The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)
“One good turn deserves another.”
Director: D. W. Griffith
Cast: Elmer Booth, Lillian Gish, Clara T. Bracy
Synopsis: A young wife and her musician husband live in poverty in a New York City tenement with an ailing grandmother. The husband leaves to sell his violin to provide for them, but on his return he is robbed by a neighborhood gangster.
Widely regarded as cinema’s first gangster picture, D. W. Griffith’s Musketeers of Pig Alley takes its audience onto the pre-WWI mean streets of New York where Lillian Gish (Biirth of a Nation, Intolerance) lives with her musician husband (Walter Miller) and her mother (Clara T. Bracy – Judith of Bethulia). Hubbie’s work takes him away from home, and while he’s away, his wife receives and rebuffs the attentions of local hood Snapper Kid (Elmer Booth). Upon his return, the husband is foolish enough to mention to a friend (Lionel Barrymore – The Bells, Duel in the Sun) just how lucrative his trip has been within earshot of Snapper Kid and his gang. Inevitably, the husband is relieved of his money before he returns home.
While the husband swears to his wife that he will recover the money at all costs, she visits a dance hall with a friend, where she comes to the attention of another gang leader who tries to drug her drink, presumably so that he might have his way with her. Fortunately for the girl, the gangster’s ruse is witnessed by none other than Snapper Kid, who warns her off drinking from the glass into which the drug has been poured. His intervention sparks a rivalry between the two gangs which eventually leads to murder…
The most distinctive aspect of The Musketeers of Pig Alley is Griffith’s use of real street locations, which not only provides us with a flavour of life on the crowded city streets in the early years of the 20th Century, but also enhances the movie’s realism. The winsome and beautiful Lillian Gish is a little under-used, with Griffith devoting an inordinate amount of time to following the rival gangs around as they visit the same haunts, searching for one another. Presumably Griffith was trying to increase the suspense here, but it doesn’t really work. It does mean Elmer Booth, an actor whose career was cut short by a fatal car crash in 1915, receives a lot of screen time, and he certainly makes the most of it. Possessing the pugnacious temperament of a young Jimmy Cagney – but lacking the energetic charm – Booth dominates the screen whenever he’s on it, and provides the audience with one of the movie’s most memorable moments as he and a fellow gangster steal silently closer to the camera.
The cast list of The Musketeers of Pig Alley reads like a Who’s Who of early Hollywood. Lillian Gish is briefly joined by her sister, Dorothy, in one scene, and an unrecognisable Lionel Barrymore has a tiny role as the friend of Gish’s screen husband. Also visible in small roles are character actor Harry Carey (in one of an incredible 59 movies he made in 1913), and Jack Pickford (Mary’s kid brother), Donald Crisp and Antonio Moreno as rival gangsters. Christy Cabanne, who would go on to direct over 160 cheap movies, is also in the cast, as is Robert Harron, who would die from an accidental gunshot wound shortly after being passed over for the lead role in Griffith’s Way Down East in 1920 following five years as the director’s favoured leading man.
One curious episode in the film is the death of Gish’s screen mother, who suffers a heart attack while Gish and her husband are out. Following her discovery, the mother’s death receives no further attention whatsoever. It’s as if the poor old girl was never there in the first place…
(Reviewed 13th May 2014)