Weekly Feature Film

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The Sunbeam (1912)

Set in a tenement boarding house, a lonely confirmed bachelor occupies a room across the hall from a dour spinster. Children run amok in the hallways playing pranks.

Believing the bachelor perpetrated one particular prank, the spinster woman enters his room to confront him. She is followed by a neighbor child.

Meanwhile, the other children have stolen a scarlet fever quarantine sign and posted it on the bachelor’s door. The police, unaware that the quarentine sign is a prank, enforce the confinement.

But aided by the sweet disposition of the toddler quarantined with them, the icy relations between spinster and bachelor begin to thaw. . .


Director: D.W. Griffith


Ynez Seabury…Sunbeam
Kate Bruce…Sunbeam’s Mamma
Claire McDowell…Spinster
Dell Henderson…Bachelor
Christy Cabanne…In Hallway
John T. Dillon…A Policeman
Gladys Egan…One of the Children
Edna Foster…Child with Cap
Adolph Lestina…A Policeman
Charles Hill Mailes…The Janitor
Joseph McDermott…A Policeman
W. Chrystie Miller…In Hallway


There are a lot of little things that happen in this short silent film, done in 1912. In a nutshell, though, circumstances bring a plain old maid, an equally unattractive middle-aged guy, and a soon-to-be orphan all together to live (hopefully) happy ever after.

This matchmaking feat is accomplished the by the young girl’s nerve and prankster kids nearby. The kid walks into people’s apartments as if she lives there and winds up softening the old codgers. The other kids, by playing tricks with doorknobs and fake “Scarlet Fever” signs, inadvertently wind up playing cupid.

Overall, this was a pretty clever and fairly entertaining little silent movie. Ynez Seabury, as the little girl, can be seen looking at the out-of-sight director several times but, hey, it was just beginning of movies. Not everyone could be a Shirley Temple. Claire McDowell was good as “the spinster” and Dell Henderson adequate as “the bachelor.” It’s a cute film.


Griffith’s career at Biograph went in a kind of cycle. His earliest films tended to be big, outdoor action pieces, and he would eventually work his way back to making some very polished action films like Battle of Elderbrush Gulch and Judith of Bethulia. However, in the middle of this period, from 1911 to 1913 he mostly worked on a smaller canvas, focusing on acting performances and refining his use of indoor space. This charming little comedy is among his most understated and intimate shorts.

The story of The Sunbeam is played out in just five indoor sets. It’s one of what I call Griffith’s “dollhouse” pictures. The layout of a building is shown through the arrangement of the rooms as if we are watching the scenes take place in an open-fronted dollhouse. The careful ordering of the shots, plus the way each set is shown (e.g. door on the right in the left-hand apartment and vice versa) mean we instantly grasp the set-up.

Griffith did not do many out-and-out comedies, but his handling of the genre is remarkable. What we are perhaps seeing here is the birth of comedy direction. Comedy performances had been filmed since the beginning of cinema, and Georges Melies in particular had a wonderful comic imagination and sense of timing. In The Sunbeam however, the very way it is filmed adds to the comedy. The establishment of the different spaces allows gags like the door handles being tied together work. The best of the actors’ comic performances are allowed to play out in single takes, while the more farcical moments are punctuated by the edits. Even the symmetry of the two apartments gives an extra note of silliness to the unlikely romance of their tenants.

So Griffith was perhaps the first to realise that directing a comedy was not just about filming a comedian. Certainly his style had an impact upon Charles Chaplin and Ernst Lubitsch. The Sunbeam is a forerunner of silent comedies such as Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle and Rene Clair’s Italian Straw Hat, both of which use the camera as part of the comedy. With its dark undertones – typical, of course, of Griffith but not comedy in general – The Sunbeam also demonstrates how comic relief can give tragedy a bittersweet edge.

D.W. Griffith film about feuding neighbors and how they are changed by meeting a young girl. As with the majority of Griffith films, this one here has sentimental written all over it but it’s still a pretty good story even though you know where it’s going. Griffith had done this type of film countless times before 1912 but that doesn’t take away any of the heart the director brings to the film.


You can make this video full screen, or you can download it HERE in Mpeg4 format (157.0 MB) or 512Kb MP4 format (157.0 MB).


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