#204) A Corner in Wheat (1909)

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#204) A Corner in Wheat (1909)

OR “Ain’t No Lie, Baby, Buy, Buy, Buy”

Directed by D.W. Griffith

Written by Griffith and Frank E. Woods. Based on the short stories “The Pit” and “A Deal in Wheat” by Frank Norris.

Class of 1994

The Plot: One of (and this is true) over 140 films Griffith directed in 1909 alone, “A Corner in Wheat” is the story of the self-proclaimed “Wheat King” (Frank Powell) a tycoon whose quest is to corner the market on wheat. He succeeds and makes millions overnight, but a brand new cinema technique called intercutting shows us the negative effects raising the price of wheat has on the average Joe, including a wheat farmer (James Kirkwood) and his family.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises Griffith and cinematographer G.W. Bitzer, saying they achieve “a surprising sense of movement from a single stationary camera”. Griffith’s revolutionary use of intercutting is also highlighted. An essay by film historian Daniel Eagan helps put the film in a proper context.

But Does It Really?: Well I liked this a lot more than “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” that’s for sure. The story is simple, but it’s easy to follow and holds your interest. It’s an easy-enough takedown on what we now call the one-percenters, and it’s vague enough that you can still apply its message today. And as always, I’ll give a pass to anything that’s short/doesn’t overstay its welcome. You win this round, Griffith.

Everybody Gets One: James Kirkwood was a successful actor and director during the silent era, perhaps most famously being passed over for “The Sheik” in favor some upstart named Rudolph Valentino. Kirkwood’s son – James Jr. – wrote the book for the musical “A Chorus Line”. Linda Arvidson, seen here as the farmer’s wife, was in fact D.W. Griffith’s wife at the time. They had been married for three years at this point, and would separate a few years later before finally divorcing in 1936.

Wow, That’s Dated: A loaf of bread goes up from 5 cents to 10 cents! Highway robbery I tell ya!

Other notes

  • Griffith took Norris’ stories and distilled them down to their core elements. No one in the original story is as one-dimensional as the characters here, but it’s easier to convey general ideas in silent film than complex gray areas.
  • Man, Biograph Studios is a major player in a lot of these silent shorts on the list. Another case of a business going into decline because Thomas Edison is a dick.
  • After the long shots on the farm, I feel eminently qualified to be a wheat farmer.
  • The intercutting is rudimentary, but it gets the point across. Well played, David Wark and editor Jimmy Smith.
  • This film’s ending would have been completely different if someone had invented the guardrail.
  • Slowest. Fade Out. Ever.

Legacy

  • As pointed out in Eagan’s essay, the success of this film led to Griffith painting other groups in broad strokes while condemning them. He started off with the rich elite, and…well then “Birth of a Nation” happened.
  • The next time you watch “WALL-E”, pay close attention: a clip from “A Corner in Wheat” is the first thing to pop up when the captain asks the Axiom computer to “define Earth”.
  • Until “Wall Street” came along, this was the stock market movie.
  • Wheat is still going strong worldwide, but so is greed, so this film’s legacy is on both sides of the coin.

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