The Burglar’s Dilemma (1912) A Silent Film Review

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…

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

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.

“If I sit here suspiciously enough, they’ll never realize it was me!”

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 Barrymore is jovial and popular while Walthall is morose and withdrawn.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.)

“Don’t read that, read the thing I just wrote. Did I mention I am a writer?”

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.

Note the Biograph logo in the background. That wasn’t there before.

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.

You see, he was only mostly dead and mostly dead is slightly alive. All dead? We’d have to go through his clothes for loose change.

(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.)

The sun is lovely tonight, officer. Also, help.

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.)

This year’s gangster fashions are popped collars, skinny ties and boy band haircuts.

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.

He murdered his brother, yes, but he absolutely did NOT steal the Biograph logo.

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.)

SOMEBODY CALL THE ACLU!

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.

Walthall hasn’t been this annoyed since Blanche Sweet decapitated him.

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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10 Replies to “The Burglar’s Dilemma (1912) A Silent Film Review”

  1. Unlike you, I like a lot of Griffith movies. But not “Birth of a Nation.” I recently watched it for the first time in about 20 years, and it has NOT aged well. The racism grows more horrific with each passing year. If only Griffith had ended the movie at the midpoint, with the Civil War’s end.

    It’s sad to read the attempts by James Agee, William K. Everson and James Card (guys I otherwise admire) to defend Griffith and “Birth” from charges or racism. The fact that the source material — Thomas Dixon’s novels — were even more viciously racist doesn’t excuse Griffith from making a racist movie.

    1. I actually like quite a few of Griffith’s short films, in fact, I think his best work was in the shorter form. Yes, the full-throated defense of Griffith by critics of a particular generation is disheartening, especially since one could argue that by softening Dixon’s vitriol, Griffith actually enabled a greater spread of his racist message. Basically, we have the difference between the more genteel drawing room racism of Griffith and Lillian Gish and the cross-burning variety of Dixon but they are two sides of the same coin and both are equally damaging.

  2. A really nice, on-the-mark, review. Thanks, Fritzi. THE BURGLAR’S DILEMMA does feel too stuffed with plot developments for 15 minutes. I can’t really dislike this short too much given how many of my favorite Griffith actors and actresses make an appearance. You are also quite right about THE NEW YORK HAT being a much better film. I love Blanche Sweet and am embarrassed to have to ask you in which film she decapitated Henry Walthall. As to Lionel’s odd behavior in THE BURGLAR’S DILEMMA, he gets his comeuppance years later in WEST OF ZANZIBAR.

  3. I recall reading a film professor’s comments about showing “Birth of a Nation” to his students. The white students thought the movie should be banned. The black students wanted it shown to everyone in America, as evidence of just how racist this country could get.

    It should be remembered that “Birth” wasn’t just a hit in the South. It was a blockbuster in New York, Chicago, and every city where it played.The “genteel” racism you ascribe to Griffith and Gish was the Northern version of racism. It wasn’t as blatant and in-your-face as Dixon’s racism. but it was still racism.

    I recall Everson mentioning, in passing, that Griffith’s ancestors were Jewish. Anyone else heard this?

    If film professors are going to show early features to classes, I wish they’d show Pickford’s “Tess of the Storm Country” and “Cinderella,” or De Mille’s “The Cheat” and “Carmen,” or Viola Dana in “Blue Jeans,” or anything by Tourneur or Hart. Anything but “BOAN”! Even Griffith’s “Judith of Bethulia” would be a better choice.

    1. I generally find it’s most constructive to go with the direct comments of the people targeted by racism, not those filtered through a professor’s anecdote. The Chicago Defender is a great place to start your research.

      The thing about BOAN is that few people acknowledge how much of the film’s “power” is based in the racism itself. White audiences of the period may not have liked to admit it but a great deal of them got the thrill of the forbidden from BOAN, a thrill that often translated into real lynchings and riots as history shows.

      I should also point out that Griffith was a proud Southerner and while Gish was born in Ohio, she thoroughly drank Griffith’s Kool-Aid. As In the Heat of the Night showed, racism had many flavors and faces in the south.

      I’m not sure how any Jewish ancestry (and I have heard of zero) would make a difference with Griffith’s appalling racism. I’m sure it would have disturbed Lillian Gish no end, though, given her rather public support of anti-Semitism and Nazism.

  4. “I’m sure it would have disturbed Lillian Gish no end, though, given her rather public support of anti-Semitism and Nazism.”

    Fascism appealed to some in Hollywood. Hal Roach and Harry Cohn openly admired Mussolini. Cohn reportedly modeled his office after Il Duce’s, and kept a bust of Mussolini on his desk until the U.S. entered the war. Cohn’s Columbia Pictures also released a documentary, “Mussolini Speaks,” which suggested America needed a strongman in the White House.

    I’ve sometimes wondered how the early Jewish moguls (Mayer, Thalberg, Fox, Cohn, etc.) seemingly had no problem with producing/distributing movies that negatively stereotyped Asians, Mexicans, Arabs, and (of course) black people, when they themselves — or people who shared their culture and religion — were also subjected to negative stereotyping. You had victims of bigotry producing movies that promoted bigotry against other groups. Crazy.

    1. I prefer to keep this topic directed at Griffith rather than descending into general whataboutism. (I have no issue with calling people out for their racism but I don’t see the name DW Griffith anywhere in your comment and that is the topic at hand.)

      In the case of Gish, she was called out by the Jewish press by name in the early 1940s for contributing an op-ed to an anti-Semitic journal that also reprinted The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. I bring this up because she was the most zealous defender of Griffith and she is often quoted or cited when the subject of his racism is brought up. Her clear affinity for white supremacy in its many forms makes her a rather problematic defender for Griffith.

  5. Huh, I guess that I need to pay closer attention, as I had surmised that the logo was only present circa 1909-10, and not as “late” as 1912. Never know where that darn thing is going to show up! I’m waiting for the film (never made) in which its presence is acknowledged and gently mocked, or moved or something like that.

    As someone who collects and wears 1910’s collars, some of those in the Griffith shorts and circa 1908-14-ish, in general, are sick as to their hugeness and tiny tie-aperture. Definitely an interesting effect, with the skinny ties of that time.

    Lastly, I forgot how clear and present everything is with those Biographs in such a nice print: I almost feel as though I’m there in the room with Robert Harron as he’s looking fearfully at the camera. So immediate. Lionel Barrymore was a handsome fella, too!

    1. I’m going from memory but I think the copyright issues that made the logos necessary were not cleared up until 1915.

      Yes, I dare say that clear prints are more necessary with nickelodeon era and early films because they tended to pack the screen (especially Alice Guy) and it’s really the only way to take in everything. Obviously, clear prints are always preferred but they are pretty much essential to appreciate films from this period.

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