February 14, 2011

Those Awful Hats (1909)

While often considered as one of the most (if not "THE" most) influential filmmakers of all time, American director David Wark Griffith started his career on film in 1908 in a very humble way: as an actor in short films under the orders of film pioneer Edwin S. Porter, at the time head of Edison's Film Studio. Griffith's luck would change soon, as that very same year he was offered the chance to direct shorts for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Biograph's main director Wallace McCutcheon fell ill and soon there was the need to find a replacement. Griffith took the job and it was there where he truly fell in love with cinema. In less than a year, Griffith mastered the craft, soon becoming acquainted with medium's many tricks and techniques. 1908's short film "The Adventures of Dollie" was the first amongst his many hits. It wouldn't take him too long to start directing short films of excellent quality, a path that would culminate with the making of his first feature length masterpiece, 1915's movie "The Birth of a Nation".

One of the movies where the young Griffith began to show that mastery he had acquired so quickly was the short film "Those Awful Hats", a 2 and a half minutes movie done with the purpose of being a theatrical public service announcement (probably amongst the first of its kind) to be projected before the movies. In "Those Awful Hats", the action takes place during a typical screening in the nickelodeons of cinema's early years. The audience is enjoying a movie when suddenly, an arrogant gentleman (Mack Sennett) with a top hat enters the room and tries to find a seat for him and her companion. Loud and impolite, the man bothers the public constantly, making impossible to enjoy the show; however, this is not the audiences' main problem, as a group of ladies takes a seat and refuses to remove their big and ludicrous hats, an action that alienates even more the audience. Fortunately, the theater has an interesting and quite effective device to remove such undesirable elements: a giant steel bucket. And fortunately, it also removes undesirable people!.

Ordered by the heads of Biograph to conceive a short movie to tell the females among the audience to please remove their bothersome hats while attending a screening, D.W. Griffith wrote and directed this very creative announcement that is both funny and informative at the same time. Making fun of the big hats that were fashionable in those years, Griffith put on film what many audiences have desired to have at least once, a machine created to remove the troublesome persons among the audience. Using a mixture of special effects techniques (mainly the Dunning-Pomeroy Matte process), Griffith created a film that shows a very early use of the technique that decades later would evolve into the green-screen technique. Not only he managed to put a film within a film, but also created an extremely good effect of a steel bucket pulling out stuff (and persons!) from the audience. Griffith showcases an inventive use of special effects, and also an ability at getting the very natural performances from his cast, as their reactions are believable and the use of slapstick very appropriate.

The gag is simple, but very effective, and it constituted one of the earliest examples of a public announcement devised to be shown before the feature films (a concept still used today in most theaters). While not exactly on the level of many of his better known masterpieces, "Those Awful Hats" is a very funny and historically important short movie that can give us an idea of how was cinema in the past, and how it seems that we as audience haven't changed that much in more than a century of film-making. It is also a testament of the how Griffith was always willing to experiment as all as of the mastery he had achieved in only a year making movies. Despite its short length, "Those Awful Hats" is definitely one of the most enjoyable Griffith shorts, as it shows that the director of Biograph's many drama and adventure films was also able to laugh.


1 comment:

Unknown said...

Why do you think this is the Dunning process? Dunning himself was only 2 when this film was made.
Is there some sort of article about this?

Griffith rarely used effects in his films, I find it hard to believe that he used such a complicated one so early in his career, and have the feeling that no movie was sown on the screen, and that these clips have been added at a later date.

If you have some written verification of how this shot was done, I would like to hear about it.