erik lundegaard

Saturday August 12, 2023

Movie Review: The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)

The radical shot: Booth, foreground, with Harry Carey behind him.


In the intro to “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” on the Barrymore Film Center’s YouTube channel, executive director Tom Meyers mentions that Elmer Booth as the Snapper Kid is reminiscent of James Cagney—20 years before Cagney revolutionized the gangster role in “The Public Enemy.”

It’s a not-bad comparison. Both men are short, tough, energetic, and with a moral ambiguity about them. They’re bad guys but with humanity. At a tense moment in a back alleyway, Snapper is startled when someone brushes past him and he raises the gun inside his coat pocket. When he sees it’s only a Chinese laundryman, he laughs. At himself.

One difference? We immediately like Cagney. Not true with Booth’s Snapper Kid. And I think for this reason: “Musketeers” begins with the civilians. 

Act I:

  • A poor musician (Walter Miller) leaves his girl (Lillian Gish) and her mother (Clara T. Bracy) to make money elsewhere
  • A local gangster (Booth) takes a liking to the girl, makes a play, but is rebuffed
  • The mother dies
  • The musicians returns with money but is mugged by the gangster

No Cagney movie begins that way. In “The Public Enemy,” we never get the backstory on the bartender Cagney slaps around, or the cop he kills after the fur heist goes bad, or poor Kitty with the grapefruit. The story begins with him as a boy, and how he became what he became. Our sympathies are immediately with him.

When do our sympathies turn toward Snapper? With a moment, I’m embarrassed to say, that I missed. 

Behind barrels
Directed by D.W. Griffith for Biograph Studios, and filmed by G.W. (Billy) Blitzer, “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” is considered one of the first gangster movies, revolutionary in its camerawork, but by modern sensibilities it’s hardly a movie—just 17 minutes long. To get a true sense of its impact, you’d have to watch a bunch of 1910-11 movies before springing this on yourself.

The Museum of Modern Art tells us why it's a picture from the revolution:

The story unfolds in the cramped confines of ramshackle rooms, crowded sidewalks, and alleyways, the claustrophobia heightened by the camera’s tight framing. … A shot toward the end—among its most radical—in which The Snapper Kid brings his face up to the camera and peers out as if he is casing the movie theater itself, would have felt harrowing for those [audience members] contending with gang presence in their own lives.

After Act I, the musician is determined to get his money back. Well, “determined.” He mostly mills about the neighborhood looking forlorn. Meanwhile, a girlfriend convinces “the Little Lady” (Gish) to go to a local event, “Grand Dance of the Jolly Three,” where men and women congregate on opposite sides of the room like at a ’50s sockhop. There, the Snapper Kid eyes her again while a rival gangster (Alfred Paget) asks her to dance. She declines but says yes to a drink. In the next-door saloon, drinks arrives, he shows her a postcard, and then Snapper shows up and slaps the drink out of her hand.

Now we have a gang war. Because the two men are fighting over the Little Lady? No. Because the rival tried to drug her. That’s the detail I missed. The postcard was misdirection and it not only worked on the Little Lady but me; I missed him slipping a powder into her drink*—but Snapper didn’t. He came to the rescue.

* I assume this is less allusion to “date rape”—a term that wouldn’t exist for more than half a century—than “white slavery,” which was all over the newspapers in the early 1910s, particularly after the passage of the White Slave Traffic Act of 1910, AKA the Mann Act.

Now the movie begins a tense buildup as the two gangs mill about on the crowded street outside, and in the saloon, and in a back alleyway. They seem to be searching for each other or looking to get the upper hand. Eventually, the rival gang simply hides in the alleyway—behind barrels (!!!)*—and we get our gun battle.

* One thing I love about silent films: the unironic use of tropes I’ve only experienced ironically or in cartoons.

Amid the smoke, Snapper backs into a doorwell where the musician has been cowering, and for some reason—anticipating the cops’ arrival?—starts to put his gun in his jacket pocket, where the musician’s money is conveniently located. There’s a struggle and the musician lurches away—with the money. Does Snapper know he took it back? I never got that sense. He’s mostly running from the cops now. Which is why he barges into the Little Lady’s apartment—he needs her as an alibi. This is when she tells him the musician is her man. I love how Snapper takes it. What—HIM? Over ME? Seriously? OK. Well, good luck with all that, I guess. Really, though? You’re serious? Wow, what a screwy world.

But when a cop grabs him in the hallway outside, the couple gives him an alibi. As the title card reads: “One good turn deserves another.” 


The moment I missed.

Men don’t leave
The ending is ambiguous. The cop leaves, Snapper smokes a cigarette in the hallway, and then a hand is extended from offscreen, flapping dollar bills enticingly, and the title card tells us: “Links in the system.” Social commentary, one assumes. Snapper’s circumstances will always drag him down. Then we get a shot of the couple, embracing and motioning vaguely toward the future.

If that ending seems abrupt, well, the director was busy. “Musketeers” is one of more than 70 films Griffith directed in 1912. Yes: 70. No wonder he mastered his craft. Whatever the new industry is, kids, get in on the ground floor.

Griffith knew how to pick or nurture talent, too. Snapper’s silent secondary is Harry Carey, who had a long, distinguished career as a supporting player, mostly in westerns, while a fellow musician our hero greets is Lionel Barrymore—Mr. Potter from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Gish was only 19 at the time but became one of the screen’s first big movie stars—and then lasted. Most her career, sure, was silent, but she kept getting pulled back in: “Duel in the Sun,” “The Night of the Hunter,” “Sweet Liberty.” She died in 1993, age 99.

The male leads didn’t last so long—in life. Booth was killed in 1915 when he was a passenger in a car driven by a supposedly inebriated Tod Browning, the future horror auteur. Paget, the rival gang leader, a Brit who fought in the Second Boer War and served as an instructor in Canada in WWI, died in 1919 of malarial fever … in Winnipeg? I didn’t even know that was a thing. Miller, our romantic lead, kept acting in bit parts into the sound era but died of a heart attack in 1940, age 48. Even Clara T. Bracy, whose elderly mother barely lasts here, lived longer than any of these guys.

The title is nowhere in the film, by the way. The gang never refers to themselves as “Musketeers” and the area is never called “Pig Alley.” But it’s a great title. It pops.

A 1912 Tampa theater ad. Wouldn't mind seeing any of these but one wonders about the descriptions. “Showing that radical action is necessary to eliminate them,” for example, is a bit of a stretch.  

Posted at 10:53 AM on Saturday August 12, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - Silent  
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