Movie Of The Month by JB Kaufman

The Sheriff's Baby (1913)

December, 2023

Biograph, 1913. Director: D.W. Griffith. Scenario: Edward Bell. Camera: Billy Bitzer. Cast: Alfred Paget, Henry B. Walthall, Harry Carey, Lionel Barrymore, John T. Dillon, Kate Bruce, Bobby Harron.
            As a rule I make an effort to maintain some variety in this column, to showcase constantly the amazing range and breadth of films produced during the classic years. Regular readers may, however, have noticed a heavy preponderance of silent Westerns in this space during the last few months. Of course I love the great silent Westerns—who doesn’t?—and, in my defense, each of these films has been featured here, in its time, for a good reason. A new restoration or a major festival showing has served to focus renewed attention on the film in question, suggesting that the time was right for a fresh appreciation.
            That goes double for this month’s selection: The Sheriff’s Baby, directed by D.W. Griffith for the Biograph company in 1913. The new restoration of The Sheriff’s Baby may be easily overlooked—it’s modestly offered as a bonus extra on the same Blu-Ray disc we visited last month—but, in fact, this offering is an event for more reasons than one. To begin with, it’s part of the ongoing effort by our friends at Film Preservation Society to restore and disseminate every one of the surviving Griffith Biographs. I know I’ve commented on this before, but I beg the reader’s indulgence; the importance of this endeavor cannot be overstated. Film enthusiasts know that Griffith’s work at Biograph in 1908–1913 constituted nothing less than the birth of an art: in an output of nearly 500 short films in five years, Griffith established the principles of storytelling on film, the principles we still take for granted after more than a century.
            But knowing the importance of the Biographs is one thing; seeing them is another. Almost all of the films have miraculously survived, but the great majority have been available only in execrable viewing copies, making it impossible for the viewer to appreciate the subtleties of Griffith’s developing technique, let alone his increasingly powerful storytelling. Now, working quietly and methodically, the FPS principals have undertaken the extraordinary task of restoring these films, one by one, to their original visual brilliance. The results are a revelation, and The Sheriff’s Baby offers an outstanding example.
            And it’s exciting for an additional reason: the film’s story. Recently we’ve called attention to the remarkable Western story The Three Godfathers, which furnished material for no fewer than five “official” film adaptations between 1916 and 1948, along with innumerable “unofficial” borrowings, references, and outright steals. I’ve featured two of the authorized versions in this column, one as recently as two months ago. The original story of The Three Godfathers, by prolific Western author Peter B. Kyne, had a history of its own. It first appeared as a short story in The Saturday Evening Post in November 1912, reportedly adapted from one of Kyne’s earlier stories—then was adapted again, and published as a novel, in 1913.
            But before that happened, D.W. Griffith directed The Sheriff’s Baby. Griffith was under constant pressure to come up with new scenarios, to satisfy the insatiable demands of the Biograph release schedule, and drew his story material from a variety of sources. Biograph’s records suggest that The Sheriff’s Baby was an original story by one Edward Bell—but there’s reason, including the remarkable timing of events, to suspect that it was, at the very least, inspired by the Post publication of Kyne’s story, before that story was expanded to novel length.
            Whatever the details, The Sheriff’s Baby survives as a one-of-a-kind historical artifact, a fascinating cinematic sidelight on a still-evolving narrative before that narrative acquired a rich tradition of its own. Seen today, it impresses the viewer as a distinct story line, but one with some very familiar elements—and with the benefit of Griffith’s filmmaking skills, sharpened and fine-tuned by 1913. The opening shots, for example, establish the plot situation with characteristic economy: the recently widowed sheriff, his sorrow at giving up his baby to the care of relatives while he carries out the duties of a lawman. The sheriff is played by Griffith regular Alfred Paget, he of the ferocious eyebrows, familiar to today’s film enthusiast as Belshazzar in the Babylonian Story of Intolerance. His rough physical appearance makes his tenderness, in the scenes with his baby, doubly touching. His deputy is played by another familiar player, Bobby Harron, his youth disguised by a heavy mustache. But the most remarkable bit of casting is that of the three-man outlaw band, corresponding to the “three godfathers” in the later films. This trio of miscreants is played by none other than Harry Carey, Henry B. Walthall, and Lionel Barrymore! In light of their later respective careers, this casting seems striking in hindsight—particularly that of Carey, who appears in a role (the leader of the gang) that directly anticipates those he would play in two of the later versions of Three Godfathers.
            This formative version of the story has none of the spiritual overtones that would make the later films such memorably unorthodox Christmas stories. In terms of holiday shopping, however, I have no hesitation in recommending this disc as a gift for anyone who loves the movies. That FPS can offer a gem like The Sheriff’s Baby so casually, as a mere bonus addition to the two featured William S. Hart silents on the same disc, is an indication of the riches to be found here. As we conclude one year and embark on another, film enthusiasts can well be thankful for the gift of ongoing preservation efforts like this.

J.B. Kaufman