Charles Dickens the father of the motion picture? He's certainly been filmed often enough. Countless versions of Oliver Twist (with and without songs, with humans as well as with cats and dogs), Great Expectations in both period and contemporary dress, A Christmas Carol, with everyone from Alastair Sim to Bill Murray in the lead. Not to mention the masterpiece-ful recent rendition of Our Mutual Friend on PBS. The latter is a good example of what keeps us reading Dickens, one hundred and twenty nine years after his death. Multiple plots, intricate intertwinings, lurking surprises around unexpected corners, laughter and tears. And tension hanging over us like a guillotine blade over Sidney Carton's neck. But the English tale spinner would never recognize the pungent odor of splicing cement, never frame a shot with extended fingers and thumbs at right angles, never roll a camera closer to an actor's fearful face. So what's the connection?

It began, five years after the novelist's death, at Lofty Green plantation, near Crestwood, Kentucky, in the home of a former gold seeker and Civil War cavalryman. Jacob Griffith had fought in Tennessee under Joe Wheeler, winning favorable notice for capturing a heavily-defended, ten-mile-long, train of over a thousand mule-drawn wagons. When his wife Mary gave birth to a son, on January 22, 1875, he was named David Wark (his father's middle name) Griffith. After the war Jacob had settled down in a house on the family plantation. The main house had inexplicably burned to the ground a few weeks after the war's end. The 264-acre plantation would never regain its pre-war luster. The ex-cavalryman, wounded at least twice, would spend the remaining twenty years of his life having children, drinking, gambling, and playing the fiddle. And telling tales. He kept his regard for his son well-hidden, but young David was present on many occasions, hiding under the dining table, when his father held forth. War experiences, readings from the romantic poets and the novelists (such as Dickens), recitations from Shakespeare, all fell on one extra pair of receptive ears. Father and son attended a magic lantern show one night at a nearby schoolhouse. The younger Griffith later recalled the occasion, remembering the farmers standing outside, before the doors opened, the light of their lanterns bouncing off the icicles festooning the eaves. In his autobiography Griffith would write of sitting next to his father and feeling, "the warmth of his great body...as much rapture as a childish heart needed."

I won't make a further case here for the Dickens-Griffith connection. That's already been done. Another film pioneer admired Griffith, studied, emulated and refined his techniques, and wrote on the effect Dickens's works had on Jacob Griffith's son. Born on today's date*, 23 years and one day after Griffith, half a world away from Kentucky, Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisentstein would learn his lessons well.

OUTRO
For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor

* January 23rd


© 1999 David Minor / Eagles Byte

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