Friends (1912) A Silent Film Review

D.W. Griffith tackled the Gold Rush and experimented with close-ups in this tidy little drama. Mary Pickford is a shady lady living in a gold rush town. When she gets dumped by her duded-up suitor, Henry B. Walthall, she seeks comfort in the burly arms of Lionel Barrymore. But who will get the girl?

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Bromance before Romance

Before going on, I have a little confession to make. After enduring Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, I was ready to write off D.W. Griffith as “for historical purposes only” and move on to more enjoyable fare. However, I decided to give Griffith one last chance and watch the films that had made him popular in the first place: His one and two-reel (meaning about 12-30 minutes long) Biograph productions. He made over 400 of them between 1908 and 1913 and they were widely considered to be the best in the land.

Reader, I loved them. This was the cinematic magic I had been looking for! The stories seemed simple but had hidden depths. The pace was snappy and the acting astonishing. Griffith was writing the textbook for narrative film-making and the thrill of discovery crackles onscreen. While Griffith did not actually invent many of the techniques he used, he honed them and used them with a flair that had never been seen before.

Part of what makes the Biograph films so enjoyable is the massive pool of actors that Griffith was able to draw from. More casual film fans still remember names like Blanche Sweet, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Harry Carey, Lionel Barrymore, Robert Harron… But there were also talented performers who have since been forgotten by all but historians and film buffs: Elmer Booth, Arthur V. Johnson, Dorothy Bernard, Claire McDowell… And each of these actors could be called on to be a hero one week, a villain the next, an extra the week after that.

It's not you, it's me.
It’s not you, it’s me.

Friends comes near the end of his Griffith’s career of, as he put it, making sausages. It starred Mary Pickford (only twenty at the time), who was also on the brink feature film super-stardom. Pickford would leave Biograph the following year for the second and last time.

Mary Pickford plays Dora, one of the few women living in the mining town who, it is hinted, is no better than she ought to be. She is mad for Dandy Jack (Henry B. Walthall), a dapper miner. However, Jack goes where the gold is and the gold is up north. Finding herself dumped, Dora descends into a dark mood.

Rebound!
Rebound!

Jack is pals with a couple of miners who are panning out by the river, Bob Kyne (Harry Carey) and Grizzley Fallon (Lionel Barrymore). Fallon heads into town for a drink and some socializing. Dora, meanwhile, is still moping over her lost love. The other men in town are more than willing to fill Dandy Jack’s shoes but she will have none of them. Fallon falls head over heels for Dora and his sincere courting eventually wins her over and they become engaged.

It looks like a happy ending but then Dandy Jack returns. Dora is at first cold but finally confesses that she still loves him. Jack spots Fallon’s photograph on Dora’s dressing table (it has replaced his own picture) and Dora tells him that he is her fiance. Rather than hurt his friend, Jack dumps Dora yet again. She is left alone to contemplate.

Why don't you come up and see me sometime?
Why don’t you come up and see me sometime?

Much has been made of the fact that Griffith reused the same footage for the opening scene and the closing scene of this film: Dora sits at her vanity, dressed to go out but staring ahead pensively. Griffith loved symmetry in composition, scenario and structure. The double use of the scene makes sense when you take a look at the story structure of the film:

  • Dora looking pensive
  • Jack arrives and dumps her
  • Fallon wins Dora over
  • Jack arrives and dumps her
  • Dora looking pensive
The opening image...
The opening image…
And the closing one.
And the closing one.

The performances are, as usual, spot on. Mary Pickford (much more womanly than she would be allowed to be later in her career) is excellent as a lonely person recovering from a breakup. Unlike other Biograph actresses, Pickford refused to indulge Mr. Griffith’s, er, eccentric view of femininity. As she put it, “I would not run around like a goose with its head off, crying ‘oooooh… the little birds! Ooooh… look! A little bunny!'” Instead, she shows Dora’s sadness by slowing down her movements, every step languid. Even walking across the room takes effort. Fallon coaxes her out of her funk and she slowly returns to a more natural way of moving but it is only when Dandy Jack returns that she becomes fully alive again.

Hey, I'm pretty handy with the ladies!
Hey, I’m pretty handy with the ladies!

Lionel Barrymore, who had been knocking about motion pictures for a few years, is likable as Dora’s second choice. It’s fun to see him as a romantic character. In a few years he would be relegated to playing fathers, uncles, eccentrics and villains. (Though he played those very, very well.) Thirty-three years old when Friends was shot, Barrymore’s burly frame and scruffy appearance make him look older.

Modern audiences may find his eyes to be a bit… wild. There is a reason for this. Lionel Barrymore had blue eyes and blue eyes sometimes did not register on the movie film used in 1912 (and up until the early twenties). Other actors who had trouble with dead eyes included Conrad Veidt, Mary Miles Minter and Stan Laurel. The deranged appearance helped Veidt (who was usually cast in evil roles anyway) but was very troublesome for Minter and Laurel.

Have a nice life, Lionel.
Have a nice life, Lionel.

Henry B. Walthall does good work as Dandy Jack but, let’s face it, this was the kind of role he could do in his sleep. However, his character is a bit troubling. It’s not his fault, it just reflects the film-making of the period (and even today to some extent).

Dora is not allowed to have a say in her own future. Jack dumps her, comes back over her objections and then dumps her again. It is clear from his body language at the beginning of the film (he ignores her pleas to come up to her and continues to whoop it up at the bar) that he does not respect her. Later, when he returns for her, he enters her room  and refuses to leave when he is told to. His final break-up with her is based completely on his friendship with Fallon, she is not considered.

How do we know she wouldn't rather have this guy?
How do we know she wouldn’t rather have this guy?

In short, Dora is treated like she is the last french fry at lunch. “Oh, you eat it.” “No, I couldn’t possibly, you eat it.”

This treatment of Dora as an object that can be passed between friends is, sadly, a reflection of attitudes and film-making of the time. It is still common for female characters to be treated as a living football to be fought over and negotiated for.  I should emphasize that Griffith did often include strong female characters (women in danger are not necessarily damsels in distress), which makes this particular story all the more disappointing.

So, in spite of good direction and excellent performances, Friends cannot be called one of the best of Griffith’s Biograph period. The scenario (penned by Griffith) just comes up short.

For another take on this film, check out 11 East 14th Street’s fabulous post.

Movies Silently’s Score: ★★

Where can I see it?:

Friends has been released on DVD in the set Biograph Shorts as part of Kino’s Griffith Masterworks series with music by Robert Israel.

4 Replies to “Friends (1912) A Silent Film Review”

    1. Thank you, glad you enjoyed! I tend to enjoy Griffith’s potboilers more than his serious stuff (Way Down East is my favorite Griffith feature). I always appreciate requests and recommendations!

  1. I enjoyed your take on FRIENDS, and I find it interesting that you viewed the film as a “bromance,” and the treatment of Pickford’s character as a “last French-fry” (I like that image, for some reason). But I think that Dora being treated as a “possession” by Jack underscores Griffith’s subtle point that Dora is a prostitute. Dora also has a measure of control over the men in the film that is easy to overlook. She gets Jack to leave his drinking buddies and come upstairs by tapping her feet on the floor of her room above the bar. Although he leaves her for mining prospects elsewhere (and not for another woman), he promptly returns and wants her back. In the interim, she certainly had no trouble finding a replacement — Jack’s friend. And although it is clear that Jack ultimately rejects her out of respect for his friend, the final shots of Pickford are telling. She has chosen Jack’s friend, and now she can’t have Jack, and is dealing with the regret. It is this emotional turmoil that Griffith shows in the last shots of Pickford, including the famous closing close-up shot of her face — we can almost hear her thoughts, and they are not happy ones. The only character who is pleased with the outcome is Barrymore’s character; Jack at best puts on a brave, but phony act. For me, these psychological developments, played out in a few key scenes played subtly by the actors, not with gestures or intrusive intertitles, elevates FRIENDS above many of the Griffith Biographs, and shows how he had mastered the art of the short film.

    I’m always glad to see someone appreciate the Griffith Biographs, and I find that most people who find his “epics” to be a slog are pleasantly surprised by the gems that can be found among his short films. Despite the emphasis on his features by historians, I think that his true forte was in the short film format. Unfortunately, only a few dozen of the 400 or so shorts are readily available in versions that are in watchable condition (many of those on the Grapevine DVD’s will test you patience, to put it mildly). But the archival material does exist so that someday, we’ll may be able to see compilations of these films, much as we have for Chaplin and Keaton.

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      I definitely think, though, that Jack’s behavior toward Dora underscores his lack of respect for her. It is clear from his expressions while she is waiting for him upstairs that the bloom is off the rose of their romance, at least on his end. “There she is, nagging me again. Oh well boys, better go up and get this over with.” Any control she may have over men is short-lived, lasting only until they tire of her. Her decision to accept Barrymore as a lover was by no means a quick replacement (considering the short running time of the film). He had to do some convincing to win her over. It’s also worth noting that Barrymore is specifically named as her fiance while Dandy Jack is not. Barrymore is willing to make an honest woman of Dora, something that Jack was apparently unwilling to do.

      However, our different interpretations of the film show the power that these motion pictures still have and just how much subtext can be packed into their short running time. In fact, I think that the films are great fun to discuss because no two viewers are going to feel exactly the same way about them.

      I’m so glad to talk to a fellow fan of Griffith’s short film efforts, I really enjoyed your article on the same short.
      I also hope that more of these Biographs get released. There are so many gems among them (a few clunkers but nobody’s perfect) and the short running time makes them ideal to show newer silent viewers.

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