In 1911, Mary Pickford left D.W. Griffith and Biograph, first working for IMP (Independent Moving Picture Co.) at $175 a week, an increase from her Biograph salary of $100. Later, she would sign with the Majestic Motion Picture Company for $225 a week. Though she was making more money than ever the films were not of the same quality as with Mr. Griffith. In January 1912, Mary returned to Biograph, and more importantly, to D.W. Griffith with a new contract though for less money ($175). No problem, Mary was happy to be back with cinema’s early master.
“A Beast at Bay” was Mary’s ninth film for Biograph after her return, released in May of 1912. The vivacious, charming Pickford stars in this D.W. Griffith one reeler, one of more than 70 shorts Griffith made that year. Like many of Griffith’s films, the characters have no name and are only known by a descriptive title. Here Mary is simply, “The Young Woman,” as such; I will refer to all the characters by the real life names just to make it less cumbersome.
Young Mary has quite a crush on a young man which a title card informs us is her “ideal,” and is portrayed by Edwin August. When a drunken thug attempts to instigate a fight, even kicking Mary’s snazzy car, Edwin refuses to get mixed up in a common street brawl with the lout. Mary is a bit perturbed her boyfriend backed away from a confrontation. The young couple get into Mary’s car and drive off as she continues to express her feelings about Edwin acting so cowardly. Meanwhile, in a parallel story, we find a convict (Alfred Paget), the beast at bay of the title, has escaped from prison with the police hot in pursuit. During the manhunt, convict Alfred waylays one of the policemen, taking his clothes and gun. In the meantime, Mary continues to bagger her “Ideal” about being a coward. His attempts to explain fall on deaf ears. Mary soon drops Edwin off and drives away. Down the road Mary loses some type of clothing (it’s unclear what) that goes flying out of the car landing in the street. She stops the car to retrieve the item and quickly finds herself at the wrong end of what is probably one of the first examples of a carjacking on film when escaped convict Alfred pops out from behind the bushes forcing poor Mary back into her car at gunpoint. From a distance, Edwin, using his handy dandy pair of binoculars, sees what is happening to his beloved and runs for help.
These first few minutes are all rather mundanely filmed even a bit sloopy. The scenes of the bully, who wanted to start a fight in the opening minutes, is filmed half out of the camera’s range for a portion of his time on screen. Still this is all a prelude to the centerpiece of the film…the chase!
The action picks up as Edwin realizes the road Mary’s hijacked automobile is on runs parallel to the railroad tracks. He and the police manage to convince the railroad’s supervisor and engineer to help them go after Mary and the convict initiating a thrilling chase sequence.
Though frightened, Mary keeps her wits about her, even at one point, stopping the car in an attempt to trick the convict into thinking there is engine trouble. Unconvinced, Alfred threatens Mary with physical harm forcing her to start the engine.
The train catches up to the runaway car but not before convict Alfred has dragged Mary to a deserted building in the woods where they hold up. Feeling safe for the moment the convict begins to eye our poor “Little Mary” obviously telling her what a fine looking woman she is, dressed so nice and him in rages. His leering manner tells us he seems to have more on his mind that just looking.
In the mean time, Edwin and the two policemen have jumped off the train and began searching for Mary. They split up with the cops going in one direction and Edwin in another. Edwin soon finds the abandon automobile. Meanwhile, the convict has become more aggressive toward Mary, touching her clothing, her hair, opening her coat, his heavy eyebrows and bulging eyes revealing he has only one thing on his evil mind.
Edwin comes upon the house; he screams out for Mary who in a frightful panic yells back. The convict begins to fire his rifle at Edwin who bravely makes his way toward the house. He recklessly comes rushing into the shack, only to be saved from being shot by Mary who deflects the rifle from the convict’s hands. The two men fight, Edwin gets hold of the rifle but the convict grabs Edwin by his throat, squeezing hard. Mary joins in the battle as the convict continues to choke Edwin, his tongue now hanging out, his arms dangling, we begin to wonder how much longer he can last. Outside the police have arrived and make their way into the house saving our choking hero just before his last gasp.
As the police drag off the convict, ‘Little Mary’ realizes her man is no coward, now he’s her hero. She shows him an injury on her wrist, Edwin kisses it. Her head hurts too, she tells him coyly, and Edwin tenderly caresses it. Finally, she tells him about her chin, right near her lips, they hurt too; Edwin kisses her and makes it all better.
The chase scene is the true highlight with Griffith again stretching film language with razor-sharp parallel editing utilizing shorter and shorter shots to increase the tension, common place today but innovative stuff back during the early days of the 20th century. Mary’s spunky character is another highlight, she is at times charmingly sweet and tender displaying a wonderful sense of comic timing. Yet, she also displays a tough edge and, even at one point, is annoying thanks to her nagging accusations of her boyfriend Edwin’s cowardness. Refusing to fight the thug seems more like common sense on his part than being a coward. This is not a criticism of Mary’s performance, what it does is makes her character more three dimensional. The film also reflects one of the earliest scenes of a woman driving an automobile with Mary handling the race between car and the train with a smooth assurance.
By 1912, D.W. Griffith was on the cusp of leaving Biograph studios. He was itching to do longer films which Biograph studio heads did not want to pursue. Though Mary was happy to be back working with Griffith they only would make a few more films together before he finally left in 1913.
This review is my contribution to the Mary Pickford Blogathon running from June 1st to June 3rd. For more great reviews click here.