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A Corner in Wheat


It is my birthday. I am now 41 with the personality of an 80 year old and the back of a 60 year old (as the snow has reminded me). Speaking of old things, my birthday present to the rest of you is A Corner in Wheat, the D.W. Griffith film from 1909. It has everything you want in a political film from the time. Horrible poverty. Grotesque wealth. Bread riots. And capitalists being killed in grain elevators. One of the best movies representing the Gilded Age.

I had my students watch it out of class for my film course that meets tonight. I also had them read Frederick Winslow Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management. In class, we are watching Modern Times. That’s right, it is early 20th century labor week.

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  • howard

    i wish we could do what they do in katroo

    they sure know how to say “happy birthday to you.”

    -Dr. Seuss (my parents gave me this book when it was new, when i turned 7, and i still read it every year on my birthday).

  • So how will your class will end, with a failed organized drive by the Wobblies, or a raid conducted by J. Edgar Hoover?

    • With the class developing a proletarian identity and murdering me in a violent revolution.

      • Origami Isopod

        And putting your head on a stick in the corridor?

        • That’s really up to them. Perhaps I could go out Mussolini-style.

        • Aimai

          Is it wrong of me to enjoy the image of Erik in top hat and spats, shooting it out from behidn the lectern with his sans culotte students? (To mix my timelines, but hell, its my fantasy.)

          • I believe you have a future in video game journalism, once your ethics have been vetted.

      • Hogan

        Remember what Alexander Berkman says: come at the king, you best not miss.

        • I still don’t see how you can’t kill a Gilded Age capitalist armed with a gun and a knife.

          • wjts

            You really need to drive a stake through its heart and then cut off the head to be sure.

            • Woodrowfan

              fill the mouth with salt and sew it shut. or is that zombies???

        • I swear it was Omar Little who said that.

          • Hogan

            He stole it from Berkman. At gunpoint, no doubt.

            • Aimai

              But berkman did miss.

              • Hogan

                Yes, and got a fourteen-year timeout from the Pennsylvania Bureau of Correction. Hence the lesson.

  • Hogan

    And capitalists being killed in grain elevators.

    Oh Frank Norris. When you’re good, you’re very very good.

    Happy birthday, young fella. I’ve been 58 for almost two weeks. Soon I can start counting the days to my almost certainly imaginary retirement on the wall of my office.

    • Lee Rudolph

      I can’t imagine that retirement on the wall of your office will be very comfortable.

      Better than the floor, I suppose.

    • advocatethis

      It’s been decades, but my recollection of “The Octopus” was that the antagonist died in a grain elevator, too. Perhaps I’m conflating things, or maybe Griffith borrowed that particular death for the film.

    • Todd

      Norris did pretty well in the “having films made by big time directors” category: Griffith, M. Tourneur, von Stroheim. Especially for a guy who wasn’t prolific (due to death at young age). But nothing for the last 90 years. It’s time for an update of the “Epic of the Wheat” on the big screen.

    • wjts

      Dreyer did it better.

      • Todd

        Happened in “Witness”, too.

    • The best thing about Mini__B being born when I was 46 is the sure knowledge that I will never retire. It’s freeing, in a way.

      • DonN

        I feel you. My son is 3 and I’m 56. Pretty much guarantees I’m working well into my 70’s. I’m not quite as clear it makes me feel liberated :)

        • I guess what I mean is that I know without a doubt that I will have to work into my 70s, but the driving force is him rather than me. I don’t get to feel selfless very often.

  • Malaclypse

    Just remember, age is simply an arbitrary social construction. The fact that every single day brings you one day closer to death, however, is not. “You’re older than you’ve ever been, and now you’re even older.”

    Happy birthday, young fella!

    • Gregor Sansa

      Yes, happy birthday, whippersnapper. I have all of 10 days on you. Though if you subtract all the days when I ate ketchup or drank vodka, I guess that makes you older in wisdom.

  • Peterr

    capitalists being killed in grain elevators

    I never thought of Jamie Dimon or Lloyd Blankfein as film buffs, but maybe this explains why you never see them in Iowa.

    • BigHank53

      Oddly, I never considered either of them to be capitalists. I mean, that’s the word they use, because “plutocrat” or “kleptocrat” each have negative connotations, but calling yourself a capitalist sure as hell doesn’t make you one.

      • They are capitalistists.

  • Dennis Orphen

    Can you do a gluten-free version?

  • KmCO

    I would hazard to say that my 84-year-old grandma is more free-spirited than you, Erik.

    • I have been accused of many things. Being a hippie is not one of them.

  • DrDick

    Happy birthday, youngster! Just remember that no mater how old you get, I will still have children older than you. Viva la revolucion!

  • jim, some guy in iowa

    what you want is a skid steer loader. a real back-saver for moving snow, and then when you’re done, just lock the loader arms in the “up” position and- voila! instant lightpost, to re enact the end of benito


    happy b-day. it’s getting weirder and weirder to see so many grownups who are younger than i am

    • CaptainBringdown

      That machine looks ok, but nowhere near as good as a flamethrower.

  • The Dark Avenger

    Trying to get a corner in the market for a commodity/produc was a common tactic of the time. I was researching a 19th Century pirated book and learned that at one time its’ publisher tried to get a corner in what we would call the paperback book market(Non-hard covers) but failed to do so. It was around the 1890s IIRC.

    • Hogan

      You could even try it with gold.

      That event inspired this highly appropriate bit by Henry Adams:

      Yet though the regular process of development may be depended upon, in its ordinary and established course, to purge American society of the worst agents of an exceptionally corrupt time, the history of the Erie corporation offers one point in regard to which modern society everywhere is directly interested. For the first time since the creation of these enormous corporate bodies, one of them has shown its power for mischief, and has proved itself able to override and trample on law, custom, decency, and every restraint known to society, without scruple, and as yet without check. The belief is common in America that the day is at hand when corporations far greater than the Erie, swaying power such as has never in the world’s history been trusted in the hands of private citizens, controlled by single men like Vanderbilt, or by combinations of men like Fisk, Gould, and Lane, after having created a system of quiet but irresistible corruption, will ultimately succeed in directing government itself. Under the American form of society no authority exists capable of effective resistance. The national government, in order to deal with the corporations, must assume powers refused to it by its fundamental law, and even then is exposed to the chance of forming an absolute central government which sooner or later is likely to fall into the hands it is struggling to escape, and thus destroy the limits of its power only in order to make corruption omnipotent. Nor is this danger confined to America alone. The corporation is in its nature a threat against the popular institutions spreading so rapidly over the whole world. Wherever a popular and limited government exists this difficulty will be found in its path; and unless some satisfactory solution of the problem can be reached, popular institutions may yet find their existence endangered.

  • Unemployed_Northeastern

    “I am now 41 with the personality of an 80 year old and the back of a 60 year old (as the snow has reminded me). ”

    Snowblower. Get one.

  • KadeKo

    Thanks for getting to this movie. I mentioned it a couple years ago in this space and you said it was on your back burner.

    Watching this just amazes me what passes for real-folks rural POV storytelling these days.

  • Julia Grey

    So, just to make sure I’m understanding this, despite the rise in wheat prices imposed by the bad guy who engineered a buy-up of all the future wheat contracts on the commodities market (through proxies), once he had the corner he did not have to pay the farmers any more for the wheat they grew because they couldn’t go to anyone else to sell it, hence the starvation on the farm?

    But he spent all that money buying the contracts in the first place, so…


    Nope, not getting it. Someone help?

    There were a couple of brothers in Texas who tried to corner silver in the late 70s, as I recall, and didn’t quite make it.

    • Griffith didn’t spend on a lot of time on details like this. Broad populism was what he was going for.

    • skate

      There were a couple of brothers in Texas who tried to corner silver in the late 70s, as I recall, and didn’t quite make it.

      Nelson Bunker Hunt and William Herbert Hunt. Bought a lot of it on margin, and then the exchange changed the rules.

      Google “Silver Thursday”.

  • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

    Speaking of Taylor, have you ever read The Management Myth by Matthew Stewart? He’s a Philosophy PhD who fell backwards into an incredibly successful career in management consulting, which he then proceeds to flay mercilessly in his book, augmenting it with some devastatingly embarrassing histories of Taylor and other “giants” who laid the foundations of business “science.” Plus he’s a funny snappy writer.

    • Dennis Orphen

      Or you could just watch House of Lies instead. Or both. That’s fine too. #MoarCheadle

  • Joe_JP

    Belated happy birthday & thanks for the recommend regarding that history of stewardesses. It was a good read.

    The Jet Sex: Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon

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