Okay, so I hit upon this ancient short while scrolling through one of those out-of-copyright film apps on the home’s AppleTV. Classix or Classic Films or somesuch. There was a picture of an old, beardy man on the cover and the promise of pre-WW1 thoughts on the worries of old age.
That was a mistake, but as I sat through 33 minutes of the thing (originally split into two shorts, film fans), you’re hearing about it.
Enoch Arden is based on a Tennyson poem. I’ve not read it and have no intention of doing so. If you want to tut through how much they changed, you’re on your own. The poster calls it an ‘artistic picturization’ of the poem – which is dangling-out-your-boxers marketing bollocks. The thing comes early in D.W. Griffith’s directing career. He started in 1909, this was in 1911 and he was something like 80 films in. So, yeah, it’s a tad production line and isn’t shy of the joys of pantomime.
To the story: it’s set in the time of tricorn hats and poncing about on beaches looking far into the distance with a lift of the foot and arch in the back. The world is black and white (the film stock, I mean. There’s no sign of Griffiths’ jaw-droppingly racist story-telling), the acting dire, the caption cards sporadic and the stuff they’re saying anyone’s guess. Enoch (the noticeably-chinned Wilfred Lucas) and Philip (the tangibly creepy Francis J. Grandon) both chase the affections of Annie Lee (Linda Arvidson – the director’s wife, which goes some way to explaining why a nose that big gets the leading lady part). After much posing, poncing and wandering between rocks on a windy day, she picks Enoch. Chin meets nose.
Years pass. They have wee kids and a financial problem. So off goes Enoch on a ship to a foreign shore. This takes a while as the camera lingers on the ship, the sea, the waves, the wave goodbye, the lonely figures of mother and bairns looking out at the ship, sea and waves. They then hug. No doubt iconic and a thing to fill the movie theatre with sobs it properly tests the patience these days.
It’s interesting to review a film with no subtext. Ummm, can’t say this stuff spoke to old Jack on an emotional level. I was distracted by thoughts of human interaction in 1911 being properly naïve. Was it? Could it ever have been that simple? And – boy – the stereotypes landed early…
Heroic Enoch has a bad day. The ship sinks and he and a couple of mates claw their way to shore on what looks like further up the same beach, but is presumably a desert island far far away. They stagger between tropical plants and fall to their knees – their clothes all ripped apart by a costumier with scissors…
Enoch is alone and has swapped the tattered clothes for a beard, under-eye shadow and a giant sack. He is now a hundred years older and looks not unlike Hirsute Harry in room 6. Back home, the kids are teenagers and Philip – the bastard – is sniffing around Enoch’s missus for a bit of the slurpy. Now, I’m not one to judge, but that Philip gets the occasional inappropriate hug and lip-to-lip smacker from Annie’s daughter. She’s listed in the cast as Teenage Arden Daughter, so let’s assume times were innocent and this wasn’t creepy at all. She was played by Florence La Badie, a 20-something stunner adored by fan magazines of the day. No doubt a bit of that popularity was down to hugging and kissing the fat middle-aged types in early shorts… A shufti round imdb to check when the cast all left the planet shows up a properly sad fact about her. Most of them were gone by the 1950s. Florence didn’t see 1918: she was the first major movie star to die. A car accident and septicaemia finished her off on 13th October 1917. Boo.
Now, the film intercuts between the island (Enoch ageing like Hirsute Harry two months into his diverticulitis, getting rescued, staring into the distance, Christ…) and the family (bonding, laughing, loving…nudging towards declaring Enoch dead and getting married). The intercutting is a bit weird as time seems to flow at different rates, but it was probably the first intercutting in movie history, or something, so let it go. Enoch makes it home and peers, beardy and frail, through the window to see unutterable happiness. So he stumbles away and dies.
Yup. That’s it. Pardon the spoiler, but I can’t see you watching Enoch Arden willingly – and good luck with the poem. I was also too busy being offended by the guy who looks old not getting his gal back.
There’s a moral sweetness to the story, but, let’s be clear, Enoch is a fuckwit. If old Jack went off to earn some money for his family, got stuck for a couple of years, came back to find the creepy competitor married to his wife, getting inappropriate hugs off his daughter whilst having that fat a neck – well, fuck it, I’d be in there with a taser and the paedo-cops. Who knows what happened next, eh? Happy ending, my arse.
So, racism and dodgy family relations. D.W. Griffiths may have been a father of cinema, but he had a long way to go on pleasant ways to tell a story. And I’m forgiving the miming.
It’s on YouTube, you know.