- Griffith’s Silent Cricket
In nearly every facet of his art, American filmmaker D. W. Griffith drew from Charles Dickens.1 Dickens inspired Griffith’s domestic settings, the busy rooms in tenement and cottage where silliness gives way to piercing sentiment; his close-ups, which convey personality through the nuances of gesture and expression; his world-view, which was often alleged by his contemporaries to be old-fashioned or Victorian; and especially his plots, which jump from one storyline to the next with exhausting fervor. Accordingly, we would be excused for expecting fireworks from Griffith’s 1909 Cricket on the Hearth, his only direct adaptation of a Dickens text, a fifteen-minute movie made at the beginning of his career, during a period when Griffith was shooting three films a week. To anyone familiar with Griffith’s cinema, there is much about Dickens’s novella and its intervening stage adaptations that would seem prime real estate for Griffith, including a jealous husband, a loyal wife, a woman forced into marriage, her lover lost in the Golden South Americas, a leering villain, a hapless father, a blind daughter, a wailing baby, a muddled nurse, toys, a kettle, a dutch clock, a cricket, and a series of surprising disclosures and narrative twists. But these features are not as evident in the film as we would expect. Kettle, clock and cricket never show. Tackleton doesn’t leer. Dot doesn’t fondle. Tilly doesn’t charge about. And Bertha’s blindness barely registers. The movie even irons out the jumpy chronology of the book. All of this suggests that, if Griffith’s Cricket bears Dickens’s mark, it is not necessarily in the places we usually look for it.2
Although Griffith’s movie eases up on the trappings of Dickensian [End Page 245] sentiment, it does so in favor of an equally Dickensian pursuit: the dramatic, visual evocation of mental life. The movie focuses intently on the characters’ involutions of thought: the sailor’s belief that he has been betrayed, the young woman’s loss of hope that her lover will return, and the carrier’s long dark night of the soul.3 We can see here the stirrings of things to come, since over the course of his career, Griffith would continue to develop and refine techniques for conveying mental activity on the screen, particularly by cutting back and forth among different perspectives.4
Interestingly, Cricket, made in the early days of Griffith’s aesthetic experimentation, primarily conveys states of mind not through cutting but within the shot. The camera never takes its eye off the characters, who brood and fret; and these characters often occupy the visual field alongside the visions that torment them. These composite portraits could be viewed as holdovers from the Victorian theater and the melodramatic tableau, or they might alternatively be seen to anticipate the expressionist compositions of the German cinema of the 1920s. Either way, they are notable for the way they present the observing character as a person fixed in place, someone caught up in the toils of his own vision. In fact, they give the intriguing impression that he himself is the object of his fixation–a leftover, indigestible element of the scene. With such visions as these, Griffith presents a strikingly dark rendering of the visionary quality of Dickens’s original. In Griffith’s reading of “Cricket” (and perhaps of the Christmas Books more generally), vision is not a path to redemption but the stuff of horror.
In this essay, I will show how the visions of Griffith’s Cricket involve those who see them in a process of unproductive, self-defeating fixation. I will then argue that Griffith’s film can shed a new light on the visions of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” and “The Cricket on the Hearth.” The visions of the Christmas Books are usually read as the vehicles of recovery and incorporation, forcing the observing character to recognize his real relationship to the people and things around him and allowing him to establish or resume a stable social identity. But these visions are equivocal, [End Page 246] and they give rise to destabilizing possibilities. What...