“Good, or even inspired in many of its aspects, it was simply not the sort of picture everyone had come to expect of Griffith,” was the prevailing sentiment over D.W. Griffith’s drama The Mother and the Law. Starring Bobby Harron and Mae Marsh, it told the tragic tale of a young couple whose lives are torn apart by circumstance and unjust authority. With its low budget and intimate storyline it had more in common with Griffith’s one- to three-reel Biograph “potboilers” than the “prestige pictures” that were now associated with his name. Originally filmed in 1914, after The Birth of a Nation‘s success it was shelved, eventually taken out again and tinkered with, used as a humble kickoff point for Griffith’s mega-epic Intolerance (1916), and finally tinkered with some more before being released in 1919 as a standalone film.
Bobby and Mae’s scenes are some of my favorite parts of Intolerance, so I was excited to finally watch The Mother and the Law recently. Most of it was familiar footage, but I found myself unprepared for some of Marsh’s scenes that didn’t make it into Intolerance (or perhaps they were added later). Lillian Gish once said of Marsh that “she was the only actress of whom I was ever jealous.” I always thought that was nice and gracious of her–Marsh was very good. But after seeing The Mother and the Law, boy oh boy, now I understand exactly what Gish meant.
The plot and much of the footage in The Mother and the Law is mostly unchanged from what we see in Intolerance, with some welcome additions. Mae Marsh is the Little Dear One (Griffith didn’t give the characters actual names, wanting them to seem more universal), Robert “Bobby” Harron is the Boy she falls in love with, and Miriam Cooper is the Friendless One. A title card left out of Intolerance explains that the Boy was the Friendless One’s “first sweetheart”–a pretty important detail. A pointedly socially conscious film, it begins with the Boy and his father and the Dear One’s father all working at a mill owned by a very wealthy and aloof tycoon. When the tycoon’s sister needs money for her meddlesome social work, he cuts workers’ wages. The workers go on a strike that erupts into violence when the troops are ordered to fire into the crowd. The Boy’s father is killed and the Dear One’s father loses his job; everyone ends up moving to a nearby city.
The Boy and the Friendless One get involved with the criminal underworld and the Dear One hopes to find a sweetheart. She soon falls in love with the Boy and helps him get his feet back on the straight and narrow path. Her father passes away shortly before they marry. Sadly, the criminal underworld strikes again and the Boy is unjustly sent to prison–and then the Dear One discovers she’s going to have a baby. And that’s before even more tragedies befall the unfortunate couple.
While the “modern story” in Intolerance contains almost equal footage of the Boy and the Dear One, the “new” footage in The Mother and the Law keeps the focus more solidly on Marsh, being the “Mother” of the title and all. There are more scenes of the couple’s courtship, including a sweet kiss in a humble lumberyard. There’s more footage of the Friendless One, who we learn is tempted to commit a murder sooner than we thought, and more scenes from the prison where the Boy is unjustly imprisoned. We also get to see the moment when the Dear One tells the Boy that she’s expecting.
The Dear One is shown giving herself a more thorough flirty makeover–her outfit and hairstyle are very proto-flapper and remind me of Mary Pickford in The Hoodlum (1924) or stills of early flapper star Gladys Walton from the early ’20s. The character was spunky in Intolerance, but she’s even more so in this feature, smacking the Boy with a club when he first tries entering her apartment and cheering him on when he fights a rival for her hand. And Marsh taps deeply into the tragedy of her character–much more deeply than we were allowed to see before. In a striking courtroom scene she’s told her baby won’t be returned to her, and she reacts with savage ferocity. You can imagine it was painful for Griffith to cut such dramatic footage from Intolerance.
But this was just a prelude to an astonishing scene where the Dear One’s shown the body of her baby, dead from the social workers’ neglect, in its tiny coffin. I’m sure anyone who’s watched silent films can recall great performances that deeply impressed them–Lillian Gish in The Wind, Emil Jannings in The Last Laugh, Lon Chaney in anything, etc. And maybe there were a few performances in particular, just a few, that truly stunned you. This was such a scene for me, and I find it remarkable that it’s so rarely seen. Marsh approaches the coffin slowly, rigid with dread, and her disbelief, pain and grief run through her face as she gazes down on the little body. This was a level of raw emotional power I’d never seen from her before–it was almost otherworldly. In all honesty, I can’t picture even Gish being able to top it.
Griffith’s cameraman Karl Brown had many memories of making The Mother and the Law, saying “Griffith seemed to be ignoring or kicking aside all the principles of filmmaking as he himself had established them…Everything was dull, drab, grim, and gray…Not that the result was weak of ineffective. The contrary.” Much of the gritty cinematography recalls Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) and other Biographs with “underworld” themes. But it also drew on Griffith, Brown, and Billy Bitzers’ visits to the San Francisco city jail and San Quentin to do research for the film. The latter, much more spacious and clean than the grimy city jail, had a tall gallows that was replicated in the nail-biting execution sequence in The Mother and the Law. Brown recalled:
“The top of the platform was like any other: a flat area with the trap in the middle, wooden railings all around, but with a sort of partition six feet high built across the back. There was a crossbeam above, of course, for the rope. There was no rope. That would be brought in during the night before the hanging, a new rope every time. Everything was painted in that same unreasonable baby blue.
“The warden led us around to the back of the partition. It was a narrow space, just wide enough to accommodate four men who would stand facing a narrow wooden shelf across which four of the heavy-test fishlines were already stretched, taut and ready and waiting. There were four razor-sharp, hawk-billed linoleum knives, obtainable in any hardware shop, on the shelf. The warden explained, ‘Of these four strings only one is ‘live’–that is, connected to the trip weight you saw below. We have four men posted behind this wooden screen, each with one of these knives. They can’t see the prisoner. Nobody can see them. I stand beside the trap. .When the time comes I raise a white handkerchief high over my head. The instant they see that handkerchief they cut, hard, fast, and deep, as fast as they can. One of them springs the trap. They never know which one, which makes them feel better, for some reason.
“‘Who cuts these strings, prisoners?’ asked Griffith.
“‘Never. We keep it out of the family, so to speak. We use deputies, mostly, or civilians, when we can get them. Notice how deep they cut.’
“We looked. The cuts were indeed deep, the cuts of overwrought, keyed-up men–dozens of cuts in the soft wood.”
When The Mother and the Law was finally edited to Griffith’s satisfaction and released on its own in 1919, it received a lot of praise. Wid’s Daily called it “Forceful Meller,” and said: “…Mr. Griffith again proves himself a master at cutting. For it is in its editing that the film has received such knowing thought and care as to aid greatly its ability to stand on its own two feet. The Mother and the Law does not shine by the reflected glory of the its famous parents–in itself it is a worthwhile offering.” Moving Picture World praised the two leads: “Mae Marsh as the heroine and Robert Harron as the hero made their characters convincingly human, and nothing either of them has done since the production of Intolerance has had more of this valuable quality. The girl which Mae Marsh portrays is sometimes inclined to wriggle and twist too much in her comedy moments, but every indication of deep feeling is the real thing and awakens a quick response from the spectator.”
Special attention was given to the score–not a common thing when most theaters were given lists of recommended music for prestige pictures but little else in general. A syndicated article noted, “The score of The Mother and the Law is considered by Mr. Griffith of equal importance with the dramatic development of the story, to such an extent in fact that he spent several weeks on the music alone in order that every detail of his tremendous drama might have proper and appropriate musical interpretation.”
The film’s faded away into obscurity ever since, remembered chiefly as a bit of trivia about Intolerance. I suspect many silent cinema fans don’t even know it survives. That’s a shame–while other “intimate” Griffith dramas like Broken Blossoms have stronger artistic merits, it’s a powerful drama in its own right, experimenting with bold realism and even adding a few touches of the avant-garde.
Brown probably put it best: “Few closeups in the annals of screen photography can come even close to the quintessence of despair shown by Mae Marsh’s face in those grayest of gray full-screen portraits that showed Bitzer at his best and Mae Marsh at her most effective, with each surpassing all previous triumphs by daring to be true to the subject itself, without so much as a fleeting hint of prettiness or conscious art or professional slickness. It takes more than art to achieve such results–it takes guts.”
Here’s a copy of the film below–it’s also available on the Cohen Media Group’s Intolerance DVD/Blu-ray set:
Brown, Karl. Adventures with D.W. Griffith, ed. Kevin Brownlow. London: Secker and Warburg, 1973.
Gish, Lillian and Pinchot, Ann. The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me. Mercury House, 1988.