A Corner in Wheat (1909)
Directed by D.W. Griffith
14 min.;U.S.A.; Black and White; Silent
1909 - part one describes how Pathé Freres, a French film company, came to dominate the American film market in the early years of the 20th century. The company's factory-style system and extensive resources guaranteed a steady flow of movies to rapidly expanding numbers of nickelodeons. Edison Company v.p. Frank Dyer once estimated that by 1908 Pathé films represented 60% of all movies in circulation. It wasn’t just a question of quantity though because Pathé films were also the most popular and regarded (even by their competitiors) as the highest quality, not least because of the company's color process.
But Pathé's power in the U.S. didn't last past the decade, so the question is how did the American film companies re-capture the U.S. market? It's open to speculation, but Richard Abel's The Red Rooster Scare offers the following explanation. The first salvos in the war against Pathé were launched in the form of press accusations that European films were filling the audience’s heads with wicked foreign ideas. The second attack went after French and Italian films d’art which were deemed too high-brow and indecipherable, and Pathé’s popular crime, action and comedy pictures which were accused of being indecent by moral crusaders. The third thrust came in the form of a newly "Americanized" cinema: the American companies began producing films for American audiences that supposedly were distinctly American in character and focused on American ideals.
The "Wheat King" toasts his own success unaware that he's driven wheat farmers into poverty in A Corner in Wheat.
Although Abel argues that the most obvious of the "Americanized" films were the early westerns, I would argue that Biograph’s social comment film A Corner in Wheat (1909) fits the description too, though in a very different way. Directed by D.W. Griffith, A Corner in Wheat is the tragic story of American wheat farmers driven into poverty when American speculators led by "The Wheat King" (Frank Powell) corner the market to make a buck. Based on The Pit by Frank Norris, the film reaches back to connect with American Populism and looks ahead to themes explored more broadly in Greed (1924) (also written by Norris) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Unlike The Grapes of Wrath, in which economic hardship is described as being “beyond anyone’s control,” A Corner in Wheat clearly fixes the blame on the wealthy speculators who make their fortunes at the expense of wheat producing families. In this way the film also stretches a pointing finger ahead to connect with later films like Roger and Me (1989), reminding us that this tale is still valid.
Visually, Griffith is most successful creating a montage between the "Wheat King" and his cronies living it up and a breadline of starving farmers (see photos left and top). However, according to articles at the time, American audiences were more interested in watching a story that they could follow from beginning to end than the style in which that story was told. It's no surprise then that the "Wheat King" meets retribution for his actions before the film ends. The way this outcome occurs (by accident) in the film doesn't make much sense but it does tie the narrative into an unfortunately necessary bow. Meanwhile, wrapping up the poor farmers' side of the story, Griffith tries to capture the sort of pathos we see Vittorio De Sica accomplish much later in The Bicycle Thief (1948) but he just isn't convincing enough. Still, if his social comment film is intended to open eyes to American concerns rather than those of Europe then A Corner in Wheat must be considered a triumph because it shouts “America” even without those twin props invoked by other filmmakers at the time, the cowboy and the indian.
While the "Americanization" of cinema was underway, the nine leading film companies (Edison, Biograph, Kalem, Selig, Lubin, Melies, George Kleine and Pathé) formed the Motion Picture Patents Company to monopolize film production. Kodak agreed to only sell raw film stock to member companies, the MPPC members agreed only to distribute films to licensed exhibitors, and they agreed not to sell or lease to any distributor buying from another production company. By joining its American competitors in the trust, Pathé alienated independents, helped to exclude foreign competition, and weakened its own position of power. Meanwhile, the business stability allowed the U.S. companies to prosper. Pathé tried retooling and began producing films more acceptable to American tastes, but the erosion of it's position was steady and swift. Though the company continued to dominate film markets outside the U.S. until World War I, and maintained a presence inside the U.S. with its newest invention, the newsreel, its preeminent position in America was finished.