Director D.W. Griffith’s modern reputation rests on his epics but I don’t think that is the right call. The charming short films that he made for the Biograph company are the Griffith movies that I keep coming back to. (Well, the non-squicky ones, anyway.) The amount of emotion and story he was able to pack into those ten to twenty minute morsels is nothing short of miraculous.
She could open her own dating service…
When I started really getting into silent movies I tended to focus on the feature films of the mid-1910s to 1920s. I had the idea that earlier films would be stiff and awkward. You would have thought that I would have learned from experience but no. In any case, I was in the throes of my love-hate relationship with Griffith’s body of work but I had only been watching his features.
Griffith’s early popularity was based on his 1908-1913 work for the Biograph company. It was this popularity that allowed him to move on to bigger, more expensive films. These early films were made during what is commonly called the Nickelodeon era. American audiences would see numerous short features in an evening instead of one long feature.
At the time, movies were churned out like sausages but there was a vibrancy and naturalness to them that was lost even in the later silent period. Filmmakers could plunk down a camera and the performers could improvise under the director’s supervision. No one was tied to a script because, well, the scripts were often skeletal affairs.
When films from the pre-feature era are dismissed, they are often sent packing with words like “Victorian” or “melodrama” attached to them. That’s one reason why I chose to write about The Sunbeam. It is part of the collection of Biograph films that made me appreciate the short films of the aughts and ‘teens and it is indeed a tale in the Victorian style complete with melodramatic flourishes. It is also an enchanting little picture.
It tells the story of a little girl dubbed “The Sunbeam” in the intertitles. (Griffith did love his descriptive nicknames.) She is played by Ynez Seabury, who was just four at the time. The Sunbeam’s mother has passed away (Kate Bruce is once again the deceased mom) but the little girl thinks she is just sleeping and goes down to play.
The Sunbeam lives in a tenement apartment that is also home to a prickly spinster, a gruff bachelor and a whole gang of rowdy kids. The spinster is played by Claire McDowell, the most statuesque and handsome of Griffith’s leading ladies, though you wouldn’t know it from the unflattering getup she wears. She deserves to be better known. (McDowell was John Gilbert’s mother in The Big Parade and Marguerite De La Motte’s mother in The Mark of Zorro.) The bachelor is played by Dell Henderson, best remembered today for being Marion Davies’ dad in both Show People and The Patsy.
The cantankerous pair have rooms opposite one another and it is fairly obvious from the glances and body language that they find one another attractive. However, both are so used to being alone that they have built up defenses and are not about to let their guard down.
The Sunbeam will not take “no” for an answer. She wants to play with someone and she settles on the spinster. Claire McDowell plays the scene beautifully. Her character clearly has no idea how to talk to a child or how to react to her sweet gestures. (In real life, McDowell was a happily married mother of two.) Finally, though, she is worn down by the Sunbeam’s sweetness and embraces the child.
Her work done, the Sunbeam moves on to the bachelor. He is brusk at first but he doesn’t stand a chance and is soon smitten. The spinster enters the scene and while she is in the bachelor’s room, those bratty kids I mentioned pin a “scarlet fever” sign to the door. The trio are in quarantine and are not allowed to leave the room.
While they are waiting for things to be sorted out, the bachelor, the spinster and the Sunbeam bond over toast and tea. Once again, McDowell and Henderson play their parts extremely well. They are enjoying the simple domesticity that both have secretly craved.
The film ends with the discovery of the dead mother and a proposal from the bachelor that solves everyone’s problems. (Though I wonder at silent films that portray people as being able to just adopt random kids willy-nilly. Where are the social workers?)
It all sounds rather corny in writing but the cast puts it over. The little comedic touches turn this from a sad tale of poverty into a pleasant confection. Highlights include the spinster trying to chase the giggling Sunbeam away with a feather duster, the Sunbeam playing with the bachelor’s ears and the indignant interactions between the spinster and the bachelor when they realized they are trapped together.
The Sunbeam is most often praised for its editing but the action of the film takes place in one apartment building with characters running back and forth between their rooms and the hallway. Pretty basic stuff that had been mastered in the mid-1900s.
The Sunbeam is one of those stories that really does only work as a silent. Little Ynez is adorable in the lead because she is not called upon to memorize lines or to engage in the artificial simpering that sometimes ruins child performances. Further, I think the delicate balance that keeps the film from falling into glurge would be upset by the addition of dialogue.
Sometimes we gain appreciation for a film era or genre by watching a title that subverts our expectations. Other times, we gain that appreciation by realizing that what we may think of as cliched or corny can be touching and cute in the right hands. The Sunbeam is not Griffith’s most famous or acclaimed film but it is pure charm and it is astonishing to think of the movie pioneers who created this kind of quality work day in and day out.
The Sunbeam is a simple little gem and a fun watch.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★
Where can I see it?
The Sunbeam is part of the D.W. Griffith: Years of Discovery set from Image. It is also included in the Kino set Griffith Masterworks: Biograph Shorts. There is a lot of overlap between the two sets so do some comparison shopping before you buy. Alternately, you can stream The Sunbeam from Amazon Instant Video.