The Miller’s Daughter and the Emergence of Silent Melodrama

THE MILLER’S DAUGHTER (1905) — Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon

Note: This is the thirty-fifth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fifth favorite 1905 film, THE MILLER’S DAUGHTER, directed by Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon.

In 1905, American film was dominated by Edison Manufacturing Company. Other than the pioneering efforts of Edwin S. Porter, especially, that meant that American film was repeatedly outclassed by European innovations and efforts. THE MILLER’S DAUGHTER (1905) was co-directed by Porter, but otherwise, it typified the underwhelming Edison turnout, but indicated the melodrama that would come from the peak of silent film in Hollywood.

LIFE OF AN AMERICAN FIREMAN (1903) — Edwin S. Porter

THE MILLER’S DAUGHTER, based on a play called Hazel Kirke by Steele MacKaye, was also co-directed by another director in Edison’s stable, Wallace McCutcheon. McCutcheon never helmed anything as nuanced or influential as Porter’s biggest films, like THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903) or LIFE OF AN AMERICAN FIREMAN (1903); his best works were actually made in partnership with Porter. But McCutcheon did display some comedic and dramatic chops that would foreshadow the direction of Hollywood’s silent era with THE SUBURBANITE (1904) and THE NIHILIST (1905), respectively; the former was a favorite of mine for 1904.

Especially, McCutcheon’s contribution to the cultivation of an early Hollywood mise-en-scène, including a realistic and effective blending of location and set shooting, stands as his most significant achievement. This achievement puts him in the same realm of Porter’s accomplishments, makes them a fitting pairing, and renders THE MILLER’S DAUGHTER as compelling as it is.

To be clear, THE MILLER’S DAUGHTER is not some dramatic masterwork. It’s not even necessarily particularly affecting. Its technical efficacy, however, provides its lackluster story, undermined by a lack of intertitles, a visual draw. The movie’s scenes are disparate visually and narratively, lacking the narration that would typically accompany early films before the popularization of said intertitles, but the former provides a freshness for the film’s 11 minute run time.

THE MILLER’S DAUGHTER weaves through pastoral on-location shots, rustic and flat (yet appealing) sets, real bustling city streets, and a féerie-esque finale scene with graceful framing and staging as it tells the tale of a woman who dares to love someone other than who her father has picked out for her. The message, which ultimately sees the titular character marry her father’s chosen groom after the latter saves her from suicide, is regressive and unsatisfying. The woman’s misery is entirely predicated upon her father’s treatment of her, which is terrible, and his initial judgement is finally the thing that makes her actually happy.

You see, the woman went with the flashy urbanite, who turns out to be already married, and is thus disowned by her family and lives in the city slums. She returns home, is rebuffed by her father, and attempts to drown herself when the good-natured but simple rural farmer her father approves of saves her. It’s a call for women (and anyone, I suppose) to stay in their lane; to stay in their socially accepted roles and class. The movie frames the woman’s role as the daughter, not as the protagonist of her own destiny. Even still, it is a human story, one that has played out in many forms before and since 1905, and seeing Hazel (our heroine) return to happiness and accept her father in spite of his horrible treatment is both admirable and regrettable. This analysis, however, grows from a study of the film’s plot and granting some admittedly questionable concessions to the “time.” The film itself does not provide much nuance or really any concrete plot details for the relatively complicated character relationships, nor was it intended to; that information lay within the narration, a part of the cinematic experience that faded relatively quickly.

As mentioned, the film’s achievement is primarily visual, but the melodramatic storytelling that accompanies said visuals foreshadows the kind of storytelling that would ring true and be told much more humanely in the golden silent era. Stories of adversity, depression, and ultimate redemption are empowering, and in fact, really make up the majority of stories in any medium. Filmmaking was not yet evolved enough, however, to deliver these concepts with any sort of strong resonance. I felt for Hazel in THE MILLER’S DAUGHTER, but her motivations, and those of the characters around her, were unclear, and this was the case with much of early melodrama.

THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903) — Edwin S. Porter

As primal as THE MILLER’S DAUGHTER’s emotions can be, their portrayal was too complicated for the limitations of film, let alone the questionable socialization and principles given credence in the movie. Porter’s other films, like THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, were successful because they kept things as simple as the art form could be. This isn’t to say that the most successful films stayed in their lane, to borrow a figure of speech from earlier, but rather that they adapted the aspects of humanity that could be best portrayed within the given scenario and the visual acuity of their directors. This could still be done with incredible vision and experimentation, and as filmmaker’s capabilities grew, so too did the stories.

This is why comedies and fantasies, in my opinion, were the strongest early films; they borrowed common iconography and values that translated well to the short run times and limited cinematic scope. The complexity of THE MILLER DAUGHTER’s father/daughter relationship may very well have come off less predatory, perhaps even empowering, in a different context, such as the original play; I haven’t read it. But the fact remains that the experience of the film itself is an unfulfilled one.

Full film

Nevertheless, THE MILLER’S DAUGHTER represented a necessary shift toward dramatic and emotional stories grounded in “our” reality (unlike something like THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, for example) in American film, a heretofore unrealized manifestation of such a vital part of storytelling itself. It would still take some time for it to manifest in forms we still recognize and connect to, but in the meantime, it still stands as my fifth favorite film of 1905; a certainly flawed, somewhat underwhelming film that still provided an evolving visual experience in one of the weaker years for film I’ve written about so far.

Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.