SUBJECTS — U.S. History 1865 – 1913; ELA (ironic metaphor); Cinema;


MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Responsibility and Caring.

1909; 14 minutes; silent film; not rated; free on the Internet at


Use this film as part of a Movies as Literature Homework Assignment.

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TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students’ minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.

Film Study Worksheet for a Work of Historical Fiction;

Film Study Worksheet for ELA Classes; and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.

Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project and Movies as Literature Homework Project.


This silent short film tells of the rise and fall of the Wheat King and the effects on farmers and consumers of his control over the market in this vital commodity.

Critically acclaimed as the first film with social commentary and for employing cinematic innovations, Corner in Wheat was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”


Awards:  None.

Cast: Frank Powell as the Wheat King, James Kirkwood as the Poor Farmer, Linda Arvidson as the Poor Farmer’s Wife, Gladys Egan as the Poor Farmer’s Daughter, Henry B. Walthall as the Wheat King’s assistant, Grace Henderson as the Wheat King’s wife, W. Chrystie Miller as the Poor Farmer’s Father.

Director: D.W. Griffiths.


Corner in Wheat is an example of early cinematic art, providing students with perspective on what films looked like when the movie industry was just beginning. The film is an excellent introduction to a unit on the age of unrestricted capitalism in the U.S. from the second half of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th. A study of Corner in Wheat is timely given the recent efforts of regulators in the U.S. and Europe to break up monopolies in the high tech sector.

For ELA classes, Corner in Wheat is an excellent way to introduce the use of metaphor to make ironic comment, containing several examples.  Studying the use of metaphor in this film will broaden students’ understanding of the nature and use of metaphor.




Watch the movie with your children and discuss any of the points made in this Learning Guide that may interest them.


Notes About the Movie:

In addition to being a critique of the excesses of unregulated capitalism, Corner in Wheat shows the lack of connection between people involved in the modern economy.   The Wheat King financier has no occasion to meet the farmer nor does the Wheat King  meet the baker or the consumer. The only time the financier has anything to do with the actual wheat is on a celebratory visit with family and friends to a grain elevator that holds a part of his wealth. That visit is not an economic transaction.  The only thing that links the scenes in this film is wheat: manipulated by the financier; grown by the farmer; sold by the baker; and consumed by the public. The fact that the financier never meets either the farmers or the consumers whose lives are blighted by his manipulations of the wheat market is an example of the absence of face-to-face interactions between actors in the modern economy and those whose lives are affected by their actions.


Financiers can play a beneficial role in a commodities market by providing liquidity.   For example, in the wheat market, they will contract with farmers to purchase the farmers’ wheat harvest at specific prices. In the contracts,the farmers agree to sell their wheat at pre-set prices.  Thus, the contracts give the farmers guaranteed price levels for their grain and, unless the financier goes bankrupt, a secure source of income for the season. The contracts may also provide that the financiers will advance money to the farmers, allowing the farmers to pay their expenses until the harvest comes in.  Financiers can also contract to supply wheat that they will purchase from the farmers to the companies that process the commodity (the millers of the wheat) at an assured price.  In all of these transactions, the financiers take a risk that the price will change – for example, if the price of wheat goes below the fixed price that a particular financier has agreed to pay a farmer, the financier, bound by his contract to purchase wheat at the higher contract price, will lose money.  If a particular financier has agreed with a miller to sell that miller wheat at a fixed price, and the price instead goes up, and if the financier does not have a corresponding contract with one or more farmers to purchase their wheat at a lower price, the financier will lose money.  In this situation, the financier will have to purchase wheat on the market at the higher price and sell to the miller at the lower contract price. On the other hand, if the situation is reversed, the financier will make money.  In addition, if the financier already has possession of wheat when the price changes, the result will be different in each case.   The basic point is that the farmers and millers can be relieved of the risk of swings in the price of wheat through contracts with the financiers.


When a financier tries to corner the market in a commodity, e.,g.,  buy up all the grain and the right to receive the grain at harvest, he can then increase the price the millers have to pay which, in turn, drives up costs to consumers.

Title Cards in Corner in Wheat:

Silent films were not without words. Title cards explaining the context of the action appeared at the beginning of many scenes. Signs or letters shown in the film also contained words. The words shown in Corner in Wheat are set out below.

  1. THE WHEAT KING ENGINEERING THE GREAT CORNER (2:13) [introducing the scene in which the audience sees W. J. Hammond for the first time];
  2. IN THE WHEAT PIT, THE FINAL THRESHING (3:08) [introducing the scene of frenetic trading in the Wheat Pit];
  3. HIS ANSWER TO THE RUINED MAN’S PLEA, “GET IT IN THE PIT WHERE I GOT IT.” (4:30) [introducing a scene in which Hammond refuses to help a ruined trader];
  4. THE GOLD OF THE WHEAT (5:26) [introducing the lavish banquet of the Wheat King celebrating his corner];
  5. THE CHAFF OF THE WHEAT (6:05) [introducing the scene in which poor people must buy bread at a  price doubled by Hammond’s manipulation of the wheat market; some cannot afford the price and go away hungry];
  6. THE HIGH PRICE CUTS DOWN THE BREAD FUND (8:55) [introducing the scene in which the poor cannot get bread and are beaten back by police]; and
  7. A VISIT TO THE ELEVATORS (9:30) [introducing a celebratory visit by Hammond and his associates to a grain elevator full of his wheat].

The Sign on Baker’s Table:

            “Owing to the advance in the price of flour the usual 5¢ loaf will be 10¢”

The letter given to W.J. Hammond at the grain elevator:

“Mr. W. J. Hammond. Dear Sir-You have control of the entire market of the world. Yesterday added 4 million to your fortune. Sincerely, [signature] Accountant. ” (10:27)


Metaphor in the Title Cards for Corner on Wheat:

Title cards 1, 2, 4, and 5 employ the literary device of metaphor (words that usually denote one kind of object or action used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them and to enhance meaning or description).

  • Title Card #1: “The Wheat King” is not a monarch with a hereditary title. Instead, he is a canny businessman. The metaphor shows us that having cornered the market in wheat, he reigns over it like a king.
  • Title Card # 2: Threshing usually refers to the separation of edible parts of a plant from the inedible parts which are to be discarded. However, the “Threshing” in the Wheat Pit is a reference to the separation of people into those who are successful in the business and those who are not. The successful make money and stay in the Wheat Pit.  The failures are thrown out.
  • Title Card # 4:  Gold when used in connection with wheat  is usually a reference to the color of ripened wheat which is valuable because ripened wheat provides nourishment. Poets and novelists write rhapsodically about the golden waives of grain (wheat). However, the use of the term in the title card provides a description of the value of the wheat to businessmen, i.e. money. This is what wheat means to Hammond, the financier, and to the traders of the Wheat Pit.
  • Title Card # 5: Chaff is that part of a grain that is useless and is to be thrown away. More generally, the term can be used to refer to that part of a thing which has no use and is to be discarded. The title card with the words, “The Chaff of the Wheat,” precedes the scene showing people who need bread to eat but cannot get it. Referring to people as “chaff” suggests that they are of no use to the unregulated capitalist system, expendable, and can be thrown away.


Irony in Corner in Wheat (including Metaphorical Irony):

The film is suffused with irony: “a statement that, when taken in context, may actually mean something different from, or the opposite of, what is written literally; the use of words expressing something other than their literal intention ….” WikkiDiff

The four metaphorical title cards listed above are also ironic. Some people (and websites) claim that metaphor and irony are incompatible. That is incorrect.  They are different, but not incompatible.  See articles cited in the Links to the Internet section on Metaphor and Irony. The irony of each of these metaphors contributes to meaning and advances the argument of the film.

  • Title Card #1:  The reference to Hammond as a “King” is ironic. Hammond is simply a smart and avaricious businessman who has control of a vital commodity. He reigns not over a country but over the supply of wheat.  He acknowledges no responsibility for the effects of his actions on the public, as would a  good king (although many kings did not consider the welfare of their people). Hammond is different from and in some ways the opposite of the normal “king.” Thus, it is ironic to refer to Hammond as a king.
  • Title Card # 2: “In the Wheat Pit, the Final Threshing” is next.  Threshing is usually beneficial for people in that it separates the kernel of the wheat from the chaff, allowing the kernal to be used for food. The title card refers to competition among traders in the Wheat Pit in which the winners, the smart and the lucky, make money and stay to trade another day.  The losers, having lost their money, have to leave   No nourishing food comes from this “threshing,” the separating out of winning businessmen from losing businessmen.  Again, the literal meaning of the term “threshing” is different from and in some ways opposite to its use in this title card. Therein lies the irony.
  • Title Card # 4: “The Gold of the Wheat” refers to the fact that the traders use wheat to try to make money (gold) and not for nourishing food,  the proper use of wheat. The gold of wheat is usually a reference to its color and to its central role in feeding human beings.  It is ironic to equate this characteristic of wheat with money.
  • Title Card #5: The irony of the final title-card: “Chaff of the Wheat” is that this term refers to people. It is not the useless husks of the wheat plant that are thrown away, but human beings.  It is ironic to refer to people as chaff.


Each of the above ironic metaphors help the viewer understand the message of the film.


Other instances of irony in the film include:

  • The first time that Hammond has anything to do with the actual commodity he has cornered leads to this death.
  • Hammond falls into the grain elevator full of wheat while celebrating his corner of the wheat market.
  • Hammond is buried and killed by the excessive amount of wheat he has accumulated.


Monopoly Contrasted with a “Corner in a Commodity”


Monopoly occurs when a company or entity completely controls the production, distribution, or sale of a product or service.  The monopoly can control more than one aspect of the creation and distribution process. That is, it can monopolize both production and distribution of the product or service, or it can combine control of distribution and sale, or control of all three: production, distribution, and sale.  In a monopoly situation, customers of the product or service, be they businesses or consumers, have no choice but to buy from the monopolist who can raise price at will and stifle competition.


A corner on a market in a commodity is similar to a monopoly in that one person or company controls a market and can manipulate that market for its own benefit at the expense of everyone else.  However, the term “ corner” is used only in relation to the supply of  something that is grown, mined, or manufactured, , e.g., wheat, gold, or silver. A person or company that controls enough of the supply of a particular commodity so that it has the power to set the price of the commodity is said to have cornered that market.

Other Notes:

This film has multiple examples of “collision montage:” two shots whose juxtaposition creates a new meaning not contained within the parameters of the respective shots:

Shot “A” compared to Shot “B” —> New meaning not shown in either “A” or “B”; shot “C” may embody, extent or comment on the new meaning.

  • Corner in Wheat is adapted from a novel and a short story by Frank Norris, titled The Pit and A Deal in Wheat, respectively.
  • D.W. Griffith, notorious for his racist film Birth of a Nation, directed Corner in Wheat.   However, none of Griffiths’ racist attitudes intrude into the message of the film. People usually do not consistently harbor valid or invalid ideas.  . A racist can have an insightful comment on the excesses of unregulated capitalism.


Before Showing the Film:

Students should know the meaning of the following terms:

  • To sow a crop is to spread seed by throwing it onto the ground. Show students a picture of the painting entitled “The Sower” by Jean-François Millet (1850). This is an iconic image of a farmer sowing a crop. [Don’t tell students before screening the film that scenes in the movie intentionally evoke the image shown in this painting.] The next step in the process of growing wheat is to harrow the ground, i.e., cover the seeds with earth. [This is shown in the movie by the horse drawn farm implement that follows the sowers.]

The Sower, Millet, 1890


  • The pit is the trading floor of a market in stocks, commodities, or futures.
  • In a traditional commodities market businessmen make contracts to sell or purchase various commodities including crops such as wheat.
  • To “corner a market” is to gain enough control over the supply of a commodity that you are able to set the price. The story shown in this film was based on an incident in 1887 in which Chicago financier Joseph Leiter tried to buy enough wheat and enough contracts to receive wheat in the future so that he could control the market in wheat. His intent, once he had established his corner on wheat, was to raise the price. His effort almost succeeded. There have been attempts to corner the markets in other commodities, such as  gold, silver, and onions.

Attempts to make a large profit by gaining control of a resource go back to ancient times. Aristotle in his classic book, The Politics (Book I Section 1259a), describes a monopoly in the olive-press business created by a philosopher named Thales of Miletus. Note that in the ancient world, the term philosopher included persons who tried to discover how the natural world worked, fulfilling the role that scientists play in modern times. Aristotle wrote:

Thales, so the story goes, because of his poverty was taunted with the uselessness of philosophy; but from his knowledge of astronomy he had observed while it was still winter that there was going to be a large crop of olives, so he raised a small sum of money and paid round deposits for the whole of the olive-presses in Miletus and Chios, which he hired at a low rent as nobody was running him up; and when the season arrived, there was a sudden demand for a number of presses at the same time, and by letting them out on what terms he liked he realized a large sum of money, so proving that it is easy for philosophers to be rich if they choose.

  • A grain elevator is a tall building used to store grain.  Grain elevators have equipment for conveying grain to the top of the elevator and then storing it in large  bins. Farmers began to use grain elevators in the U.S. and Canada during the second half of the 19th century when mechanization allowed them to advance from subsistence-based agriculture to sellling large amounts of gain in cash markets. Financiers also used grain elevators to store grain that they had purchased.


  • “Chaff” is the husk of wheat that is not useful as food and is separated by winnowing or threshing. To “thresh” is to separate the digestible part of wheat from the chaff, which is thrown away, used to feed livestock or put to some use other than food for human beings.


  • Wheat has been a staple of human nutrition since the beginning of the agricultural revolution. It is still one of the most widely gown food crops in the world, and is an important source of plant-protein in the human diet. Wheat is usually consumed as bread or in cereal. Insufficient supplies of wheat to make enough bread to feed populations has been and continues to be a source of civil unrest, revolution, and mass migration.


  • The first commercial movies, starting in the mid-1890s, were visual only and did not include sound. The technology to synchronize film with recordings of the human voice did not exist until the late 1920s. Before that time, sound for movies would be music provided by a pianist or an organist.  In large cities, symphony orchestras were, on occasion, employed to provide music for films. Sometimes, readers would be employed to announce the title cards for audiences. Movies at the time were not considered “silent.” That is a term developed after the invention of technology that allowed filmmakers to link recordings of dialogue with what is shown on the screen.  Movies did not include spoken dialog until 1927 with the The Jazz Singer. (The term “silent film” is an example of a “retronym,” a term developed after the fact to contrast something with later developments.)


Several of the short silent movies made for the Biograph Company by director D. W. Griffith contain innovations that are important to the development of filmmaking.  They include Corner in Wheat, which is the first movie with meaningful social commentary. In this movie Griffiths demonstrates how careful juxtaposition of scenes can create meaning by showing relationship and comparing people, places, things, or situations. In Corner in Wheat Griffith also made repeated use of metaphor that is ironic.


After Showing the Movie:

The second scene of the film shows horses drawing a farm implement following the Poor Farmer and his father as they spread seed. The farm instrument drawn by the horse is called a harrow. A harrow consists of a heavy frame set with teeth or discs which are dragged over land to break up clods of dirt, remove weeds, and cover seed. As a verb, the word “harrow” means to till the earth with a harrowing machine.  An alternate meaning is to  annoy, vex, or harass.

The scenes of farm life are totally unrealistic in one respect. They don’t show the farmer’s wife working. In fact, the lives of women on farms were characterized by ceaseless toil, cooking, cleaning and washing without any labor saving devices, helping with farm work, etc. In fact, female  life in rural areas was so difficult that depression or other mental illness was frequent among women in farming communities. Often they had to be hospitalized.

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1. A class activity is to go through each of the title cards, play the scene that comes after it, and discuss:

    • Is there a metaphor in this title card, and if so, what is it?
    • Is there irony in this title card, and if so, what is it?

[Note:  there are metaphors only in title cards #s 1, 2, 4, and 5. These are all ironic.]

2. Another possible class activity is to review each scene of the film and elicit observations from students about how the scene and its positioning with the scenes that surround it advance the argument of the film.

3. Ask various students, “What is the message that you take away from this film?”

Suggested Response:  

There is no one correct response.  Any reasoned response should be respected.  We see several ways to describe the message of the film:  (a) Unregulated capitalism leads to the excessive accumulation of wealth, deprivation of the poor, and is not an efficient or equitable economic system;  (b) an economic systems with  large inequalities of income and wealth is not an efficient or equitable; (c) economic success depends on both chance (the trader who flips a coin) and smart moves (Hammond figuring out how to corner the market in wheat); (d) actors in the modern economy are isolated from the people affected by their actions; and (e)  in our actions in the economy (in our job or business), we should make sure that we do not harm others.  See also the responses to Discussion Questions 6 and 7.

4. What  is the difference between a monopoly and a corner?

Suggested Response:  

They have similarities, yet there are differences as well.  A monopoly is control of the means of production, distribution or sale of a product or a service such that the monopolist can set price and/or stifle competition.  A corner is on a commodity, such as wheat, sugar, iron, or gold.  The person or entity that has cornered the market in a commodity has a large enough share of the supply of that commodity that it has the power to set the price.    [A good follow up to this question is to ask students if they know of any companies that are monopolies.]

5. What are some of the contrasts shown in this film?

Suggested Response:  

Plenty vs. need, mental labor vs. physical labor, and productive vs. non-productive work.  Students may come up with more contrasts.

6.  Describe an irony in the death of the “Wheat King.”  Give this instruction to more than one student in the class.  We found three. Students may come up with more.]

Suggested Response:  

We see three:  (a) Hammond, the Wheat King,  dies from his success, buried in the excessive amount of wheat that he owns;  (b) the first time  Hammond is in the presence of large amounts of the wheat he has accumulated, it results in his death; and (c) Hammond slips and falls into the grain bin while celebrating his corner on the wheat market.

7. Does the death of the Wheat King help the farmer or the consumer?  What does this fact mean for the message of the film.

Suggested Response:  

Hammond’s death doesn’t help either farmer or consumer.  The last scene shows the farmer alone in the field, wearily sowing wheat.  It is a bleak shot with no hope in it.  When we last saw the consumers they were being beaten back by the police officers.  Bread is still at its doubled price.  This fact means that it is up to us, the viewers, to take action to stop predation by the Wheat Kings of the world.

8. What does this film say about unrestrained unregulated capitalism?

Suggested Response:  

It hurts farmers, many people in business, and, especially, consumers, the common man.  Corner in Wheat tells us that the rich manipulators may eventually die from their own excessive accumulation of wealth, in this case wheat.  However,, that death doesn’t help the farmers, the poor, or other business owners damaged by the actions of the manipulaters.

9. The scene in the Wheat Pit shows one of the traders making a decision by tossing a coin.  What does this tell us about the nature of success in the pit?

Suggested Response:  

That sheer luck has a lot to do with making money in the Wheat Pit and, more generally, that luck is imiportant to economic success.

10. There is an element of “poetic justice” in this movie.  What is it?

Suggested Response:  

Hammond dies in the grain elevator buried under the surplus of wheat that he has accumulated with this market manipulation.  The last thing we see of him is a hand reaching upward trying to get above the over-abundance of his wheat that is falling down on him. His effort fails and he dies, buried in the excessive amount of the commodity that he owns.

11. How would you characterize the scenes of the farm fields in the film and what do they show?

Suggested Response: 

They are bleak and show none of the beauty or vibrance of nature.  They show the hardship of the poor farmer trying to wrest a living from the land.


For more discussion questions, see Discussion Questions for Any Film that is a Work of Fiction.


1. What was the mistake that W.J. Hammond made in his choice of career?

Suggested Response:

He didn’t consider whether his actions were socially beneficial. He didn’t think about their effects on others.


See also, Discussion Questions 3 and 6 – 10.



1. Go through selected title cards 1 – 7 and the scenes that immediately follow. As to each, write a paragraph stating and justifying a position on: 1) whether there is a metaphor in the title card, and if so, what is it; and 2) whether there is irony in the title card, and if so, what is it.

2. Choose five scenes from the film that are important to the argument made in the film and, for each, write a paragraph on how the scene, and its comparison with the scenes before and after, advance the argument of the film.

3. Assignments, Projects, and Activities for Use with Any Film That Is a Work of Fiction


Multimedia: Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.

Reading: Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 7 and 8 for Reading and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 35 & 60.

Writing: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.

Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.

Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.





Metaphor and Irony


The articles cited in the Links to the Internet Section and American Lightening: Terror, Mystery, and the Birth of Hollywood, by Howard Blum, Three Rivers Press, 2008, Chapter 3.

This Learning Guide was written by James A. Frieden. It was published on April 5, 2024.

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