“Birth of a Nation” Breaks All Records – (Photoplay, July 1924)

Photoplay Magazine Volume XXVI, Number Two – July 1924

“Birth of a Nation” Breaks All Records

The Perfect Song - The Birth of a Nation

Seven years before the producer of “The Birth of a Nation,” then just Larry Griffith, an actor out of a job, found a chance to play a role in a little one-reel Edison drama for five dollars a day. Seven years since he sold his first script to Biograph for fifteen dollars.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation 5

“The Birth of a Nation” broke all manner of theater records in various world capitals and became, as it remains today, the world’s: greatest motion picture, if greatness is to be measured by fame. It has ever since continued to be an important box office success. Early in 1924 “The Birth of a Nation” played in the great Auditorium Theater in Chicago, surpassing any previous picture audience record for that house.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation 6

“The Birth of a Nation” is nine years old.

No other dramatic screen product has lived so long, with the single and interesting exception of the little one-reel Sennett Keystone comedies featuring Charles Chaplin.

Here, perhaps, is a test of screen art. “The Birth of a Nation” was Griffith vindication for his flourishing departure from Biograph. Because of the halo that “The Birth of a Nation” has conferred upon them, some of the now famous names from the cast must be recalled: Henry Walthall, Mae Marsh, Elmer Clifton, Robert Harron, Lillian Gish, Joseph Henabery, Sam de Grasse, Donald Crisp and Jennie Lee.

Griffith’s attainment in “The Birth of a Nation” must be credited with a large influence in extending an acceptance and appreciation of the screen art into new, higher levels. Here was a picture that could not be ignored by any class. It also exerted a large, even if indirect, influence on the course of motion picture finance. Hundreds of thousands and million were now to become easy figures in the manipulation of the thought of the industry. “The Birth of a Nation” is said to have cost over a quarter of a million. It would have been cheap at a million. The public has paid 815,000,000, according to the estimate of J. P. McCarthy, who has put the picture on the screens of the world.

In this single picture, Griffith, above all others, forced an indifferent world to learn that the motion picture was great. In the next chapter we shall tell some untold tales of screen destiny, rich with personal drama and adventure, stories of Charles Chaplin, Pancho Villa. Jack Johnson and Jess Willard. a curious bypath story of the world war and Broadway, and the amazing truth of how one idea and one little girl, Mary Pickford, rocked the whole vast institution of the screen and set all of its invested millions a-tremble.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Griffith demonstrating his rapport with animals — with D. W. Griffith.

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Picture-Play Magazine (June 1926) “La Boheme” – Sally Benson

Picture-Play Magazine (June 1926)

The Screen in Review

By Sally Benson

La Boheme

There is no question that “La Boheme” has everything to make it happy. It has King Vidor as director, John Gilbert, Renee Adoree, George Hassell, Roy d’Arcy, Karl Dane, Frank Currier, and Edward Everett Horton. And it has that great big heart throb, Lillian Gish. You would hardly think, then, that the fragile, blonde Miss Gish could weigh heavily on her end of that imposing seesaw. But she does. She takes the lilting sadness of “La Boheme,” and plays “Hearts and Flowers” instead.

Mimi - Lillian Gish (La Boheme)

I know that Miss Gish is supposed to have arrived. I know that she is considered a great actress. Joseph Hergesheimer and others have said so. She has flown in the face of tradition and played Mimi with her own blond hair. Heretofore. Mimi has been a brunette. Now it doesn’t matter in the least what color one’s hair may be, provided the actress herself isn’t always a blonde in spirit. I do not refer to those fine, dashing Lillian Russell blondes, but I do object to the beaten, quivering, whipped blondness of old-time ballads. “Consumption has no pity for blue eyes and golden hair,” as the old song says; and at the first glimpse of Miss Gish—cold, pale, shivering, and self-sacrificing—I knew she was gone from the start.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)6

As Dickens said, “Marley was dead to begin with.” The story is an old one, and a charming one. Rodolphe, a starving young playwright, and Mimi, a more starving little seamstress, live next to each other in a cold, badly furnished pension in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Mimi is about to be evicted for not having paid her rent when Rodolphc and his gay friends come to her rescue. She is adopted by them, and things seem to be going a little better. Then Mimi finds out that she is seriously ill, and rather than stand in Rodolphc ‘s way to success, she runs away. He does write a successful play, and on the night of his success, Mimi crawls back to him to die.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme
John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme

Not much of a story for a picture, you will admit, but Mr. Vidor has done wonders with it. He has caught a little bit of Paris and put it in his studio. John Gilbert makes a romantic young Frenchman. He is careful with his gestures, his walk’, his expressions, and he has really tried to enter into things.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)

Miss Gish alone just wouldn’t play. A little French dressmaker may be a sensitive, hurt child, and capture the romantic fancy of an ardent young man, but she should have just the faintest showing of coquetry and one or two slight vanities. Miss Gish is as subdued and fidgety as a New England schoolma’am. Her shoes are heelless, her bonnets Quakerish. She is still the little white flower of D. W. Griffith’s “Broken Blossoms.” I cried throughout a greater portion of this picture, in spite of my harsh comments. And I knew, as I sobbed, that my emotions were being worked on deliberately.

LA BOHEME, Renee Adoree, Lillian Gish 1926 Mimi passed away ... (the last scene)

The film is very well monopolized by Miss Gish and Mr. Gilbert. Renee Adoree is barely visible. There is a fleeting glimpse of Karl Dane. Now that I have written this, I feel a little as though a not-very-well-liked acquaintance had gone out and committed suicide—even though I didn’t like him very much, I might have been nicer to him, and spoken more kindly of him. Now it’s too late.

Picture-Play Magazine (June 1926) La Boheme - Sally Benson
Picture-Play Magazine (June 1926) La Boheme – Sally Benson

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What Happened to Lillian Gish? By Frederick L. Collins – June 1933

The New Movie Magazine – June 1933

What Happened to Lillian Gish?

By Frederick L. Collins

TOO bad, isn’t it,” a Hollywood wise man said to me the other day, “about our old friend, Lillian Gish?” We were chatting casually after dinner. “What’s the matter? Is she dead?”

“Might just as well be,” was the laconic reply, “so far as pictures are concerned.” I admit I was shocked. I had been brought up in the Gish tradition. I had been taught that if anyone jumped on my bed in the middle of the night, grabbed me roughly by the Adam’s apple, shook me blankly back from bye-bye land, and asked me who was the greatest actress of the screen, I was to sit up politely, and answer:

“Lillian Gish.”

And why not?

1930 Berlin Max Reinhardt

Didn’t Max Reinhardt, creator of “The Miracle,” hail her as “the supreme emotional actress of the screen?” Didn’t Maurice Maeterlinck, author of “The Blue Bird,” say that “no other has so much talent”? Didn’t Joseph Hergesheimer choose her as his model for Cytherea because she was “like an April moon, a thing for all young men to dream about forever”? Didn’t John Barrymore call her “the most superlatively exquisite and poignantly enchanting thing that I have ever seen in my life”?

Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World

And her pictures! Who doesn’t remember the moment in “Hearts of the World” when she began to go insane? In “Orphans of the Storm,” when she heard her blind sister singing in the street, and could not get to her? In “The White Sister,” when her cheek twitched as she heard the false news of Giovanni’s death? Of course, we remember! How could we forget?

Lillian Gish - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

WAS there ever a moment of utter terror equal to her closet scene in “Broken Blossoms”? Was there ever a vision of despairing young motherhood equal to her bathing of the baby in “‘Way Down East”? Was there ever a death scene equal to her Mimi’s in “La Boheme”?

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme
John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme

And yet, here was a man whose opinion I was bound to respect—who knows more about Hollywood than Helen knew about Troy!—sitting calmly over an after-dinner cigar and telling me that “Lillian the Incomparable,” “Cinema Bernhardt,” “Duse in Celluloid,” “First Lady of the Screen,” was “all washed up” in pictures.

“Ask anybody,” he said.

And I did. Everybody. In studios, in executive offices, at luncheons, dinners, teas, cocktail parties — yes, they still follow that quaint custom in Hollywood ! — in box-offices, in theater lobbies, all along the boulevard. “Would any producer take a chance on Lillian Gish today?” I can’t say that the answer was a unanimous one. The most favorable ran something like this:

“Sure ! He’d be a fool not to—for one picture.” “Why one?” I asked. “Because that would be sure to make money, no matter what.” That wasn’t much of a “hand” for the woman who had held by almost unanimous consent—from that glamorous night when she emerged from the two-reel shadows of primitive pictureland into the glory of her Elsie Stoneman in “The Birth of a Nation,” the premier position in the motion picture world.

Lillian Gish cca 1933 US Ship

But after I had cast up my totals, including those who said they had never heard of Lillian Gish, those who obviously recalled her name with difficulty or vagueness, those who confused her honestly enough with her sister Dorothy, those who could not remember a single part that she had played, and those who thought “that old Griffith crowd” was through, I wasn’t so sure even about that one picture! I called up the studio where she had made all but one of her last half dozen films to see if the films had paid. The first reaction of the studio executive to my question was more significant than any financial data he could give me.

“Lillian Gish? My God, that’s so far back I don’t know as we even have the records!”

Far back? Lillian Gish made her last picture on that man’s lot less than five years ago! At that time, his company was paying her $8,000 a week, $800,000 over a two-year stretch. And today, he not only couldn’t tell me whether the venture was a successful one —it was, as a matter of fact—but he had consigned it and her to the limbo of a forgotten past.

Lillian Gish cca 1933s candid

Yes, so far as Hollywood is concerned, the greatest actress of the screen might as well be dead! THE result of all this inquiry is no reflection on Miss Gish personally, or on her art. I daresay the same thing would have happened if I had substituted Blanche Sweet or Mae Marsh. And if Mary Pickford doesn’t succeed with “Secrets” and get back on that screen in a big way. . . . You’re laughing at me? “Well, perhaps you’re right. Perhaps the picture public will never forget Mary. I hope it doesn’t. But if Mary is saved from the fate that has sooner or later overtaken every other member of the “old crowd” in pictures, it will be because she was more than a movie actress; she was a movie symbol; she was, to millions of people, a synonym for movies.

Lillian Gish cca 1933 US Ship 2

Lillian Gish, with all her artistry, was never that! Chaplin was, perhaps is, in Mary’s class. There are no others. Say “Douglas Fairbanks” to the average fan today, and he’ll think you are talking about Joan Crawford’s husband. Go see Fatty Arbuckle—give him a great big hand for his game attempt at a come-back—and then ask yourself, frankly, if the present day audience thinks he is funny. Laugh at Harold Lloyd—I hope I always will !—but even Harold, after three years’ absence from the screen, returned to find a public mildly grateful that Constance Cummings had found a new and “really very amusing” leading man TIME in Hollywood waits for no man—and for a woman, it doesn’t even hesitate!

Lillian Gish cca 1933s candid 2

This fact alone may be sufficient explanation of why the once great Lillian Gish is no longer in demand for pictures. At the height of her career — although acclaimed artistically above them all—she was never so widely popular as Fairbanks, never so generally loved as Arbuckle, never so big a draw as Lloyd.

It was to be expected, therefore, that the passage of time—say, four years’ absence from the screen—would have a more devastating effect on her boxoffice value than any of the others. But no such simple reasoning is a complete answer to the real mystery of Lillian Gish—not the mystery of how things are with her, but the mystery of how they got that way. Well, the answer most often heard in Hollywood is that Lillian, a creation of the great master, Griffith, was an instrument on which he, and he alone, could play; and that once he found herself far from the master’s guiding hand, she realized her limitations and quit before her public should realize them, too. This answer hardly holds water. She was a Griffith creation, just as Dorothy Gish was, and Blanche Sweet, and Mae Marsh, and even Mary Pickford. It is true that he stood over these youngsters and told them just what to do at every turn of the camera. They were, for years, clay in his hands —and none more successfully so than Lillian. But since that time, she had abundantly proved her ability to work with a variety of directors. She did “The White Sister” and “Romola” with Henry King, “La Boheme” with King Vidor, “The Scarlet Letter” with Victor Seastrom, “Annie Laurie” with John S. Robertson. It would be difficult to name a quartet of first-string directors with more diverse methods. Yet Lillian had adapted herself with success to all of them. No! Hawkshaw in Hollywood must find something more authentic than this oft-jepeated Griffith canard to solve the mystery of the sudden disappearance from the screen of the screen’s great actress. There couldn’t have been any moral reason. Not with Lillian! One thing alone is lacking in her rich fabric of charm, and this is the element of sensual lure. The only newspaper case in which she had ever figured enhanced her reputation for character and decency and resulted in the indictment of her opponent for perjury.

Lillian Gish (Scarlet Letter, HiRes)_01

And surely she was not too old. She was less than thirty-two when she quit. She photographed eighteen. The only fault her admirers found in her work was that in some characterizations—for example, Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter”—she looked too young! Could it be that she was a talkie exile? No. She had shown in her one talking picture that she could act out loud as well as in pantomime. She had a good microphone voice. She had studied diction under one of the world’s masters. She had been a speaking actress long before she was a posing one. She is a speaking actress today. And she couldn’t have been dissatisfied with the treatment she was receiving from her employers. She exercized almost complete control over the choice of her stories. She had the pick of directors. She selected her own casts. She had everything most stars dream of having, and never get—plus $8,000 a week.

Lillian Gish 17 oct 1930

IN short, none of the stock Hollywood explanations for movie nose-dives applies in the case of Lillian Gish. Described in the heyday of her screen popularity as “elusive,” “baffling,” “mockingly mysterious,” she is all of these things—only more so—in the shadow of her retirement. On the surface, there is no reason, so far as her friends see, why she didn’t keep right on making pictures, why she shouldn’t be making them today.

“She hasn’t been ill,” they say. “She hasn’t dissipated. She hasn’t even been married!”

1930-128-115-Lillian Gish

There is, of course, the matter of dollars and cents. But it seems hardly probable that Lillian thought she was being paid too little. Eight thousand dollars a week salaries were rare in Hollywood even in boom times. It ispossible, however, that the roducers considering the hectic uncertainties of those first microphone days—did think she was being paid too much You could hardly blame them. No one, in 1928, knew whether the talking picture was an institution or merely a fad. All anybody knew was that nobody knew anything. And $800,000 contracts for five or six pictures from one star were just not being made. MOREOVER, there were other expenses to Lillian Gish pictures besides the star’s salary. Although brought up in a mass-production movie factory, although making her most satisfactory picture, “Broken Blossoms,” in only eighteen days, Miss Gish had acquired in the years of her prosperity and preeminence the habit of leisurely production. And sound stages on the Hollywood lots were too few, and too much in demand, during these first months, for leisurely productions. Miss Gish was a great artist, to be sure, and a nice girl; but the producers were fighting for their lives. The important thing at the time was to beat the other fellow to it with a picture — any picture—that talked. And there was some question as to whether Lillian Gish pictures could continue to make money under the new conditions. Her box-office strength, like that of all the old guard, was in the small towns—in the little picture houses, where the new stars like Garbo were still scarcely more than names —and the little theaters in the small towns in 1928 and 1929 were not wired for sound. It might have been possible to get Miss Gish to work for less; it might have been possible to get her to work faster; it might have been possible to get her to sacrifice elaborate production to speed. And even then, with her best public automatically cut off from her, it might not be possible to make money on her pictures. Of course, in just the right kind of story, another ” ‘Way Down East,” for instance, she might have got over financially. But show business waits vears for a clean-up like ” ‘Way Down East.” It was the hick “Ben Hur”—and first and last, it made almost as much money in the theater. But such stories are not made to order.

Lillian Gish cca 1933s portrait

MISS GISH, when urged by producers to do more ” ‘Way Down Easts,” might well have reminded them of the colloquy which took place between Lee Shubert and Augustus Thomas during the rehearsal of one of the latter’s plays. “What we need right there,” shouted Lee from the pit, “are two or three sure-fire comedy lines.”

“Yes?” replied Gus from the stage.

“For example?”

But the truth of the matter is tha’t Miss Gish probably wouldn’t have played a ” ‘Way Down East” again if it had walked up and tagged her on her shapely shoulder. She was through with such things forever. She had, in the Hollywood phrase, gone highbrow.

WHITE STAR LINE ARCHIVE LILLIAN GISH MOVIE STAR RMS MAJESTIC

George Jean Nathan had said “the girl is superior to her medium, pathetically so.” And she had believed it. Here was where, movie-wise, the greatest actress of the screen made her greatest mistake. Here, and in the inevitable sequence, is to be found the real solution to the Mystery of Lillian Gish. The First Lady of the Screen had not ridden to the heights in a coach and four or in a padded limousine with sixteen cylinders to draw it. She had bumped along on the broad back of the donkey of melodrama. She had been helped over the rough places by the strong arm of hokum. Her master, Griffith, was master of both. He had never ventured into the untried fields of sophistication. But Lillian, taken up by Nathan, Dreiser, Hergesheimer, Lewis, Cabell, and Mencken, rushed in where her former angel feared to tread. And what was the result? People who had loved her in the Griffith days went to see her in “The White Sister.” They sat in somewhat puzzled awe as they watched the frail, Dresden-china personality, which had stood out like a rare gem against the background of Griffth’s inspired crudities, sink almost into unrecognizability under the uniformed pagaentry in which she chose to deck Crawford’s simple, deathless story. They still went to see her—though fewer of them—in her uphill fight against a plethora of authentic Florentine settings and an engulfiing morass of George Eliot dullness in her even more ambitious “Romola.” THE faithful followed her—partly because of “The Big Parade” glamour that attached to the names of King Vidor, her director, and John Gilbert, her leading man—through the stormy mazes of “La Boheme.” The remnant remained to be shocked by “The Scarlet Letter.” Few but the critics cared one way or the other about “The Wind.” Fewer cared about “The Enemy.” Tastes were changing, too. Admirers had always spoken of Miss Gish’s work as poetic. “Something of the lyrical goes into whatever she does.” But poetry, which had had its brief lyric fling right after the war, was going out. In fact, about the time Lillian began to lean most heavily on it, it disappeared completely as a salable commodity.

Lillian Gish and Bobby Harron 1920

Poetry hadn’t been a very salable quantity back in the old Biograph days, either. No one knew that better than Griffith. A Griffith picture, whether it ran to two reels or to sixteen, was a complete library. It contained poetry as all good libraries should—that was Lillian; but it contained humor—that was Dorothy; and drama—that was Walthall ; and homeyness—that was Mae Marsh; and appealing young manliness—that was Bobby Harron and Dick Barthlemess. The new slogan, “One will always stand out,” had not been invented. It was all for one and one for all. No Griffith picture in those days was a starring vehicle for Lillian Gish or for anyone else. No Griffith picture — and this is something which admirers of the old Griffith stars sometimes forget— was sold to the public on the popularity of any actor or actress who appeared in it. The popularity of Lillian Gish had only the vaguest relation to the huge box-office success of ” ‘Way Down East.” It had nothing to do with the success of “The Birth of a Nation.” In other words, nobody ever tried to sell a picture to the public on the strength of Miss Gish’s poetic personality until she tried it herself in a market where poetry had reached what was probably an “all-time low.” Another thing, critics were always writing about “the profound mysticism of Miss Gish’s playing.” “The mere clash of earthly passion—the quality most frequently and most picturesquely exploited in the theater—is simplynot for her.” . . . “She seems to float on the screen,”—this from her worshipper, the Northern professor, Edward Wagenknecht—”like a remembered vision of Botticelli’s women.” Well, if you recall the prevailing feminine costumes and behavior of the later Twenties, you will also recall that Botticelli, like poetry, was out, and sex appeal which Lillian admittedly never had, was in. “Give us Clara Bow!” the fans were crying.

Universal Images Group 1930 Uncle Vanya (Helena) Lillian Gish
Universal Images Group 1930 Uncle Vanya (Helena) Lillian Gish

And they got her—while the first actress of the screen fled back to Broadway to do Chekhov’s gloomy Helena and Dumas’ still more gloomy Camille. The question naturally arises, in view of her precipitous flight, whether she was ever the great actress that she was supposed to be. Personally, I think she was and is. But it should be recorded in any attempt to solve The Great Gish Mystery that the best critical opinion, based on her recent stage appearance, seems to be quite up in the air on this point. After her Helena in “Uncle Vanya,” the learned Mr. Krutch declared that “we are no more sure than we were in the days when she was the particular star of the great Mr. Griffith whether she has real talents or merely certain odd deficiencies which a skilful director can utilize after the fashion of the marionette master and the character doll.”

Lillian Gish in Camille by Laura Gilpin Amon Carter Museum 5
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); Lillian Gish, Central City; 1932; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1979.240.4

After her Camille, the equally erudite Mr. Woollcott asked: “Was she a good actress? Was she an actress at all? . . . I went to see ‘Camille’ with an open mind. It is still open.” She should succeed on the stage, and I believe she will. She should reach heights which she never could reach on the screen. And for the very reason that made critics acclaim her as the greatest of all film actresses. “The particular genius of Lillian Gish,” wrote George Jean Nathan, at the height of her screen success, “lies in making the definite charmingly indefinite.”

True. And this quality should be infinitely more valuable on the stage than on the screen.

“All of which,” said my friend, the Hollywood wise man, when I told him the result of my sleuthing, “does not alter the fact that Lillian Gish, so far as pictures are concerned, is dead.”

“I wonder!”

THERE suddenly came back to me a true story of Lillian’s first days on the Fine Arts lot, which illustrated more graphically than anything I could say that marvelous Gish spirit which might—if the Gish spirit ever willed it —still stage a picture comeback for the First Actress of the Screen. Lillian and a girl friend were out walking. They walked, and walked, and walked—until they were fairly dragging one foot after the other. Finally, the other girl said:

“I’m tired walking. Let’s sit down.”

“I’m tired walking, too,” said Lillian.

“But don’t let’s sit down. Let’s run!”

One Romantic Night promotional Lillian Gish last scene

Then I recalled to my friend that Winter, back in 1913, when Lillian Gish, threatened with pernicious anemia, took the long trek westward for the first time—and arrived in California, given up for dead. He remembered, as well as I did, how Lillian willed herself to stay alive, how she built up her strength on milk and sunshine, how she dieted and exercised until she could stand, as well as any of those other hardy youngsters, the rigors of even a Griffith rehearsal. My friend was ruminatingly silent as he went through the intricate process of clipping and lighting a fresh cigar.

“She might come back,” he said, at last. “It all depends—” “Yes,” I said, “it all depends on Lillian Gish!”

Lillian Gish - Hartsook 3094a

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Lillian Gish’s Genius Will Outlast Ava DuVernay and the Canon Wreckers – By Armond White, June 2019

National Review

Lillian Gish’s Genius Will Outlast Ava DuVernay and the Canon Wreckers

By Armond White June 26, 2019 6:30 AM

Instead of having the great actress’s name erased, students should see her in Griffith’s Broken Blossoms.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – Broken Blossoms

Lillian Gish is considered America’s greatest film actress by most people who know anything about movie history. Gish was a key figure, acting in numerous classics from the silent era and into the 1980s. For members of the Black Student Union at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio, Gish is a pariah. A victim of Millennial rewriting of inconvenient history, she has had her name removed from an on-campus theater.

Oct 9 1982 (BGSU) Lillian Gish in The Gish Film Theater
Oct 9 1982 (BGSU) Lillian Gish in The Gish Film Theater

After a screening of Ava DuVernay’s propaganda documentary 13th, about racism in the U.S. criminal-justice system, which cites as proof carelessly incorporated footage of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1916), featuring Gish, BGSU students sought Soviet-style revenge. Their poorly informed fervor cowed BGSU administrators even though Gish in her will endowed the college with her archives and an honorarium prize for arts. BGSU defended the censure and made lame excuses about “an inclusive learning environment.” Higher education sinks continuously lower in the dark age of political correctness.

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No one at BGSU was educated about Gish’s eminence. Her worthiness was like a public statue of the unknown soldier; her commemoration should be the safekeeping of educators and cultural guardians who make sure that students and the public receive proper information about our cultural heritage.

Petition to Rodney Rogers - RETAIN THE NAME OF THE GISH FILM THEATER AT BOWLING GREEN STATE UNIVERSITY

Over 1800 have signed the petition

So when I was asked to sign a petition objecting to Gish’s mistreatment, I agreed with its declaration. Punishing Gish is part of an ongoing series of cultural defamations that began in 1999 when the Directors Guild of America stripped D. W. Griffith’s name from its annual awards (soon followed by the National Board of Review). This showed complete disregard for Griffith’s significance to film form and to American cultural history.

Last week, producer-publicist Mike Kaplan and historian Joseph McBride released the petition signed by over 50 film-culture figures. “Only 50?” a friend asked. “What about the 50,000 who didn’t sign?” No outcry from Gish Prize recipients Laurie Anderson, Spike Lee, Bob Dylan, Suzan-Lori Parks, or Anna Deavere Smith.

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If American art and political history were taught well and seen clearly, more names and voices would be raised in outrage. Gish deserved defense from every filmmaker and arts person in the country for the way she and Griffith distinguished human expression. They invented the expressive close-up, with its insight into psychology and memorable illustration of behavior. Gish is an integral part of America’s complex history. Understanding her work is not just a matter of being more sophisticated than DuVernay, who opportunistically misused The Birth of a Nation and spread disinformation; it’s also a matter of appreciating the moral density of human experience in art.

Hester Prynne worried for her ill daughter - Lillian Gish - Scarlet Letter
Hester Prynne worried for her ill daughter – Lillian Gish – Scarlet Letter

We see Gish’s extraordinary range as Southerner Elsie Stoneman, innocently caught up in the factional turmoil of The Birth of a Nation’s Civil War; Thomas Hardy’s updated American Tess embodying female delicacy and strength in Way Down East; her idealization with sister Dorothy Gish as siblings separated by warring forces of the French Revolution in Orphans of the Storm; a portrayal of romantic simplicity in True Heart Susie; her embodiment of American moral crisis as Hester in The Scarlet Letter; her ageless, mythic motherhood in Intolerance; and her sound-era roles as the feminine principle in Duel in the Sun; the fearless Christian matriarch in the expressionist Night of the Hunter; a realistic variation on that role in The Unforgiven; a modern confrontation with racist dictatorship in The Comedians; her complex characterization as the officious and repentant Miss Inch in The Cobweb; and finally her iconic girlish matriarch in Altman’s A Wedding.

Gish’s fierce and clear characterizations set out the possibilities for film acting and are matched by few other performers. This year marks the centenary of Broken Blossoms, one of her finest Griffith collaborations. It is also cinema’s premier examination of Western racism and global, which is to say spiritual, fellowship. This ecumenical love story between a Chinese immigrant (Richard Barthelmess) and a white girl child in London’s Limehouse slum district is a poem of contrasts — between cultures, sexes, and sensibilities. Gish’s fright when locked in a closet by her brutal father, Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp), is the screen’s greatest moment of terror, and her adoration by the sensitive Chinese devotee turns sympathy to empathy. It is the greatest of all representation and identification movies and should be definitive proof of Griffith’s humane artistry, superseding The Birth of a Nation’s controversies.

Lillian Gish holding her Honorary Oscar at the 43rd Academy Awards, April 15th 1971. (Photo by Pictorial Parade Archive Photos)
Lillian Gish holding her Honorary Oscar at the 43rd Academy Awards, April 15th 1971. (Photo by Pictorial Parade Archive Photos)

But canon wreckers and propagandists such as DuVernay would deny Gish’s accomplishments, overturning rich history for tribal grievance and its handmaiden, ignorance. It’s unlikely that DuVernay’s fascist-influenced career will ever equal Gish’s or that her poorly educated followers will ever appreciate the difference. To tarnish a star of Gish’s genius diminishes us all. “It’s not dark yet,” sang Gish prize winner Bob Dylan, “but it’s getting there.”

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

In rememberance Lillian Gish 1993 BGSU
In rememberance Lillian Gish 1993 BGSU

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THE SILENT SCREEN – Richard Dyer MacCann

D.W. Griffith
D.W. Griffith, internationally known movie director and producer, greets the press in this 1922 photo before sailing for Europe. (AP Photo)

THE SILENT SCREEN – Richard Dyer MacCann

Essays in honor of American executives, directors,

stars, comedians and films, 1896-1926

The Birth of a Nation was unquestionably the greatest and most influential film ever made up to 1915. In it D.W. Griffith brought to bear everything he had learned of dramatic and cinematic art, and that was what made the message so power- ful. But art is not innocent, and criticism is not confined to style. To treat this motion picture, in the classroom or any- where else, simply as an expression of cinematic skills is to ignore the vital difference between those arts which are abstract (like music) or nontemporal (like painting), and those which, like literature and drama, act out human relationships and social implications. Film criticism that pretends to be “purely aesthetic” is vacuous as well as irresponsible. If art is blinding in its brilliance, this does not excuse but rather intensifies the deadly effects of violence and hatred.

The Birth of a Nation 1915 3

What were those people in the audience in Los Angeles cheering and yelling about? Did they stand up and stamp and cheer because their critical judgment told them they had seen a great work of cinema? Or were they responding to the bold, naive appeal this movie made to underlying instincts of fear, ignorance, and racial superiority through the visual impact of that “Anglo-Saxon Niagara”? This is the Birth of a Nation problem, and we cannot avoid it if we honestly study film as a part of American life. Whether we call ourselves critics or historians, we cannot ignore the power of the motion picture for good and for evil.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation 5

If Griffith was riding high after The Birth of a Nation—prosperous and praised for his skill in a new medium—he had also committed a form of social libel by drama, a condemnation of a whole group in American society as barbarians and primitives.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation

There was a riot in Boston. A group of black people tried to buy tickets for the movie. Several hundred protesters rallied behind them. Two hundred policemen promptly appeared to prevent it. During the show someone threw a rotten egg at the screen, and stink bombs were dropped from the balcony. Showings were stopped for one day. In newspapers throughout the country the message of the film was attacked and Griffith’s right to speak defended. Newly formed black groups—the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—gained strength in confronting this inflammatory film.

The Birth of a Nation 1915 5

At different times and for different periods, The Birth of a Nation was banned in Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, Topeka, and San Antonio, and in the states of Ohio, Illinois, and Michi- gan. Censors made cuts in the film in New York, Boston, Dallas, Baltimore, and San Francisco. One of the first cuts was a fantastic tableau which showed the whole black population of the United States lined up at a harbor to be deported back to Africa. Tom Dixon, author of The Clansman, told one editor that this deportation represented his main interest in writing the novel and encouraging the making of the film.

d.w. griffith and robert harron taking a lunch break during the filming of the birth of a nation

What was Griffith’s reaction to all this uproar? For the time being he remained the supremely confident movie magician. He never seemed to feel he was at fault in any way. He defended himself against every attack—and also helped make necessary cuts in the film. He issued a pamphlet stoutly claiming that the motion picture was a part of the free expression protected by the first amendment to the Constitution. (This rather persuasive position had just been contradicted by the Supreme Court in the Mutual Film case, not to be overturned until 1952.)

Intolerance
Intolerance – Babylon

Then he turned to his own medium for further defense. He had already completed The Mother and the Law, a modern story of a boy falsely accused of murder. He took this modest film and combined it with a grand spectacle on the fall of Babylon, inflating both of them by intercutting two other stories in a historical extravaganza. He called the whole daring, innovative, rather indigestible concoction. Intolerance. He was busily attacking age-old prejudices, but not the racist barriers of the American North or South. Above all, he was attacking his critics. And with this rather unstable motivation, he brought forth a strange, violent picture intended to oppose hatred and violence.

Intolerance
Intolerance

Critics and academicians down through the years have looked at Griffith’s creative intentions—especially his unique endeavor to intercut four different stories all the way through the film—and they have found Intolerance to be monumental, complicated, brilliant, and therefore exciting. Ordinary audiences have looked directly at the film and found it confusing and boring. Griffith himself later admitted that a single spectacle would have worked better. He recut the Babylonian and the modern stories separately and reissued them, but the total effort remained a financial failure.

Intolerance
Intolerance

Did D. W. Griffith go into a decline after Intolerance? This is the view of Lewis Jacobs in The Rise of the American Film, but it is a view bound to the aesthetic notion that montage is the highest form of cinematic art. His later films are simply different in purpose and therefore in style, and Blake Lucas has eloquently argued that “his more intimate and subtle works are often superior” because he sought to describe “the infinite shadings of human emotion and interaction.”

Hearts of the World
Hearts of the World

It could also be proposed that Griffith simply closed the door for a while on his obsessive epic impulse—and on social controversy. He did make a grandiose film supporting the Brit- ish cause in World War I, and he was exhilarated by the praise and honors heaped on him while he was in England and France. Then for quite a while he moved with confidence in a more comfortable range of subjects. His style tended to be more congruent with the simpler subjects he chose, more self-effacing, less flashy in terms of editing, with more long takes and continuity editing—more realistic, in fact, or at least ranging in the area between realism and romanticism where he was most at home.

In True Heart Susie, for example, Lillian Gish plays one of her most subtle roles, a farm girl who sells a cow so she can secretly support her childhood sweetheart through college. It takes her gawky neighbor (played by Robert Harron) a very long while to appreciate her, but there is finally a subdued and happy ending in this most rural of all possible worlds.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – Broken Blossoms

Broken Blossoms (1919) is another world altogether—the depressing atmosphere of the Limehouse district in London. A Chinese youth (played by Richard Barthelmess) comes to the violent Western world on an errand of mercy: to teach the peaceful ways of Buddha. He meets and loves a pitiful girl (Lillian Gish) who is in constant dread of being beaten to death by her father. He finally kills the father for doing exactly that, then kills himself—an ironic end to his mission.

Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms

A short, powerful film. Broken Blossoms stunned the critics. Photoplay called it “the first genuine tragedy of the movies.” The public, too, surprised theater owners by supporting at the boxoffice the integrity of this film and its consistent mood, so perfectly achieved by the dim backgrounds and the tense, controlled performances of the two young actors.

Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess in “Broken Blossoms” (Lucy Burrows and Cheng Huan “Chinky”)

Broken Blossoms is certainly the film which most clearly extends the Griffith range and persuades us of two things: He was an artist of the screen, and he was truly versatile. He was not merely an inventive pioneer to be studied for historical reasons. He was a creator of works of permanent value.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Richard Barthelmess, Lillian Gish and Lowell Sherman

Another film also invalidates the theory of “‘decline”after Intolerance. Way Down East (1920) was enormously popular and profitable. It was a melodrama, one which had been touring the states since the turn of the century. A story of an innocent woman tricked into a fake marriage, pregnant, abandoned, mourning her dead child, wandering into the country—it is climaxed by a denunciation of her seducer, an expulsion from the household, and a rescue by the young son who loves her. The rescue takes place in a blizzard, and required Lillian Gish to ride a block of ice down the river.

It sounds both bizarre and banal, and critics then and since have often discounted the story as unworthy of a serious director’s attention. But Griffith knew there were basic human val- ues in it and he trusted his actress to bring them out. All the emotional high points are presented with intense conviction, and the love story, so long delayed, is heightened instead of overwhelmed by the hazardous chase on the ice.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith on set (Vermont)

The fascinating thing about this old-fashioned story is how modern its moral is. Of course Griffith takes the opportunity to put down the supercilious rich city people in the early scenes, but he also turns us against the farm folk, so ignorant and sanctimonious. We yearn to help this frail outcast woman, and when she is rescued, we realize it is not accomplished by her return to rural life, but by the younger generation.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish

Here is an early version of many similar situations in later Hollywood films (made by John Ford and others) in which our sympathy is with the sinner and not with the Pharisees of society. The melodrama of Way Down East not only looks back. It also looks forward and prepares the way for a time when women will be able to tell their own story and claim some kind of independence in a more sympathetic world. This is the secret of the film’s appeal to audiences in the 1920s and the 1980s: we always know we are for Lillian and against the cruel condem- nation of an unfeeling, outmoded moral code.

It is a curious and noteworthy fact that Griffith had already encouraged Lillian Gish in real life to direct one of the Dorothy Gish comedies he was responsible for as executive producer. Such a decision reflected good judgment as to his star’s gifts and strengths. But it also was some kind of sign of an awkward move toward more liberal positions, socially if not politically. Griffith had tried in a small way to make up for the racism in The Birth of a Nation when he had a white Southern soldier kiss a dying black soldier in a film now lost. The Greatest Thing in Life. He had earlier shown rather consistent respect for native Americans in several early one-reelers that presented them as not only noble but exploited by the white man. He had made further points about prejudice, of course, with Broken Blossoms.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Griffith demonstrating his rapport with animals — with D. W. Griffith.

As usual, he didn’t quite know what he was doing: he was not a literary man, an intellectual, or a trained historian. He was a dealer in myths and emotions, not theories and logic. But can we propose that Griffith was subconsciously trying in Way Down East to catch up with the world? It was a world which was barely beginning, long after reconstruction days, to value equality of rights almost as much as freedom for the strong to get ahead. Did he know that it was time to give up some of the cruder claims of Darwinism—perhaps even some of the traditions of caste, the old Southern proprieties he had always praised?

Although Griffith never found it possible to consider members of the black race equally entitled to power and position— and in that stubborn opinion was joined by many white Americans from that day to this—he nevertheless seemed to have a strong attachment to certain basic ideals of democracy. The poor and the underdogs were often his heroes. The selfish capitalist who managed momentarily to gain monopoly power in A Corner in Wheat fell to his death in his own grain bin. Rich dowagers who dabble in organized charity (in Intoler- ance) and wealthy ladies who lack sympathy for their poor honest relations (in Way Down East) got harsh treatment at his hands. During those early “productive years when he felt so close to his audience—and was making two or three pictures a week— Griffith took up the conflict between rich and poor as often as he thought it was wise. Tom Gunning in his analysis of parallel editing, finds carefully worked out visual contrasts of this sort in The Song of the Shirt (1908), The Usurer (1910), and One Is Business, the Other Crime. In 1911, along with the usual romantic triangles, costume pictures, Mexican stories, and civil war dramas, there was an outcropping of seven stories with slum backgrounds.

The last film Griffith was free to make on his own -— before he gave up his independence to work on assignment for Paramount and United Artists — was a disturbing semi-documentary about the economic desolation of postwar Germany. “Isn’t Life Wonderful” (1924) left its sad young couple, at the end, grateful just to be alive (as the title indicated), but near starvation after their precious hoard of potatoes is stolen.

wg bitzaer and dw griffith -intolerance

This does not mean Griffith was any sort of political radical. The violent conflict between capital and labor in the modern story of Intolerance is supposed to have induced Lenin (according to Lillian Gish) to offer Griffith a position in charge of Soviet film production. Lenin certainly had the wrong man. Griffith’s old aristocratic loyalties together with his developing democratic creed would have put him doubly at odds with the authoritarian system of leveling going on under the Communist regime. His inner conflict was the same one that has troubled Americans for so long, the dual Jeffersonian ideal which says everyone deserves an equal opportunity to participate and learn but the able and talented few deserve special rewards.

Rising from obscurity and poverty, Griffith drove toward fame and power as an individual. Yet in his films, he struggled with issues of class relations, economic hardship, unchecked personal domination, nationalism, and war. Even his gentlest romances often posed the question of a woman’s role in family or in society. Like King Vidor in later years, he responded with earnest, untutored warmth to the currents of thought around him.

Essays in honor of American executives, directors, stars, comedians and films, 1896-1926

THE SILENT SCREEN – RICHARD DYER MACCANN

The silent screen
The silent screen cover

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STAR MAKER – The Story of D. W. Griffith (1959) by HOMER CROY

STAR MAKER

The Story of D. W. Griffith (1959)

by HOMER CROY

I am pleased that i can pass along to the reading public the first story of the life of David Wark Griffith. He lived in a blaze of publicity for his stars and his stories, but he told little of himself, especially of his early life; nothing of his personal life. He had a secret marriage; he spoke not at all of this. In fact most people thought he was a bachelor. And, in one sense, he was. I met him only once. I spent an evening with him when he was just starting to make The Birth of a Nation. I was representing Leslie’s Weekly; no wonder he gave me so much time, for it was for this magazine that he had written his one published poem-‘The Wild Duck.” He didn’t mention the poem, but I expect during the evening he thought of it many times. Strangely enough, I cannot remember one important thing he said; and the piece I wrote is so inane that I hope no human eye ever falls on it again. I certainly did not realize that he would become a world figure, and that someday I would be attempting to tell his story. And I don’t think he had the faintest idea then that he would become a world figure, especially in a medium that later he came to despise. I have had access to his autobiography which is still in manuscript form. It deals with his early days, for he never finished it. It does, however, give some vivid pictures of his life as a farm boy. The intimate material in this book has come from people who knew him. He was strangely uncommunicative about himself. As an example, when he first came to New York he couldn’t land a job as an actor, so he got one working in the subway that was being built; his special assignment was wielding a pick and shovel. He told his brother Albert L. Griffith about this, but mentioned it only once. And he told Evelyn Griffith, and one or two others. That was all.

D.W. Griffith on set
D.W. Griffith on set

He made eighteen stars:

 

  1. Mary Pickford
  2. Lillian Gish
  3. Dorothy Gish
  4. Mae Marsh
  5. Blanche Sweet
  6. Richard Barthelmess
  7. Henry B. Walthall
  8. Robert Harron
  9. Florence Lawrence
  10. Mabel Normand
  11. Miriam Cooper
  12. Carol Dempster
  13. Una Merkel
  14. James Kirkwood
  15. Owen Moore
  16. Joseph Schildkraut
  17. Monte Blue
  18. Louis Wolheim

 

He launched, or furthered, the film careers of:

  • Lionel Barrymore
  • Noel Coward
  • Douglas Fairbanks
  • DeWolf Hopper
  • Erich von Stroheim
  • Carmel Myers
  • William Boyd
  • (Hopalong Cassidy)
  • Sir Herbert Beerbohm-Tree
  • Lupe Velez
  • Colleen Moore
  • Constance Talmadge
  • Ruth St. Denis
  • Mack Sennett
  • Ralph Graves
  • Ivan Lebedeff
  • W.C. Fields
  • Zita Johann
  • Ivor Novello
  • Bessie Love
  • Alma Rubens

Mae-Marsh-Portrait-3751868372-1568814233634.jpg

I wrote Mae Marsh in Hermosa Beach, California, and asked if she had any memories of the making of The Battle at Elderberry Gulch. Her answer:

“One thing that stands out in my memory is this. In the picture were Lillian Gish, Lionel Barrymore, Harry Carey, myself, and others. We were undergoing an Indian attack. At one place in the story Lillian Gish was sitting on the steps in front of the cabin. Harry Carey was to point a pistol at her, and this the brave Harry Carey did. But Lillian wasn’t as frightened as Mr. D. W. thought she should be, so he touched Billy Bitzer on the shoulder, which meant for him to start the camera, then crept up behind Lillian and shot off the pistol. The effect was fine—Lillian almost jumped out of her skin and we escaped from the treacherous Indians.”

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation 6

HE MAKES THE BIRTH OF A NATION

Judith of Bethulia was held in the vaults for a year, then released—not as a “special feature,” but as a unit in the Trust’s routine weekly output. Handled this way— as part of the service for which the exhibitors paid the company could not ask a higher price for the film. As a result it was considered a financial failure and Griffith was looked on as a director who could not be depended on. The public did not want “multiple-reel pictures,” the Trust said. In this the Trust was a trifle in error; the public wanted them very much, indeed. The Trust, however, stubbornly refused to change its policy and soon was in trouble, and finally failed. Meantime, the public was eating up “multiple-reel pictures,” but the Trust was too dead to see the depressing spectacle. Griffith left Biograph and joined Mutual, with a special contract with Harry E. Aitken, its president, which allowed him to make any kind of picture he wanted. Griffith rejoiced. He was now, in effect, his own master. He would not be harried by the box office. He arrived in Los Angeles February 14, 19 14, on fire to make the kind of picture he wanted to make without the business office having a hand on his shoulder. And with him, just as eager as Griffith, was faithful Billy Bitzer. Griffith had in process of production, cutting, printing, and release three pictures which must be finished before he began The One. He tore into them; they promised to be moneymakers. While nominally supervising these productions for Mutual, Griffith was secretly at work on his new and inspiring story. He was hiring extras and costumes. A war was preparing in Europe; the one he was getting ready to film was more real to him than the one across the ocean. He had always spoken contemptuously of picture making. He would say to Billy Bitzer, “Well, let’s get to work and grind out another sausage.” But he had no such reflection on the new picture he was just starting; it would tell the truth about the neglected South.

the-birth-of-a-nation-1915-us-1921-reissue-lobby-card

The story principle, which he had established at the very beginning, was still in effect: the Griffith last-minute rescue. He had added to this bare bones the matter of social importance. Poor Dolly, in The Adventures of Dolly, had been rescued from her barrel at the last possible moment. Even in Judith of Bethulia the Jews had been saved by Judith with her platter. But he no longer wanted what he called “family situations”; he wanted a story that dealt with masses of people under stress, even with the fate of nations. He had always had this social consciousness; now he could make others aware of it. He had seen a stage play entitled The Clansman by the Reverend Thomas E. Dixon, of North Carolina. The play was tawdry, but in it was an idea—the condition of the South after the Union armies had retired in victory. The idea had been stowed away in his mind; he reread the book. He read also another book of the Reverend Mr. Dixon—The Leopard’s Spots—and decided to use part of this story in the general plot. He would depict the aftermath of the war and would show what had happened to thousands of southerners who had lost everything, like his father. This would be no pitiful  four-reeler; it would be the biggest, the most important picture ever made.

He told Harry Aitken what he wanted to do. Aitken said that he knew the mind of the directors of his company and that they would never agree to put up the sum needed— $50,000. A blow, indeed. After some discussion Griffith suggested they form their own company and produce the picture. Aitken agreed to this and said he would be personally responsible for the $50,000. It was a wonderful, breathtaking moment. Griffith—who did not think in small terms—named the company the Epoch Film Corporation. The time had come! He could produce, could be his own master. He would do big things. He had two other films to finish, but secretly he was working on the story of the South. As usual, he had the outline in his head; there would be no scenario. He would take the scenes in the order that seemed best. His imagination leaped; his mind soared; he had wings. He would depict the most dramatic events that had taken place in the War Between the States. He would show the Battle of Petersburg; he would show Sherman’s march to the sea; the burning of Atlanta; the assassination of President Lincoln. He would show the Negroes being led by “carpetbaggers” from the North, and he would show how law and order were restored by the Night Riders. He laid the evils of Reconstruction on two leaders of the Republican party: Senator Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts, and Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania. Supporters of Stevens pointed out that he lived for years with a Negro woman in Washington, D.C. But it must also be pointed out that he did not marry her; the reason for this, it was said, was because he was afraid he would lose social caste in Washington. Who were to be his actors? Well, he would use the Griffith Players, and so he selected Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Robert Harron; Donald Crisp was to play General Grant, Raoul Walsh was to play John Wilkes Booth, and Erich von Stroheim was to have a small part. And there were to be lesser players. (Mary Pickford had joined another company and was not available.)

d.w. griffith and robert harron taking a lunch break during the filming of the birth of a nation

The building of the sets and the laying out of the battlefields were begun; a whole city must be built—later to be burned. Eighteen thousand soldiers had to be arranged for— men to fight for the North and men to fight for the South. And they must have not only uniforms, but also horses. An unexpected difficulty arose. A war in Europe was imminent and the quarreling nations were buying horses in this country. He had to have horses, come what might, so he went into the market and bid against England, France, Italy, and Russia. And he must have shells that would explode, and these he bid for; they were harmless, but otherwise the same as the armies were to use. And vast quantities of cotton goods for the Ku Klux Klan—these had to be secured against foreign bidding. His plans mounted; his ambition soared.

“Billy,” he said, “I’m going to take battle scenes at night.”

” ‘Battle scenes at night’?” repeated Billy Bitzer. “It cannot be done. Mr. Greeffith. It is not known how.”

“We’ll learn. Remember, battle scenes at night. That’s what I want.”

“Ve vill do it, Mr. Greeffith,” said Billy.

The Birth of a Nation - Massive troop movements wide shot D. W. Griffith, American film master
The Birth of a Nation – Massive troop movements wide shot

Rehearsals started. He had always been demanding of his cast; now he was more so than ever. They  complained, but he pushed them on, sometimes even bullying them. Expenses mounted. The actor-killing rehearsals continued day after day. He carried everything in his head; not a scrap of paper to guide him. The days he had spent working on his history of the South were now yielding dividends. He knew the war as did few people. But it was from the southern point of view. For six weeks the rehearsals continued; no scene was too small to be rushed over; no scene so big that it could not be improved. He rehearsed the shooting of President Lincoln twenty-two times. Finally the great day came. The camera turned for the first time—and the day was July 4, 19 14. A strip of land had been rented from private owners and closed off; here the battle scenes were rehearsed and then made; there was no retake. And then the ride of the Clansmen was made. Billy Bitzer staked his camera down so as to get the effect of the horses passing over him; and this they did, indeed, as he lay on the ground in the dust raised by their thundering feet. In fact, one of the horses crashed into the camera and broke it. Hastily the camera was patched up and the fierce, demoniac ride continued.

The Birth of a Nation 1915 4

It became a struggle to pay the cast, especially the extras— and there were 16,000 of them. Also there was the matter of supplying them lunch on the set. He himself had to go to the store that was making up the boxes and ask the store to trust him. It agreed to. No sooner was one problem solved than another came to take its place. But he kept the camera turning; the picture was going into the box. He worked furiously; no writing in secret now. Mr. Aitken came to him. “Griffith, I see on the office memorandum you want more money. Haven’t you got enough?” “No, Mr. Aitken. I’ll have to have more.” “You’ve spent all the money set aside for the picture.” “Things have been against me, Mr. Aitken. The war has made a big difference. I’ll need $50,000 more.” Mr. Aitken looked at him, aghast. “We haven’t got it and we can’t get it. Finish up the picture and we’ll salvage what we can.” “The picture would be botched. I couldn’t do that, Mr. Aitken.” “Then you’ll have to do it alone. There will be no more money.”

Griffith was stunned. The picture was half completed—no more money. It was a black night, but he was not defeated. Work was stopped. Griffith went to his friends and asked for money—a bitter experience for such a proud and haughty man.

“I haf friendts undt I vill ask dem,” said Billy Bitzer.

“I have friends, too,” said John D. Barry, his secretary and office manager. “I have a well-to-do one in Pasadena. I’ll ask him.”

A day or two later Barry came into Griffith’s office, his face beaming, his eyes shining. He held up a check. “Mr. Griffith, I’ve got $700.”

For a moment Griffith could not speak. “God is on our side,” he said, touched. There appeared on the set the Reverend Thomas Dixon, tall and lean and sallow. Actors in make-up and in Civil War costumes were waiting to be rehearsed; they stared at the visitor. Who was he? Griffith went quickly to meet him. The actors stared at this, too, for they knew that their director did not like to be interrupted in a scene. After the greetings were over, the distinguished author came directly to the point.

“D. W., y’know-” Griffith caught the tone. “Excuse me,” he said hastily; “let’s walk over there where we can be alone. I think it will be better,” he added in a notable understatement. “You know,” continued Dixon when they withdrew, “you agreed to pay me $2,500 for my book and play. I dislike to speak of this, but I haven’t got anything yet.” Griffith was embarrassed and ill at ease. “I’m kind of low on money just now, Mr. Dixon. Could you wait awhile? I’ll pay you, you can depend on that.” “I feel I have the right to expect it now. You led me to believe that in the beginning,” said the austere visitor. “I know I did, but unexpected expenses have come up.”

There was an embarrassed silence. “Mr. Dixon, will you accept ten times that amount in stock in our company?” He didn’t know about that, the Reverend Mr. Dixon said; stock deals were always a treacherous business. But the earnest, the persuasive Griffith got him to agree, and finally the Reverend Mr. Dixon left.

The actors were watching the sallow man and they were watching Griffith, but Griffith offered no explanation.

“Who was dot sour apple?” asked the privileged Billy Bitzer. “An old friend,” said Griffith and then, without being too abrupt with Billy, took up his directing. At last the picture was finished. So well had he rehearsed—so well had he prepared—that not one battle scene had to be taken over. All of the picture, including the battle scenes and the ride of the Clansmen, was shot with one camera. That camera has disappeared; no one knows what became of it.

(Note: If that camera could be found and put on exhibit in the D. W. Griffith section of the Museum of Modern Art, it would be an outstanding addition. It would bring us close to this great period in American picture making.)

Peck and Berndt with Pathe Camera once owned by Billy Bitzer
Gregory Peck and Berndt with Pathe Camera once owned by Billy Bitzer

The most famous “still” picture that has ever come out of Hollywood was one involving Lillian Gish and an unknown soldier—unknown, that is, until recently. The still showed Lillian Gish coming out of the hospital in Atlanta; as she came out, a Union soldier, his hands resting wearily on his rifle, sees Lillian and looks at her with such yearning, in such an I-see-anangel way that it brought down the house. The man was an extra and when the film was over he melted into the California mist. Years later, in fact, recently, it was discovered this immortal was a man named Walter Freeman. (Author’s comment: I wonder if he is living. I hope so, indeed.)

Lillian Gish - Birth of a Nation
Lillian Gish – Birth of a Nation

Then came the cutting. Griffith sat in the little cutting room on a chair with metal legs, hunched over the cutting table, endlessly running the film forward and backward to bring out the contrasts he wished. He seemed always to know what he wanted and he seemed never to tire. Finally the picture was completed; it had cost $110,000—a staggering sum.

From Mae Marsh, in a letter to the author:

You ask what salary we got in The Birth of a Nation. He was driven for money, but there was not a week we were not paid. I got $35 a week. In Intolerance I got $85. After the release of Intolerance and the attention the picture attracted, I joined the newly formed Goldwyn Pictures Corporation at $3,000 a week. That was the way things went in early Hollywood.

the birth of a nation - lillian gish - elsie stoneman rescued

It was announced that the picture was coming to Boston, the birthplace of Abolition, the city from which William Lloyd Garrison—the first Abolitionist—had thundered. Immediately the city was in arms. Negro preachers and Negro leaders and white teachers and lawyers denounced the film. It should not open. But it did open in April 19 15 at Tremont Temple. Four thousand Negroes, led by white supporters, turned out to oppose it. They gathered on the steps of the capitol building, on Beacon Hill, and demanded that the film be suppressed. There were just as many people on the other side, demanding that the film continue. There was a clash. The police could not control the situation; the Boston Fire Department was hastily summoned and came with its hose. The clash promptly became worse. The call went out for medical aid. Two ambulances were required to get the injured to the hospitals. Governor Walsh threatened Griffith with arrest. Griffith was bewildered by the storm of protest that swept the country. He was derided on the streets; he got threatening letters and telephone calls. He was attacked by newspapers. He said that he loved Negroes; they said that if the picture represented his love, they did not want it. He had no knack for controversy and got the worst of it. At first he had been proud of the picture; now he did not want to be seen in public and would go to no social function. Griffith was back in the Hotel Astor, but now he did not have to walk through the lobby to attract attention. He was the man of the hour, the most talked-about man in the entertainment field in America.

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The telephone rang. “Mayor Mitchell wants to talk to you.”

The mayor of New York!

Griffith could hardly believe his ears. “I want to see you,” said John Purroy Mitchell when he came on the telephone. “A committee has asked me to go with them to your hotel.” What, thought Griffith, could a committee want to talk to him about? Was it some kind of award? When the door opened, Griffith was surprised to have Mayor Mitchell, one white man, and two Negroes walk in. Introductions were made. Mayor Mitchell came immediately to the point. “We are shocked by your picture. You have done a great injustice to the colored people, and, in all fairness, you should take the picture off.” Griffith was stunned. “What do you think is wrong?” he finally managed to ask. “You make,” said one of the committee, “the Negroes out as heinous, inhuman creatures. Every time a Negro appears in the film, he is a villain.” “The villains are the carpetbaggers,” said Griffith when he got possession of himself. “They were white; they led the colored people into the situations I depicted. I must tell you, we have very carefully researched the story and everything shown on the screen happened. You have no right to ask me, on historical grounds, to close the picture, and I will not agree to do so.” “The Negroes never acted that way,” said one of the committee harshly. “You have them seizing white girls on the streets and making off with them. That is not true.” “I am afraid it is true,” said Griffith, dismayed by the bitterness displayed against him. “You don’t realize the impact that the War Between the States made on people. People- Negroes and whites—were not in their right minds. That is what it amounted to.”

The Birth of a Nation 1915 1

“I accuse you,” said one of the committee, “of being anti- Negro.” “I’m not anti-anybody,” said the shocked man. “I’m so overwhelmed by your accusations that I can hardly speak. But I will say this. I grew up with Negroes. I was nursed by a Negro mammy.” The talk grew in heat. Griffith maintained he was innocent; the mayor and the committee maintained he had brought disgrace and humiliation on what one of the committee called “ten million American citizens.” Griffith said again that the real culprits were the carpetbaggers; and that the southerners were better friends to the Negroes than the unscrupulous men from the North. Finally it was settled: Griffith agreed to take out the hate-arousing scenes; and this was done. One hundred and seventy scenes were taken out. One thousand three hundred and seventy-four “shots” were left in. The picture reopened. Even with the deletions, the situation was so delicate that Pinkerton detectives were placed in the audience to see that there was no disturbance. And there they sat, performance after performance, ready to pounce. But they were not called on and did not have to pounce. The picture as offered to the public was two hours and forty-five minutes long. Griffith had suddenly been catapulted into national attention. Some people were calling him a genius; others were denouncing him bitterly. He himself was bewildered by the violence of the feeling that had been aroused against him personally. He went around in a cloud, hardly knowing what to do. The only thing he knew was that he was right and that he had presented a fair treatment of conditions after the war. He had to guard himself against fanatics who must see him personally and tell him where he was wrong.

The telephone at the Astor rang. “Cora Hawkins is here to see you,” the operator said. He was delighted. How well the two of them had got along together. How well they understood each other. When he heard the elevator he went out—and there was broad, thick, heavy-waisted, square-faced Cora. With her was a little boy. “Hello, Cora!” he called heartily. “Come in. I’m glad to see you. Is this little David?” “How-de-do, Mr. David,” said Cora soberly. “Yes, that’s my boy. I been tellin’ him about you.” “Sit down, Cora. Well, he’s a promising-looking boy. I often think of those days on East Thirty-seventh Street, and how you cheered me up when I was low.” “I think of them, too,” said Cora in the same sober, reserved way.

They talked, but not in the easy way of old. “A person doesn’t know how time races by until he sees an old friend who reminds him of the past,” said Griffith. “Well, how’re things with you, Cora? I hope everything is going well.” Cora moved uneasily. Something was on her mind. “Mr. David, I always think you my friend. I always think that.” “Why, I am, Cora. I am indeed. Are you in some kind of trouble?”

“Yes, suh. I is.” “Well, now maybe we can take care of that! What is it, Cora? Are they after you?”

“It ain’t that kind of trouble, Mr. David. It’s deeper’n that. It’s here.” She indicated her generous bosom. “Mr. David, I go to see the picture you have in de theater, almost the first one in. I go in. An’ den the picture commence.” She paused, so great was her emotion. “It hurt me, Mr. David, to see what you do to my people. I could hardly stan’ it. I keep savin’, ‘Dis is not my Mr. David. He same name, but he different man.’ But I have seen your photo in de paper an’ I know it is my Mr. David that I wuk for on East Thirty-seventh Street and we have so many nice talks.”

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation

He was genuinely touched. “Why, that’s history, Cora. I didn’t make it up. My father told me much and I got much out of books.”

“It may be history but it not my people. No colored folks ever do like the picture say. Dat place where Mae Marsh run through the forest with Gus after her, an’ he ketch up—and she jump off the cliff—that never happen, Mr. David. My people never do dat.” “He was a mulatto, Cora. I am afraid such scenes did take place.” “Finally de picture is over an’ I come out, feelin’ sick, an’ I go in so happy.”

The Birth of a Nation (1915)Directed by D.W. Griffith Shown: Mae Marsh
The Birth of a Nation (1915) Directed by D.W. Griffith Shown: Mae Marsh

“I am sorry, Cora. I am, indeed. I wanted to show how the colored people were misled by white scalawags.”

“I don’t know what you meant to do—I only know what I see.” She paused, choked with emotion. “Mr. David, you see him.” She pointed to the little boy. “His name no longer David. It’s Thomas.”

Griffith was deeply hurt. He again tried to explain his point of view, but Cora saw only hers, and a pained silence rose between them. Finally she stood up. “Good-by, Mr. David. Come on, Thomas.” Taking the child by the hand, she led him out. He sat for some moments, a hurt and disturbed man. The telephone rang. Many things to do, many people who wanted to see the man who made the most controversial picture in the history of the world. Now, for the first time, money was pouring in to him. What would he do with it? What, with money at his command, would the restless, driving man do next?

by HOMER CROY – 1959

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Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916)

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The Clansman is coming to Local Theater – 1916

Morning Union, 8 January 1916

The Clansman is coming to Local Theater shortly

*** The Clansman also known as “The Birth of a Nation”

The Auditorium management this morning make the important announcement that three complete performances of “The Clansman” will be given in this city Sunday and Monday, January 23rd and 24th, opening with a matinee Sunday afternoon at 2 o’clock. The second show will be given Sunday night and the third Monday night. The prices will be 25 cents for children, 50 cents for adults and 75 cents for reserved seats. Special music and singing is a part of the attraction.

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This production of twelve reels was directed by D. W. Griffith, the world’s foremost motion picture producer. It is an adaptation from Thomas Dixon, Jr’s popular novel of the same name, and is the costliest motion picture ever produced. “The Clansman” deals with the Civil War period. It shows the causes that led up to this conflict land carries Die spectator through the war. In “The Clansman’’ are shown the most marvelous battle scenes that have ever been staged. The siege before Petersburg with thousands of soldiers in action, is realistically shown in Die picture. The battle fields were laid out and trenches dug under the direct supervision of seven G. A. R. army veterans who took part in the original conflict.

The Birth of a Nation - Massive troop movements wide shot D. W. Griffith, American film master
The Birth of a Nation – Massive troop movements wide shot

These veterans, two of whom were commissioned officers, remained with Mr. Griffith during the entire period that the Scenes were being – staged. Artillery duels, in which explosive shells are hurled by both the Northern and Southern troops, from huge mortars, are shown in motion pictures for Die first time in “The Clansman.’’ The artillery used is Die same that was used during the Civil War and borrowed from the U. S. government tor the occasion. The explosive blank shells used in the mortars were constructed especially for these big guns by an expert fire-works manufacturer. More than 500 of these shells are used in the battle scenes. They cost thousands of dollars. In directing the battle scenes, Mr. Griffith used field telephones, flag signals, field couriers and even a captive balloon.

original-souvenir-birth-of-a-nation-1915

These methods were not used as part of the army equipment, but were merely used by Mr. Griffith in staging the production. He used the modern war methods to better execute the methods of 1861 -65. The artillery duels present one of Die most striking features of the picture: “The Clansman” describes the organization and motives of the famous Ku Klux Klan, and shows more than 2000 of these white-hooded riders in their raids on the negroes. Gen. Sherman’s historical march to the sea, together with the burning of the entire city of Atlanta, is shown in the picture. The burning of Atlanta is shown at night. The entire city with its countless number of buildings and dwellings is shown in the destruction.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation

A terrific battle between Ku Klux riders and negro troops, provides another thrilling feature. The assassination of President Lincoln by Wilkes Booth, is shown for the first time in the history of motion pictures. The final scenes of “The clansman” provide the most powerful sermons that could possibly be preached against the horrors of war. “The Clansman” is presented by an all-star cast including Henry Walthall, Mae Marsh, Miriam Cooper, Josephine Crowell, Spottiswoode Ailken, Balph Lewis, Lillian Gish, Elmer Clifton, Robert Harron, George Seigmann, Walter Long. Mary Alden, Joseph Hennebery, Sam de Grasse, Howard Gave, Donald Crisp, Win. De Vaull, and Jennie Lee.

  • Grass Valley Department – 1916
  • Morning Union, 8 January 1916
Morning Union, 8 January 1916 Birth of a Nation
Morning Union, 8 January 1916 Birth of a Nation

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d.w. griffith and robert harron taking a lunch break during the filming of the birth of a nation

 

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Clansman’s Realism, Inspires Awe – Los Angeles Herald 1915

Los Angeles Herald, Volume XLI, Number 86, 9 February 1915

Clansman’s realism, inspires awe

By GUY PRICE

THE mastery of David Ward Griffith in the motion picture production field, it would seem, is now supreme. If this remarkable director never again touches his hand to pictography—and it would indeed be regrettable if he didn’t—his ’’Clansman” will stand as a monument of glorious achievement in the future annals of cameric art.

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The picture was presented here, for the first time in public, at Clune’s Auditorium last night, and the Jam of people that packed the mammoth theater “from cellar to garret” is only more convincing evidence of the growing interest in the newer branch of indoor amusement. There was not a vacant seat in the entire house – if there were, only the fellow with the magnifying or field glasses could discover them. Whether this exuberance of enthusiasm was prompted by curiosity or a wish to pay deserving tribute to the “wizard of the film” or just another example of the ever increasing tide of favor toward the “movies” we are not prepared to say offhand, but to the man up a tree it looks like the theatergoers had about come to a realization of the vastly important part the camera lens is now playing in this game of make believe and they deeply appreciate the work the Griffith brain and hand are doing in the way of advancing a worthy and educational science.

“The Clansman” has a score and more good features, and possibly only one or two to criticise and these latter come under the heading of “photographic inconsistencies.” While the immenseness of the picture (it is in twelve reels and each reel is crammed full of situations that only can be fully described by the adjective “gigantic”) strikes you as amazing, the artistic scale on which it is built astounds the more. It is hardly conceivable that a so tremendously big production could be made so realistic and yet retain its wondrous beauty.

 There is the great battle scene in which 25,000 soldiers participate (this is the press agent’s estimate, not ours; after witnessing the men in action on the screen we should say there were 250.000), the thrilling rides of the white-cloaked  members of the Kin Klux Clan, the assassination of Lincoln, the burning  of Atlanta, the capture and rout at the little old log cabin, the clash in the street between the whites and blacks—and oh, so many other moments of intense excitement that the mere repeating sends the chills on a marathon in our spinal region.

Startling all of them, even awe-inspiring, but never sensational. Quite the most spectacular section of the film is the battle of which we already have spoken, and Sherman’s triumphant march to the sea, which follows on its heels. These scenes are the very acme of realism, the strictest attention having been paid to the details as recorded by authentic histories.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)Directed by D.W. Griffith Shown: Mae Marsh