>> Saturday, January 23, 2010
USA/Silent/B&W-12m./Dir: D.W. Griffith/Wr: Edward Acker/Cast: David Miles (Alfred Lucas), Florence Lawrence (Mrs. Lucas), Gladys Egan (Daughter #1), Adele DeGarde (Daughter #2)
The clock in the steeple strikes one;
You said you were coming right home from the shop,
As soon as your day's work was done.”
--From “Come Home, Father” by Henry Clay Work
In the late 1800’s and early Twentieth Century, temperance stories and songs were popular entertainments amongst bluenoses and wet blankets looking for a grotesque thrill camouflaged as a wholesome moral lesson. These stories usually involved the dissolution of a family as a result of the evils of alcohol, and disturbingly the narrative often involved the death of a child. The Drunkard was the most popular of the early temperance plays, until it was eclipsed by William W. Pratt’s a stage adaptation of T.S. Arthur’s temperance novel Ten Nights in a Bar Room and What I Saw There. Pratt's play also popularized the most famous song of the temperance movement, “Come Home, Father” by Henry Clay Work, in which a young girl implores her swillpot daddy to return home to his family.
When the fledgling art form of motion pictures appeared around the turn of the century, stories that were already familiar were prime fodder to be filmed, and Ten Nights in a Bar Room was adapted more than a dozen times during the silent era (beginning as early as 1897). Most of these early films have disintegrated into dust, but D.W. Griffith’s early short subject What Drink Did survives, likely due to collectors attempts to preserve any work of the important director. While What Drink Did is not a straight adaptation of Ten Nights in a Bar Room, the screenplay credit reveals that it was “suggested by” the novel, and it does contain elements of the story--particularly the plot element of a young girl imploring her father to return home from a saloon.
The short stars David Miles as Alfred Lucas, a family man with a wife, two preteen daughters, and a steady job in a woodworking shop. When his co-workers try to cajole him into having a beer with lunch, the serious family man refuses, but eventually he relents and finds the brew pleasing to his taste buds. At the end of the day, Lucas is easily persuaded to join his fellow employees at the bar; and a few dozen pints later, he staggers home to his distraught family. Awaking the next morning with a hangover and the thirst of a hardcore alcoholic, Lucas gruffly ignores his children as he heads to work. His co-workers have no trouble tempting the neophyte boozehound to the bar for the second night in a row; and he stays out all evening downing suds and playing cards. After several hours of waiting for her absent spouse, Lucas’ frantic wife (Florence Lawrence) rather unwisely implores one of her young daughters to go out and bring daddy home. As with all temperance stories, tragedy ensues.
What Drink Did was just one of over 400 short films that D.W. Griffith cranked out between 1908 and 1913 in his years at the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Each short was both a school for the fledgling director and a technical experiment in the possibilities of filmmaking. In fact, this short displays an early use of cross-cutting to show audiences the simultaneous actions of the husband in the bar and those of the worried wife and children in the home. What Griffith would learn making these shorts and what others would learn from watching them laid the foundations for the language of film.
That said, What Drink Did isn’t very good. It displays both old-fashioned attitudes and outdated acting styles. While the film proudly lauds itself as “a thoughtful moral lesson,” it is the worst kind of moralizing hogwash, exploiting the accidental death of a child for the supposed entertainment and edification of its audience. Still, the short is worth viewing for its historic value and for a few unintentional laughs.
Intoxicating Effects--Staggering, stumbling, hangover, brawling, and physical violence
Potent Quotables--None to speak of
Video Availability--What Drink Did is available as part of The Directors: Rare Films Of D.W. Griffith Vol. 3 (Classic Video Streams). The short is also embedded above in its entirety.
Similarly Sauced Cinema--D.W. Griffith used alcoholism as a theme in several of his shorts and features, including A Drunkard's Reformation (1909), Drink’s Lure (1912), The Reformers (1913), and his final film, The Struggle (1931). As previously mentioned, Ten Nights in a Bar Room was filmed several times during the silent era, and a talkie version was made in 1931.