“Enoch Arden”, 1911, directed by D.W. Griffith, is a two-reeler silent film, each reel being screened at the beginning as a separate movie. Audiences who saw the two parts of “Enoch Arden” could tell it was really one movie. They asked to see the two reels together. Exhibitors complied, charging double admission.
Part 1: The story is set in an 18th century fishing village, and concerns a romantic triangle involving fisherman Enoch Arden, his girlfriend Annie Lee, and a wealthy rival named Philip Ray. Enoch wins the girl, they marry, and after a few years they have three children. In order to provide for his young family Enoch chooses to go to sea on a fishing vessel for an extended voyage, over the objections of Annie Lee. When the ship founders, Enoch and two other sailors make their way to an island, but his shipmates die, leaving Enoch the sole survivor. Annie Lee, meanwhile, anxiously watches for his return while Philip Ray stands by.
Part 2: The years have passed since Enoch was shipwrecked alone on an island. His wife Annie Lee has continued to watch for his return while their two children have grown to adolescence. Enoch’s rival, Philip Ray, gently tries to persuade Annie Lee that he won’t be coming home, and that she should consider remarriage. With the children urging her along, she is eventually persuaded to wed Philip Ray, to close the little cottage she shared with Enoch, and to move with the children into her new husband’s more spacious home.
Enoch, now living on his island like a miserable Robinson Crusoe, is finally rescued, but comes home to find his cottage deserted. Taking a room at an inn he learns of the marriage of Annie Lee and Philip Ray from a local gossip who doesn’t recognize him. Enoch goes to Philip Ray’s house, gazes into a window, and sees his grown children with their stepfather and Annie Lee, the latter holding a newborn baby. Realizing that his presence could only cause more grief, Enoch goes back to the inn where he dies of a broken heart.
Even though Biograph would limit him to one-reelers, DW Griffith had ambitions to move on to longer films. Once or twice before this he had followed a short up with a sequel to be released a week later, but this is his first genuine two-parter, making a full, coherent story. Although Biograph insisted it be released as two shorts, many theatre owners cottoned on and showed it as one film.
Wisely, Griffith chose to expand upon a story he had made a loose adaptation of before, Enoch Arden having been the inspiration for 1910’s The Unchanging Sea. Covering a lengthy timescale, the material is also perfectly suited to a longer running time. Griffith clearly realised that if cinema was going to flourish as a serious and unique storytelling medium, it would not only have to develop in how it conveyed information visually, but also become more subtle and naturalistic. Around the time of Enoch Arden he was really striving to perfect this, and the two parts are like a showcase for everything he had developed so far.
Griffith opens by introducing each of the three main characters with a single title revealing their name only, followed by a shot for each which serves as a brief yet meaningful introduction. Then, without resorting to another title card, he sets up the love triangle with just some careful positioning of the three actors we have just met. This economy of expression would later be taken up and developed by Cecil B. DeMille and John Ford. The use of props by actors to reveal character or emotion is also beginning to develop. In the scene where Annie Lee watches Enoch’s boat disappear over the horizon, she stops to wipe the lens of the spyglass — perhaps to see the boat clearer, perhaps also to wipe away a tear.
Griffith was also beginning to develop the emotional impact of his camera work. He had around this time been experimenting by throwing in the occasional functional close-up to clarify an object or action. Here however, in the scene where Annie gives Enoch the baby’s curl, he briefly moves the camera closer to the actors. The close-up is not to explain the action, it is to draw the audience into it and makes us involved in this poignant moment. This is a really important breakthrough.
Director: D. W. Griffith
Production company: Biograph Company
Screenplay: Linda Arvidson
Story by: Alfred Lord Tennyson
Stars: Wilfred Lucas, Linda Arvidson, Francis J. Grandon