Lillian Gish had made The Scarlet Letter, La Boheme, Annie Laurie, The Enemy, and The Wind for MGM. The cumulative result for the five pictures— three financial successes and two failures (Annie Laurie and The Wind)— was $418,000 in profits. But after the successive failures of Annie Laurie and The Wind, the relationship between Gish and the studio cooled off. They had a serious argument over time off, then Thalberg asked her to cut her salary, offering her 15 percent of the gross after the studio had recouped its costs in an attempt to placate her. As always, MGM played hardball: “They all point to the harm they could do me by putting me out in bad pictures,” Gish wrote to her lawyer, “which, of course, is only too true. They also tell me that it would do them no harm, as they are so organized that they would go on just the same, but that I would suffer irreparable loss.” By October 1927, with The Wind finished but the studio postponing its release, Gish was writing that “I hardly think that I will continue with Metro. Theirs is such a large organization that I feel they haven’t the room or the time for me.” Shortly afterward, MGM let the greatest film actress of her generation go—not because her films didn’t make money, but because they didn’t make enough. Gish was “difficult” and single-minded about her work, which was more important to her than the MGM method.
The two-million-dollar film told not one story but four. Ancient Babylon, Biblical Judea, sixteen-century France, and modern America were the scenes of its four tales of bigotry and intolerance, and Griffith cut back and forth from one story – to another with increasing rapidity as the film progressed. By the last reel, the crosscutting was almost frantic. Scenes of a girl rushing to warn the Babylonian king that he has been betrayed were intercut with sequences showing the lover of the French heroine running through the streets to save her from the anti-Huguenots, Christ carrying his cross to Calvary, and the modern heroine racing to obtain a pardon that will stop her husband’s execution.
While these and other directors were winning plaudits, the man to whom they all owed so much was experiencing a tragic decline in his fortunes. D. W. Griffith had enjoyed a huge success in 1919 with Broken Blossoms, starring Lillian Gish as a cruelly- mistreated waif and Richard Barthelmess as the Chinese man who loves her. It was, Lewis Jacobs notes, “a brilliant culmination for the ‘sweet and innocent’ era in American movies, already dying and being succeeded by the sophisticated, daring ‘triangle era.’” Way Down East, which marked the apogee of D.W. Griffith’s personal and professional fortunes, was released to universal acclaim in 1920. Filmed at considerable peril to both the director and his leading lady, Lillian Gish, this Victorian melodrama features a sequence in which Gish flees across an ice-clooked river.
Lillian and Dorothy – Gish, had achieved stardom in D. W. Griffith’s films. Dorothy was a charming comedienne; Lillian, an ethereally lovely – woman, was regarded as the finest of all screen actresses. Her performance in Seastrom’s The Scarlet Letter remains an impressive piece of acting, even after half a century. Critic Pauline Kael wrote in 1968 that “her Hester Prynne is one of the most beautifully sustained performances in screen history—mercurial, delicate, passionate. There isn’t an actress on the screen today, and perhaps there never was, who can move like Lillian Gish; it’s as if no bones, no physical barriers, stood between her intuitive understanding of the role and her expression of it.”
On The Birth of a Nation’s Centenary (National Review)
By Armond White – February 18, 2015 5:00 AM
Why the smug critics of D. W. Grffith’s epic are doomed to repeat its faults.
One hundred years ago on this date, February 18, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation — the first movie epic — was shown at the White House. That screening occasioned President Woodrow Wilson’s famous quote, “It’s like writing history with lightning” — an accurate description of a problematic movie that is, upsettingly, full of hysterical historical fabrications. Wilson’s response to Griffith’s still-amazing innovations of cinematic storytelling was also an ideological endorsement of then-commonplace racial attitudes.Today, Wilson’s endorsement (not the darkest part of his own regrettable legacy) is scoffed at because of modern distaste for the film’s Civil War and Reconstruction drama — for its scurrilous depiction of black slaves while it lionizes the creation of the white-supremacist mob known as the Ku Klux Klan. The two myths, double-barreled offenses, have lived in the American consciousness partly through Griffith’s film — an indelible work of art and so an ongoing test.
But in the decades since The Birth premiered, we should have learned more than that we are superior to it. That self-serving attitude has been the point of several recent articles recognizing the film’s centenary, as if the shameful or honorable social events (lynchings, legal reforms, and incremental civil-rights developments) that followed The Birth force single-minded dismissal of the film for its embarrassing and enraging faults.To approach this as a political as well as a cultural problem: Any attempt to erase The Birth —and rewrite movie history — also threatens our own presumably enlightened social standards. The trouble is, present-day smugness loses sight of The Birth’s aesthetic brilliance, which is the basis of its powerful challenge to our moral sense — not simply the necessary rejection of racist attitudes but the too-easy disavowal of the prejudiced reflexes and bigoted ideology still embedded in our national institutions and social habits.
* * *
Watching The Birth in 2015 (as on last week’s helpful C-SPAN broadcast) makes the movie more real than recent “not-me” renunciations allow; more real, in some ways, than current movies and TV dramas that boast “progressive” attitudes on race and American history. The Birth’s iconographic representation of timeless human experience is overwhelming for its glories and its insufficiencies: Griffith’s powerfully homiletic subtitle “War’s Peace” before a shot of dead bodies; the Little Colonel’s movingly discreet homecoming; the sexual frankness of Lillian Gish’s bedpost-stroking frustration (and the Altmanlike moment of a Union soldier eyeing her at a hospital); the startling battle scenes emulating Mathew Brady’s photographic realism but adding clouds of white and black smoke rolling kinetically across the battlefields; the combining of actual black bit players with white actors in blackface, following and flipping minstrel tradition; the intense expression of fear in the women’s barricade sequence; and, yes, the unsettling yet undeniably vibrant ride to the rescue by the Klan — a moment that sweeps you up in its fervor as all mob-related hysteria does even to this day. Think of it all as an epic — and dangerous — metaphor.
“As a film it’s astonishing, as a social history it’s still astonishing but in a different way,” Mike Mashon of the Library of Congress told C-SPAN. The Birth offers that unique quality vintage photography has of engaging your awe and fear, of past lives being made vivid alongside the simultaneous specter of mortality. But the film’s second half (its Reconstruction falsehoods, with lynch-mob scenes and Klan mythologizing) starts to pull away from you, offending basic sensitivities the same way as the caricature of criminal blacks in Liberty Heights (1999), or as Halle Berry’s degraded black mother in Monster’s Ball (2002), or as Precious and her mother’s being made into ghetto monsters in Precious (2007), or as the patronizing ghetto clichés in HBO’s The Wire (2002–2008), among other post-Griffith examples of Hollywood defamation.
It’s important to fully confront the history of our cinema and media, to measure their earliest falsehoods by their present racist lies and realize how we often mask and defend contemporary political presumptions. Otherwise, hindsight becomes duplicitous — a way to fend off honest self-examination.
Few Birth detractors (call them anti-Birthers?) concede any validity to Griffith’s presentation of white American personality or admit that it’s more insightful than his neurotic caricature of blacks. Griffith includes an inadvertent (easily ignored) truth in the character of the Little Colonel (Henry B. Walthall); the “gallant” Southerner shown as inventing the Klan parallels the likable “good people” who harbor racist thoughts and actions. Almost Dickensian in sentiment as well as psychological and social ramification, Griffith is more authentic than the strictly moralizing, largely partisan ideas of good/bad behavior found in today’s “enlightened” media work, such as 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, or The Help.
That self-flattering mainstream-media perspective was typified when The New Yorker claimed: “The worst thing about [The Birth] is how good it is.” That’s all wrong, an example of liberal sophistry wrought to distance and patronize white racism. The fact is: The best thing about The Birth is how good it is, how its revolutionary techniques changed modern art — a forerunner to Griffith’s ultimate masterpiece and humanist plea Intolerance (1916). The worst thing is that such innovation was put to the service of racist ideology — and to the diminution of the sensitivity and aesthetic genius that made Griffith a great artist. To say otherwise is intellectual censorship. But as Hari Jones, assistant director of the African American Civil War Museum, advised C-SPAN: “We should not ban this film. We should not be afraid of this discourse.”
Black Americans, well familiar with the calumnies the media use against them, are sometimes bemused even while recognizing the vile intent. For instance, one high point of The Birth’s racist hysteria has a young white girl (Mae Marsh) escape submitting to a lecherous black villain by jumping off a cliff. A subtitle proclaims: “We should not grieve that she found sweet the opal gates of death.” In my experience, both Black Panther and Columbia Graduate Film School colleagues found such absurdly racist sentimentality — including ludicrous scenes of free blacks’ buffoonery in the Reconstruction legislature — offensive and laughable, equally. It’s part of the process of getting accustomed to white racism and defying it — armoring oneself against it wherever and whenever possible.During film school, classmates and I laughed at a documentary where Lillian Gish insisted “But Mr. Griffith loved the Negro.” At that time, I had a dream of being kidnapped by Griffith and forced to watch new footage he had recently filmed. Orson Welles burst into the dream to rescue me, but I resisted his tug, pointed at the screen, and urged him: ”Look! Look how beautiful it is!” Welles sat down and enjoyed the show.
I have always felt it essential to reckon with the paradox of Griffith’s genius and his racism, just as a critic must reckon with the racism of lesser present-day filmmakers and do-gooder hypocrites, as when the Directors Guild of America stripped Griffith’s name from its annual awards in 2000, a misguided act of politically correct self-righteousness.
The beauty and ugliness, the truth and lies of The Birth of a Nation haunt all Americans. How it haunts us is valuable and should never be forgotten.
— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.
D.W Griffith American Film Master by Iris Barry – 1965
With an annotated list of films by Eileen Bowser
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Film enthusiasts and scholars have come to regard this long out of print book as the chief source of information about a key figure in the development of the American film. It is now published in an edition that adds to the colorful observation of the original a wealth of illuminating factual data from Griffith’s personal and business papers.
D. W. Griffith: American Film Master first appeared in 1940 in conjunction with a pioneering retrospective exhibition of Griffith’s films at The Museum of Modern Art. As first curator of the Museum’s Film Library, Iris Barry had uncovered and re-examined the films Griffith made at the very beginning of his career, and it was she who first saw that in the four years following 1908 he had actually established all the principles on which the art of the motion picture as we now know it is based.
At the time of the exhibition Griffith had been inactive for many years, and even his acknowledged masterpieces like “The Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance” seemed to belong to remote history. It was Iris Barry’s hope to restore the fading fame of the “enigmatic and somewhat tragic figure” and to overcome the prevalent opinion which saw Griffith’s later films as less than art because they were made at vast expense for a mass audience. The book that she produced was an intensely personal one based on exhaustive conversations with Griffith and imaginative research into his Kentucky origins. That it received something less than a warm reception is reflective of how remote Griffith and his era must have seemed in 1940—even to people who thought of themselves as cultivated. Outside a small circle of film scholars it provoked little comment, and an abundant supply of copies of D. W. Griffith: American Film Master remained on the Museum’s shelves for years.
Time has certainly given Griffith his revenge for this period of comparative obscurity, and Iris Barry’s book has long had the acclaim that it deserves. In conjunction with a large new exhibition of Griffiths’ work, the Museum is reissuing her study supplemented by an addendum that more than doubles the size of the original work. This new section, which was prepared by Eileen Bowser, provides detailed annotation for all of Griffith’s films and includes new information on his career from documents that have only recently become available for scholarly use. In addition to comment ing on how each of the films came to be made and what it contributed to the medium, Mrs. Bowser presents new and enlightening facts about the complicated business dealings that having once put Griffith at the top of the movie industry may ultimately have forced him from it.
The Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street
New York, New York 10019
Distributed by Doubleday & Co., Inc., Garden City, N.Y.
Little Mary Pickford’s fans didn’t want Shakespeare in the first place, and they must have been thinking, Who needs this? Where’s our righter of wrongs? Where’s our comic? This is what went wrong with Little Mary’s four sound films: the contemporary Mary is not what her following wanted, and the few moments of the old fighting, comic Mary are wrong for the 1930s. And the oddest thing of all is: she knew this.
It’s the characters that mark the major changes, changes that were under way throughout the 1920s, when Little Mary was still the biggest thing in cinema and when Gish, through the presentation of her commitment, could play nun and harlot, then Renaissance dame and industrial-age slavey, and make us accept them all as variants on one all-basic vision of womanly wisdom and beauty and balance. Virtually behind their backs, movies turned around, as the culture did.
Gish went back to the stage, but Pickford stayed put at Pickfair. Her marriage to Fairbanks was ailing; from The Taming of the Shrew on, their ability to tolerate each other’s incompatible qualities was blunted, and at length Fairbanks’ affair with Lady Sylvia Ashley, much touted in the press, made reconciliation impossible. Pickford divorced Fairbanks and married Buddy Rogers, her co-star in My Best Girl and, all things considered, a better consort for America’s Sweetheart than Fairbanks. Rogers was America’s Boyfriend, Fairbanks America’s Big Man on Campus, his ego constantly chafing against the wide reaches of his girl’s celebrity. Mary and Buddy remained active in Hollywood doings, and in the mid- 1930s she proposed to try a radio show, Parties at Pickfair, in a variety format like that of Louella Parsons’ Hollywood Hotel. But Parsons discouraged great stars from appearing, and such was her power that this in effect canceled Pickford’s show. That was the new Hollywood: jackals owned it. No wonder Little Mary ended up a bedridden recluse sipping gin. Griffith, too, drank his wretched life away. But Gish, the most formidable of actresses, stayed so busy and vital that eventually Hollywood needed her all over again.
Manufactured in the United States of America – First Edition
The wretched conditions of sand, wind, and drought that characterized the Sundown location were brilliantly evoked in bleak, Scandinavian style by Victor Seastrom in MGM’s The Wind (1927, released 1928). Although more of a psychological than a realistic study, and more impressionistic than documentary in its treatment, The Wind is filled with remarkably expressive detail. For an utterly unromantic view of life on the desert, this film is unequaled. Lillian Gish plays a delicate Virginia girl who comes to live with her cousin and finds the life intolerable. The wind howls symbolically around the tiny shack, until nerve ends are stretched to the breaking point. Even the children, usually a sentimental high point of a silent film, are treated abrasively; Lillian Gish makes a friendly, playful gesture to her cousin s small child, and receives a slap across the face. The cowboys are equally unromantic, and expectorate on the floor Lillian struggles to keep clean. She braces herself to finding sand in the bread, sand in the water, sand in her bed. She eventually has to wash the dishes with sand. The carcass of a steer hangs in the center of the room, and her cousin’s wife, already jealous of Lillian’s presence, slices unmentionable sections of its interior while Lillian holds back her repulsion. The picture originally ended with Lillian Gish wandering into the desert, insane, after killing a rancher. Eight exhibitors, reported Irving Thalberg, refused to run the picture with that ending, and a new sequence had to be shot showing her acceptance of her life. “It broke our hearts,” said Lillian Gish.
In November 1960 a beautiful play came to the Belasco. Tad Mosel’s All the Way Home, adapted from James Agee’s novel A Death in the Family, starred Arthur Hill, Lillian Gish, Colleen Dewhurst, and Aline MacMahon. It etched with feeling the impact of a young fathers death on his family. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as the best play of the season. In April 1930 producer Jed Harris, known as the boy wonder, returned from London and produced and directed an acclaimed revival of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, adapted by Mrs. Ben Hecht (Rose Caylor). Harris’s direction and the acting of his sterling cast, Lillian Gish, Osgood Perkins, Walter Connolly, Eduardo Ciannelli Joanna Roos, and others, made the occasion a theatrical event. A dramatization of the infamous Lizzie Borden ax murders, Nine Pine Street, had a fine performance by Lillian Gish as the neurotic killer, but it only ran a few weeks in 1933. The National had a series of failures and quick bookings during 1932 and 1933 and was dark for more than a year during those gray Depression days. But on October 22, 1934, a distinguished drama opened at this theatre. It was Sean O’Casey’s Within the Gates, directed by Melvyn Douglas and starring Lillian Gish as a prostitute, Bramwell Fletcher as a poet, and Moffat Johnston as a bishop. The play took place in London’s Hyde Park, and the very large cast represented the great variety of humanity who spent their days in the park.
Selected Film Criticism (1912 – 1920) Anthony Slide
The extraordinary part of Griffith is that he has never ceased to be a pioneer. He continues to advance. He dares to present novelties of form and novelties of material. He does not always get away with it, but he keeps right on pioneering. He is a long ways from dead, and already the Shakespeare-Bacon controversy has crawled out of its narrow cell and taken a new form in the hexagonal debate as to who invented the close-up.
the tale (Broken Blossoms) runs as written except for the very finish, with Lucy dragging out her cowering little life by the London waterside, beaten into semi-imbecility by her accidental father, picked up, reverenced, honored and enthroned by the lonely opium- eater, and at length slain in a monstrous moment of mock-virtue by the insensate chunk that caused her to come into the world. Then the beast dies before the Chinaman’s gun, the Chinaman dies upon his own knife, and the cycle is finished. There is a satisfaction in the death of all three that is an unconscious verification of both its art and its truth. Burrows the battler should not survive the weak little thing he made and slew, and for the yellow man to go on living would have been a hideous hell.
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