A man strikes down his brother in a fit of rage and things are looking bad… until a burglar conveniently shows up to have the crime pinned on. The one time having your house robbed is convenient…
No hitting, we learned this in kindergarten
I am always slightly amused when people state that they wish movies would go back to the “good old days” when they were just entertainment with no political content. I think they would be especially surprised with the cinema of the 1910s, which took on numerous hot button issues. Take The Burglar’s Dilemma as an example. It takes on police brutality, juvenile crime and alcohol abuse. That’s a pretty full plate for a feature let alone a short.
Made under the Biograph banner by D.W. Griffith, the film is also interesting because it features some of the biggest (or soon-to-be big) male names in his acting troupe: Lionel Barrymore, Henry B. Walthall, Robert Harron and Harry Carey.
Barrymore and Walthall play brothers who share a house. Barrymore is jovial and popular while Walthall is morose and withdrawn. This is expressed in an early scene with Barrymore interrupting Walthall’s magazine reading in order to share an item in the newspaper. I dunno, that seems like a fairly reasonable motive for murder to me… (I’m kidding. Kind of.)
Barrymore’s friends show up to congratulate him on his birthday and this proves to be too much for Walthall. Nobody pays attention to him! It’s not fair! And so he starts to drink. The guests leave and by that time, Walthall is well and truly pickled. So much so that he strikes his brother, who hits his head in the fall and seems to be very dead.
Ah, but it seems there is a way out for our violent lush. A young thief (Robert Harron) is being pushed into committing a robbery by his older crook friend (Harry Carey). And wouldn’t you know it, the house they choose to rob is the very one where our brothers live. Harron creeps in through the window, walks into the study and shines his flashlight around. And then he notices the body.
Walthall, meanwhile, has gone to get the police. Help! Help! A burglar has attacked his brother! What is this world coming to? With Harron found by the body, it looks like an open and shut case and the police immediately start on a classic good cop, bad cop third-degree interrogation. (In case you were interested, the term “third degree” entered usage circa 1900.)
Walthall feels bad about the kid but not bad enough to confess to the crime. Looks like Bobby Harron is in a pickle, as per usual.
(Spoilers from here on out.) But then the medics arrive and it turns out that Barrymore was not dead at all. He explains that he fell and hit his head and the police arrest Harron for mere burglary and not assault or murder. Barrymore generously forgives Walthall, who vows to stop drinking, and Harron is able to go straight with the help of the now-benevolent police.
Let’s start with the good stuff. The picture looks okay, if a bit static, and the nice lighting effects would have come off better if the print I viewed had been tinted. (Day-for-night shots were the standard and would have been tinted blue.) Harry Carey is suitably glowering and intense as the older crook, abilities that would stand him in good stead when he became a western star in his own right. Bobby Harron is sympathetic as the kid who is almost in hysterics as the police badger him to confess to a crime he did not commit. This is absolutely his wheelhouse and he delivers. (I think Harron spent 75% of his career being framed for some crime or other.)
Lionel Barrymore and Henry B. Walthall, on the other hand, lay it on a bit thick. Walthall is particularly prone to start gnawing on the scenery without a very determined director to reel him back in and such is the case here. I can’t help but think that this picture might have been more successful if Carey and Harron had taken Barrymore and Walthall’s parts.
(By the way, Biograph was fighting a losing battle against the rise of film stars and did not credit its players but fans could easily identify their favorites thanks to answer columns in film magazines.)
There is also a certain amount of sloppiness in the production. For example, the AB logo (American Biograph) appears and disappears from the walls of the brothers’ sitting room throughout the picture. I realize that these pictures were being cranked out at quite a furious pace but this is pretty basic stuff.
Ultimately, The Burglar’s Dilemma doesn’t quite succeed as a drama because it doesn’t seem to understand the Walthall character and why his behavior was so loathsome. Striking one’s brother in a fit of drunken rage is hardly sympathetic behavior but at least it is a crime of passion. Sitting back and allowing a young thief to possibly go to the gallows… now that’s some coldblooded conduct.
Coldblooded behavior is fine in a film, of course, but The Burglar’s Dilemma never acknowledges it. It strangely compartmentalizes Walthall and Harron and lets the former off with a slap on the wrist for striking his brother and completely ignores his complicity in Harron’s abuse at the hands of the police. The film was designed specifically to condemn the “third degree” and other heavy handed policing tactics but fails to acknowledge what is on the screen: more than the police were involved in this near miscarriage of justice. What would have happened if Barrymore had not recovered?
In contrast, The New York Hat, another 1912 Griffith release, also deals with the topic of rushing to judgement, albeit with lower stakes, and is ultimately the more satisfying film because it sticks to one topic and the gossips involved in tormenting the heroine are forced to eat crow when all is explained. No dangling threads, neat, tidy and compact. (Needless to say, there is a considerable difference between dropping a plot thread and intentionally creating an open ending.)
Further, I think the more interesting story would be the policemen who very nearly forced a confession out of an innocent kid. Presumably they feel bad about what they almost did because they end up helping Harron but showing their guilt and decision to make amends would have been much more interesting. (By the way, Lionel Barrymore is credited with writing the story.)
Finally, while I generally try to view films as they would have been perceived by their original audiences, it is darkly ironic that D.W. Griffith, the man who would later be infamous for glamorizing the summary lynching of black men suspected of crimes, would be on his soap box decrying rushes to judgement. (I cannot possibly imagine what the difference between Bobby Harron and the lynched men in The Birth of a Nation could be, she typed sarcastically.) He also condemns racial prejudice in Ramona. I know. I realize that racists are not known for their logic but this seems to be a bit much even for Griffith.
The Burglar’s Dilemma is mainly of interest due to its cast. As far as social justice, it is pretty much par for the 1910s course but it tries to do too much at once and the story suffers for it. Harron and Carey are good in their parts and the basic questions raised by the film are noteworthy but it seems like the screenplay writes checks that the picture can’t cash.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD by Flicker Alley as part of volume two of its D.W. Griffith: Years of Discovery set. (This is an identical reissue to the set released by Image.) It’s also available in Kino’s Biograph Shorts set.
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