His Trust (1911)

His Trust Fulfilled (1911)

Directed by D.W. Griffith

Between 1908 and 1915, D.W. Griffith produced, directed or wrote 14 silent films on Civil War themes, including his controversial masterpiece Birth of a Nation. This shouldn’t be surprising because, since childhood, Griffith had been regaled with tales of Confederate derring-do based on the besotted memories of his father, Colonel Jacob “Roaring Jack” Griffith, organizer and commander of the First Kentucky Cavalry (CSA), which served under General Joseph Wheeler during most of the war and formed part of the Army of Tennessee’s famed Orphan Brigade.

At the war’s conclusion, the Griffith family found itself bereft of its wealth, slaves and land. They were left with little more than moonlight and magnolia-scented memories of a mythic antebellum Eden populated by honorable, heroic men; beautiful, chaste women and happy, devoted black servants. Not surprisingly, the philosophy of the Lost Cause dominated the themes of Griffith’s early one-reel films. His Trust and His Trust Fulfilled, shot in Fort Lee, N.J., in November 1910, are typical Griffith cinematic paeans to his family’s lost fortunes even though he always maintained that his father’s stories never found their way onto his silver nitrate palette.

The films run 14 and 17 minutes, respectively, and Griffith wanted them to be shown back-to-back. But the brain trust at Biograph Studio, where Griffith worked, thought the public incapable of concentrating that long and released the films serially while advertising them as one story. The studio publicity releases claimed the films were true-to-life representations of plantation life in the South during the Civil War.

In His Trust, Colonel Frazier, played by Dell Henderson, goes off to fight for hearth and home, beseeching the faithful family retainer, George, played by Griffith’s longtime friend and leading man Wilfred Lucas, acting in blackface, to keep the home fires burning and his wife and daughter safe while he is away. Griffith perfected his direction of crowds in the scenes depicting the Confederate troops marching away and driving off the dreaded Yankee invaders. The New York Dramatic Mirror declared that the battle scenes in the film were “managed with a skill that baffles criticism.”

Colonel Frazier dies a heroic death while driving off the hated invaders. A courier, played by Mack Sennett (who would later become famous as the director of hundreds of screwball comedies and chase films), brings the sorrowful news to the family when he returns the officer’s sword. The dreaded Yankees now invade the sacred homeland, loot the family home, and, in a dramatic fire scene, burn the Fraziers’ mansion to the ground, “forming a picture never to be forgotten.” George runs into the blazing inferno to save the young daughter and the sword. Keeping his word to his dead master, George moves Mrs. Frazier and her daughter into his humble cabin while he willingly sleeps outside.

His Trust Fulfilled opens four years later, at the beginning of Reconstruction. George spurns his freedom and sacrifices his meager savings to provide for the daughter, played as a young adult by Dorothy West, after the mother, played by Claire McDowell, works herself to death trying to keep the family together. George keeps the truth about the source of the money from the daughter while she grows up and, true to the vision of virtuous Southern womanhood, attends seminary. When his funds run out, George is tempted to steal to continue fulfilling his obligation. But thievery is not in him. Providentially, a cousin, moved by the actions of the faithful servant, takes over the financial burden of raising the daughter until she finally meets and marries him.

In the publicity release, Lee Dougherty, a former newspaperman turned studio flack, described the slave’s farewell to the master’s daughter he has so selflessly served. The language is typical of how Hollywood helped perpetuate the Lost Cause myth of the contented black house servant who knows that his place in the social hierarchy is serving his “betters” with quiet dignity and resignation. “George at a distance views the festivities with tears of joy streaming down his black but honest cheeks, and after they [the newlywed couple] depart for their new home, he goes back to his cabin, takes down his master’s sword and fondles it, happy in the realization that he has fulfilled his trust.”

The New York Dramatic Mirror proclaimed His Trust and His Trust Fulfilled to be “a Biograph masterpiece.” But Griffith had bigger things in mind, honing his skills in directing large casts and organizing dramatic action scenes for Birth of a Nation, which he made after he left Biograph.

He believed the American public was ready for the movie industry to evolve from producing one- and two-reelers to producing one- to two-hour feature films. As with so many other aspects of cinematic evolution, Griffith was right on the cutting edge of change.


Originally published in the September 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.