LADY HELEN'S ESCAPADE
(D.W. Griffith, 1909, USA, 8m, BW)
Lady Helen’s Escapade
Lady Helen's Escapade
Directed by D.W. Griffith
Written by Stanner E.V. Taylor
Cinematography G.W. Bitzer
Distributed by American Mutoscope and Biograph Company
Release dates April 19, 1909
Running time 8 minutes
Country United States
Lady Helen's Escapade is a short American film produced in 1909, directed by D. W. Griffith. It is about the escapades of Lady Helen working as a domestic in a boarding house. In 2004 the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
A bored Lady Helen goes slumming as a domestic in a boarding house. There she falls in love with a sensitive young musician. The other women in the house are jealous, and accuse her of trying to steal the musician's violin. Lady Helen retreats to her own home, and arranges a position for the musician which allows them to be together.
Prizes gained without effort are never valuable, and, though we don't appreciate it, the longing for something makes existence sweet; hence if one has everything there is nothing to long for. Such was the condition of Lady Helen, who had everything she could wish for, and in consequence felt very much bored. In her ennui she longs for excitement, for some new sensation, but in vain, until looking over the newspaper she is seized with an irresistible inclination of going out to work, so incognito engages as a domestic in a boarding house. Here she makes a ludicrous attempt to cook, etc., and of course, being totally ignorant of the culinary art, meets with meagre success. However, her pretty face and ill-concealed refinement make such a strong impression upon the male contingent, that they make no complaints at her cooking, and would have taken even poison if served by her fair hands. Two hallroom boys are particularly smitten. Among the boarders there is a talented musician, and his gentle manners and wonderful talent appeal strongly to Lady Helen. He on the other hand, not knowing of course her true self, falls in love with her. All this is most agreeable to the women folks, who at once conspire to rid the place of her, which one brings about by having her accused of the theft of the musician's violin. He, of course, believes her innocent, but she is discharged nevertheless. Lady Helen is so moved by the poor fellow's kindness, that she interests herself in his behalf and secures for him a position as a director at the Conservatory, for which he calls to thank her and finding her a lady of quality would shrink humbly from her presence, but she will not let him for she too loves him. The subject as a whole is a decidedly amusing comedy drama, with a pretty love story running through it.
Released in April 1909, this modest comedy is the
first of four films in the Registry directed by D.W.
Griffith. Often credited with inventing many of the
elements of film grammar (claims that he repeat-
ed in a famous trade paper advertisement in
1913), Griffith is usually cited as the first important
director in movies. The reality is more complicat-
ed, but there is no question that Griffith changed the
medium in a way that few others did.
Born on a farm in Kentucky in 1875, David Wark Griffith
was one of seven children. His father Jacob was a doc-
tor, soldier, prospector, farmer, gambler, and politician
who was emotionally distant from his children. He died
when David was ten. The debt-ridden family moved to
Louisville, where David clerked in a department store
and started acting. He was touring by 1896, and moved
to New York City when he was twenty-four. Many years
of deprivation followed, including stints of physical labor.
In 1906, he married Linda Arvidson in San Francisco.
Aware of his limitations as an actor, Griffith tried writing
plays and poetry. He broke into movies at Biograph, the
nickname for the American Mutoscope and Biograph
company, headquartered on East 14th Street in
Manhattan. It was run at the time by Edwin S. Porter
(“The Great Train Robbery,” 1903).
Griffith some scenarios that were filmed, then hinted that he
would like to direct. For his first film as director, “The
Adventures of Dollie” (1908), he screened other movies
for tips on technique, went to Broadway to cast actors
outside the Biograph staff, shot on locations in three
different states, and combined two separate rivers into
one adventure sequence. In other words, he approached
the job purposefully, treating the production above all as
a serious endeavor. Soon he was the chief Biograph
director, turning out a one-reel film every week.
The hard work and scuffling Griffith endured earlier
helped when success finally arrived. He could draw on
his own life experiences, on acting friendships built over
the years, and on his knowledge of stage technique and
repertoire when it came time to direct. Between 1909
and 1912 he would make hundreds of films, ransacking
plays, books, poems, and songs for material. He was
paid by the foot, getting a small royalty — it had
reached 10 percent by the time he left — on every one
of his films Biograph sold to exhibitors. To make money,
he had to shoot as much as possible.
Griffith paid attention to the mechanical aspects of
moviemaking. He formed a creative collaboration with
G.W. Bitzer, the most accomplished cinematographer in
the country. Together they learned how to use close-
ups, fades, cross-cutting, parallel editing. Griffith broke
scenes into different camera set-ups, different angles,
enabling the use of reaction shots. He developed a
stock company of actors and filmmakers, helping to es-
tablish the careers of Mary Pickford, Dorothy and Lillian
Gish, Mae Marsh, Blanche Sweet, Donald Crisp, Raoul
Walsh, Christy Cabanne, Mack Sennett, and many others.
Florence Lawrence, on the other hand, was already a
successful film performer when she was hired by
Biograph. Born Florence Bridgwood in 1886 in Hamilton,
Ontario, the daughter of actress Lotta Lawrence. Flor-
ence was on stage herself by the age of three. She act-
ed in her mother’s touring company until 1907, when
they were hired by Edison. Lawrence’s film debut was
‘Daniel Boone” that year. In 1908 she switched to
Vitagraph, which at the time produced the most popular
films in the country. There she appeared in “Richard III”
with Florence Turner, another stage veteran. Turner
was forming an immense following, but remained anon-
ymous to her fans because producers refused to identi-
fy the actors in their films. Turner was simply “The
Perhaps at the suggestion of Biograph actor Harry
Salter, Griffith saw Lawrence in Vitagraph’s “The
Despatch Bearer” (1907), and lured her away.
The actress brought a freshness and youthful vitality to
Biograph product, whether appearing in adaptations of
classics or in knockabout comedies. Her personality
was so strong that she quickly developed an enthusias-
tic audience. She received fan mail addressed to “The
Although studio records are unreliable, some sources
credit the actress with 38 movies in 1908, and 65 in
1909. “Lady Helen’s Escapade” is typical of
Biograph’s output at the time. The film has three sets,
props and costumes recycled from other films, and a
dozen or so performers at a time, ruling out close-ups.
The actors compensate by gesticulating vigorously,
striving to stand out from their makeup and costumes.
Lawrence, who is in almost every frame, doesn’t have to
try so hard. Even when playing petulant or bored, as
she does here, she projects a warmth and friendliness
that is entirely winning. Unlike that of many of her con-
temporaries, her looks translate well to the present. But
more important, she has in common with most great
movie stars the ability to communicate directly with
viewers, to bring them in on the joke, to include them in
the action. (A few years later, writers would credit her,
and specifically “Lady Helen’s Escapade,” with introduc-
ing the concept of costume design to movies.)
Although “Lady Helen’s Escapade” has aspects of the
assembly line, with its perfunctory staging and thread-
bare sets, it provides a window into a world of almost
alien class and economic systems. Lawrence plays
Helen, a woman wealthy enough to have at least three
servants waiting on her, yet she is bored with life. Food,
clothing, shopping mean nothing to her, but a chance
notice in a newspaper spurs her into sudden action. She
takes a job as a waitress in a boarding house, where
she swoons over a tall, handsome violinist who accom-
panies a singer after a meal. To get to this point, she
has to put up with relentless come-ons from dandies
with slicked-back hair who have no compunction about
forcing themselves on the hired help.
In tone and temperament, Lawrence is not far removed
from the madcap heiress Carole Lombard played in “My
Man Godfrey” (1936). She doesn’t get mad at the men
who try to paw her; she is indifferent to them, smarter
than their best tricks, single-minded in her goal. Film
curator Eileen Bowser unearthed one review of “Lady
Helen’s Escapade” that cited Lawrence’s “very great
personal attraction” and “very fine dramatic ability.”
Along with John R. Cumpson, the actress was in the
midst of a comedy series based on the characters “Mr.
and Mrs. Jones.” She was so popular that in 1910, Carl
Laemmle hired her for his new IMP studio.
As part of the publicity, Laemmle planted a story
that Lawrence was killed by a streetcar in St. Louis,
then took out ads denouncing the “lie” perpetrated by
IMP enemies. In the ads Laemmle identified Lawrence
by name as “The Imp Girl” and the former “Biograph
Girl.” According to Bowser, this was not the first time a
film actress had been identified. While Lawrence went
to St. Louis to “prove she was not dead,” Florence
Turner was introducing a song called “The Vitagraph
Girl” in Brooklyn movie theaters and being profiled in the
“New York Dramatic Mirror.” No matter who came first,
the star system was put into irrevocable motion.
Biograph would not identify its performers until 1913.
At that time Griffith had established himself as the most
important director working in the United States. He was
arguabley the first who tried to evoke feelings, nostalgia,
and memories in his movies: the first to establish emo-
tional tones and moods. Other filmmakers were intent
only on building a reality for what they were adapting —
a play, a song lyric, a newspaper headline. They were
trying to capture the window, the door, the harbor, the
train, the baby, the battleship. Griffith went beyond that,
using a field or forest to mean “rural,” a homestead for
“nostalgia” He would pan across a valley, a shot that did
nothing to advance the story, but everything to create
an atmosphere. He was among the first to suggest that
film could be more than a photographic record, that it
could be the equivalent to another medium, an art form
in itself, rather than animation or duplication of some-
According to biographer Kelly R. Brown, Lawrence was
seriously injured performing a stunt in 1914. Eight years
later she attempted a comeback, but her time had
passed. In a gesture of charity at the start of the sound
era, she was hired by MGM to appear as an occasional
extra (ironically, MGM hired Florence Turner as well).
Suffering from a bone marrow disease, Lawrence com-
mitted suicide in 1938. Many of her Biograph titles sur-
vive, fortunately including “Lady Helen’s Escapade.”
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