UNCHANGING SEA, THE
(D.W. Griffith, 1910, USA, 14m, BW)
UNCHANGING SEA, THE (D.W. Griffith, 1910, USA, 14m, BW)
The Unchanging Sea
by D.W. Griffith
Run time 14 min.
Production Company Biograph Company
Audio/Visual sound, black & white
Arthur V. Johnson - The Husband
Linda Arvidson - The Wife
Gladys Egan - The Daughter as Small Child
Mary Pickford - The Daughter as an Adult
Charles West - The Daughter's Sweetheart
Dell Henderson - Rescuer
Kate Bruce - Villager
Frank Opperman - In Second Village
Alfred Paget - Villager
Dorothy West - Villager
In this story set at a seaside fishing village and inspired by a Charles Kingsley poem "The three fishers", a young couple's happy life is turned about by an accident. The husband (Arthur V. Johnson), although saved from drowning, loses his memory. A child is on the way, and soon a daughter is born to his wife (Linda Arvidson).
We watch the passage of time, as his daughter (Gladys Egan) matures and his wife ages. The daughter becomes a lovely young woman (Mary Pickford), herself ready for marriage. One day on the beach, the familiarity of the sea and the surroundings triggers a return of her father's memory, and we are reminded that although people age and change, the sea and the ways of the fisherfolk remain eternal.
This Biograph picture by DW Griffith is based on the poem “The Three Fishers” by Charles Kingsley, which provides a somewhat different structure to the storyline than similar shorts of the time. At the beginning of the movie, the intertitles are almost all quotes from that poem, which manage to tell the entire poem before the movie storyline completely takes over. That story involves a fisherman in a small seaside village who leaves his pregnant wife behind to go to the sea and fails to return, leaving her and the child alone for years.
His companions’ bodies are washed ashore, but the sea never gives him up, leaving the wife uncertain to his fate. It develops that he’s been in another village all this time, apparently suffering from amnesia, but he finally returns to find his wife and now-grown child – who now has a fisherman sweetheart of her own. The husband is played by Arthur V. Johnson, who we’ve seen in “The Adventures of Dollie” and “The Sealed Room” and the wife is Griffith’s real-life spouse Linda Arvidson, who was in “Corner in Wheat” as well as “The Adventures of Dollie.” Mary Pickford (from “The Usurer” and later in “Poor Little Rich Girl”), again edging toward stardom, is the grown daughter, and Charles West (whose career includes “The Redman’s View” and “In the Border States“) is her boyfriend.
In the third year of his career as a director, D W Griffith was already showing considerable insight into what made a visually arresting composition, although on the evidence of The Unchanging Sea he still had some way to go when it came to narrative coherence. This 14 minute short is an adaptation of a poem by the Nineteenth Century poet Charles Fisher called The Three Fishers, and uses lines from Wheelers’ poem instead of conventional intertitles to drive the story forward.
Griffith regular Arthur V. Johnson (The Adventures of Dollie, The Lonely Villa) plays a fisherman whose boat gets into difficulties on a turbulent sea. The bodies of his three workmates are washed ashore, and although Johnson’s body is never found, everyone assumes he is dead. Everyone but his wife (Linda Arvidson – The Adventures of Dollie), that is, who lives in hope that he will one day return to her and the daughter he has never seen (Mary Pickford – Daddy-Long-Legs, Little Annie Rooney).
Even though it’s clear that Griffith was coming to grips with his craft, The Unchanging Sea is still a primitive movie which struggles to make sense of its simple storyline. Much of this is down to the short running time, which affords Griffith little opportunity to flesh out his characters or present key incidents as little more than snapshot moments, but even without these drawbacks the story would be a little confusing to follow. Griffith does, however, make effective use of the coastal location and the turbulent sea, and draws nuanced performances from his cast in an era when exaggerated gestures were commonplace.
The Hollywood Studio System
Around the year 1910 a number of film companies set up business in and around the
small suburb of Hollywood to the west of Los Angeles. Within a decade, the system they
created came to dominate the cinema, not only in the United States but throughout the
world. By concentrating production into vast factory-like studios, and by vertically
integrating all aspects of the business, from production to publicity to distribution to
exhibition, they created a model system-the 'studio system' -which other countries had to
imitate in order to compete. But attempts at imitating the American system were only
partially successful, and by 1925 it was the ' Hollywood' system, rather than the studio
system as such, which dominated the market from Britain to Bengal, from South Africa to
Norway and Sweden By that time, Hollywood had not only seized control of the majority
of world markets but had made its products and its stars, such as Charlie Chaplin and
Mary Pickford, the most famous cultural icons in new world.
Throughout the period of its inexorable rise, Hollywood fashioned the tools of modem
business, from economics of scale to vertical integration, to give it the edge over all
possible competitors. It developed cost-effective methods of production, extended the
market for its product to cover the entire globe, and ensured the flow of films from
producer to consumer by acquiring ownership of key theatres in major cities, not just in
the United States but in other countries as well. European nations tried various
protectionist measures, such as special taxes, tariffs, quotas, and even boycotts, to keep
Hollywood's domination at bay, but to no avail. Although the Japanese market remained
hard to penetrate, and the Soviet Union was able to close its frontiers against foreign
imports in the mid- 1920s, as far as the rest of the world was concerned it was only a
matter of time before the Hollywood film became standard fare on the nation's screens.
The emergence of Hollywood as the center of this all powerful industry can be found in
the failures of the Motion Picture Patents Company's attempt to monopolize the film
business. This was a combination of ten leading American and European producers of
movies and manufacturers of cameras and projectors, who in 1908 combined to form a
'Trust' to inflate the prices of equipment they alone could manufacture. The Trust pooled
patents and made thousands of short films. Only co-operating companies, licensed by the
Trust, could manufacture 'legal' films and film equipment. The Trust extracted profits by
charging for use of its patents. To use a projector legally an exhibitor needed to hand over
a few dollars; to make movies, producers paid more.
However, the Trust found it difficult to maintain control, and in the space of half a dozen
years ( 1909-14) independents such as Carl Laemmle and William Fox rose in opposition
to the Trust, sowing the seeds of what we now know as Hollywood. Adolph Zukor put
together Paramount; Marcus Loew created what was to become MGM; William Fox
fashioned his movie empire.
These and other independent exhibitors and moviemakers differentiated their products,
making longer and more complicated narratives while the Trust tended to stick with two-
reel, fifteen-minute stories. The independents raided pulp magazines, public domain
novels, and successful plays for plots. Westerns supplied the most popular of these 'new'
movie genres and helped spark interest in shooting on location 'out West'. In time the
independents found their home in southern California, 2,000 miles away from the New
York headquarters of the Trust and, with its temperate climate, cheap land, and lack of
unions, an ideal place to make their new low-cost 'feature-length' motion pictures.
By 1912 the independents were producing enough films to fill theatrical bills. Each movie
became a unique product, heavily advertised. With more than 20,000 cinemas open in the
USA by 1920, the ever-increasing number of feature-length 'photoplays' easily found an
audience. Distribution into foreign markets proved a bonus; in this era of the silent
cinema, specialists quickly translated interties’, and produced foreign versions for
minimal added production costs.
The independents also began to take control of exhibition in the USA. They did not
attempt to buy up all the 20,000 existing movie houses, concentrating instead on the new
movie palaces in the largest cities. By 1920 these 2,000 picture palaces, showing
exclusive first-runs, were capturing over three-quarters of the revenue of the average film.
From these chains of movie palaces from New York City to Chicago to Los Angeles, the
major Hollywood companies, led by Paramount, Fox, and MGM, were able to collect
millions of dollars per year in profit.
By this time the independents were independents no longer. They had become the system.
The most successful of these former independents succeeded at what the well financed
members of the Trust had failed to accomplish -control of the production, distribution,
and exhibition of movies. From this massive base they moved to dominate the world.
With any one film costing $100,000 or more to produce, the extra few thousand dollars to
make prints and send them around the world proved relatively small.
This world-wide popularity in turn created a demand which required non-stop production.
To meet this requirement, the Los Angeles basin offered year-round sunshine and thus
long working days outdoors, in addition to all possible combinations of locations for
filming. Nearby farmland (now swallowed up by suburbs) Fronted for the Midwest; the
Pacific Ocean stood in for the Caribbean and Atlantic; mountains and desert, just a day
away, gave Westerns an authentic feel.
By the early 1920s the social impact of Hollywood's glamorous image was enormous. As early as 1920, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce was obliged to run advertisements
begging aspiring actors and actresses to stay at home, pleading: 'Please Don't Try to Break
into the Movies.'
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