A CORNER IN WHEAT, adapted from the Frank Norris novel THE PIT, tells the story of a business man who corners the market on wheat, creating bread lines and despair in the process. This D.W. Griffith short was chosen by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry in the 1990s.
Cast & Crew
Reviews(see the best reviews)
Surprise -- Hollywood dumbed something down! I haven't read The Pit, but I have read The Octopus (the first in a projected trilogy of which The Pit was the second) and a couple of other Norris works, and I'm certain that the original made its point more clearly than this series of melodramatic scenes. Here the viewer is at risk of thinking justice will win out in the end, which it never would in Norris's hands. Still worth watching for that big scene -- the one stolen from The Octopus.
A Corner in Wheat is an act of persuasion, like any film that seeks to make a political statement. And that imposes some interesting requirements on a narrative.
The audience has to believe the characters and their situation - the people are real people, their problems are real problems. And the audience's sympathies have to be aligned with the filmmaker's. And then, the audience has buy into the cause and effect relationship between the actions of the characters.
A Corner in Wheat is a very early example of this type of film. As a silent film, it relies entirely on visuals to explain the characters and align the audience's sympathies. And the visuals largely work for that purpose. After all, even though the laborers and financiers are virtually caricatures, we're accustomed to accepting those archetypes -- think of the economy of expression inherent in political cartoons. That's all that's needed here, and we get that.
But the thing that's interesting about this film is just how poorly it tells the story of cause and effect. We are meant to infer that the financiers' boisterous futures trading is responsible for leaving the farmers destitute as well as for driving up the price of bread. But other than a couple of title cards, the film does very little to help explain or provide evidence for this connection -- or help in thinking about what should be done about it.
In modern film, I think, it's easier to conceal this elision of cause and effect. If we buy deeply into immersive characters and setting, this kind of narrative frequently becomes persuasion by anecdote, not by evidence. Cf. Michael Moore.
I'd like to learn more about the audience this film was created for. How familiar were they with the operation of commodities markets? (Or with the economics of farms and bakeries?) They're not given a lot of information in the film. It's interesting to compare this with Oliver Stone's latest Wall Street/Money Never Sleeps. In that film as well, much of the narrative (particularly the cause/effect element) is carried by the news of the day, the audience's understanding of current events external to the film. Stone's audience has a better understanding of things like mortgage securitization and financial institution bailouts than we did a couple years ago. That context comes with us into the theater.
I wonder what the 1909 audience was bringing into the theater?
This is a piece of Teddy Roosevelt era political propaganda. It shows a capitalist cornering the market on wheat and the resulting suffering it causes on the farmers and consumers. It's message, as far as I can tell, is against capitalism. On the one hand, it's impressive that it's able to convey that message given that it's a silent film and doesn't actually show any dialog. On the other hand, I view this as base political propaganda that's not worthy of any real respect.