Griffith and “The Birth of a Nation” – By William K. Everson (1978)

American Silent Film

By William K. Everson (1978)

New York, Oxford University Press – 1978

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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.

Movies in America - Judith of Bethulia (Her Condoned Sin)
Movies in America – Judith of Bethulia (Her Condoned Sin)

(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.

The Battle at Elderbrush Gush Poster 1913 b
The Battle at Elderbrush Gush Poster 1913 EU

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.

D. W. Griffith's The Battle at Elderbush Gulch and John Ford's Straight Shooting
D. W. Griffith’s The Battle at Elderbush Gulch and John Ford’s Straight Shooting

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.

Lillian Gish Richard Barthelmess Dorothy Gish and Donald Crisp - Biograph team
Lillian Gish Richard Barthelmess Dorothy Gish and Donald Crisp – Biograph team

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.

J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith
J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith

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.

The Doll House Mistery
The Doll House Mistery

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.

Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in The Battle of the Sexes (1914)
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in The Battle of the Sexes (1914)

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
Home Sweet Home

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.

'Dream Street' (D.W. Griffith, 1921)
‘Dream Street’ (D.W. Griffith, 1921) lobby card

( 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.

Lillian Gish Promotional Hartsook - The Clansman (The Birth of a Nation)
Lillian Gish Promotional Hartsook – The Clansman (The Birth of a Nation)

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).

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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.

Movies in America - Birth of a Nation
Movies in America – Birth of a Nation

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.

The Birth of a Nation 1915 2

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.

Birth of a Nation Final Battle - Henry B Walthall
Birth of a Nation Final Battle – Henry B Walthall

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-birth-of-a-nation-1915-uk-programme
The Birth of a Nation – 1915 UK Programme

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.

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

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.)

The Birth of a Nation 1915 1

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.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman (Birth of A Nation)
Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman (Birth of A Nation)

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.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Sroneman in Birth of a Nation
Lillian Gish as Elsie Sroneman in Birth of a Nation

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.

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

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.

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

(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.

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

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-Birth-of-a-Nation-in-theatres
Theatres advertising “The Birth of a Nation”

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.

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

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

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Lost Hollywood – By David Wallace – 2001

Lost Hollywood

Lost Hollywood

By David Wallace – 2001

The generic “thing” we think of as Hollywood likes to destroy and bury its past. Most traces of the original la-la-land are dead, buried, and gone. But now the maestro of entertainment history, David Wallace, has unearthed real treasures. Archaeology is a passion of mine. And so are the movies: the history of the movies, the making of movies, and the stars we have all known, loved, or hated. This book combines both of my passions, examining the priceless and fascinating past of Hollywoodland.

Hollywoodland was the original lettering of the famous sign that hovers, iconlike above the Hollywood Hills. Today it exists simply as “Hollywood,” but what a tale Wallace has to tell of how this great symbol fell into disrepair and was almost obliterated altogether.

hollywoodland

Here we get the foibles, follies, houses, yachts, cars, studios, and restaurants of the glorious and glamorous yesterdays when stars really caught the public s imagination. This was America s beginning love affair with the cult of celebrity. These were the early silent years when flicks were the opium of the masses and audiences believed every word written in Photoplay and Modern Screen. There was the invention of sound and every other technical achievement one could dream of. But chiefly there were stars and star makers. Can you think of anyone famous today who would lure ten thousand people to a funeral? Princess Diana comes to mind, but in the early screen days William Desmond Taylor lured them because he had been murdered. The silent-screen beauty Mary Miles Minter was implicated in this still unsolved death, and she fainted at his funeral. Lost Hollywood is crammed with such stories.

Cinema old

Ghosts exist.

In film, images (ghosts) of people we love or hate do the things we fantasize about or recoil from in stories and settings equally phantasmal.

The ghosts of Hollywood embody and animate our collective and individual consciences, our ethics, our relationships, our dreams, and our darkest sides. The stories that flicker on the silver screen, and the people who bring them to life—the actors, producers, directors, crews, and publicists—have shaped the way we live. It has been said that the real challenge for a storyteller in relating a pre-Christian tale is to remove Christian values from the characters’ motivations and actions. I believe that for a storyteller a few centuries down the way, it will be even harder to remove values of the movie era from today’s civilization. Film, in its century, has changed civilization as profoundly as Christianity shaped Western culture in the previous nineteen centuries.

Intolerance
Intolerance

Art, architecture, fashion, design, literature, music, dance, social behaviors—even religion itself—have all been consumed by him and changed. Gods and goddesses far more dynamic and powerful than any in ancient mythology have been raised up and cast down.

It was all an accident; Hollywood, that is. The town that would become so proficient at creating fake accidents to amuse, fascinate, or terrify a future audience numbering in the billions was itself a serendipitous product of the right timing and the right location. It was neither a transportation nexus like the river town of Pittsburgh nor a harbor city like San Francisco (or Hollywood’s neighbor, the Los Angeles harbor city of San Pedro) nor a railroad town like Omaha or even nearby San Bernardino. In the beginning, it was nothing.

Nothing, that is, except a place of gentle hills rolling southward below a number of canyons that carried winter runoff from the slopes of the yet-to-be named Santa Monica Mountains near a wide pass that led to the also unnamed San Fernando Valley.

Death Takes DW Griffith
Death Takes DW Griffith

Griffith died on July 24, 1948, after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage in that lonely room where, to keep them cool, he often stored apples and sodas on the sill of the window from which he could see his past. (Not far from Griffith’s room Elvis Presley later lived and was inspired to write “Heartbreak Hotel.”)

American Academy of Dramatic Arts Honor New-York USA Cecil B Demille - 16 dec 1958
American Academy of Dramatic Arts Honor New-York USA Cecil B Demille – 16 dec 1958

The only celebrity who visited the funeral home was a director whose fame also stemmed from creating popular epics: Cecil B. DeMille. A few more of Hollywood’s famous, some of whom, like Lionel Barrymore and Mack Sennett, owed their film-career starts to him, showed up for the funeral in the half-filled Masonic Temple. Some, like Mary Pickford, whose career was launched by Griffith when she was sixteen, didn’t show up at all. Many of the funeral guests shunned honorary pallbearers like Louis B. Mayer (who, after his career change from junk dealer to film exhibitor, made a fortune from The Birth of a Nation) and Samuel Goldwyn, both of whom could have given Griffith work in his later years but didn’t.

Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish at Griffith's Memorial Lagrange Kentucky May 14, 1950
Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish at Griffith’s Memorial Lagrange Kentucky May 14, 1950

When he was laid to rest in a tiny, rural graveyard in his native Kentucky, next to his father who first entranced him with the tales of Confederate derring-do that would inspire much of The Birth of a Nation, only one star of the many who owed their careers to him was there: Lillian Gish.

It was a four-hanky story Griffith would have loved filming.

D.W. Griffith was born on January 22, 1875, in La Grange, Kentucky. His father, Jacob, died when David was ten, after a life spent as a sometime politician, full-time farmer, and passionate Confederate loyalist. Davids mother, Mary, was the quiet, affectionate anchor of the family.

Lawrence Griffith, third from left at back, with the MeffertStock Company, Louisville, Kentucky 2897-98
Lawrence Griffith, third from left at back, with the MeffertStock Company, Louisville, Kentucky 2897-98

Griffith wanted to be an actor from an early age, and for a number of years trod the boards in Louisville and on the road. In 1905, he first visited Los Angeles, cast as an Indian in a stage adaptation of Helen Hunt Jacksons then-popular novel Ramona (Griffith would later use it for a him). The following year he married a fellow actor, Linda Arvidson, and moved to New York City where he tried his hand unsuccessfully as a playwright and looked for acting work. At the suggestion of a friend he ran into in the old Forty-second Street Automat, Griffith decided to look into films—not as an actor but as a scenario writer—to tide himself and Linda over the winter. (Before scripts, demanded by sound, writers wrote scenarios.) It was as an actor that he was hired, first by Edwin Porter (who four years earlier had made The Great Train Robbery) to play the lead in a forgettable him, and then, at age thirty-three, by the Biograph Company as both scenarist and actor. The job changed his life.

American Biograph Company 11 East 14th Street NY
American Biograph Company 11 East 14th Street NY

Biograph was by 1907 already the best of the early film makers, but like most, it was a small, informal community of largely anonymous talent grinding out two one-reelers a week from its studio in an East Fourteenth Street brownstone. Among those talents was cameraman Billy Bitzer, who, when Griffith’s stage-trained acting proved too overdone for the intimacy of him, suggested that Griffith step in for a sick director. It was also Bitzer who explained to the rookie director how to make his first film, laying out the scenario on a piece of laundry shirt-cardboard. Never, even in the glory days to come when Bitzer and Griffith would essentially write filmmaking’s first grammar, would Griffith work from a written scenario.

Lillian Gish Richard Barthelmess Dorothy Gish and Donald Crisp - Biograph team
Lillian Gish Richard Barthelmess Dorothy Gish and Donald Crisp – Biograph team

And what days they were as commercial success made taking chances possible. Most of Griffith’s hundreds of films for Biograph (141 in 1909 alone!) made a lot of money, largely because he somehow knew what the relatively unsophisticated audience of the time wanted and how to deliver it.

One thing Griffith believed was that audiences wanted longer films, films that told a more complete story. So in 1913, spurred by the example of the large-scale films being turned out in Italy, and permanently settled into making movies in the Southern California sun, he made Judith of Bethulia near the present Los Angeles suburb of Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley. It was a four-reel biblical epic and one of the first to star the talent who would become Griffith’s most famous discovery; Lillian Gish. It also went overbudget by 100 percent, causing such a row between Griffith and the Biograph management that he formed his own company—and took many of Biograph’s leading talents along with him. Announcing his new company in a now famous advertisement, he took credit for introducing the fade-out (apparently true, although some him historians differ), the close-up, the long shot, crosscutting, and something called “restraint in expression,” certainly related to his earlier troubles toning down his stage gestures for him.

An amazing series of pictures followed that would make D. W. Griffith the most famous director in the world: The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Hearts of the World, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm. The most famous, because it was the most infamous as well, was The Birth of a Nation.

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

Based on a racist jeremiad of a book and play by Thomas Dixon called The Clansman, the saga of a Southern family torn by the Civil War, appealed to Griffith as a chance to write history from the loser’s point of view. It was unquestionably also an emotional response based on memories of the heroic reminiscences of his father, a twice-wounded Confederate colonel. The movie was made in locations in and around Los Angeles, including Griffith Park, the pine forest near Big Bear Lake, and the countryside near Whittier where the movie’s climactic ride of the Klansmen was filmed. One of the extras in that scene was John Ford, whose future career as a director nearly ended that day when, blinded by his Klan bedsheet, he was knocked from his horse by an overhanging branch; Griffith himself revived him with a shot of brandy.

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

The Clansman, as it was called in its early release, cost a then-astronomical one hundred thousand dollars to make and promote. Driven by notoriety (including a failed effort by the NAACP to suppress the film entirely), it would make a fortune. How much? No one will ever know exactly because of the standard financial shenanigans employed by exhibitors of the era. The best estimates are somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty million dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that would be around nine hundred million of today’s dollars, making The Birth ofa Nation one of the all-time most successful movies ever made.

Griffith s next film was in many ways both his greatest and his clumsiest. Before the premiere of The Birth of a Nation, Griffith had made a small movie based on a Dickension story of a young couple whose lives are destroyed by a strike. Called The Mother and the Law, it was never released, and the name was assigned to two new stories of injustice Griffith planned to film. Coincidently, he saw Cabiria, one of the hugely successful historical epics then being made in Italy. He was impressed by the ambitious scope of the film, which combined the intimacy of close-up shots with the panoramic grandeur of the burning of the Roman fleet and Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps with seemingly thousands of extras and live elephants. Somehow the idea occurred to Griffith of filming a sort of cinematic sermon condemning intolerance by intercutting four stories: the heroic resistance of the Babylonians to the Persian invaders, the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre of the French Huguenots, the original story of the young couple torn asunder by social violence, and three tableaux from the life of Christ. Working as always without a script, Griffith quite literally had no idea when to stop or start on this gargantuan project. He just kept filming, shooting more than a hundred miles of film, which eventually was edited down to three hours and fifteen minutes. Then and for years afterward, Intolerance was the longest film ever made.

Intolerance
Intolerance

Griffith’s colleagues couldn’t figure it out, and neither could audiences, after the effect of the stupendous visuals wore off. But, the film will live as a benchmark in film history, not for the stories it tried to tell, but for the way Griffith told them. Audiences were especially stunned by the sets for the fall of Babylon, with its thirty-foot-high elephants (a direct steal from Cabiria) and its images based on familiar biblical paintings. Few who ever saw Intolerance can forget the scene where the crowded steps of Babylon are first glimpsed from a great distance, then come closer and closer as the camera descends in a gigantically long tracking shot, down and down and down, ending atop Belshazzar’s bacchanal. That sort of shot is done all the time these days with a camera crane, but when Griffith did it in 1914, they didn’t exist. How did he do it?

Griffith and Bitzer on set filming a scene 1919
Griffith and Bitzer on set in action

Griffith and cameraman Bitzer first tried a balloon for the camera and cameraman, but it proved too unstable. Then engineer Allen Dwan, later a director himself, suggested mounting the camera on an open elevator that was itself mounted on a narrow-gauge flatcar on tracks leading to the three-hundred-foot-deep set. So as the elevator was slowly lowered, workmen pushed the flatcar forward. It was the movies’ first crane shot and even today one of the most memorable.

By now World War I was on in all its fury, and because Griffith was easily the most famous film director alive, the British invited him to visit and film footage for use in propaganda pictures. He was the only American filmmaker to visit the front. For Griffith, however, story telling on celluloid was by then becoming more real than the real thing; he would subsequently film frontline action on the Salisbury Plain in England and back home in Hollywood.

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

Some of that war footage found its way into his next feature, Hearts of the World, a melodramatic look at four war-torn years in a French family’s life. The story, a pastiche of lost and found love, is mostly memorable for Lillian Gish’s wonderful mad scene as she wanders through a battlefield searching for her lover, and the terrific patriotic ending as rank after rank of American soldiers march across the screen. (One side note: In Hearts of the World, Gish’s child was played by Ben Alexander, who would become familiar to a later generation as Sgt. Joe Friday’s sidekick on Dragnet.)

Griffith’s next film, Broken Blosssoms, was something altogether different; for all intents and purposes it was the first film noir. The intimacy of its story about an abused girl (Lillian Gish) and the Chinaman who tries to rescue her with tragic consequences (Richard Barthelmess) was thrown into high relief by the epic splendor of the films that came before and after.

In early 1919, Griffith joined Mary Pickford, her fiance Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin in forming United Artists to control the distribution of their films. For Fairbanks, Pickford, and Chaplin it was a great success, not for Griffith, who had nothing to distribute that wasn’t previously contracted. He also decided to open the only studio he ever owned—a mistake in hindsight—in New York’s Westchester County, far away from Hollywood, which since the war had left Europe’s industries in ruins was now the world’s cinema capital.

For a while it still appeared that Griffith could do no wrong, especially when the first film made in his new studio was released in 1920. It was far grander than Broken Blossoms and hugely profitable. Way Down East is a creaky story of a wronged woman (Lillian Gish again) who overcomes social prejudice and near death to find true love (Richard Barthelmess again). The films final sequence, a tremendously long chase through a blizzard and across an ice-jammed river as Barthelmess races to rescue Gish, unconscious on an ice floe, was challenging to make (Gish claimed she was on the ice twenty times a day for three weeks and that once her hair froze solid). It was, and still is, breathtaking to watch, and in the opinion of many him scholars it still stands as one of cinemas greatest climaxes.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East)
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East)

For all the technical innovations, for all the spectacle and the exciting climaxes, probably the one thing that separated D. W. Griffith from everyone else—and still does—was his uncanny ability to create emotional intimacy, the genius to deliver stunning, flashing moments that bind each individual in an audience to the story on the screen. That happens in the last of his great films. It wasn’t the last him he made, for Griffith’s career was to continue for a number of years before finally petering out in the 1930s, but it was one of the best. Orphans of the Storm was less what it appeared to be (a convoluted history of the French Revolution) than a human drama, the story of a pair of sisters, one blind (Lillian Gish and her sister Dorothy, who played the blind sibling), separated by circumstances and the turmoil of the time.

Despite the formulistic drama (including a Griffith signature rescue chase, an improbably happy ending, and, of course, the restoration of Dorothy Gish’s sight), there is one scene when Griffith, the one-time stage actor—and, of course, Lillian Gish—incontestably proved to the world that great acting can happen in movies too. It happens when Gish’s character thinks she hears the voice of her long-lost sister begging in the street below her room. Griffith films it with one of his trademark backlit, intimate close-ups, the camera frozen as Gish first dismisses the idea and then, as her sister’s voice continues, realizes that a miracle has indeed happened. The intensity is so palpable one hardly breathes.

Griffith would make a few more films, most notably a biography of Abraham Lincoln. But Way Down East was his last box-office success. The times had moved past him. Sound, which he never really understood, arrived along with a new generation of filmmakers who took his many technical advances and streamlined them. But none were ever to improve on the many moments when his emotional lightning struck the hearts of filmgoers.

Lost Hollywood

DW Griffith in 1943
DW Griffith in 1943

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A White Star – By Richard Dyer (Sight and Sound – Aug. 1993 BFI – GB)

Lillian Gish, 1916, I.V.
Lillian Gish, 1916, I.V.

A White Star

Shining in light, Lillian Gish represented the apotheosis of whiteness, femininity and virtue in films such as “The Birth of a Nation” and “Broken Blossoms”

By Richard Dyer

Sight and Sound – Aug. 1993 BFI – GB

Stars are things that shine brightly in the darkness. The word “star” has become so taken for granted as meaning anyone who’s a little bit famous in a little bit of the world that we’re apt to forget just how appropriate the term was for people who did seem to be aglow on stages and screens in darkened halls. And no star shone more brightly in that firmament than did Lillian Gish.

Lillian Gish - Hartsook 3094a

We may well mistake Lillian Gish’s importance in film history. In the silent period, other women stars were bigger – Mary Pickford especially, but also Theda Bara and names still less familiar now such as Blanche Sweet, Norma Talmadge, Clara Kimball Young and Anita Stewart, all of whom often eclipsed Gish’s place in the public imagination. It is partly because she was a star for so long that we now accord her such importance: she was still making it impossible for you to take your eyes off her in the 40s (Duel in the Sun. 1946), 50’s (The Night of the Hunter. 1955), 60’s The Unforgiven, 1959), 70’s (A Wedding, 1978) and 80’s The Whales of August, 1987) and she was always a wonderful interviewee who could bring early cinema to life. Our enthusiasm may also have to do with the face that her acting seems so minimalist compared to that of many of her contemporaries, closer to a later aesthetic of screen performance where nor betraying the fact that one is acting is deemed such a virtue.

Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter 4

And it is certainly because of her association with D. W. Griffith and the heroic place in the development of film that even the most revisionist histories accord him. Yet perhaps none of that would carry much weight if when you see her in the Griffith films or La Boheme (1926). The Scarlet Letter (1926) or The Wind (1928) she did not radiate the screen. She is the apotheosis of the metaphor of stardom, a light shining in the darkness.

True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie

Starlight

There is a scene in True Heart Susie (1919) which encapsulates the relationship between stardom and light, a relationship at once technical, aesthetic and ethical. The film tells of a country girl, Susie (Gish), who puts ber true love William (Robert Harron) through college, only to have him marry a city girl, Bettina. Susie has to go to the party at which William announces his marriage: she knows that Bettina is also carrying on with a city boy, Sporty Malone. The establishing shot of the sequence has the party in full swing and Susie/Gish entering and sitting on a chair down screen right, where she remains throughout the sequence, looking at the party, at William and Bettina. The sequence cuts to other characters, to reactions to the wedding announcement, but keeps coming back to Susie/Gish, in close-up or in the original establishing set-up. This is lit from the front, with some extra fill and back light on Gish: she is more in the light. The light is firstly an adjunct to storytelling: it emphasises Gish’s narrative importance as the star and main character of the film: it enables us to see her better. The fill and back light create depth by making Gish stand out a little from the party further back in the image, while also placing her clearly in relation to what is unfolding. Fill and back light also beautify her, creating a subtle halo effect and bringing out the fairness of her hair: the use of make-up too gives her face a seamless white glow. This beauty is in turn a moral value, the aura of her true heart. There is in other words, a special relationship between light and Gish: she is more visible, she is aesthetically and morally superior, she looks on from a position of knowledge, of enlightenment – in short, if she is so much lit, she also appears to be the source of light.

Robert Harron, Clarine Seymour and Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie
Robert Harron, Clarine Seymour and Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie

Such treatment is the culmination of a history of light that has many strands. The association of whiteness and light – of white light – with moral values goes far back. In classical Greek art. female figures are paler than male, as befits those whose proper place is in the home, a notion taken to angelic extremes in Victorian domestic ideology and imagery. Christian art has long emphasised the radiance of the pure white bodies of Christ, the Virgin, the saints and angels. Enlightenment and post- Enlightenment philosophy stressed the intrinsic transcendent superiority of the colour white, notions that were grafted on to nineteenth century biological accounts of racial difference. The celebration of women in painting during the same period etherealised the body, drawing upon the translucent imagery of Madonnas, angels, nymphs and sprites.

Lillian Gish 1919 AX

Photography brought a special quality to such imagery – as images printed on white paper, photographs always show people as part transparent, as ghost-like, a characteristic readily capitalised upon in nineteenth-century portraiture and fairy set-pieces. Some of this imagery was found in the theatre too, in the romantic ballet, the feerie and pantomime. Here the star metaphor really begins to take hold. With the introduction of gas lighting, the difference between the auditorium and stage was emphasised, with all light in the latter. Developments in make-up, costume (notably the tutu) and directional lighting made it possible to make the female performer the focus of light, to be suffused with light or to reflect and thus apparently emanate it. Film took all of this and intensified it: the halls could be darker and the images on the screen were always of people with light shining through them. Provided they were white people.

Lillian Gish - Hoover Art LA cca 1914
Lillian Gish – Hoover Art LA cca 1914

Film developed its own codes of lighting, with the female star as centre piece and Lillian Gish as a supreme yet typical example. By the 20’s the norm for correct lighting in Hollywood was what was known as ‘North’ lighting, light from the land of white people. The tendency for fair hair to look dark (too dark) in black-and-white photography was overcome by using back lighting, three-point lighting, soft light, gauzes and focus could all be employed co create the halos and glows of feminine portraiture.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish — Anna Moore

Even in contemporary cinema, if you look for it, and quite noticeably in silent cinema, there is often a change of lighting between a general shot of a scene and a close-up or two-shot within it. It is here particularly that the specialness of stardom, or of the experience of romance, is signalled. There is a scene in Way Down East (1920), for instance, where Anna (Gish) comes to the Bartlett family farm: she has been wandering the country, having been abandoned by the man who married her in a false ceremony and having lost her child at birth. She enters at the back of the set, which in the establishing shot is, in even, outdoor light. But when the film cuts to a dose-up of her, a gauze over the camera, side lighting and an iris all create the beauty of pathos. There is cross cutting between her and the Bartlett’s son (Richard Barthelmess), whom she will eventually marry. Both are gorgeous and treated to special, glamourising lighting – but he is shot against a dark background with a close black iris, leaving little light around him, whereas she is fully in the light against a light background and wearing a hat that suggests a halo. When she speaks to father Bartlett, who is suspicious of this waif, both stand in the full sunlight and wear hats of much the same size – but his casts his face in shadow, whereas her face, with some extra fill light no doubt, remains radiantly white, with the hat still a halo, not a shade.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish – Bridal Suite

Many lighting set-ups were developed for the depiction of the heterosexual couple, frozen to perfection in production stills (a neglected factor in the construction of film-historical memory). There is the soft haze that envelops the couple, with often a subtle fill radiating the woman’s face so that the man appears to be wrapped up in her glow. Or there is the head-and-shoulders close-up, with the man darkly dressed, only his shirt collar and face white and light, and the woman lightly dressed, but even lighter around the face. He rears up out of the darkness, but she is already in the light. That light comes from behind his head, magically catching the top of his hair but falling full on her face, itself an unblemished surface of white make-up which sends the light back on to his face. Barthelmess and Gish in Way Down East, Harron and Gish in True Heart Susie, Lars Hanson and Gish in The Scarlet Letter: she is the angel of light who can redeem his more carnal yearning.

Lillian Gish (Scarlet Letter, HiRes)_01

Lillian Gish could be considered the supreme instance of the confluence of the aesthetic-moral equation of light, virtue and femininity with Hollywood’s development of glamour and spectacle. She may also be its turning point. Very soon the radiance of femininity came to be seen as a trap for men, not a source of redemption, – Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box, Rita Hayworth in Gilda, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Even when it wasn’t that, its artifice, its materiality, its lack of spirituality have become more and more evident, taken to a post-modern apogee by the so artfully named Madonna. Lillian Gish, however, simply was a Madonna, as indeed Monte Blue observed: “She is the madonna woman, and greater praise no man can give.”

Lillian Gish 1916
Lillian Gish 1916

Steeliness and simplicity

Gish’s place in this history of light is not, of course, mere chance. The weight of association and the careful assemblage oflight have to ‘take’ on the figure to which they are applied. One could throw all the light one wanted on any number of attractive and talented young white women and not come up with Lillian Gish. This does not mean that no one else could have held an equivalent place in the history, but that nonetheless there had to be qualities which could carry these light values.

Lillian Gish - Hoover Art Studios LA
Lillian Gish – Hoover Art Studios, Los Angeles

Gish’s face and body have characteristics that suggest both the steeliness and the simplicity of virtue, which is to say that she embodies tbe values of feminine white light. Because having eyes larger than one’s mouth was a touchstone of female beauty, and because this was not the case with Gish, she purses her mouth, keeps it dosed, not intensely (which would suggest anxiety or neurosis) but poisedly, eliminating the lasciviousness of the opened mouth and suggesting primness or purity, according to taste (people found her both). Her carriage is erect, worthy of a ballet dancer, recalling the dictum of turn-of-the-century deportment (stand up straight, shoulders back) – to me a very New England look suggesting Quaker piety. Puritan simplicity. If it didn’t seem ungracious, I would compare her aesthetically to a Shaker chair.

Lillian Gish Photoplay September 1915 (Gish Collects rare books as a hobby)
Lillian Gish Photoplay September 1915 (Gish Collects rare books as a hobby)

Thus her appearance has a sinewy and unfrilly quality that has its own particular historical and cultural resonances. These ane carried equally by her performance style. She is thin and small, and sometimes that also means painfully frail, not least in Broken Blossoms (1919) as she cringes away from her abusive father or from the moment of lust that passes over the face of the Yellow Man before his own goodness reasserts itself. Yet her toughness is at least as legendary, braving the ice flows without a double in Way Down East, facing up to the remorseless sand blows of The Wind, facing down Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. Her body and face are mobile and flexible when necessary, an astonishing range of nuances may play over her face in a single shot, she can if need be let herself go to heights of joy, abjection or dementia – yet the formal means used remain small and uncomplicated. I want to put her alongside Willa Carther, Margot Fonteyn or Ella Fitzgerald, artists able to imply depths of feeling through spare, limpid means. With Gish, this toughness and limpidity, this steeliness and simplicity, is of a piece with the prevalent conceptions of light, virtue and femininity. Her body and performance can seem to emanate the same qualities the light is moulding. This is why all that white light took so breathtakingly, why she shines so compellingly in the dark.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation 7

There is one film that acts like a hiccup in accounts of Lillian Gish’s career. It cannot be avoided – it makes a loud noise – but it is quickly passed over. This is The Birth of a Nation (1915). It certainly is not her finest hour – True Heart Susie, Broken Blossoms, Orphans of the Storm (1921), The Scarlet Letter or The Wind among her silent features may vie for that honour – but it does make explicit the concatenation of gender, race and light that is a key part of her stardom.

The ideal of his dreams

The Birth of a Nation recounts the history of the Civil War and the Reconstruction period through the intertwined stories of two families, the Southern Camerons and the Northern Stonemans. Gish plays Elsie Stoneman, who becomes the sweetheart of Ben Cameron (Henry B Walthall). It is tempting to create the relation between the history and the love story in terms of the former disrupting the latter, lovers torn apart by ideology and reunited by the triumph of right (in this case, white supremacy). In part this is undoubtedly correct. Elsie and Ben do not meet until after the war, but her father is a Northern congressman committed to civil liberties in the South; when she discovers Ben’s involvement with the Ku Klux Klan, she has to break off the relationship; it is only when the black population have been revealed to Elsie and her father in their true colours (as it were), and Ben and the KKK have routed the population, that the couple can be reconciled. Yet there is more to it than this. Gish as Elsie represents the white womanhood that must be won for the South, she incarnates the ideal that the South is presented as fighting to defend.

Lillian Gish Promotional Hartsook - The Clansman (The Birth of a Nation)
Lillian Gish Promotional Hartsook – The Clansman (The Birth of a Nation)

What is most evidently at stake in The Birth of a Nation is not an economy based on slave labour or even hatred of black people, but an ideal of purity as embodied in the white woman.

Ben first sees Elsie in a miniature her brother Phil shows him. As an inter-title puts it, she is “the ideal of his dreams”; before she is a real person, she is an essence. When he meets her, she is in an iris shot which echoes the oval of the miniature. He shows her this, saying that he has carried her about with him “for a long, long time”. She figures for Ben, the representative of the South, as the embodiment of an ideal.

The Birth of a Nation (David W. Griffith Corp., 1915). Herald2
The Birth of a Nation (David W. Griffith Corp., 1915). Herald2

Her goodness is established for us before this, from the first shot of her in the film. She is with her father and is the very model of a dutiful daughter, tending to his needs, making him the centre of her attention. Stoneman represents white liberalism; in this most biological of films, he is therefore bald and lame and has a ‘weakness’ for a woman of mixed race. In the first shot of Elsie and him, most of her energy is put into fussing with his toupee, endlessly drawing attention to his lack of hair (and, by contemporary implication, of virility). There is something both comic and perverse about this image of filial devotion, this ministering to what the film constructs as crippled. When Elsie rides with Ben in the KKK parade at the end and in the final lovers’ tableau, she has passed from her father’s helpmeet to being her husband’s, which in part signifies that Ben (the South) has rescued her (purity) from the sickness of the North.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman (Birth of A Nation)
Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman (Birth of A Nation)

But he has also rescued her from something else, a fate worse than death: marriage to a man of mixed race (Silas Lynch). This itself can be seen as a producer of her father’s weakness, for he has promoted Lynch politically and even looks pleased when Lynch tells him he wants to marry a white woman – until he realises that the woman is his own daughter. He has created the conditions which put her in jeopardy and too late learns the error of his ideas. In the famous and thrilling climax, three elements are intercut: Lynch menacing Elsie into a forced marriage; the Cameron family besieged in a small log cabin by rebellious blacks; the gathering and riding of the Klan to the rescue. Elsie and the Camerons clearly symbolise the Southern ideals the Klan is about to redeem. The focus on Elsie, on the sexualisation of her plight in the race war, not only intensifies the drama – giving Ben, the leader, a personal investment in the situation – but also makes it dear that what the Klan stands for is the protection of white femininity.

The manipulation of light is less elaborated than in some of Gish’s later films, but she and Ben do get the enveloping romantic treatment and she is picked out in scenes and has altered lighting for close-ups. What is at first sight surprising is that it is she, a Northerner, who is so glorified and not either of the Cameron daughters. Margaret (Miriam Cooper), the elder of these, is dark and oddly (indeed interestingly) sour looking. The younger, Flora (Mae Marsh), is excitable and nervy. Neither has Elsie/Gish’s stillness and sureness, something brought out amusingly by her startled reaction to Flora’s excessively affectionate greeting when they meet for the first time. It is these qualities – Gish’s Northern steely simplicity of purity- that the film lauds, not the more debilitating forms of Southern femininity.

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

Yet this is, in fact, crucial to the film’s project, which is, as we tend curiously to forget, to depict the birth, the coming into being, of a new entity, a nation. The fact that Elsie is a Northerner, quite apart from the association of the North with white light, is important in achieving a healing of the breach opened up by the Civil War. When she rides in the KKK parade, the nation is finally born, its unity assured under the banner of Southern values. She is the prize exhibit in the new white nation.

An Innocent Magdalene 1916 Lillian Gish
An Innocent Magdalene 1916 Lillian Gish

White magic

Gish’s demeanour and style catch and reflect a way of seeing light that has deep roots in western tradition, roots distinguishable but not extricable from ways of seeing racial (and gender) difference. She is a great white star from a period when you had to be white to be a mass market star. Paul Robeson or Lena Horne, Whoopi Goldberg or Wesley Snipes are routinely referred to as black stars, yet I still feel I am going to be thought out of order when I start talking about Lillian Gish as a white star. What it suggests is that a white star’s magic is no less socially particular than a black star’s. Yes, indeed, and the sooner white people accept the particularity of their image ideals the better – but that doesn’t mean there’s no magic, white or black. It takes nothing away from Gish – not her talent and intelligence, not the spell of her shining up there in the dark – to say that her special glow is nonetheless a specifically white one.

Lillian Gish (Henriette Girard)
Lillian Gish (Henriette Girard) “Orphans of the Storm”
White Star - Sight and Sound (1993-08)(BFI)(GB)
White Star – Sight and Sound (1993-08)(BFI)(GB)

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Lillian Gish – The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me (Review by ARTHUR MAYER, New York Times, 1969)

The Movies Mr.Griffith and Me
The Movies Mr.Griffith and Me

Lillian Gish

The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me. By Lillian Gish with Ann Pinchot. Illustrated. 388 pp. Englewood Cliffs. N.J.: Prentice-Hall. $7.95.

Review by ARTHUR MAYER

Published: June 8, 1969

Miss Lillian Gish is, in Brooks Atkinson’s words, ”An American institution.” She is, as Peter Glenville says, “an impeccable, dedicated, disciplined actress.” and her new book is studded with similar tributes from such celebrities as Koussevitsky, Jed Harris, Scott Fitzgerald, Percy Hammond and King Vidor. She is, however, also a lady of admirable reticences-she once employed a publicity representative merely to keep her name out of the newspapers and she has little flair for the scholarly research or the self-revelation required by the triple demands of history, biography and autobiography implied by her book’s subtitle.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) With D.W.Griffith and his wife Evelyn in their West Coast home — with Lillian Gish and D. W. Griffith.
The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) With D.W.Griffith and his wife Evelyn in their West Coast home — with Lillian Gish and D. W. Griffith.

What she has to contribute about early movie annals has been often told before and is marred by many errors as well as guesses masquerading as facts. The method by which “The Birth of a Nation,, was distributed, for example, makes it impossible for anyone to assert that “in the first two years of its life it played to an audience of 25 million people.” “ Way Down East” never “had to pass the scrutiny of the censor board of every state. Only 27 states ever had, at one time or another, censorship boards and few of these were in existence in 1920 when it was released.

The biographical portions of “The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me” are similarly disappointing. They portray all the external facts of her life without ever disclosing its inner substance and quality. Everybody adores her and she reciprocates their affections-fellow actors, authors, musicians, dramatists, even the banker who managed her family finances. Indeed she seems to have a fondness for every variety of the human species except movie exhibitors who refused lo play the original eight hour version of “Intolerance” and picture co-executives who failed to realize that Griffith single-handed was creating for the film medium a new language and a new syntax. Her most absorbing passion, however, was for her mother and her sister Dorothy. She rejected her persistent suitor George Jean Nathan primarily because he seemed to resent” the intensity of this relationship. Nobody, however, who has waded through pages attesting to her mother’s “ wisdom,” “perfection,” “taste” and “beauty” and to Dorothy’s “pert, saucy ways” her “spritely nature,” her “rollicking spirit,”, her “gaiety and humor,, (the only concrete example of which was her penchant for sitting on men’s hats), can wholly blame Mr. Nathan.

George Jean Nathan, Lillian Gish and Rudolph Kommer at Leopoldskron
George Jean Nathan, Lillian Gish and Rudolph Kommer at Leopoldskron

Although Miss Gish tells us little that is significant about the movies or herself, she is eminently well qualified to portray and interpret the singularly complex, gifted personality with whom she was closely associated in their most formative years. No one has a closer first-hand acquaintance with the techniques and innovations by which the great pioneer transformed what Edison had regarded as “a scientific curiosity,” of so little permanent value that it was not worth investing $150 to take out foreign patents, into the best loved of modem arts.

Her description of the mechanics of the rehearsal system on which his achievements were so largely based, and which his successors so ill-advisedly abandoned, deserves careful study by every film maker. His gifted, adoring young performers were given an opportunity to rehearse each part in a new film under his close supervision. “Once the parts were awarded the real work began. Mr. Griffith would move around us like a referee in a ring, circling, bending, walking up to an actor, staring over his great beak of a nose, then turning away. By the time he had run through the story dozens of times he had viewed the action from every conceivable angle and achieved the desired effect.”

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

When the young girl who regarded movie jobs at $5 a day as a stopgap between stage appearances and the rising director who only a few years previously had jeered at the “galloping tin types” met first in the old Biograph Studios, they had much in common. “Mr. Griffith,” as she was to respectfully call him for the nine years they worked together, was immediately impressed by her “exquisite, ethereal beauty.” She, on her part, thought “he held himself like a king” with eyes that were “hooded and deep set.” They were both poor, ambitious, seeking their fulfillment in work rather than in love or play. He had a father fixation almost the equal of her attachment to her mother. Much of his misrepresentation of the Union cause was due to his adulation of “roaring Jake”‘Griffith who had been a colonel under Stonewall Jackson. That he unhesitatingly accepted the legends and traditions of the old South is understandable in view of his education and environment. When, however, Miss Gish rushes to his support, she demonstrates her unfailing loyalty to Griffith rather than her usual common sense. It is the conventional but fallacious response to charges of racism that a man cannot be prejudiced because he “had grown up with Negroes on the farm and, as a baby had had a Negro mammy,” or that “he always treated Negroes with great affection and they in turn, loved him.”

Although Miss Gish gave the appearance of frailty, no task could daunt her. When she was on location for “Way Down East” the temperature never rose above zero, but at her own suggestion, she says, she lay on an ice floe drifting toward the falls with a hand and her hair trailing in the water. “My face was caked with a crust of ice and snow, and little spikes formed on my eyelashes, making it difficult to keep my eyes open.” Characteristically, Griffith shouted to his cameraman Bitzer above the howling storm, “Billy, move in! Get that face! Get it!” “l will,,. Billy answered, “if the oil doesn’t freeze in the camera.”

Lillian Gish in Way Down East
Lillian Gish in Way Down East

Working for other picture makers, however, she was occasionally prepared to admit weariness. One of her most revelatory stories (omitted for some unknown reason from her book) tells of an experience with Charles Laughton when he was directing “Night of the Hunter.” He required her to make at least a dozen takes. Finally she keyed her acting higher than she thought it ought to go and asked, “Is that what you want?” Laughton answered, “No, the first take was fine. I just wanted to see how many different ways you could do it.” “Well,” she answered, “if you want to waste your money on useless takes, that is all right with me, but I do get tired.”

Griffith’s dedication to his career and to the medium which he had so unexpectedly discovered to be his métier and his mission, matched her own. Although he married twice, no marriage to a man who habitually worked 16 hours a day, taking time off only to eat and sleep, could possibly prove successful. As for Miss Gish, she never even attempted it, though as Anita Loos once remarked, “Men were always marrying her in absentia.” She regarded matrimony as a “24-hour-a-day job.” Her films, she said, were her children.

Lillian Gish, Ralph Forbes, Fritzi Ridgeway, John S - Wedding - The Enemy
Lillian Gish, Ralph Forbes, Fritzi Ridgeway, John S – Wedding – The Enemy

What they shared, above all else, was their abiding faith in this “new uncorrupted art.'” Griffith would frequently say, “We are playing to the world. What we film tomorrow will stir the hearts of the world and they will understand what we’re saying. We’ve gone beyond Babel, beyond words, we’ve found a universal Ianguage – remember that when you stand in front of a camera.”

And Lillian Gish never forgot it.

A Wedding
Lillian Gish in Altman’s “A Wedding” 1978

Mr. Mayer, a veteran of 50 years in the movie business, currently conducts film courses at Dartmouth and other colleges.

The New York Times Book Review

We all adore her, and the affection is returned Lillian Gish NYTimes June 8, 1969-2
We all adore her, and the affection is returned – Lillian Gish – NYTimes Book Review June 8, 1969 – page 2

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Admin note: Personal opinion – Mr. Mayer, a veteran of 50 years in the movie business, skilled writer, tends to forget that Miss Gish was an actress, not a novelist. Therefore her book was seen from the stage, blinded by Klieg lights. As an actress, Miss Gish wasn’t concerned – when was the Censor Board founded in all American states – she was not working in a statistical office. Bringing up the rehearsal (The Night of the Hunter) when she admits that she’s tired, I believe it’s childish to compare Way Down East (1920), with The Night of the Hunter (1955), when Miss Gish was 62 years old.

I am very grateful to Mr. Mayer for his statement, despite the fact he considered “the biographical portions of “The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me” – disappointing. The reason Miss Gish broke her “engagement” to Mr. Nathan was because “Her most absorbing passion, however, was for her mother and her sister Dorothy. She rejected her persistent suitor George Jean Nathan primarily because he seemed to resent” the intensity of this relationship.” 

“We are playing to the world. What we film tomorrow will stir the hearts of the world and they will understand what we’re saying. We’ve gone beyond Babel, beyond words, we’ve found a universal Ianguage – remember that when you stand in front of a camera.”

And Lillian Gish never forgot it.

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

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From Public Honor to Public Disgrace: A Chronology of the Tragic Fall of D. W. Griffith’s Reputation in the United States, 1975-2019 – By William M. Drew

From Public Honor to Public Disgrace: A Chronology of the Tragic Fall of D. W. Griffith’s Reputation in the United States, 1975-2019

By William M. Drew

Griffith Stamp USO

1975—The centenary of D. W. Griffith’s birth on January 22, 1875 is widely commemorated in the United States. Highlights include a retrospective of his films at the Museum of Modern Art, television coverage such as interviews with his celebrated actress, Lillian Gish, a number of articles and other publications, and a special postage stamp bearing his name and likeness issued by the US Postal Department.  This celebration of the pioneering director’s life and achievements climaxes a decade of intense interest in, and study of, his work touched off by an earlier Museum of Modern Art retrospective in 1965. In the ensuing years, a number of historians including Kevin Brownlow, William K. Everson, Edward Wagenknecht, Anthony Slide, Russell Merritt, John H. Dorr, Arthur Lennig, and Robert M. Henderson have published many writings on Griffith. Many in this new generation of critics and historians challenge the traditional assumptions of earlier writers like Lewis Jacobs who had argued that the director’s career came to an end due to his outmoded Victorian vision. On the contrary, the new historians maintain in their studies of Griffith’s work that the filmmaker continued to grow as an artist in his later films. In addition to these critical reassessments, such former associates of the director as Lillian Gish and cinematographer Karl Brown have written acclaimed memoirs of their years with the director. Also furthering the reputation of the filmmaker in this period have been the many television appearances in his behalf made by Miss Gish as well as director Orson Welles, the host of a PBS series of silent films in 1972 that included works by Griffith whom Welles lauded as “the premier genius” of the cinema.

Griffith directing Way Down East
D. W. Griffith directing Lillian Gish in “Way Down East” (1920)

In the fall of 1975 a momentous court ruling decides that Griffith’s 1915 film, “The Birth of a Nation,” is now in the public domain. For the past decade, a battle between rival distributors Paul Killiam and Raymond Rohauer over the rights had largely limited public screenings of the controversial Civil War-Reconstruction film to occasional revivals of the abridged 1930 music and effects reissue. It was not available for purchase on 8mm. as it once had been, it was never screened on television during this period, and most 16mm. rental companies specializing in classic films no longer carried it. Such other major Griffith films as “Intolerance,” “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East,” and “Orphans of the Storm” had been more widely available and for many cineastes were their introduction to the director. But due to the 1975 court ruling, it will now be possible for many people to view a tinted version of the original silent film production of “The Birth of a Nation.”

Gish 1 X Theater
Lillian Gish and Hollis Moore, BGSU president, in 1976)

1976—On June 11, with Lillian Gish in attendance, the Gish Film Theater and Gallery is dedicated on the campus of Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. At the initiative of Dr. Ralph H. Wolfe, a professor of film and literature and with the support of university president Hollis Moore, the theater has been established to honor the achievements of native Ohioans Lillian and Dorothy Gish. Wolfe had originally intended to name it the Lillian Gish Theater until the actress stated she would prefer that it include her sister as well. Over the years, the theater, located in Hanna Hall, will be enlarged and include a display of photographs obtained from the Museum of Modern Art showing the Gish sisters throughout their careers including a number of images from their years with Griffith. With the support of private donors, many of them prominent in the cinema, and an endowment bestowed by Miss Gish, the theater will become the nucleus of Bowling Green State University’s film studies program, providing free access to students and the public seeking to learn about cinema and its history.

1977—The popular TV series, “Roots,” with its depiction of the travails of a black family in the South in the 19th century, inspires some negative critical references to “The Birth of a Nation” with its very different interpretation of the same era from a white Southern perspective. Nevertheless, the American Film Institute in its tenth anniversary special broadcast on CBS on November 21 does include both “The Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance” among the 50 greatest American films selected by the organization’s members. Along with Buster Keaton’s “The General” and Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” and “Modern Times,” the Griffith epics are the only silents included in the full list, none of which are among the top ten films highlighted on the program which has Lillian Gish as one of the featured stars in attendance.

Henry B. Walthall in "The Birth of a Nation"
Henry B. Walthall in “The Birth of a Nation”

1978—In the first few years of the ready availability of “The Birth of a Nation” following the court ruling regarding its copyright status, most public screenings of the film appear to be without protest or incident.  However, a planned showing of the film in April at the city museum in Riverside, California, where the film was first presented to the public in 1915, is canceled after protests from blacks. A proposed compromise by which a black spokesman would present a rebuttal to the film’s point of view either before or after the three-hour screening had failed to defuse the objections to its being shown.

On July 30 of this same year, there is a more ominous incident connected with a screening of the film when a revived Ku Klux Klan group descends on the Southern California city of Oxnard. In an attempt to fan the flames of discord between whites and Hispanics, the Klan stages a “charitable” event supposedly benefiting white victims of Hispanic crime by showing the abridged 1930 reissue of “The Birth of a Nation.” The event provokes a riot by protesters, an incident which is a major news story throughout the country. While the Klan’s exploitative stunt does nothing to increase its now-miniscule membership or advance its particular agenda, it does bring a fresh amount of negative publicity to the film, laying the groundwork for further protests in the future.

Red Grooms' "Way Down East" sculptures on the NKU campus
Red Grooms’ “Way Down East” sculptures on the NKU campus

1979—On April 12, a large sculptured representation of Griffith and his cinematographer G. W. “Billy” Bitzer filming Lillian Gish on the ice in “Way Down East” is unveiled on the campus of Northern Kentucky University in Covington, Kentucky. The sculptures are the work of noted artist Red Grooms who had conceived of this tribute to early filmmakers after seeing “Way Down East” in 1965 during the Museum of Modern Art’s Griffith retrospective. The first such monument to the director and his career, the colorful sculptures are installed on the university campus as part of its series of tributes to eminent Kentuckians. The “Way Down East” sculptures are well received and for many years will occupy a pride of place in the central part of the campus.

1980—In January, the National Board of Review announces the establishment of the annual David Wark Griffith Award for movie excellence, an honor to be given to outstanding contemporary films, performances and direction as well as for recognition of lifetime achievements. It joins the D. W. Griffith Lifetime Achievement Award, established by the Director’s Guild of America in 1953, as the second such honor to bear the pioneer filmmaker’s name. The National Board of Review’s annual Griffith awards are first presented on February 10 at a private banquet held at Luchow’s, a venerable Manhattan restaurant where Griffith often dined. At the ceremony, chaired by veteran actress Betty Furness, Meryl Streep, Sally Field, Peter Sellers, and John Schlesinger are among the artists who receive Griffith awards for their work in notable films released in 1979. Myrna Loy receives a Griffith award for her lifetime of achievement in cinema, presented to her by a recent co-star of hers, Alan King. Others in attendance at this historic event include Maureen O’Sullivan, Richard Gere, Lauren Hutton, Lee Strasberg, Cliff Robertson, and Dina Merrill.

Hollywood by Kevin Brownlow

The first episode of Kevin Brownlow’s mammoth 13-part television series on the American silent cinema, “Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film,” premieres in April in cities across the United States including in the San Francisco Bay Area. Containing many interviews with silent veterans combined with much footage from the early cinema, this remarkable series does much to revive interest in the silent cinema. A major part of the first episode deals with “The Birth of a Nation.” Reversing the emphasis in his landmark history of silent film, “The Parade’s Gone By,” published in 1968, in which he hailed Griffith’s 1916 “Intolerance” as having “sparked off one of the most exciting and concentrated creative eras in the history of art,” Brownlow in the first episode of his documentary series now presents “The Birth of a Nation” as the apex of the American cinema’s early development. He devotes considerable time to the racial controversy over the film’s second half, recirculating to a wide audience the claim that the 1915 epic was the principal reason for the Ku Klux Klan’s revival in the 20th century rather than broader social and political factors.

On June 10, 1980, two months after the premiere presentation of the first episode of “Hollywood,” a mob of mostly white radicals calling themselves the International Committee Against Racism stage a riot in San Francisco’s Richelieu Theater which is showing the 1930 sound reissue of “The Birth of a Nation.” Some of the protestors had been active in the anti-Klan protests in Oxnard two years before. Although the theater’s screening has nothing to do with advancing any political agenda and is simply a standard art house revival as part of a double bill with Keaton’s “The General,” the leftist group, determined to suppress the showing of the 1915 film, invades the premises, shouting “Death to the Klan!” In the process, they vandalize the theater, destroying projection equipment and burning a print of the film. As a result of this incident, which is widely reported in the press, public screenings of the film in the United States thereafter will become increasingly rare in succeeding years. On the infrequent occasions when “The Birth of a Nation” is presented to an audience, it will usually be accompanied by a discussion group at its conclusion with individuals representing the black community commenting on the film.

Lillian Gish at AFI 1984 Lifetime Honor

1984—On April 17, there is a nationally televised broadcast on CBS of the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award given to Lillian Gish. Only the second woman to receive this distinguished award, the program, recorded in March, features a host of Lillian’s colleagues, most of them from a younger generation, paying warm tribute to the acclaimed actress. The references to Lillian’s associate, D. W. Griffith, including clips from some of the films they made together, elicit applause and cheers.

This same month of April 1984 sees the publication of Richard Schickel’s long-awaited biography of D. W. Griffith. Containing much more information on the director than an earlier biography by Robert M. Henderson published in 1972, Schickel’s book is widely praised by reviewers. This critical appreciation, however, scarcely extends to the book’s subject. Largely ignoring the more positive features of Schickel’s treatment of the director, influential reviewers like David Sterritt and David Thomson emphasize what they see as Griffith’s many flaws as a filmmaker presented in the biography. They maintain that the book provides ample evidence that Griffith fell by the wayside because his vision was such a limited one, bound by the anachronistic Victorian values and prejudices of his youth. For all its inclusion of fresh documentation, therefore, Schickel’s book is marked by a reassertion of the conventional attitudes toward the director of earlier historians like Lewis Jacobs. In reversing the gains in understanding and appreciation of Griffith that had emerged through the work of the new historians in the 1960s and 1970s, Schickel’s biography is thus in synch with the new trend toward ideological conformity in the mid-1980s that will later prove devastating to the filmmaker’s reputation.

Although it is now less often shown publicly to audiences, “The Birth of a Nation” throughout the 1980s becomes more accessible to the public than ever before thanks to its ready availability in the new home video technology. This dissemination thus increasingly focuses attention on this one film at the expense of Griffith’s other works. With political correctness now all the rage in academic studies, “The Birth of a Nation” is often the subject of harsh published analyses excoriating its point of view as a primary indicator of the spread of racism in American history and culture. So corrosive has the film’s reputation become that in some quarters it now even affects negatively the historical standing of Woodrow Wilson. Lauded for decades by liberal historians as one of America’s six greatest presidents along with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and the two Roosevelts, Wilson is now more and more referenced in terms of his racial views, specifically his reported praise of “The Birth of a Nation” after viewing it at a special White House screening.

Also throughout the 1980s, Griffith loses through death many of the surviving veteran filmmakers who had been most directly inspired by him and often expressed their indebtedness to him. The passing of such great directors as King Vidor, George Cukor, Rouben Mamoulian, Orson Welles, John Huston and early in the next decade, Frank Capra and Hal Roach deprives Griffith of some of his most visible and eloquent champions.

Actor Life For Me 2

1988—Despite the advent of political correctness in a number of quarters, Griffith and the work he did with his associates still retain considerable respect in the wider world. On July 11 of this year, PBS’ “American Masters” series airs “Lillian Gish: The Actor’s Life for Me,” a sympathetic look at the legendary actress’s career including an appreciation of her collaboration with Griffith. Co-narrated by Miss Gish and Eva Marie Saint, the program is well received by reviewers. Also in 1988, there is the publication by a university press of William Rothman’s book, “The ‘I’ of the Camera,” that includes a sophisticated analysis of Griffith’s work demonstrating a continuity with the historiography of the 1960s and 1970s that championed the director as a complex artist with something meaningful to say.

1989—A major cinematic event of the year is the presentation of an ambitious seven-year reconstruction of Griffith’s “Intolerance” at the New York Film Festival on October 2, complete with a live symphony orchestra performing Joseph Carl Breil’s original score. Coming at the same time that the 1916 masterpiece has been chosen as one of the first 25 American films to be included in the Library of Congress’ new National Film Registry and one year after a highly successful revival of the film at the London Film Festival by Kevin Brownlow’s Photoplay Productions, the new presentation generates impressive advance publicity in the US news media. A joint project between the Museum of Modern Art and the Library of Congress under the direction of Gillian B. Anderson, a music specialist at the Library, and Peter Williamson, a film technician at the Museum, it is promoted as the restoration of “Intolerance” as it was shown at its world premiere at New York’s Liberty Theater in 1916.  Critical response to the reconstruction ranges from rapturous to much less favorable with the latter objecting to the interjection of still frame blow-ups to reproduce lost or missing footage. Nevertheless, there are many who find the film very impressive and powerful in this new presentation, a favorable response repeated at its January 26, 1990 showing at the Castro Theater in San Francisco where the “San Francisco Chronicle” critic, Judy Stone, hails it as “a once-in-a-lifetime event.” Perhaps partly due to the mixed critical reaction as well as the ready availability of other versions of the film in the growing VHS market, the reconstructed “Intolerance” soon disappears from public view.

Intolerance - Medici

1990—With the advance press write-ups of the reconstructed “Intolerance” perhaps the last really favorable publicity Griffith will receive on a wide scale, the climate following its screenings soon becomes much bleaker for the director as attention is more and more focused on its 1915 predecessor. The nation-wide release in February of Edward Zwick’s “Glory,” a critically acclaimed Civil War spectacle about an African-American regiment in the Union Army fighting for its freedom, becomes the occasion for some writers to contrast it with “The Birth of a Nation” to the obvious disadvantage of the latter. Even more ominously for the director’s reputation, newly prominent black directors including Spike Lee and John Singleton repeatedly cite “The Birth” as the embodiment of everything negative that African-Americans had been fighting against for decades, particularly as related to the cinema. From out of the past, the pioneer African-American director Oscar Micheaux is now transformed into a symbol of historic resistance to Griffith. Initially when Micheaux attracted belated attention from historians in the 1970s, he was largely considered a rather pedestrian director on the evidence of his sound films of the ‘30s with his one available silent film, “Body and Soul” (1925), regarded as an exception to an otherwise mediocre track record.  But in the early 1990s, his “Within Our Gates” (1920), a dramatic presentation of racism as it affected blacks in the early 20th century, is rediscovered and restored. With both “Within Our Gates” and “The Birth of a Nation” added to the National Film Registry in 1992, Micheaux’s film is now promoted as the African-American “answer” to Griffith’s 1915 spectacle, although in its own day it was never advertised as such when it was shown almost exclusively to black audiences. Despite the simultaneous inclusion of both historically significant films on the registry, the head of the NAACP protests the film board’s selection of “The Birth” as an undeserved honor “paying tribute to America’s shameful racial history.”

1993—An era comes to an end with the passing of Lillian Gish at the age of 99 on February 27. Although for reasons of age and health she had ceased making personal appearances in the last five years of her life, she had been at the very center of the renaissance of enthusiasm for Griffith’s work, tirelessly being interviewed and lecturing on her association with the director. That same year, two other prominent players who had worked for Griffith late in his career will also die—William Bakewell, who appeared in “The Battle of the Sexes” and “Lady of the Pavements,” on April 15, and Zita Johann, the feminine lead of Griffith’s final film, “The Struggle,” on September 20. With these deaths, the epoch of Griffith’s entire 23-year directorial career has passed into history. Now it will be all the easier for those of a later generation to cast this legacy in a light that furthers their particular agenda.

siberiade_dvd.qxd

On March 24, not quite one month after Lillian Gish’s death, PBS broadcasts an ambitious three-hour documentary by Kevin Brownlow entitled “D. W. Griffith: Father of Film.” A co-production between Britain’s Thames Television with which Brownlow is then affiliated and PBS’ “American Masters” series, the documentary includes an impressive number of interviews and much footage from Griffith’s films. It is produced with all the technical skill for which Brownlow’s documentaries are justly renowned. Yet for all these qualities, the documentary is ultimately a major disappointment. Its chief flaw, one which affects its presentation of Griffith as a whole, is the overemphasis on “The Birth of a Nation.” This focus succeeds in overshadowing his other works even as it exacerbates the old controversy over the 1915 film. With so much time expended on this one production, the documentary’s presentation of the all-important Biograph period seems rushed while there is no real consideration of Griffith’s remarkable impact on filmmakers all over the world. As the reviews attest, even the documentary’s acknowledgment of Griffith’s progressive depictions of social issues in such films as “Intolerance,” “Broken Blossoms,” and “Isn’t Life Wonderful?” has little impact in comparison to the extended treatment given “The Birth,” exemplified by the inclusion of the embittered reaction of veteran black actor William Walker to his experience of seeing the film at the time of its release.  Additionally, the lengthy presentation of inflammatory scenes had caused PBS to insist on yet more “politically correct” material in the form of an interview with black historian John Hope Franklin as a counterbalance. While such material would have been entirely suited to a documentary chronicling the history of the 1915 spectacle, here it has only succeeded in crowding out any look at the director’s wider role in affecting the hearts and imaginations of audiences and film artists the world over. As indicated by the description here of “Hearts of the World” as opportunistic war propaganda in a reversal of Brownlow’s earlier praise for this film as the creation of an artist of integrity, the documentary marks in part a much less favorable view of Griffith than had been evident in the historian’s previous writings. A lost opportunity in interpreting cinema’s first visionary genius for a new generation, “D. W. Griffith: Father of Film,” however inadvertently, paves the way for what will follow in its wake.

David Wark Griffith Isn't Life Wonderful 1924
“Isn’t Life Wonderful?” (1924)

Evidence of Griffith’s collapsing reputation is provided in a book published in this same year of 1993. “The Films of D. W. Griffith” by Scott Simmon, a prominent film historian who had also helped restore Micheaux’s “Within Our Gates,” strikes a highly negative tone toward the director, both as an individual and as an artist. While Simmon does praise some of Griffith’s later work, he mostly regards it as inferior to the early Biographs the filmmaker made in 1910 and 1911 which this historian sees as the highpoint of the director’s entire career. In effect, Simmon’s book in its dismissive view of much of Griffith’s work represents an even more extreme revival of Lewis Jacobs’ treatment of Griffith in his 1939 book, “The Rise of the American Film.” The sophisticated analyses of Griffith’s work that had been such a fresh approach in the 1960s, 1970s and to a somewhat lesser extent the 1980s have been swept away in Simmon’s shallow, superficial study marked by a relentless conventionalism. There are not only the usual expressions of outrage toward “The Birth of a Nation” and the notion that this somehow should determine how the director’s entire work ought to be viewed, there is also the resuscitation of the thesis that Griffith largely declined as an artist in later years due to his supposed limitations. In the 1970s at the height of the Griffith revival, an influential film journal had drawn a contrast between the old-fashioned cinema historian who spoke of Griffith’s decline and the new, more advanced critic who wrote about Griffith’s growth. Symbolic of its throwback to an earlier view of the director, Simmon’s book even gives Griffith’s date of birth as January 23, 1875, a once-common error that during the years of the Griffith revival had given way to the correct date of January 22, 1875.

Midnight Ramble

1994—On October 26, PBS’ “American Experience” broadcasts “Midnight Ramble,” an hour-long documentary on the history of “race” movies, the works of pioneer African-American filmmakers in the silent era and the first two decades of sound. The critically acclaimed documentary places a heavy emphasis on D. W. Griffith and “The Birth of a Nation” and the influence it purportedly had on Oscar Micheaux whose early films including “Within Our Gates” (1920) and “The Symbol of the Unconquered” (1921) are seen as impassioned responses to the 1915 film. Indeed, so much does the documentary stress Griffith’s supposed villainy that it ultimately overshadows any positive understanding of Micheaux as an independent artist with a personal vision of his own. For if Griffith is now defined solely by “The Birth of a Nation,” Micheaux for his part is largely delineated as existing in opposition to Griffith. The documentary also demonstrates how any story depicting Griffith negatively, no matter how questionable its accuracy, can now be packaged as the truth. One of the documentary’s interviewees relates as a factual occurrence the story of Cora Hawkins, a black maid allegedly working for Griffith who was so appalled by “The Birth of a Nation” that she angrily quit the director’s service in protest. In fact, the incident and even the woman, complete with imaginary dialogue, were apparently invented by Homer Croy, a popular white novelist, in his heavily fictionalized, long-discredited 1959 book, “Star Maker: The Story of D. W. Griffith.” Although Croy had devised this episode simply because he thought it would make an entertaining story rather than for any compelling political reason, its inclusion in “Midnight Ramble” gives it far greater significance by making it seem that Griffith was the well-deserved recipient of a black woman’s outrage.

Despite these attacks on Griffith’s reputation, they do not have any apparent effect on the standing of artists who were prominently associated with the director. In this same year of 1994, the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize is established through a provision in Lillian’s will, an award to be given annually to an individual who has “made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.”

But while the Gish name is now attached to a significant new honor that will be awarded to many celebrated artists in the years ahead, that of their mentor disappears from another prestigious award. For 1994 also sees the apparent end of the National Board of Review’s Griffith awards which had been given out annually to many distinguished artists and films since 1980. While there is no concrete evidence that the award was targeted for specifically political reasons, its termination at this time is clearly in synch with the downturn in Griffith’s fortunes. The decline of the director’s reputation in the 1990s is further accelerated by the disappearance of a number of notable individuals in the film history field who had championed him over the years. The influential critic, Pauline Kael, who hailed “Intolerance” as the cinema’s greatest achievement, retires from regular reviewing in 1991. Eileen Bowser, the main archivist at the Museum of Modern Art for several decades and who had been at the forefront of the renaissance of interest in Griffith since the 1960s, retires from her position as curator in 1993. Death silences others including in 1993 John H. Dorr, one of the leading new critics who in the 1970s brought fresh appreciation to Griffith’s later works. The death in 1996 of William K. Everson, a very prominent film historian who had been a tireless advocate for Griffith since the 1950s, proves to be an irreparable loss. The passing in 1995 of Griffith’s grand-niece, Gerrie Griffith Reichard, the family member most active in the director’s cause, is yet another dispiriting loss. Although Griffith’s second wife, Evelyn Baldwin, who had a prominent role in the filmmaker’s last work, “The Struggle,” was interviewed for Kevin Brownlow’s documentary, she afterwards vanishes from the limelight and will die in 2004 at the age of 94, a passing unreported in the press.

Hal Skelly, Zita Johann and Evelyn Baldwin in "The Struggle" (1931)
Hal Skelly, Zita Johann and Evelyn Baldwin in “The Struggle” (1931)

On the plus side, much of Griffith’s work is now more visible than ever in the 1990s with excellent quality VHS releases of his films brought out by cinema preservationists David Shepard, Kevin Brownlow, and Paul Killiam and fairly frequent screenings on the new TCM (Turner Classic Movies) cable network. Another positive is the launching in 1997 of the world’s first complete retrospective of all of Griffith’s extant films at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in northern Italy. The retrospective, which will be an annual feature of the festival until its conclusion in 2008, the centenary of the director’s first film, will result in the publication of a series of volumes comprising scholarly essays on Griffith’s work, many of them written by American historians. Nevertheless, these more hopeful indications of continuing interest in the director’s career are largely offset by the virtual lock that a new generation of cineastes mostly hostile to Griffith has in shaping prevailing attitudes about the pioneer filmmaker.

1997—The renowned director Stanley Kubrick becomes the latest filmmaker to receive the Directors Guild of America’s D. W. Griffith Lifetime Achievement Award. In a recorded acceptance speech played at the DGA’s March 8 ceremony, Kubrick lauds Griffith as the innovator who was “instrumental in transforming movies . . . to an art form,” a man “always ready to take tremendous risks in his films” and who, like Icarus, flew so high that he was burnt by the sun. He concludes his speech by observing that “D. W. Griffith left us with an inspiring and intriguing legacy, and the award in his name is one of the greatest honors a film director can receive, something for which I humbly thank all of you very much.”

afis-100-years-100-movies

1998—On June 16, CBS broadcasts the American Film Institute’s new three-hour special entitled “100 Years … 100 Movies,” a somewhat belated commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the first projected American films in 1896. The AFI honors this historic anniversary by unveiling a list of the 100 greatest American films as determined by 1,500 filmmakers, film critics, prominent citizens, and “randomly selected” filmgoers. As is customary with such lists, many of the selections and omissions are extremely controversial. In particular, the AFI is criticized by many cinephiles for limiting its representation of the silent cinema to just four films—Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush,” “City Lights,” and “Modern Times” and, no. 44 on the list, D. W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.” Some of the overall criticism comes from such dedicated cineastes as critic Jonathan Rosenbaum who responds with a counter-list of his own that includes more silent films including Griffith’s “Intolerance” and “Broken Blossoms” rather than “The Birth.” But there are others, particularly in the black community, who especially deplore the selection of the 1915 spectacle. This includes the NAACP as well as Camille Cosby, the wife of comedian Bill Cosby, who point to the inclusion of “The Birth” on the AFI’s top 100 list as evidence of the persistence of racism in contemporary American society. Unlike the AFI’s 1977 list of 50 greatest American films which chose “Intolerance” as well as “The Birth,” the 1998 list thus succeeds in creating still more negative publicity for Griffith. The resulting controversy over its continuing prominence as indicated in this list will appear to act as a provocation to those advocating more severe measures to reduce the stature of the film’s director.

Lillian Gish in "Way Down East"
Lillian Gish in “Way Down East”

As if on cue in response to this, there is in 1998 the first attempt to remove one of the few existing honors to Griffith, an effort that sadly succeeds. While for a number of years there had been no controversy over Red Grooms’ “Way Down East” sculptures that had been installed on the Northern Kentucky University campus in 1979, this all begins to change in the 1990s with the escalation of attacks on “The Birth of a Nation” and its director. Students suddenly begin demanding that the sculptures be removed on the grounds that they honor a “racist” filmmaker even though they commemorate another Griffith film, one which did not deal with racial issues at all but instead had condemned the oppression of women in a male-dominated society. As matters come to a head in 1998, none of this is apparently considered in the campus debate when faculty members join the students’ protest. One political science professor declares that Griffith was “responsible for one of the darkest periods in this country’s history” and Grooms’ sculptured tribute was “a dagger in the heart of black people and decent white people who know the history of this man.” As a consequence of such exaggerated demagoguery, the colorful sculptures are removed to a less conspicuous place on the otherwise dreary-looking campus. There they will remain until 2004 when they are finally dismantled and placed in storage.

1999—On December 14, the campaign against Griffith reaches a landmark climax when, in a statement signed by Jack Shea, the current president of the Directors Guild of America, the organization announces that its national board has voted unanimously to retire its most prestigious prize, the D. W. Griffith Lifetime Achievement Award, and to create a new career achievement award with the name to be chosen at a later date. In explaining the move, Shea states: “As we approach a new millennium, the time is right to create a new ultimate honor for film directors that better reflects the sensibilities of our society at this time in our national history. There is no question that D. W. Griffith was a brilliant pioneer filmmaker whose innovations as a visionary film artist led the way for generations of directors. However, it is also true that he helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes.” The DGA’s board had reached the decision to strip Griffith’s name from the award, given out to many of the most acclaimed filmmakers in history, with little debate and without consulting the guild as a whole. The same day of this announcement, Kweisi Mfume, then head of the NAACP, applauds the move, declaring it should never have been named after Griffith in the first place and that people had had to live with the “horrors” caused by “The Birth of a Nation” ever since. Griffith’s biographer, Richard Schickel, whom the DGA had consulted about the issue, also supports the decision, saying that “by any standard [Griffith] was a racist.” Unlike the Northern Kentucky University controversy which received no press coverage outside its region, the DGA’s decision to remove the most noteworthy commemoration of the director in the cinematic capital he had founded is a major news story throughout the country. While this repudiation of Griffith has a number of defenders, it is also strongly criticized by Kevin Brownlow and such well-known filmmakers as Curtis Harrington and William Friedkin. The National Society of Film Critics issues a statement deploring the action, calling it “a depressing example of ‘political correctness’ as an erasure, and rewriting, of American film history, causing a grave disservice to the reputation of a pioneering American filmmaker.” But despite this protest, the DGA does not reverse its decision. However, apparently unable to find another, more politically acceptable directorial legend to replace Griffith’s name on the award, the honor will remain anonymous, a simple “lifetime achievement award.”

Eisenstein Commemorative coins

Even as Griffith’s reputation in his own country spirals downward, glaringly demonstrated by the DGA’s action, his Russian counterpart in a nation undergoing far more dramatic changes meets with a very different fate. In film history, Griffith’s name has been traditionally linked with Sergei M. Eisenstein as a master of montage, the Russian director having acknowledged his indebtedness to the American pioneer whom he called “the grand old man of us all.” As the Soviet Union began to fall apart in the late 1980s, it seemed possible that Eisenstein in Russia, like Griffith in the United States, might fall victim to a form of political correctness with the repudiation of the revolution he had supported and the end of the system which had commissioned his films.  Indeed, both in Russia and elsewhere, critics had emerged who dismissed Eisenstein’s works as outdated reminders of a totalitarian past best forgotten. Like “The Birth of a Nation” which had been blamed for America’s racial ills, Eisenstein’s films had started to be attacked by some writers as having provided cinematic justification for the brutalities of the Soviet regime from its founding in 1917 to the later horrors of collectivization and the purges in the 1930s. It had been a matter of considerable import how Eisenstein would be remembered in the new post-Communist era during his centennial. The answer comes on January 23, 1998, the 100th anniversary of his birth, when the Bank of Russia issues two minted commemorative coins bearing Eisenstein’s name and portrait. On the back of both is the traditional double-headed eagle that has supplanted the hammer and sickle of the former Communist government. But what has not been supplanted in the new Russia is an abiding respect for the cinematic genius whose works stirred audiences around the world.  The honors will continue into the new century with the issuing of an Eisenstein commemorative postage stamp by the Russian government in 2000. Then in 2005 in an agreement between UNESCO, the Russian film company, Mosfilm, and the Russian Vivat Foundation for music and the theatre, a special award is established to be given to deserving individuals in the world of cinematography. This is the UNESCO Sergei Eisenstein Medal which, struck in Russia, bears the likeness and signature of the director. The Russia that seeks to avoid the proscription of major parts of its cultural heritage after decades of enduring the rigors of the party line on artistic and historical issues now stands in stark contrast to the totalitarian purity of political correctness that has decimated Griffith’s reputation in the United States.

2001—Although no medals or other formal honors will come Griffith’s way in the new century, he does receive one notable commemoration if an anonymous one on November 9 when a large-scale entertainment and shopping complex opens in Hollywood. Representing the revitalization of the film capital, the center appropriately includes Babylon Court, an impressive replication of the famous set from “Intolerance.” With the nearby Kodak Theater (later renamed the Dolby Theater) the new permanent home of the annual Academy Awards presentations, Babylon Court furnishes a colorful backdrop to the Oscar show. The idea of paying this tribute to Griffith’s visionary epic with a recreation of the Babylonian set had originated years before with another artist, famed writer Ray Bradbury. He will later point out that his celebrated dystopian novel, “Fahrenheit 451,” was a forecast of political correctness in which literature is suppressed after minority groups protest how they are depicted in specific books. In an era in which Bradbury’s nightmare vision has started to become true in the United States, the one honor Griffith can now have in Hollywood or anywhere else in his native country is a tribute in which his likeness is not displayed nor his name included in its formal title, although it does appear on the accompanying plaque. As such, it represents an ironic recurrence in the state of the director’s fortunes. When he began making films for Biograph, Griffith worked anonymously, attaining a unique form of celebrity as the unknown genius creating the most extraordinary films yet seen. Now, decades after his death, he has been so widely excoriated for “The Birth of a Nation,” the film that made him famous in the United States, that his recognition has to be earned once again through a kind of anonymity, as indicated by the homage paid to him and his epochal masterpiece by Babylon Court.

Modern Griffith Babylon

2004—A fresh reminder of Griffith’s diminished reputation is dramatically illustrated by two very different public responses to “The Birth of a Nation” during this year. A black conceptual artist named DJ Spooky unveils a presentation he calls “Rebirth of a Nation,” a video remix of the 1915 original he calls “a film glorifying a horrible situation.” The project, intended to undercut “The Birth” by using reedited footage to project a contrary point of view, is commissioned by the Lincoln Center Festival. DJ Spooky begins touring the world presenting “Rebirth of a Nation” to audiences in many countries. Although some critics write that his remix is ultimately less than successful, the low regard in which “The Birth” is now held brings DJ Spooky’s presentation considerable praise from more polemical observers and he will continue with the tour for over a decade.

But if a cut-up remix of the film, essentially a politicized variant of “Fractured Flickers,” flourishes as a public exhibition, the same can hardly be said for the original work. In August of this same year of 2004, Charlie Lustman, the current owner of Hollywood’s venerable Silent Movie Theater, announces his intention of showing “The Birth of a Nation.” However, he is forced to cancel the screening, not only because of an impending protest but also due to threats to destroy the theater and even against his life. This time, even the long-obligatory planned inclusion of a black spokesman to counter the film’s point of view has proved unavailing against the forces of intimidation that now reign supreme in a country constantly proclaiming its adherence to democracy.

2007—On June 20, the American Film Institute presents another CBS TV special, “AFI 100 Years. . .100 Movies,” a revised list of 100 American films selected as the greatest from a poll of artists and leaders in the film industry. This time “Intolerance” replaces “The Birth of a Nation” on the list, and for good measure, Keaton’s “The General” and F. W. Murnau’s “Sunrise” are added as well to a selection that also retains the three classic Chaplin features chosen in the previous decade.

2008—Despite the AFI’s belated acknowledgment of Griffith’s most complex epic, a film it had included during its first TV special in 1977 before dropping it two decades later, there is little change in the steep decline in the director’s reputation during the first years of the 21st century although his films continue to be readily available in the new DVD format that has supplanted VHS. But, as indicated by the lack of any significant attention paid in America to the centennial of the onset of his directorial career in 2008, there has been little real progress in a deeper understanding of his career in his native country via publications. The Pordenone Silent Film Festival does observe the anniversary by completing its long, complete retrospective of the director’s work and issuing the last of its scholarly volumes with essays by a number of authorities on the subject, “The Griffith Project,” published by the British Film Institute. In the United States, however, the main scholarly book on Griffith to appear at this time is Melvyn Stokes’ “D. W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation:’ A History of the Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time.” In a rare contrast to the constant obsession with the Civil War-Reconstruction film as the work that defines the director, Howard Blum in 2008 does publish “American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century.” This acclaimed book is concerned with the 1910 bombing of the “Los Angeles Times” by trade unionists and the relation of three major figures to this event: William J. Burns, the detective who investigated the case, Clarence Darrow, the lawyer who defended the accused men, and D. W. Griffith, the director who made a series of outstanding films sympathetic to labor. Not a strictly historiographical text but rather an example of the “non-fiction novel” genre pioneered by Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” Blum’s book is nevertheless a gripping narrative of the past with the presentation of Griffith as a socially progressive artist a welcome departure from the incessant attacks on him in many other publications.

A future president confronts the evils of slavery in a lost scene from "Abraham Lincoln" (1930)