American Silent Film
By William K. Everson (1978)
New York, Oxford University Press – 1978
Griffith and “The Birth of a Nation”
Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia, made in 1913, is usually designated as the climax of his Biograph period. In fact, it is more properly a tentative beginning of his transference to the feature-length film. Because of Griffith’s eminence, film history has tended to magnify the importance of Judith of Bethulia. It has often been called the first American feature; it was neither that nor the longest American film to date. At four reels, it was still a transition film in terms of length, though admittedly, the silent speed of projection gave it a running time of about an hour.
(This was still too long for the conservative Biograph Company, which, despite ample audience proof to the contrary, refused to believe it was commercially viable and held off its release for a year. Later, out-takes and additional titles were inserted to pad the length, and the film was reissued under the non-Biblical title The Unpardonable Sin, to cash in on the enhanced reputation of Griffith and its stars.)
As a climax to the Biograph films, Judith of Bethulia inevitably disappoints. The increasing subtleties and clarity of story-telling that had been apparent in Griffith’s last one- and two-reelers for Biograph appear to have been sacrificed almost entirely to a length that the film does not really need.
Placed side by side with another 1913 Griffith Biograph, the two-reel The Battle of Elderhush Gulch, its inadequacies are especially apparent. Both films are in a way related, since they deal with one specific “military” engagement and its solution. But even allowing for Griffith’s greater affinity for the western, the two are miles apart in technique. The western is lean, clean-cut, and builds steadily to a climactic crescendo of excitement. The Biblical feature is confused and protracted, and since the climax is essentially a dramatic/ emotional one, the action scenes that follow it—no different from those that precede it—are merely anti-climactic. Admittedly, there are extenuating circumstances. The movie was not conceived as a feature, and Griffith’s decision to film it that way not only meant reshuffling and expanding a fairly tight continuity but working with an inadequate budget. Too, all of the exteriors were shot on drab Chatsworth locations, which gave Griffith no opportunities for dramatic use of landscape, let alone symbolic or lyrical treatment. Chatsworth has always been a convenience for Hollywood rather than an asset. Its close proximity to the studios has meant that production units could commute back and forth every day; its terrain may be dull, but it does encompass open plains, rocks, hills, trails, and a small lake. Quickie producers could shoot an entire film on its acreage without any problems. The nondescript quality of the scenery has allowed it to be used for the Old West and Old England, desolate terrain in some post-atomic age, the moon and various planets, Africa, Iron Curtain countries, and, of course, both prehistoric and Biblical terrain. From the 1950’s on, an increasing use of color spruced up the drabness somewhat, but it has always remained an uninteresting location which eventually found its true level as a background for half-hour television series. Its function, if any, was to enable good directors to film odd inserts or pickup shots that had been neglected on expensive location jaunts to more picturesque locales. It fulfilled this function for John Ford in many films, notably Stagecoach and Fort Apache.
Griffith, however, had neither color, other than toned stock, nor panchromatic film, so that to the drabness of rocky scrubland was added the gray, washed-out look of sky and horizon. The garb of the opposing armies was virtually indistinguishable, and the action scenes became Direction-less skirmishes in which identical extras were absorbed into a background of dust, rocks, and sun-dried grass and foliage. The Chatsworth location wasn’t all that was wrong with Judith of Bethulia, but it is signfficant that Griffith had rarely used it before ( and then for his prehistoric duo. Mans Genesis and Brute Force, where he obviously wanted a non-recognizably California locale) and never used it again on a major film. And just as the perfectly constructed The Battle of Elderbush Gulch might well have been spoiled had its length been doubled, so might Judith of Bethulia have been improved had its length been halved. However, it is not entirely without merit or interest. Griffith’s genius for using space and suggesting size is evident from the way a few very economical sets form a convincing walled city. Best of all is the acting—the dignified underplaying of Henry B. Walthall as Holofernes and the rich, often subtle, always passionate performance of Blanche Sweet, a performance which is valid today and deserves a better showcase but which must have seemed outstanding in its day. Judith of Bethulia certainly shows far less control and instinctive understanding of the medium than the best of Griffith’s Biograph films, but it was a useful transitional step, enabling Griffith to encounter the problems of feature length before he segued into fullscale feature production.
With his Biograph ties severed, Griffith took G. W. Bitzer and the best of his Biograph acting troupe and moved to Hollywood, to join Reliance-Majestic. Without his leadership, the talent he attracted, and, of course, the quality of the Griffith-directed films, Biograph floundered.
They held on for a year or two by making imitation Sennett comedies and imitation Griffith melodramas—the latter often looking more like parodies—and by making a handful of films of genuine (if not particularly cinematic) interest that starred such Broadway personalities as Bert Williams. But Biograph, still refusing to explore beyond the boundaries of proven formulas, could not hope to survive indefinitely on a continuation of their one- and two-reelers. Within a year or so, the company that had once been considered the leader of the film industry became first obsolete and then extinct. Griffith’s arrival at Reliance-Majestic did not at once produce startling results.
His immediate aim was to keep the studio going and to meet the payrolls, and to do this he turned out a quartet of very presentable features utilizing Henry B. Walthall, Mae Marsh, Blanche Sweet, Robert Harron, and Lillian Gish. All of them were better than Judith of Bethulia, and the best of them. The Avenging Conscience, a film that Seymour Stern once appropriately described as “an Edgar Allan Poe mosaic,” was quite remarkable in many ways. However, none of the four could be said to equal the best feature production of the day. Still, Griffith knew that he was marking time, and as features designed purely for commercial needs and to make an immediate profit. they were well above average standards. Perhaps of more interestnow, in retrospect, if not then—were the one- and two-reelers being produced by Griffith’s protege directors. So well did these men understand Griffith’s methods, and know what would meet with his approval, that the one-reelers seemed almost like polished extensions of the Biograph shorts, while some of the two-reelers even seemed a blueprint of elements in Griffith features yet to come. Today, it is difficult to know for sure exactly how much personal supervision on Griffith’s part was involved. If one can accept the similar period of Triangle in 1916 as a criterion, however, it is highly possible that, despite his busy schedule, Griffith did in fact find time not only to approve stories but also to involve himself in shooting and editing. It is also possible, however, that his directors were by now so skilled at making films in his image that Griffith had enough confidence in them to afford them relative autonomy, and even at times to benefit from their initiative and incorporate some of their ideas into his own work.
A good example of work by a Griffith protege is The Doll House Mystery, an unusually expert little melodrama co-directed by Chester and Sidney Franklin. On the surface, it was almost a definitive Griffith two-reeler, building suspense steadily, opening up the chase in the final sequences to include a locomotive and an automobile, and climaxing with a shoot-out in a deserted cabin, its location allowing for extensive overhead panoramic shots. Yet, unlike similar Griffith shorts, the story was not just an excuse for an exercise in excitement and editing skill. It is important in its own right, and more time than usual is spent in establishing the story and its characters before the plot gets underway. The characters, particularly a socialite wife (played by Marguerite Marsh, Mae’s sister) and the son of an ex-convict, well played by the child actor George Stone, are far more rounded than the average protagonists of the earlier Griffith Biographs. The final chase scenes even involve some locations and specific camera placements that Griffith copied precisely in the climax to the modern segment of Intolerance. Not many of the Reliance-Majestic shorts from this period survive, but those that do are indicative of a rapidly advancing sophistication. Even the comedies, despite the proven popular appeal of Mack Sennett’s frenzied slapstick, are relatively gentle, human, and even satiric. Cupid Versus Cigarettes is not only a pleasing little comedy on its own terms but also remarkably up-to-date on two counts—as a hard-hitting if genially presented attack on the physical harm of cigarette smoking and as a staunch advocate of equal rights for women. It would be quite fair to suggest that the short films made under Griffith’s supervision at Reliance, and directed by men like the Franklins, represent some of the most sophisticated technique on view in 1914, whereas the features directed by Griffith personally in that year must be considered less advanced than those of Maurice Tourneur or Cecil B. DeMille. On the other hand, Tourneur selectively and DeMille prolifically (he directed seven full features in 1914 and was to accelerate his pace to twelve in 1915) were working at the peak of their artistic capabilities for that time. Griffith, on the other hand, worked hurriedly, efficiently, but without marked artistic inspiration in the first half of 1914, so that he could devote his full energies to The Birth of a Nation.
The Battle of the Sexes was followed by The Escape, for many years now an apparently lost film. Even if Griffith used this film to mark time, it is perhaps indicative of his faith in the medium and of his over-generous estimation of audience intelligence and taste that he would have selected this story—from a Paul Armstrong play—as having commercial potential. For The Escape, despite an ultimately happy ending for two of its protagonists, is an almost unrelievedly sordid procession of brutality, madness, sex, disease, and death—the last including both a baby ( crushed to death by its drunken father ) and a kitten. If nothing else. The Escape might well qualify as the first feature-length film noir, just as Griffith’s 1909 one-reeler In the Watches of the Night might be considered the very first foray into what is generally regarded as a filmic style of the forties.
Home Sweet Home, which followed The Escape, was an all-star film—Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Robert Harron, Miriam Cooper, Owen Moore, Blanche Sweet, and most of the other Griffith players. It was a naively symbolic tale, too consciously striving for “meaning” and artistic pretension, a weakness that was to mar such later Griffith films as Dream Street ( 1921 ) . However, audiences liked the film far more than The Escape, and critics were kindly disposed toward its somewhat over-wrought filmic poetry. In at least three ways, the film resembled elements of the later Intolerance. It was an episodic film, its separate stories linked by a none-too-sturdy device—a much exaggerated and even falsified account of the life of John Howard Payne, writer of the lyrics of the title song.
( In Intolerance, the titular theme was the linking device, even though the film was only partially about intolerance.) And as in Intolerance, the Mae Marsh-Robert Harron-Miriam Cooper sequence was actually planned (and even released) as a separate entity, then recalled, reshaped, and inserted into the body of a more ambitious film. The last of Griffith’s 1914 quartet. The Avenging Conscience, is one of the most fascinating and bewildering of films, by turns innovative and mature, naive and listless. Some of the usage of Poe material is justified, other material pointlessly dragged in. The film does substitute psychological tension for physical action; the ghostly apparition that accompanies the killer’s guilt pangs is smoothly done; cross-cutting for emotional suspense rather than thrill is often quite creative ( especially in a Raskolnikov /Porfiri-like encounter between a detective and the man he is sure is a murderer ) ; and at times, the film has much of the doom-laden power of the celebrated German films of the twenties. Its dream ending is quite modern, too, and much in the manner of Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944); the nightmarish story is brought to a conclusion, with all the loose ends wrapped up. The revelation that it was all a dream—a less common device in 1914—provided an appropriate sense of relief but was in no way merely a convenient resolution of an otherwise insoluble plot dilemma (as was frequently the case in melodramas in the forties). The main problem with The Avenging Conscience is its lack of cohesion and general untidiness. One would like to think that the film’s strongest element, its brooding power, is there by design. But if so, then the shortcomings of the rest of the film are inexcusable. In any event, if it is not quite the milestone film that Griffith’s admirers would like it to be, its flaws at least throw into stark relief the enormous advances made by Griffith during the latter part of 1914.
When The Avenging Conscience premiered in New York on August 2, 1914, Griffith, Bitzer, Lillian Gish, and Mae Marsh were already at work on The Birth of a Nation. It is virtually impossible today to appreciate fully the impact that The Birth of a Nation made on audiences, on film-makers, and on both the art and industry of movies when it premiered in February 1915. So controversial has it always been because of its racial content—a controversy often artificially created and sustained—that its artistic and innovative qualities have frequently been acknowledged almost grudgingly, as a lesser asset that did not compensate for the film’s inflammatory qualities. Yet no other single film in movie history has ever done what The Birth of a Nation did : established movies as an international art and an international industry almost overnight, and influenced the manner of narrative story-telling in American films for at least the next six years. Griffith’s methods were not new, but prior to The Birth of a Nation they were neither understood nor considered important enough to be worth copying. The incredible financial success of the film “justified” Griffith’s techniques, and at least through the end of 1920 the film was copied (lazily) by the lesser directors and instinctively—and out of a sense of homage—by the newer and more talented directors (John Ford, Henry King).
Probably more acting and directorial talent was nurtured among the film’s cast and crew than that of any other film, with the possible exception of Griffith’s own subsequent Intolerance. The film established and justified the practice of raised admission prices, taking the motion picture forever out of the ten-cent category. It has almost certainly become the industry’s top-grossing box-office champion. While this claim is not necessarily a criterion of artistic achievement—many of the industry’s top grossers are of singularly negligible value artistically—it is an incredible achievement for a film that was made in 1915 and has been in constant exhibition, including commercial exhibition, ever since. Admittedly, it might be a hard claim to support in terms of dollars and cents. Existing financial records can only prove a minimum income from the film, since Griffith did not have national distribution in 1915 and sold the film on a state’s rights basis. This means that records exist only on the flat or percentage payments made to Griffith for distribution rights to given territories, not on the gross income from those territories. Nevertheless, existing figures do indicate a minimum return over the years of 50 million dollars. If it were no more than that, it would be an incredible profit for a film that was estimated to cost between $65,000 and $112,000. These two figures represent production cost and the final cost up to presentation, including a substantial sum for advertising and such added niceties as a full, live orchestral score.
Grosses in terms of dollars mean very little anymore, when contemporary grosses are invariably inflated by the casual use of the $5 admission charge. The only fair estimate of a film’s success, in the long run, should be the number of paid admissions, an unchanging guide to a film’s popularity. On that score, there can be no question of the leadership of The Birth of a Nation. In the first six months of its release, it was seen by more people than had attended all the plays presented in the United States in the previous few years! It was this obvious competition and commercial threat that caused the theatre to hit back by coining the phrase “the legitimate stage” as a deliberate insult to the medium of film. At twelve reels, or a running time of three hours, The Birth of a Nation was at least twice as long as that of the average American feature of the day. It represented the tremendous faith of GrifiBth, who was forced to subsidize the film by raising completion money himself, when the estimated budget was depleted. Part One ( slightly more than a third of the total film ) dramatizes the events leading up to the Civil War of 1861-65 and the war itself, including the surrender of Lee and the assassination of Lincoln.
Also included in this section is a prologue depicting the introduction of slavery into America in the 17th century and the rise of the Abolitionist movement 150 years later. Despite the brilHant crescendo of cross-cutting in the climax of the second half, the first half is certainly better. It is here that Griffith’s ability to humanize history is seen at its best. His story is told through the interaction between two families, one Northern and one Southern, showing the heartbreak of the Civil War in personal as well as ideological terms. The head of the Northern family, Austin Stoneman ( played by Ralph Lewis ) , is actually a thinly disguised portrait of Thaddeus Stevens, a prominent Radical Republican Congressman proponent of harsh approach to Southern Reconstruction, while such key figures as Lincoln, Lee, Grant, John Wilkes Booth and Senator Charles Sumner naturally appear under their own names. So adept is the interweaving of factual and fictional characters that it would be quite possible to edit out most of the romantic and fictional elements of the film and still be left with a virtual documentary.
Many of the most striking images occur in the first half: the tragedy of war is as poignantly portrayed by a single shot of a dead soldier, half curled up as if in sleep, and preceded by the subtitle “War’s Peace,” as it was to be later by that bravura crane-shot pullback of the entire Atlanta square filled with the dead and dying in Gone With the Wind. One of the first outstanding examples of “painting with light” in film can be seen in the brief sequence of Sherman’s march to the sea. A small group of refugees ( probably a family whose home has been burned) huddle at the left of the screen in a stylized and partially painted set suggesting the wreckage of a house. The camera moves across to a panoramic overhead long shot of Sherman’s troops marching away from the camera, past a burning building. There is an insert to a closer view, then a cut back to the end position of the previous pan, and the camera retraces its move back to the pathetic refugees. Within a few seconds, apart from the narrative point made by the poignant scene, one sees the welding of stylized and harshly documentarian styles, close-shot and extreme long shot separated by two kinds of lighting and composition, yet linked emotionally by a cause-and-effect motif and physically by a camera movement.
Another superb moment in Part One is the homecoming of Colonel Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) to his mother (Josephine Crowell) and sister (Mae Marsh) after capture, imprisonment, and a sojourn in a military hospital. In the scenes immediately prior to the reunion, Griffith creates a mood that is first joyful (the happy preparations for his return) and then sad (the realization of the poverty thrust on them by the South’s defeat).
The reunion itself, starting with a long shot of the tattered soldier entering the frame at the end of the street and climaxing with his embrace of his sister at the door, and then being drawn into the house by the arms of his mother ( who is otherwise not shown) is a beautifully tender and underplayed scene. Further, it indicates a great respect for the audience’s ability to inject its own emotions into a scene, to accept suggestion rather than outright statement, and to imagine actions ( and the conclusion of the scene ) taking place off screen. Although this scene has been imitated (knowingly and otherwise) many times, perhaps most effectively by John Ford in a 1933 talkie, Pilgrimage, the original has somehow never been surpassed; even out of context, as a film “clip,” it still has the power to be intensely moving. Incredibly, the superb underplaying and meticulous timing of this sequence were achieved through careful rehearsals designed not so much to perfect the actors’ performances as to get the scene completed within a specific time. This occurred partly because, even while shooting, Griffith could envision the rhythm of the completed film, and partly because of economics; he could not afford the luxury of reshooting.
Towering over all else in Part One of The Birth of a Nation were the monumental battle scenes (shot in the area now totally covered by Universal Studios ) , which may since have been surpassed in terms of sheer size but have certainly never been equalled in terms of realism or excitement. Deliberately patterned after Matthew Brady photographs, subdirected by a group of unit directors who were able to turn the “huge” armies into masses of individuals rather than tableau-like mobs, these battle scenes, staged with extreme camera mobility and the usual Griffith juxtaposition of close detail shots with panoramic long shots, have vitality, savagery, and an incredible sense of spontaneity. No matter how many times one has seen these sequences, one tends to jump along with the extra, who is clearly surprised when a mortar bomb explodes behind his back, or to be moved by the destruction of a tree hit by a shell. (Griffith had an astonishing ability to crystallise the awful, massive destruction of war into shots of simple symbolism or metaphor. Despite the grimness of the often authentic war scenes in his World War I film Hearts of the World, its most moving single shot is of a brace of swans, with their cygnets, swimming away from the ripples in their pond caused by falling dirt from a bomb explosion.)
Part Two of The Birth of a Nation traces the exploitation of the newly emancipated Southern Negroes by Northern bankers and industrialists (carpetbaggers) and by political fanatics of both North and South ( scalawags ) . It dramatizes the struggle against, and ultimate defeat of, a vengeful movement by these elements to “crush the White South under the heel of the Black South” (quoting from Woodrow Wilson) and to rule the defeated South through a Northern-controlled economic, political, and racial dictatorship. It was this second portion of the film, with its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan of that period, that has caused most of the film’s problems. Not only does this section of the film draw heavily on the writings of Thomas Dixon but because of the elimination of most of the authentic historical characters, and the involvement of the Thaddeus Stevens parallel in much of the fictional melodrama, it is more open to questions of historical distortion.
It was, of course, the dynamic quality of The Birth of a Nation that caused—and still causes—the film problems on racial grounds. No movie with such imagination and persuasive power had ever been seen before. With no disrespect to the remarkable early films of Tourneur and others, it was as if an audience familiar only with comic strips had suddenly been introduced to the works of Tolstoy, and in a way that they could understand. Yet audiences were, understandably, not yet sophisticated enough to understand film technique, or how it was manipulating them. It is extremely unlikely that even Griffith fully understood the awesome power of the film medium. In Griffith’s eyes, The Birth of a Nation did tell the truth; however, it was only one side of a truth. The assertive style of the film left no option for another side.
Audiences, confronted with an overpowering flow of images, often connected by fully documented and undeniably accurate titles, had no way of knowing how the linkage and arrangement of shots could lead the spectator to the film-maker’s point of view. Thus, Griffith introduces a sequence, backed up by historical references, showing the passage of a bill permitting the inter-marriage of blacks and whites. But he follows it with a quick shot of a young black looking up lecherously, and then a shot of a white girl and her companions ( presumably parents ) shuddering and drawing back as they watch the proceedings from a balcony. There is nothing in the film to prove that the black man is looking at the white girl, yet from the arrangement of shots, the implication is obvious. Here, historical reconstruction slides unobtrusively into pure editorializing.
At another point in the film, the mulatto villain Silas Lynch (played by George Siegmann ) confronts Colonel Cameron on the street and tells him, “The sidewalk belongs to us as much as to you, ‘Colonel’ Cameron.” There is nothing unreasonable in his statement or even in his manner, but the insertion of the quotes around the word “Colonel” in the title immediately injects a note of insulting derision. Ironically, the use of the same filmic method that Griffith evolved to tell his story has been in part responsible for the effectiveness of the campaign against the film ever since. A David Wolper television documentary of the 1960’s, Hollywood, The Golden Years, told the history of the silent period in superficial but generally acceptable terms, considering the non-scholastic mass audience it was aimed at. However, it sustained and enlarged on the myth of the riots that were supposed to have greeted The Birth of a Nation on its initial showing in Boston.
(There were protests and demonstrations, but of a small-scale and well controlled nature.) After the narrator set up the “massive” nature of the protests, the screen was filled with montages of newspaper headlines, some of which may even have been authentic, but superimposed over unidentifiable shots of huge rioting mobs sweeping through city streets which definitely had no connection whatsoever with the opening of the film in Boston. Yet, quite logically, audiences assumed it to be a bit of “truthful” reportage. Through the years, The Birth of a Nation has constantly been harassed by the NAACP, which has bombarded announced showings of the film with masses of “protest” letters, evenly divided into three different and always word-for-word styles, indicating that the writers had never seen the film they were protesting so vehemently.
While The Birth of a Nations immense power as entertainment was grasped immediately by the critics, not all of them were as enthusiastic over its innovations: a veritable textbook of cinematic grammar, style, and devices that would remain intact until the coming of sound, and even thereafter be of continuing influence. Some critics felt it absurd that the use of the moving camera in the battle and chase scenes placed the audience in the “confusing” position of being absorbed into the action, resolutely holding to the theory that the audience should remain firmly separated, as a spectator only, in the tradition of the theatre.
The shaping of the screen into iris, vignette, and other forms—even the use of horizontal panels, anticipating the CinemaScope image—likewise confused those critics who still regarded the film as an alternative to the stage. But the basic construction of the film—a methodical beginning; the establishment of time, place, and characters; the building up to an initial climax; the relaxing of tempo to repeat the process and build up to a second, longer, greater climax; the mathematical precision of editing within that climax, even to throwing in a brief, seemingly unintended “joke” so that audiences could relax, release their pent-up tensions, and draw greater excitement from the remainder of the film’s climax—all of this became a model on which the structure of American film was to be based for the next half-decade. It was to reach its purely academic peak in Intolerance, a commercial failure. But so great and long-lasting was the commercial success of The Birth of a Nation that even the failure of Intolerance, considered an artistic indulgence, was over-ridden by the phenomenal box-office success and artistic influence of what is still one of cinema’s peaks: The Birth of a Nation.