MUSKETEERS OF PIG ALLEY, THE
(D.W. Griffith, 1912, USA, 17m, BW)
The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)
Directed by D. W. Griffith
Written by D. W. Griffith
Starring Elmer Booth
Clara T. Bracy
Music by Robert Israel
Distributed by General Film Company
Release dates October 31, 1912
Running time 17 minutes (16 frames per second)
Country United States
Language Silent film
The Musketeers of Pig Alley is a 1912 American short drama film credited as the first gangster film in history. It is directed by D. W. Griffith and written by Griffith and Anita Loos. It is also credited for its early use of follow focus, a fundamental tool in cinematography. The film was released on October 31, 1912 and re-released on November 5, 1915 in the United States. The film was shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey where many other early film studios in America's first motion picture industry were based at the beginning of the 20th century. Location shots in New York City reportedly used actual street gang members as extras during the film.
The film is about a poor married couple living in New York City. The husband works as a musician and must often travel for work. When returning, his wallet is taken by a gangster. His wife goes to a ball where a man tries to drug her, but his attempt is stopped by the same man who robbed the husband. The two criminals become rivals, and a shootout ensues. The husband gets caught in the shootout and recognizes one of the men as the gangster who took his money. The husband sneaks his wallet back and the gangster goes to safety in the couple's apartment. Policemen track the gangster down but the wife gives him a false alibi.
Elmer Booth – Snapper Kid, Musketeers gang leader
Lillian Gish – The Little Lady
Clara T. Bracy – The Little Lady's Mother
Walter Miller – The Musician
Alfred Paget – Rival Gang Leader
John T. Dillon – Policeman
Madge Kirby – The Little Lady's Friend/In Alley
Harry Carey – Snapper's Sidekick
Robert Harron – Rival Gang Member/In Alley/At Gangster's Ball
W. C. Robinson – Rival Gang Member (as Spike Robinson)
Adolph Lestina – The Bartender/On Street
Jack Pickford – Boy Gang Member/At Dance Ball
Antonio Moreno – Young Man at Dance Ball who Leaves
The Musketeers of Pig Alley is probably the first ever film about organised crime. In his book The Movie Stars, film historian Richard Griffith wrote of the scene where Lillian Gish passes another woman on the street (pictured): Griffith's camera in this scene happened to focus on the unforgettable face of the nameless girl in the center of the shot- and a murmurous wave swept audiences at this point in the film whenever it was shown. No one knows what became of this particular extra, but such raw material, and such camera accidents, became the stuff of stardom later on." In fact, the girl is Dorothy Gish, Lillian's sister. In the Cold Case episode Torn (Season 4.21) Lily sees the victim of a 1919 homicide in an homage to the scene of Lillian Gish passing another woman on the street.
"The Musketeers of Pig Alley" is a short crime drama directed by D. W. Griffith. This film illustrates the work of actor Robert Harron and cinematographer Billy Bitzer, stars of Silent Hall of Fame. Griffith's work with Biograph in the early years of the last century were crucial in developing a grammar of film language. Although he didn't invent the elements, such as cross-cutting and the close-up, that he is famous for, his consistent, inventive use of these techniques for the creation of interesting narratives advanced the art of film at a rapid pace, influencing virtually every other filmmaker in the world.
The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) was the first gangster film. Unusually complex for a one-reeler, the story concerns a poverty-stricken young couple (Walter Miller and Lillian Gish) living in a New York tenement. The husband earns some money, but is robbed on his way home by a gangster (Elmer Booth). Later, the gangster notices the wife at a dance hall, and gets in an argument over her with another gangster, which leads to a shoot-out.
The street scenes, shot on location in New York, are rather gritty for their time, providing a vivid glimpse of the crowded immigrant population. The swaggering Booth has an intensity that reminded me of Jimmy Cagney. We can see Griffith experimenting with the use of offscreen space, along with his skillful handling of suspense. One striking scene has a group of gangsters, led by Booth, creeping along a wall towards the camera, until Booth's face peers right at us in a medium close-up. It helps to have seen the stagey conventions of other films from that time to appreciate little things like this that Griffith would do to make his films more interesting.
This short movie by Griffith has been credited as the “first gangster movie,” and, although other films from the period dealt with crime as a social problem, it certainly has many of the familiar tropes of later movies about criminals. Lillian Gish (from “An Unseen Enemy” and later star of “The Wind”) gets an early starring role as “the little lady,” a married woman living in a tenement over-run with gangsters, including the dapper “Snapper Kid” (played by Elmer Booth, also in “An Unseen Enemy” and “The Painted Lady”) who runs the Musketeers.
She resists his advances, and later he robs her husband (Walter Miller, who’s in “The Mothering Heart” and “An Unseen Enemy”). Poor Lillian makes the mistake of attending a “gangster’s ball” with a friend, and another gangster tries to slip her a drugged drink, which Snapper Kid sees and prevents, resulting in a gang rivalry. After a very tightly-staged back alley gun battle, the husband gets his wallet back and Snapper runs to the couple’s flat for refuge from the police, learning of their married status and renouncing his interest in the little lady. The couple pay him back for his decency by giving him an alibi for the police. The complex plot and use of closeups as well as an early follow focus device demonstrate the degree to which Griffith was innovating. A brief shot of Dorothy Gish passing her sister in the street reputedly made a big hit with audiences.
The Musketeers of Pig Alley contains many of the classic elements of what would later be called the gangster picture. Set in the slums of Manhattan’s Lower East Side its youthful hero is a musician (Walter Miller). There is also a girl (Lillian Gish) and her ailing mother (Clara T. Bracy). Griffith regulars and future stars Lionel Barrymore, Donald Crisp and Gish sister Dorothy all have small roles.
The crowded, teeming streets are evocative of lower Manhattan. The sets include a tenement building apartment and stairway, an exterior and interior saloon and of course the titular alley. In one scene there is a lively party taking place in Pig Alley. Although this was made eight years before the start of the roaring twenties the gangsters are all familiar types. One day the musician joyfully returns from a gig with his pocketbook full of cash, only to be mugged by several neighborhood tuffs, led by Snapper Kid, Chief of the Musketeers. Elmer Booth suggests a young James Cagney as he moves through the neighborhood with a cocky swagger. Cagney would have been a youth of thirteen when this movie came out, a product of these same mean streets.
The plot moves fast and furious in this seventeen minute movie. One day while the daughter is out the ailing mother has a heart attack and dies. The musician sets out to recover his stolen money and the grieving girl goes with a female friend to a party that is referred to in the subtitles as a Gangster’s Ball. At the dance the girl gets caught in the middle between the Musketeers and a rival gang. They decide to take their beef outside. The movies’ most famous shot is when Griffith has his characters walk towards the camera as they slink along a wall in the alley, until they are in close-up, before passing by. Snapper Kid lingers for a brief moment sneering into the lens. The climax is a shootout between the two gangs in Pig Alley.
The Musketeers of Pig Alley is a great example of how innovative Griffith was. Notice how he uses the actions of his characters to suggest camera movement. He also understood that an audience could follow a storyline without needing every detail to be spelled out. This remains one of the seminal director’s best known shorts before he achieved immortality with The Birth of a Nation.
D. W. Griffith’s Musketeers of Pig Alley takes its audience onto the pre-WWI mean streets of New York where Lillian Gish (Biirth of a Nation, Intolerance) lives with her musician husband (Walter Miller) and her mother (Clara T. Bracy – Judith of Bethulia). Hubbie’s work takes him away from home, and while he’s away, his wife receives and rebuffs the attentions of local hood Snapper Kid (Elmer Booth). Upon his return, the husband is foolish enough to mention to a friend (Lionel Barrymore – The Bells, Duel in the Sun) just how lucrative his trip has been within earshot of Snapper Kid and his gang. Inevitably, the husband is relieved of his money before he returns home.
While the husband swears to his wife that he will recover the money at all costs, she visits a dance hall with a friend, where she comes to the attention of another gang leader who tries to drug her drink, presumably so that he might have his way with her. Fortunately for the girl, the gangster’s ruse is witnessed by none other than Snapper Kid, who warns her off drinking from the glass into which the drug has been poured. His intervention sparks a rivalry between the two gangs which eventually leads to murder…
The most distinctive aspect of The Musketeers of Pig Alley is Griffith’s use of real street locations, which not only provides us with a flavour of life on the crowded city streets in the early years of the 20th Century, but also enhances the movie’s realism. The winsome and beautiful Lillian Gish is a little under-used, with Griffith devoting an inordinate amount of time to following the rival gangs around as they visit the same haunts, searching for one another. Presumably Griffith was trying to increase the suspense here, but it doesn’t really work. It does mean Elmer Booth, an actor whose career was cut short by a fatal car crash in 1915, receives a lot of screen time, and he certainly makes the most of it. Possessing the pugnacious temperament of a young Jimmy Cagney – but lacking the energetic charm – Booth dominates the screen whenever he’s on it, and provides the audience with one of the movie’s most memorable moments as he and a fellow gangster steal silently closer to the camera.
The cast list of The Musketeers of Pig Alley reads like a Who’s Who of early Hollywood. Lillian Gish is briefly joined by her sister, Dorothy, in one scene, and an unrecognisable Lionel Barrymore has a tiny role as the friend of Gish’s screen husband. Also visible in small roles are character actor Harry Carey (in one of an incredible 59 movies he made in 1913), and Jack Pickford (Mary’s kid brother), Donald Crisp and Antonio Moreno as rival gangsters. Christy Cabanne, who would go on to direct over 160 cheap movies, is also in the cast, as is Robert Harron, who would die from an accidental gunshot wound shortly after being passed over for the lead role in Griffith’s Way Down East in 1920 following five years as the director’s favoured leading man.
Lillian Gish in full Lillian Diana Gish (born Oct. 14, 1893, Springfield, Ohio, U.S. [see Researcher’s Note]—died Feb. 27, 1993, New York, N.Y.) American actress who, like her sister Dorothy, was a major figure in the early motion picture industry, particularly in director D.W. Griffith’s silent film classics. She is regarded as one of silent cinema’s finest actresses.
Gish grew up from roughly 1900 in New York City and made her stage debut at age five. During Lillian and Dorothy’s years as child actresses, they formed close friendships with Mary Pickford (then still known as Gladys Mary Smith), who in 1912 introduced them to Griffith. Immediately struck by their beauty and charm, he gave them small parts in a series of silent movies, beginning with An Unseen Enemy (1912), and the next year placed them under contract to his studio. Almost from the start Lillian was the more popular of the two. An extra measure of winsome appeal in such two-reelers as The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), The Mothering Heart (1913), and Judith of Bethulia (1914) won her a large audience of admirers; and after her appearance in The Birth of a Nation (1915), she was established as one of Hollywood’s top stars. In Intolerance (1916) and Broken Blossoms (1919) she embodied the ideal of the innocent, vulnerable heroine.
Lillian and Dorothy appeared together in several of Griffith’s greatest films, including Home, Sweet Home (1914), The Sisters (1914), Hearts of the World (1918), and Orphans of the Storm (1921). In 1920 Lillian both appeared in Griffith’s much admired Way Down East and directed Dorothy in Remodeling Her Husband. The Gishes left Griffith in 1922, Lillian going to the Tiffany Company and in 1925 to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Dorothy to Paramount Studios. Lillian’s later films include The White Sister (1923), La Bohème (1926), The Scarlet Letter (1926), The Wind (1928), and One Romantic Night (1930), her first sound picture.
With the coming of the talkies, Lillian left the screen for a time and returned to the stage. With great success, she played on the stage in Uncle Vanya (1930) and subsequently appeared in Camille (1932), Nine Pine Street (1933), Within the Gates (1934), Hamlet (1936), The Old Maid (1936), The Star Wagon (1937), Life with Father (1940, in which she enjoyed a record run in Chicago while Dorothy was starring with the road company), Mr. Sycamore (1942), Magnificent Yankee (1946), Crime and Punishment (1947), The Curious Savage (1950), The Trip to Bountiful (1953), The Family Reunion (1958), All the Way Home (1960), I Never Sang for My Father (1967), and many others. Her last Broadway appearance was in A Musical Jubilee in 1975.
Gish occasionally continued to appear in movies, among them The Commandos Strike at Dawn (1942), Miss Susie Slagle’s (1946), Duel in the Sun (1946), The Night of the Hunter (1955), The Unforgiven (1960), The Comedians (1967), A Wedding (1978), Hambone and Hillie (1984), Sweet Liberty (1986), and her final film, The Whales of August (1987), with Bette Davis. She also appeared on television in a number of distinguished dramatic presentations, most notably in Arsenic and Old Lace with Helen Hayes in 1969. Her autobiographical book The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me was published in 1969, followed by two more volumes of memoirs, Dorothy and Lillian Gish (1973) and An Actor’s Life for Me (1987). She was awarded a special honorary Academy Award in 1971. She also received a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute in 1984.
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