, where an Apache dance is performed. Rather than simply framing the whole thing as a stage, as would have been typical, Griffith’s cameraman shows us at least four different angles, editing them together to show the stage, close up action at two tables, and the whole place in a long shot. From what I’ve read about the technique of the time, it’s possible that they had two or three cameras running simultaneously to get this effect, similar to the way live television would be shot decades later.
The Mothering Heart is about an innocent, wholesome wife, with simple goals. On the surface it is a morality play, detailing first her suffering at the hands of her straying husband, then with the consequences of that betrayal. But this is really a front. Buried within The Mothering Heart’s simple structure is a set of profound and tragic human moments. D.W. Griffith's The Mothering Heart opens with the young woman (Lillian Gish) tending to rose bushes in her mother’s garden and playing with a pair of puppies. Her idyll is interrupted by a handsome but awkward young man (Walter Miller), who has come to propose. She declines, and the young man hangs his head. Seeing this, Gish’s demeanour—even her posture—inverts; she puts a comforting hand on his shoulder and changes her mind.
Who is this person, who reverses herself so quickly on so crucial a matter? Griffith seems uninterested in the specifics. He never names Gish’s character, or anyone else’s. We know nothing of the young woman’s life before her marriage proposal, except for what we can intuit from one intertitle: “Against her better judgement she listens to her young lover.” Gish’s character says nothing for herself. The young woman’s huge gap in judgement is matched by several gaps in the narrative. Following the proposal Griffith cuts almost violently to a scene well into the couple’s married life—possibly years later; we have no way of measuring time. Gish now appears as a hardworking wife in a modest home, taking in laundry and ironing for extra money. Her husband clearly isn’t very successful at his job, whatever it is (we’ll never know that, either).
He arrives, defeated by his long day. We sense he is the type to let the weight of circumstances hold him down. Griffith leaves him to mope in the living room, finding Gish in the kitchen. She's exhausted. We see her force a smile, for his sake. The next intertitle reads: “The husband meets with prosperity.” When? The house looks the same. Perhaps the wife hasn’t heard about it yet either. Gish is alone as the scene opens, puttering around in the dining room. She picks up a long, white infant’s gown and cradles it as though it were an actual baby. “Mother Love” an intertitle explains.
Gish’s miming here is tender enough, but the effect is off-putting. It's too mothering of what is, clearly, a stand-in for a baby. It’s becoming clear that this woman can very easily turn nothing into something, at least in her own head. We wonder how far into delusion she could slip. The husband arrives, jubilant. Now that he’s doing well, he gains no comfort from the homely joys of the hearth, so it’s off to the nightclub for them. The wife is out of place there; she’s dressed simply, and the crowd is rich, and she cannot drink, due to her pregnancy. She probably wouldn’t drink anyway. The husband drinks. And over Gish’s shoulder he spies an Idle Woman (so says the intertitle), wearing a low-cut dress and eyeing him right back.
Another harsh cut turns the wine glasses to coffee cups. The flirtation goes on. And for the first time (maybe in her life), the wife catches on. She storms out of the club with her man in pursuit, promising her it was nothing. Well, of course it was something. He begins an affair with the Idle Woman (Viola Barry); a tryst so blatant that she picks him up in plain view of the couple’s front door.
How does the wife find out? In a remarkable scene, taking place shortly after her husband has returned from one of his dates. She has accepted whatever lie he told her and takes his coat. He exits the room. Left again, she takes the coat and cradles it as she did the baby gown, then stops. From the pocket of the coat she pulls the Idle Woman’s long, white scarf. I’ve never forgotten what follows. Lillian Gish travels to this fragile woman’s every boundary-line. She folds and twists and pulls the scarf. She smiles, then frowns, laughs, then burns with rage, all in seconds. Griffith has manipulated us this way all along—compressing time by ignoring establishing scenes, making the woman’s life feel too rapid and urgent. Now, Gish herself contorts her childish character into someone suddenly, and unstably, adult.
By the time her husband comes home, she’s dressed and packed. She passes him, steps out the front door and, in another remarkable piece of editing, steps immediately onto her mother’s porch. After a brief cut to the distraught husband, we see the wife back in her childhood home. I’m fairly certain the couple didn’t live next door to her mom; at least, we were never told they did. In any case, the scene reminds us—very literally—that we do not know where this woman has come from. Perhaps she doesn’t, either. The next major scene has Gish at home with her mother, holding a baby son who is at least four months old. Give that she did not look pregnant when she fled the marriage, this must be nearly a year after the breakup. Griffith then shows us how the husband has been coping, as he and Idle Woman enjoy drinks at the club. But love proves fleeting even there; they break up bitterly as she attracts (quite willingly) the attention of a new man, sitting in the very seat the husband occupied (not?) long ago.
“The baby ill” reads the next intertitle. We see the wife place her son in a wooden crib in the foreground, obscuring him. The doctor arrives. Meanwhile, the rejected husband returns to his home to find a letter from his mother-in-law. He reads it and immediately leaves again. The husband arrives at his mother-in-law’s home. We aren’t sure if he’s ever set eyes on his son before this moment, and the wife, nearly manic, pushes him away. He leaves the house and sits on the porch.
The baby dies. Gish’s response is rigid and bug-eyed; she pulls the doctor’s hand from her shoulder and marches into the garden. There she explodes; tearing her hair and smashing the rose bushes with a stick. When she returns, the husband is seated over the crib, holding the baby’s pacifier. Griffith shows an extreme closeup of his hand—meant to be the wife’s view, as well as ours—and we see the pacifier and his wedding ring side-by-side. The husband and wife embrace, in some mix of grief and relief, and the movie ends. There is a sense of finality to the way they hold each other in this moment, as though it is to be emblematic of their relationship in its final form.
But have the husband and wife really restored their love? The truth is, had he not been dumped that very night, he would not have even returned in time to see his son’s last moments. And what precedes the wife’s embrace of him? A breakdown, modulated only by images of motherhood and marriage—the sole preoccupations of her life. I don’t see this as a reconciliation. I believe that tomorrow, they’ll be parted again. These people have sought comfort from one another because, in times of enormous pain, one must cling to something. It might be a person, or simply a just, but it’s usually familiar. What an uncompromising, and deeply human resolution this is, and how incredible that it concludes a movie so seemingly simple as this one.
In the films of Griffith, a case can be made for the co-existence of stillness and motion, death and life. There are instances when both the actor playing the corpse and the one acting as the registrant must pose and be visibly still, as in silent film’s uncanny tableau technique. Departure of a Great Old Man (1912) and Birth of a Nation (1915) present their characters in a semi-static way while they register a person’s death, dropping to the ground or contemplating loss. In films like A Corner in Wheat (1909) and The Mothering Heart (1913) with Lillian Gish as the surviving mother, Griffith stages the tableau of grief through verisimilar reactions. The reaction shots of the registrants must process in as detailed a way as possible the moment of death. But the moment of death depends on a subtle interplay of stillness and motion.
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