The years 1909 through 1913 are considered D. W. Griffith’s years of discovery due to the legendary director’s innovative work in silent film. Those early works paved the way not only for the epics he would make that expanded film as a narrative art form, but also because of his effect on many notable filmmakers that followed. Among the gems he made during those years is The Musketeers of Pig Alley, (1912), a notable, short film of epic proportions, written by Griffith and one of filmdom’s foremost early screenwriters, Anita Loos,
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
The Musketeers of Pig Alley Cast:
- Elmer Booth – Snapper Kid, Musketeers gang leader
- Lillian Gish – The Little Lady
- Clara T. Bracy – The Little Lady’s Mother
- Walter Miller – The Musician
- Alfred Paget – Rival Gang Leader
- John T. Dillon – Policeman
- Madge Kirby – The Little Lady’s Friend/In Alley
- Harry Carey – Snapper’s Sidekick
- Robert Harron – Rival Gang Member/In Alley/At Gangster’s Ball
Credited with being one of the first gangster films ever made – the first film to feature organized crime – The Musketeers of Pig Alley depicts life in the tenements of New York City, a life riddled with crime and shady characters. As the story opens we see a young musician who’s down on his luck living with his wife, “The Little Lady” and her wheelchair-bound mother. As his work dictates, the musician travels away from Pig Alley in order to make a living leaving The Little Lady to fend for herself.
As she exits her one-room apartment one day, The Little Lady runs into Snapper Kid, king of the Musketeers of Pig Alley, the gang that threatens the streets and alleys that surround the tenements. Upon seeing the lovely young woman, Snapper Kid makes a move on her, which she fights off in no uncertain terms by slapping the man. Startled by her reaction, Snapper Kid watches as The Little Lady exits the tenement to go about her business among the crowded sidewalks of Pig Alley.
A few days later…
The musician returns with a full purse after a successful stint somewhere away from the slums. After boasting to locals in Pig Alley about his good fortune, the musician steps into his tenement only to be beaten by Snapper Kid and relieved of his hard-earned cash. Dejected, the musician vows to The Little Lady that he’ll get his own back.
A friend of The Little Lady, in an attempt to cheer her up, takes her to the gangster’s ball – a town party with an unfortunate name – wherein we see all manner of people sharing some cheer and merriment. During the ball the leader of a rival gang invites The Little Lady for a drink – although not with good intentions – and she accepts. Seeing the happenings, Snapper Kid interrupts the drink in his usual gangster way, which sets off an eventual gangster feudal war in Pig Alley.
During the shoot-out, the musician is able to get his purse back from the distracted Snapper Kid who also manages to escape an encounter with the police.
After the shoot-out is over, as the musician explains how he was able to recover his loot to The Little Lady, in walks Snapper Kid to propose to her. The Little Lady turns down the Snapper Kid’s proposal but in all-too-gentle a manner, if you ask me, by gently letting him know she’s with the musician. The gangster scratches his head as if not understanding why she would choose the boring musician over him, but he leaves without making any trouble. As he steps out into the tenement hallway, however, a policeman approaches Snapper Kid to take him in for the role he played in the shoot-out. But the gangster has an idea for an alibi – The Little Lady.
“One good turn deserves another.”
Having accepted The Little Lady’s choosing the musician and for saving her from the rival gang’s chief, Snapper Kid feels she owes him so he steps back into the one-room apartment with the policeman, expecting The Little Lady to corroborate his story – that he was in her apartment the entire time the shoot-out was taking place. Surprisingly (to me), she says yes. And the story ends with no ill falling Snapper Kid for having been a real menace to Pig Alley.
I must say the ending to The Musketeers of Pig Alley surprised me. I’m much more used to gangster stories which stayed true to the ever stifling Motion Picture Production Code edict of “crime doesn’t pay,” which would have rendered this ending unacceptable had the film been made years later. As it stands, it’s highly unlikely Pig Alley will see peace and tranquility for some time as future gangsters will breed on its streets and alleys knowing crime may well pay off without punishment. It is possible this was the more realistic depiction of society, however. Palms being greased and favors superseding the law in certain places.
I was very impressed by The Musketeers of Pig Alley, a film D. W. Griffith managed to make grand and oppressive at the same time. While certainly a small film in comparison to the epics he’d best be remembered for, Griffith stretches the visuals here as far as he can with cinematography that proves effective in bringing the viewer into the action. This is particularly true of the alley scenes during which he uses tracking shots and close-ups that deepen the drama and heighten the menace. The overall result is an affecting depiction of life in a time and place where lawlessness ran rampant and the simplest of activities of everyday life could – at a moments notice – turn seedy and vile. It’s a tightly woven narrative.
Musketeers was shot in Ft. Lee, New Jersey which doubled for New York City in many early pictures and Griffith (reportedly) used real gang members in location shots in New York City. Aside from the way he shot the film, the use of many extras in close spaces further illustrates how inevitable a part of life crime played for all the inhabitants of Pig Alley. As I started out saying, this is quite the impressive film for its time – innovative in style, theme and in its unapologetic portrayal of crime and society, which includes a suggestion of police corruption not seen before in a feature film.
The Musketeers of Pig Alley was one of 12 films Lillian Gish made with D. W. Griffith in 1912 – an impressive number if one considers that was the year she made her film debut. Clearly, Griffith recognized the talent and presence of the actress who would be considered one the best who ever lived, named the 17th greatest female star of all time by the American Film Institute (AFI) in 1999.
The role of The Little Lady in Musketeers is in many respects similar to roles Ms. Gish would play throughout her tenure in motion pictures – that of an innocent victimized by a cruel world. Innocent, that is, but never weak. Gish exemplifies this character in Musketeers and in the role I am most familiar with, as Rachel Cooper in Charles Laughton’s magnificent, The Night of the Hunter made forty-three years later (1955).
“Those little virgins, after five minutes you got sick of playing them – to make them more interesting was hard work.”
Well, her hard work paid off.
Lillian Gish was awarded an Honorary Academy Award in 1971 for her “Superlative artistry and for distinguished contribution to the process of motion pictures.” In 1982 she was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors and received the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1984.
Ms. Gish has an exquisite softness on-screen that melts one’s heart – an undeniable aura of serenity. She renders one unable to look away from her ethereal beauty. Yet, as mentioned above, her characters are not pushovers. It’s an interesting and unique dichotomy that merits another mention as it served her well in a legendary career that spanned seven decades. She abided and endured long enough to be referred to as The First Lady of American Cinema. Already evident in 1912 and in The Musketeers of Pig Alley, The Little Lady had what legends are made of.
“I think the things that are necessary in my profession are these: Taste, Talent and Tenacity. I think I have had a little of all three.”
This post is my contribution to the Gish Sisters blogathon hosted by Fritzi at Movies, Silently, my favorite site for all things silent films and Lindsey and her fabulous, classic film site, The Motion Pictures. Please visit either host site for many more insightful posts celebrating over 100 Years of the careers of Lillian and Dorothy Gish.
If interested here is a pictorial album I posted a few days ago – The Gish Sisters.
Biograph Studio under which umbrella The Musketeers of Pig Alley was made was based in New York City. However, Biograph used Fort Lee, New Jersey (close to where I live) extensively for location shooting as early as 1908. Numerous Biograph films directed by D.W. Griffith and filmed by his famed cameraman Billy Bitzer filmed in the area survive and are part of the Library of Congress paper print collection, in case you’re interested in looking into this. One of my favorite silent films, in fact was filmed in Ft. Lee – Griffith’s, The New York Hat (1912), starring Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore, and Lillian Gish.
Anyway – A few weeks ago I went on a self-guided tour of early film sites in and near Ft. Lee after downloading a map made available by the Ft. Lee Film Commission. And as I perused the map to plan my route, lo and behold, listed on it is The Musketeers of Pig Alley. Having already committed to writing about this film I was excited to see the notation and was thrilled to find the actual location. Below are a few pictures of what the alley in The Musketeers of Pig Alley looks like today.
The site: Is located in Ft. Lee on Main Street across from Gerome Avenue and was used because the area resembled New York City walk-ups in the early part of the 20th Century. Although there is little resemblance now to what the place looked like a century ago, it was still fun to imagine breathing the same air as Lillian Gish as she walked along the streets of Pig Alley. The many scenes in Musketeers that feature the back alleys where much of the action takes place, including the gangster shoot-out were filmed here.