The Lonedale Operator (1911)
The Lonedale Operator (1911)
Director: D. W. Griffith
Cast: Blanche Sweet, Francis J. Grandon, Wilfred Lucas
Synopsis: When her father becomes ill, a young woman takes over the telegraph at a lonely western railroad station.
Back in 1911, the Biograph Bulletin proclaimed D. W. Griffith’s drama The Lonedale Operator as ‘the most thrilling picture ever produced’ – a bold, sweeping statement which demonstrates that, while filmmakers had yet to master all the techniques of their trade, the studio’s publicity departments had already honed their talent for hyperbole to a fine art. Although The Lonedale Operator is undeniably a superior movie for its time, it’s only the final couple of minutes that can be described as remotely approaching the status of ‘thrilling’, even for audiences of 1911.
The near-interminable slowness of The Lonedale Operator’s lengthy opening scenes suggests that Griffith was perhaps experimenting with scene length and pacing by this stage of his directing career. The long early scenes, in which nothing much happens, eventually give way to shorter ones until what was a frantic pace for 1911 is reached as a would-be rescuer races against time to protect a damsel in distress. It was a scenario that Griffith would film many times (he even remade The Lonedale Operator just one year later as The Girl and Her Trust), and it’s a plot device which, in many respects, still forms the cornerstone of adventure movies today.
Unlike many of Griffith’s heroines, the distressed damsel here is actually quite a plucky young lass, and is played with remarkable naturalism by a 15-year-old Blanche Sweet (Judith of Bethulia). The girl assumes responsibility for a remote railway station after sending her sick father home to recuperate, and finds herself with a couple of unwelcome visitors after taking delivery of the payroll of a nearby mine. The visitors are a pair of ruffians (Joseph Graybill – The House with Closed Shutters – and Dell Henderson – The Unchanging Sea, Intolerance) who hitched a ride on the train with the specific intent of stealing the payroll. However, its plucky guardian provides stiffer opposition than they had anticipated.
After those early scenes in which we see the girl being wooed by the train engineer (Francis J. Grandon) who will eventually come to her rescue, The Lonedale Operator does actually build up a decent head of steam, and Griffith wrings a certain measure of suspense from the situation. Graybill and Henderson’s exaggerated gestures, while perhaps not as bad as in some other early Griffith movies, is still in sharp contrast to Sweet’s more subdued style, and its curious how Griffith seemed to ignore the incongruity of these conflicting performances. There’s a neat twist at the movie’s end which requires the early use of a close-up, and a humorous flourish which hints at the direction in which screenwriter Mack Sennett’s career would eventually head. By now, German Billy Bitzer’s camerawork was also coming into its own, and he captures some nice shots of the Californian landscape.
(Reviewed 25th February 2015)