A Short History of the Movies (The Birth of a Nation) – Gerald Mast 1971

  •     A short history of the movies
  •     Gerald Mast, Formerly of the University of Chicago
  •     © 1971, 1976, and 1981 by the Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.;
  •     FIFTH EDITION REVISED BY Bruce F. Kawin
  •     University of Colorado at Boulder
  •     1992 Macmillan Publishing Company New York
  •     Maxwell Macmillan Canada Toronto

The Birth of a Nation

For his own independent project for 1914, Griffith chose a novel by Thomas Dixon, The Clansman. The book appealed to Griffith for several reasons. It was a vast story, covering the final years in the graceful life of the old South before the Civil War; the turbulent, violent years of war; and the painful, political years of Reconstruction, during which the Ku KIux Klan arose to defend the rights of the whites. Griffith also used material from the stage version of The Clansman and from another Dixon novel, The Leopard’s Spots, all of which were extremely racist. Griffith, a Southerner whose father served in the Confederate Army, was attracted by Dixon’s slant. Dixon, also a Southerner, saw the Reconstruction era as a period of chaos in which the “civilized” white South, presented as the gallant underdog, struggled but survived. It was this film, with dangerous social and political implications, that Griffith set out to make. Shooting began on the Fourth of July, 1914.

The Birth of a Nation – 1915 UK Programme

No one on the set knew exactly what Griffith’s film was all about. Griffith used no shooting script, creating all details of the vast cinema pageant out of his head as he went along. The players only knew that the project was vast: It took six weeks to rehearse and nine weeks to shoot, an incredible amount of time in an era when most films were cranked out in a week. It required thousands of men and animals and countless huge and detailed indoor sets. Its cost, $110,000, was the most ever invested in a motion picture. At the film’s official premiere in Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles on February 8, 1915, audiences finally saw how huge Griffith’s plan and project were. The thirteen-reel film was still called The Clansman at that opening. When the author of the novel finally saw the film, however, Dixon told Griffith, in his enthusiasm, that the original title was too tame. Griffith should call his film The Birth of a Nation. His point was that the nation was truly born only when the whites of the North and South united “in defense of their Aryan birthright.”

The retitled version opened in New York on March 3, 1915, still thirteen reels long. But in response to social protests, Griffith deleted about nine minutes from the film (footage that has never been recovered), leaving it just over twelve reels long.

The Birth of a Nation is as much a document of American social history as of film history. Though President Wilson, a former historian at Princeton, described the film as “like history written with lightning,” its action openly praises the Ku Klux Klan. Wilson may well have offered the simile simply to help his old school chum, Dixon. The film, which contributed significantly to the resurgence of the modern Klan in this century, is a very difficult morsel for today’s liberal or social activist to swallow. It was just as difficult for the liberals of 1915. The NAACP; the president of Harvard, Jane Addams; and liberal politicians all damned the work for its bigoted, racist portrayal of the Negro. The film was suppressed in some cities for fear of race riots; politicians spoke for or against it according to their dependence on the black vote. At a revival of the film some ten years after its original opening, mobs poured into Chicago to see it as well as to attend a Ku Klux Klan convention. With all of the contro¬ versy over the film, it might be wise to look at Griffith’s handling of the black man and woman a bit more closely before moving on to the cinematic qualities of the film.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman in “The Birth of a Nation” promotional

First, a close examination of the film reveals that two of the three villains—Lynch (the false reformer) and Sarah (Stoneman’s mistress)— are not pure Negroes but mulattoes. Both possess qualities that Griffith had already damned in whites—hypocrisy, selfishness, social reforming, and sexual license. That they were mulattoes indicates that Griffith’s main target was not the blacks but miscegenation—an objective of the third villain, a black soldier named Gus, when he forces his attentions on a southern white girl. (His marriage proposal—a rape in the novel—causes Flora, “the little pet sister,” to throw herself off a cliff to her death; in the novel, and perhaps in the censored footage, Gus is castrated by the KKK when they kill him.)

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

The miscegenation theme flows through the movie like a poisonous river—in the scenes of the lecherous black legislature, in signs at the black-dominated polling place, in Lynch’s attraction to Elsie (Lillian Gish) and Gus’s to Flora (Mae Marsh). The mixing of bloods is the source of evil. Griffith’s stance against miscegenation stems from an assumption about blacks and whites that is perhaps more central to the film’s offensiveness. For Griffith, whites are whites and blacks blacks; the white race is naturally superior; each race has “its own place.”

If Griffith’s view seems outrageous—well, it is. Not every masterpiece is “politically correct,” an surviving conclusion) was to send the blacks back to Africa.

There are good blacks and bad blacks in Griffith’s film. The good ones are the “faithful souls” who work in the fields, “know their place,” and stay with their white family after the war. Gone With the Wind, twenty-four years newer fashioned than The Birth of a Nation and still adored by the public, makes the same distinction between good and bad “darkies.” Perhaps Griffith’s most offensive scene is the one in which the empty state legislature suddenly (with the aid of a dissolve) springs to life, full of black lawmakers with bare feet on desks, swilling booze, and eating—what else?—fried chicken while they eye the white women in the gallery. But Griffith’s treatment of these blacks is not an isolated expression of racial prejudice; it is a part of his lifelong distrust of the “evils” of social change and disruption. And on a purely technical level, this legislature scene is a visual marvel!

The brilliance of The Birth ofa Nation is that it is both strikingly complex and tightly wholed part of dealing with The Birth of a Nation lies in examining, rather than explaining away, how offensive it is. Although Griffith recognized that slavery was the root of America’s racial problems, his solution (proposed in part of the censored footage, an ending originally meant to balance the all-white harmony. It is a film of brilliant parts carefully tied together by the driving line of the film’s narrative. Its hugeness of conception, its acting, its sets, its cinematic devices had not been equalled by any film before it and would not be surpassed by many that followed it. Yet surprisingly, for such an obviously big picture, it is also a highly personal and intimate one. Its small moments are as impressive as its big ones.

Henry B Walthall – The Little Colonel

Though Griffith summarizes an entire historical era in the evolution of the nation in general and the South in particular, his summary adopts a human focus: two families, one from the North (the Stonemans), one from the South (the Camerons), who, despite the years of death and suffering, survive the Civil War and Reconstruction. The eventual marriage between the two white families becomes a symbol or emblem for Griffith’s view of the united nation. Love, courage, sincerity, and natural affection triumph over social movements and selfish reformers. The close observation of people and their most intimate feelings, the techniques of which Griffith had been developing for five years, propels the film, not its huge battle scenes, its huge dances and political meetings, or its detailed “historical facsimiles” of Ford’s Theater and the Appomattox courthouse. The big scenes serve as the violent social realities with which the gentle, loving people must contend.

Even in the mammoth battle sequences Griffith never deserts his human focus. His rhythmic and energetic editing constantly alternates between distant, extreme long shots of the battles and close concentration on the individual men who are fighting. Griffith takes the time for such touches as his cut from the living, fighting soldiers to a shot of the motionless dead ones who have found “war’s peace,” his cuts from the valiant human effort on the Union side to shots of a similar effort on the Confederate, including Ben Cameron’s heroic charge of the Union lines, ramming the Southern flag down the barrel of a Union cannon.

Birth of a Nation Final Battle – Henry B Walthall

Griffith increases the power, the violence, the energy of these battle sequences with his sensitivity to cutting on contrary movement across the frame, to cutting in rhythm with the action, and to cutting to different distances and angles that mirror the points of view of the different participants. But in the midst of such violence, Griffith takes time for quiet, tender moments: the moment when the two boys, one Cameron and one Stoneman, die in each other’s arms; the moment in which a weeping mother on a hilltop views the destructiveness of the invading army in the valley.

This shot, one of the most celebrated in the film, shows Griffith’s control of the masking- or irising-effect, another of the innovations he developed in his apprentice years. The iris-shot masks a certain percentage of the frame, concentrating the viewer’s attention completely on a circle or rectangle or some other shape of light within the blackened screen rectangle; The iris, analogous to the theatre spotlight or today’s zoom lens, either shrinks the audience’s focus from the whole field to a single point or expands our focus from the single point to the whole field.

In The Birth of a Nation’s famous iris shot, Griffith begins tightly on the weeping mother’s face and then irises out to reveal the awesome army below her, the cause of her sorrow. This use of the mask shot to reveal cause and effect is only one of many in the picture.

Griffith often uses animals as symbols or to define his characters and their emotional states. In the early sequence depicting the gentle, peaceful life of the old South (analogous to the opening sequence of Judith of Bethulia), Griffith shows Doctor Cameron gently stroking two puppies. Significantly, one of the puppies is black and the other white; it is also significant that a kitten soon begins to play with the pups and starts a fight. The dogs become visual metaphors for Griffith’s idealized prewar South, a happy mixture of different races and social classes, able to work out their own problems; the cat is the intrusive outsider who hurts the white pup. Later in the film Griffith crosscuts between the two lovers, Elsie and Ben, gently playing with a dove while the savage Lynch mistreats a dog. The attitudes of the characters toward animals ultimately reveal their attitudes toward people.

Henry B Walthall – Reunion – Birth of a Nation

Another of Griffith’s artistic devices is his use of the main street in the town of Piedmont as a barometer of the film’s emotional and social tensions. At the film’s opening the street is full of people and carriages: active, sociable, friendly. As the Confederate soldiers first march off to war, the street becomes a carnival: fireworks, cheering townspeople, rhythmic columns of men on horses. When “the little Colonel” (Ben Cameron) returns home after the war, the street is desolate, ruined, dusty, dead. And finally, when the town is overrun with carpetbaggers and reconstructionists, drunken gangs of black men rove the street; the street has become a very unfriendly, ungentle place. By capturing human emotion in concrete visual images Griffith successfully renders human feeling rather than a parody of feeling, as in Queen Elizabeth.

D.W. Griffith and Billy Bitzer – (face hidden behind the reel casing of the camera)

The Birth of a Nation is part mammoth spectacle and part touching human drama. It is also part melodrama and part allegorical vision. Griffith never deserts the constructional principles of his early melodramatic one-reelers as the means to keep his story moving. The suspense and excitement of Griffith’s cross-cutting create the dramatic tension of many of the sequences: the attack of a band of black renegades (significantly their captain is white) on the defenseless town and the Cameron home (and women); the assassination of Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre; the rapacious Gus chasing the littlest Cameron girl through the woods until she falls to her death.

Lillian Gish – Ford’s Theatre

The most thrilling sequence of all is, appropriately, the final one in which Griffith gives us not one but two last-minute rescues. Not only does Griffith cross-cut from the victims to the potential agents of their rescue, he cuts between two sets of victims and their common saviors—the Ku Klux Klan—furiously galloping forth to eradicate the forces of rapine and death. Not only is this rescue sequence Griffith’s most complex up to this point, it is also his most sensitive to the kinetic excitement of editing rhythms and the moving camera.

But after the dust from the galloping climax has settled, Griffith celebrates the peaceful union of Elsie Stoneman and Ben Cameron with a superimposed allegorical pageant in the heavens. Elsie and Ben see Christ replacing the military general (Alexander the Great?); Christ cuts the Gordian knot and all humanity rejoices as the City of God replaces the Kingdoms of the Earth. There are several remarkable things about this closing vision: its audacity, its irrelevance, and the passion and sincerity of Griffith’s commitment to it. But exactly how is this City of God to become a reality? Certainly not by the efforts of the Ku Klux Klan alone. It is the evil in the human soul that must be exorcised. And once again Griffith reveals his nearsightedness in probing what he considers evil.

The evil in the film is instigated by three people. They are evil (1) because they are evil, or (2) because they have mixed blood. They succeed in doing evil because they entice the naturally good, but easily tempted, Congressman Stoneman to the abolitionist cause. His temptation stems from his vanity despite his physical deformity (Griffith brilliantly uses a club foot, parallel to the classic deformity of Shakespeare’s Richard III, and an ill-fitting wig to define these traits), and from the “fatal weakness” of being sexually attracted to his mulatto housekeeper. According to the film’s action, the chaos of the Civil War was the direct result of the nation’s Stonemans who became entangled in an evil of which they were totally ignorant or that they unwisely thought they could control. Even granting Griffith this preposterous premise, how is one to be sure the future contains no Stonemans? And how can one abolish slavery without abolition? The Birth of a Nation’s final vision is an innocent and mystical wish rather than the intellectual consequence of what preceded it. The film remains solid as human drama and cinematic excitement, flimsy as abstract social theory.

Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith – Intolerance

Right after The Birth of a Nation, Griffith made The Mother and the Law (1915, released 1919), a tightly constructed melodrama starring Mae Marsh (the Dear One), Bobby Harron (the Boy), and Miriam Cooper (the Friendless One); it indicted reformers and big business while telling a powerful story of love, loss, and endurance. Aitken and Griffith, who had set up their own company (Epoch) to finance and distribute The Birth of a Nation, had by now left Mutual for the Triangle Film Corporation, whose big three were Griffith, Thomas Ince, and Mack Sennett. But the controversy over The Birth led to Griffith’s pulling The Mother and the Law from Triangle’s release schedule; instead he and Aitken set up another separate company (Wark) to produce Intolerance (1916).

Theatres advertising “The Birth of a Nation”

Griffith’s treatment of blacks provoked public condemnation, even riots. The criticism stung Griffith deeply, since he felt he had gone to some trouble to present good and bad blacks and whites, as he had watered down or cut out the novel’s most inflammatory, racist passages. (What he kept of Dixon’s prose included “the opal gates of death”; what he left out sounded like this, and his reasons for deleting it are obvious: “For a thick-lipped, flat-nosed, spindle- shanked negro, exuding his nauseating animal odour, to shout in derision over the hearths and homes of white men and women is an atrocity too monstrous for belief.” The KKK had permanently disbanded in 1869, and Dixon nostalgically dedicated his 1905 “historical romance,” The Clansman, to the memory of his “Scotch-Irish” uncle, a “Grand Titan Of The Invisible Empire”; unfortunately, The Birth of a Nation used the medium so powerfully that Griffith’s film unexpectedly but indisputably inspired the birth of the twentieth-century Klan in late 1915.) Griffith began defending himself against the charges of bigotry and hatred; he angrily protested the film’s suppression in several cities and wrote The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America, a pamphlet that championed the “Freedom of the Screen.” Intolerance was to be his cinematic defense, his pamphlet in film form against intellectual censorship. Fortunately for Griffith, The Birth of a Nation became the first authentic blockbuster in film history, earning untold millions of dollars; he would need his entire share of that money for Intolerance, its cost nearly half a million dollars ($493,800), its release length fourteen reels (his longest film, between 13,500 and 13,700 feet [of 35mm film, which has 16 frames per foot], not all of which survives), its conception so vast that it was to The Birth of a Nation as The Birth of a Nation was to Judith of Bethulia.

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“The Greatest Thing In Life” – Wid’s Daily (1919)

  • Wid’s Daily – Thursday, January 2, 1919
  • The Recognized Authority

Griffith Puts Over Winner in His Latest Film. It’s Human

D. W. Griffith Presents

“The Greatest Thing In Life.” – Artcraft

Producer/Director D.W. Griffith, AUTHOR Captain Victor Marrier, CAMERAMAN G W Bitzer, SCENARIO BY Captain Victor Marrier

  • AS A WHOLE.. . . ..Splendid production with strong human interest element; war scenes presented in masterly fashion.
  • STORY Has a real theme apart from war, developed with keen comprehension of feminine nature in search of “the greatest thing in life.”
  • DIRECTION Reveals the flawless technique expected of Griffith: always avoids the superfluous and makes much of seeming trifles that spell reality.
  • PHOTOGRAPHY Always superior
  • LIGHTINGS Excellent in getting beautiful modulations of light and shadow; never permit monotony.
  • CAMERA WORK Notable for the introduction of a new and artistic close-up suggestive of an impressionistic photograph. Effects gained by what may be termed “a soft focus”
  • PLAYERS Lillian Gish vivacious and charming ; Bobby Harron registers fine characterization; David Butler and others add to story.
  • EXTERIORS Delightful to look at; largely because of excellent photography.
  • INTERIORS Richly furnished when situations demand it; always look like real thing.
  • DETAIL Includes significant incidents; subtitles give natural expression to the mood of the
  • CHARACTER OF STORY Shows Germans as “the enemy”, but doesn’t harp on atrocities.
  • LENGTH OF PRODUCTION About 6,500 ft.

Griffith remains pre-eminent on account of what he doesn’t do as well as what he does. When a scene has reached the “punch” point he uses the scissors, and the audience isn’t bothered by the loose ends of dramatic action. He doesn’t work with stereotyped characters because they are convenient; he doesn’t show a German officer assaulting a woman because it has become the custom to present brutality in war films; he doesn’t use a sledge hammer to pound home his meaning and he doesn’t hesitate to tackle a delicate situation because there is danger of its not getting over.

Get “The Greatest Thing in Life” and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll see the difference between the output of a creative artist and the work of a conscientious craftsman who learns to do well something which others have done before him. There’s a big difference and it is the difference that makes this a distinctly superior production.

Griffith took a story of character good enough to have been developed irrespective of the war angle, yet so devised that it appears to have its natural outcome in the world conflict. Lillian Gish is a French girl, vivacious to the point of seeming triviality. Living with her father, who runs a shop in New York, she seeks, under a cloak of laughter, the perfect man, the ideal love, the “greatest thing in life.”

The Greatest Thing in Life (Lillian Gish and David Butler)

Bobby Harron is the incarnation of snobbery. He detests commonness in all forms, but incongruous as he feels it is, he is fascinated by the merry Lillian, who might love him if only he were more human. David Butler, a great stupid French boy, is all human, he is everything that Bobby is not, but he has no poetry in his soul. Lillian tests him with merry talk about Rostand’s “Chantecler” and the Golden Bird. But to the French youth, a chicken is only a chicken and can never be anything else.

France calls them all—father, daughter and the dissimilar suitors—the France of shell-torn villages. Characters are tested in the crucible. The French materialist dies a valiant soldier, still declaring that a chicken is only a chicken; the snob, reborn a human being in the trenches, heads the American soldiers into the French village, occupied by the Germans to save the girl and her wounded parent. This sketchy outline of the plot may suggest nothing new. It is the wealth of incident and characterization that make it throb with feeling. At first there is contagious animation in following the flirtatious Lillian through her days at the little shop. The performance of Miss Gish is a delight, while Harron supplies a striking portrayal of the snob.

There is humor here, and humor mingled with pathos when the scene moves to France. The war phases of the production, having suspense and thrills galore, are finely harmonized with the personal elements of the story. Be it noted to Griffith’s credit that he defies precedent by not showing any assaults on defenseless women.

A high spot in the picture, one that gets over superbly despite its dangerous character, brings out the transformation of the snob, when, lying in a dugout with a dying negro soldier, he listens to the pathetic appeal of the hysterical man for one kiss from his mammy. Bobby brings happiness to the negro in his last moments by impersonating the mammy and kissing him.

Lillian Gish – The Greatest Thing in Life

Be Sure to Let Folks Know What You Have. They’ll Come to See it

Box Office Analysis for the Exhibitor.

Some pictures are just artistic, some just business-getting, some are both, and I should say most decidedly that this is one of them. I don’t care what kind of a house you are running; this Griffith offering is bound to please your patrons. Don’t worry about whether or not folks are getting their fill of war films. “The Greatest Thing In Life” isn’t really a war picture; it’s a picture with a mighty interesting group of human beings who happen to get mixed up in the war. There’s a distinction here, and it’s the kind of distinction that’s going to make some productions live while others die. The name of Griffith is enough in itself to assure interest, and in addition to that you have the two Griffith celebrities, Lillian Gish and Bobby Harron, to attract the crowd that remembers “The Birth of a Nation” and “Hearts of the World,” not to mention numerous other pictures.

All that you need to do is to advertise in a big way and figure to hold the film long enough to profit by the word-of-mouth boosting which it is sure to receive. If you spend a little money with your newspapers, it ought not to be difficult to get picture layouts along with more than the usual amount of reading notices dealing with the career of Griffith and the stars he has developed. No doubt you will be supplied with plenty of effective lobby material of an artistic nature suitable to the character of the production. By all means get this if you can and don’t worry about the return on your investment.

Paramount and Artcraft Press Books (Dec 1918) Greatest Thing in Life advertising – posters

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Great War Films – Lawrence J. Quirk 1994 (The Birth of a Nation 1915)

  • Great War Films
  • Lawrence J. Quirk 1994
  • A Citadel Press Book Published by Carol Publishing Group

The Birth of a Nation 1915

D. W. GRIFFITH / HARRY E. AITKEN / EPOCH PRODUCING CORP. (distributor)  1915

CAST: Lillian Gish, Henry B. Walthall, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh, Wallace Reid, Miriam Cooper, Donald Crisp, Joseph Henabery, Raoul Walsh, Walter Long, Eugene Pallette.

CREDITS: D. W. Griffith, director; D. W. Griffith and Frank E. Woods, screenplay; based on the novel The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon; G. W. Bitzer, photographer. Running time: 185 minutes.

D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation remains one of the most famous and influential motion pictures of all time. It was the first great epic, and the film that introduced many of the cinematic conventions we take for granted today. And it is one that has been steeped in controversy from its initial release right up to the present day.

Birth of a Nation details the events before, during. and after the Civil War of 1861-65 and focuses on two families—one Northern (the Stonemans) and one Southern (the Camerons)—whose sons are friends. Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall), known as “The Little Colonel,” falls for Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) just by looking at her picture; one of the Stoneman boys, Phil (Robert Harron), also falls for one of Ben’s sisters, Margaret (Miriam Cooper).

Movies in America – Birth of a Nation

But the love stories are secondary to the Civil War action; Birth of a Nation features panoramic battle scenes employing thousands of extras who engage in fighting in such a realistic manner that it creates a near-documentary effect. Stoneman and Cameron eventually meet as enemies on the battlefield, where the latter is badly wounded but succored by his new found friend, who writes to sister Elsie, asking her to take special care of his pal in the hospital where she is a nurse.

Cameron’s reunion with his mother is touching, as is an affecting scene when he finally comes back home and greets his older sister on the doorstep; the two feign a happy air at first, but eventually both succumb to grateful tears. The assassination of Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865, is meticulously detailed. For many of the war scenes, Griffith worked from photographs by Matthew Brady and others to help recreate the settings and action as authentically as possible. The picture is initially choppy and episodic, but eventually the audience comes to know the characters and gets caught up in their stories.

The main problem with Birth of a Nation is that it has absolutely no perspective (thus giving it an almost comically dated quality), as it is told by Griffith—a native of the South—strictly from the Confederacy’s point of view. Thus the scene that follows the title card “The master in chains before his former slaves” is not depicted as poetic justice but as the tragic downfall of a noble character (Ben Cameron, who later forms the Ku Klux Klan in response to Northern and carpetbagger-inspired Negro outrages).

The depiction of blacks in Birth ofa Nation has always engendered much comment. On the one hand, the scenes of blacks rioting, breaking into houses, and disporting themselves in a disgraceful manner often seem disquietingly and shamefully contemporary. On the other hand, Birth of a Nation unmistakably suggests that the only “good blacks” are those who toe the line and remain loyal to their former masters. Virtually all of the black characters (most of whom are played by white actors in black-face) are negatively portrayed, and their Northern supporters are the worst kind of “guilty white liberals.” Phil Stoneman’s father is pleased to hear that his protege, mulatto Silas Lynch, is going to marry a white woman. That is, until Stoneman learns that Lynch has designs on his own daughter—after which he is repulsed and furious. The final scenes show the “heroes” in their white hoods and raiment rushing to the rescue of the Camerons who are trapped in a cabin by crazed Negroes and Northerners. Birth ofa Nation may be historically accurate in some respects, but it lacks balance.

The NAACP protested strongly against the film upon its release, and many in this era of political correctness would like to see it consigned to oblivion. Others, such as black filmmaker John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood), feel that Birth of a Nation’s artistic achievements override its political content. “It’s like the Holocaust,” Singleton has said. “We should never forget.”—W. S.

The great war films – Birth of a Nation

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The First Film Makers – by Richard Dyer MacCann (1989)

  • Richard Dyer MacCann
  • American Movies: The First Thirty Years
  • ® Copyright 1989 by Richard Dyer MacCann.
  • Printed in the United States of America.

D.W. Griffith’s American Dream

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

DW Griffith shooting a scene from The Great Love 1918

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

Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie

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

Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East)

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

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

Lillian Gish (film director) 2 – Remodeling Her Husband

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

As usual, he didn’t quite know what he was doing: he was not a literary man, an intellectual, or a trained historian. He was a dealer in myths and emotions, not theories and logic. But can we propose that Griffith was subconsciously trying in Way Down East to catch up with the world? It was a world which was barely beginning, long after reconstruction days, to value equality of rights almost as much as freedom for the strong to get ahead.

***

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

The First Film Makers 1989 Richard Dyer MacCann American Movies: The First Thirty Years

Note: Illustrations are not part of Mr. MacCann’s book.

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Lillian Gish’s Protest against Racism in US – Chicago Tribune, Apr. 28, 1940

Contralto Marian Anderson - Lincoln Memorial, April 9, 1939
Contralto Marian Anderson – Lincoln Memorial, April 9, 1939

Marian Anderson (February 27, 1897 – April 8, 1993) was an American singer of classical music and spirituals. Music critic Alan Blyth said: “Her voice was a rich, vibrant contralto. Anderson became an important figure in the struggle for black artists to overcome racial prejudice in the United States. On 9 April 1939, Marian Anderson stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC and sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”. A crowd of 75,000 listened to her, and millions more tuned in on the radio. She sang where she did because she had been refused the use Constitution Hall by its owners. Marian was black, and the owners had a white-artists-only clause.

Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois)28 Apr 1940, SunPage 58 - New
Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) 28 Apr 1940, Sun Page 58

Lillian Gish, of “Life With Father,” resigned from the D.A.R.. along with her mother and sister, when Marian Anderson, the great Negro contralto, was not permitted to appear in Constitution Hall, the D.A.R. auditorium in Washington, D.C. Miss Gish explains her resignation with a beautifully classic turn: “I don’t quite know what we were doing in the organization in the first place.”

1lillian-gish-8x10-lab-photo-1940s-polka-dot

This was the real Lillian Gish. An artist who starred in Birth of A Nation (as Elsie Stoneman – a nurse) when she was 22 years old. An actress who supported her mother and sister when their father left them, in a time when film was considered cheap amusement meant for entertaining a county fair crowd. Theatre actors were ashamed then to act in “flicker shows.”

This was the real Lillian Gish. An artist who fought against war (any war), to spare American lives and to protect American families from destruction.

Gish Film Theater Plaque

And THIS IS THE NAME – so called “Task Force” decided to remove from the Film Theater at Bowling Green University Ohio (BGSU). I sincerely wish that their “management” will read this article written by an European based 10.000 miles away from United States.

Kindly access the link below to read the whole Gish Film Theater saga. In the left column there is the whole story composed from selected articles written by David Dupont, and in the right column there are all the declarations, letters and desperate appeals made then by the brave few who tried to defend Lillian Gish’s memory. I wish to emphasize that all these declarations and letters to BGSU management were written long before James Earl Jones, Helen Mirren, Martin Scorsese, Malcolm McDowell and Lauren Hutton’s protest against dishonoring Lillian Gish’s name.

 

Ditch The Gish (The sad story of Gish Film Theater)

 

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What Will Griffith Do Now? – By Gerrit Lloyd (Picture Play Magazine – September 1925)

Picture Play Magazine – September 1925 Vol. XXIII No.1

What Will Griffith Do Now?

After several years of experience as an independent producer, the great D. W. has joined Famous Players, and this important turning point in his career lends new interest to his future work.

By Gerrit Lloyd

Much Has Been Written about D. W. Griffith, but nothing we have ever read about “the big bull elephant” approaches in brilliance or interest this remarkable study of the characteristics of the master of all motion picture directors. The author of this article has been closely associated with Mr. Griffith for several years, and this close association has made it possible for him to write with a knowledge and authority that could never be attained by the casual interviewer.

Griffith and Bitzer on set filming a scene 1919
D.W. Griffith and Billy Bitzer on location in Cuddebackville – NY, directing “The Squaw’s Love.”

THE Big Bull Elephant of the Films has joined the herd again. After launching along strange leadings that twisted at times far from the box-office and the minds of man in frivolous mood, the untamed one has returned to the proven pastures. For Griffith the Bold is not unlike the big bull elephant. He seems to have an ancient and independent wisdom in piloting his personal career, uninfluenced by the school-book efficiencies of the minute. He scandalizes the newest accountants and shocks the most recent graduates from the efficiency seminaries, he puzzles and bewilders and exasperates those who would train him to roll their own little logs, and carry their own little pet freight. Great is the roaring and the turmoil when the big bull elephant starts forth alone ; the crash of barriers tossed aside, the splash of soft footing where the new way is insecure, the rumble and trumpet of intense bulk of purpose on its way. And when he has gone through, there may be no pretty boulevard all hedged and trimmed behind him, but there is a new way broken for others to come along in ease. Through this new land of motion pictures they have come : first, Griffith, the Elephant, sagacious, determined and courageous, with the vitality to make a vehicle of his curiosity. Then comes De Mille, the Royal Tiger, graceful, deft and decisive, stalking the public’s fancy with infallible thrift; and then shyly, with gorgeous smoothness, comes Ingram, the Deer, agile and speedy, with frail aggressiveness ; and Cruze, the Moose, forceful and merry, capering along inviting waterways, pulling forth lily pads of entertainment ; and Von Stroheim, the matchless Leopard, fiercely licking blood, and cynically snarling his contempt for the weaker stomachs. Perhaps no one but Barnum ever felt entirely at ease with a big bull elephant among his assets. And since the individual of yesterday is succeeded by the organization of to-day, probably Famous Players-Lasky has sewed into its vast canopy the mantle of Barnum, and welcomes Griffith back into the pasture again.

Feature photo Griffith

Griffith returns this time along a trail paved with mortgages. He is heavy laden with debts, with his services sold for a year to the welfare of his creditors. His savings from all his vast work are shrunk to the boundary posts of a small California ranch, which is yet undecided whether to take up the white man’s burden of becoming a toiling lemon ranch, or cling to the ease of a scenic spot primeval. A grand adventurer, this man, taking his food where he found it, and struggling on alone ; but now he is back again with a bench for himself at the biggest dinner table in filmland. Behind him there is the roar of money, louder than the snores of Midas. Before him there is a reservoir of trained talent, eager to serve as a thousand fingers to his able hand. For let this be remembered : No creative worker in great enterprise ever has worked so alone as has D. W. Griffith. While others of his trade have had splendidly trained staffs at their command, Griffith selected his own stories, generally without sufficient funds to buy other than those rejected by his competitors; he has written the scenarios ; cast the stories from talent not considered worthy of contract by the larger companies, except his leading man and woman ; financed the costs in grotesque and merciless scrambles with the money lenders ; selected his costumes ; laid out his sets, chosen his locations, supervised all construction; directed every inch of action in the films; edited it; titled it, and then worked out the presentation as to running time and music for delivery to the exhibitors. Yet he has regularly produced more pictures than any other director making comparable productions.

Pickford, Griffith, Chaplin, Fairbanks - United Artists
Pickford, Griffith, Chaplin, Fairbanks – United Artists

D. W. Griffith knows the motion picture more thoroughly than any other person. His reputation for extravagance has girdled the gossip of the world, a legend founded on malicious exaggeration. At least twenty directors have spent more actual money on single pictures than Griffith ever dreamed of doing. But his reputation with money is established now, and nothing will ever change it. False it is, and false it can be proven, yet some day you will find it smugly recorded in his epitaph on the tomb of Filmdom. It began ancient of days, far away when he wished to raise the salary of Mary Pickford from thirty-five dollars to fifty dollars a week. His employers insisted on discharging Mary “because no girl is worth that much in pictures and besides, she has a large, square head that looks too big for her body.” The record, however, is that the salary of Mary Pickford was raised and that she continued in motion-picture work with some degree of success.

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

The suspicion of extravagance was confirmed when “this wasting fool, Griffith,” insisted on hiring twentyfive horsemen instead of five in taking the first “long shot” of a line of cavalry. It must be admitted that the reputation rests on a very broad base in the studio census since nearly every player can convince you that Griffith is unscrupulously extravagant because he doesn’t hire that particular player, and because he does hire the players he uses ; and nearly every director can prove Griffith must be extravagant because he makes good pictures and only the waste of money could account for the difference between Griffith’s pictures and their own. When Griffith began making motion pictures, fifty dollars was the maximum to be spent on a film. Now, five hundred thousand dollars is the minimum for a big special. He spent an average of six hours in making his first films ; now he must spend six months. Though I do not speak with the sensitive accuracy of one who has supplied him with money, I do believe in the presence of more proof than any other person ever has had the opportunity of observing, that D. W. Griffith is the most frugal of all directors ; that he gets more into the film for every dollar used than any other director. In ten years, the only film he has made without raveled finance, is “Way Down East.” That work made Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess so popular that he immediately lost them to other producers. The first returns from this picture had to go toward repaying a loan, and this most extravagant of directors began his next picture with exactly seventeen thousand dollars to finance it ; although “Way Down East” ultimately earned more than four times its cost.

Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scenne from the movie Way Down East
Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scene from the movie Way Down East

The picture born with the seventeen-thousand-dollar spoon in its mouth was “Dream Street.” With that money, he couldn’t well enter into very serious conversation with any stars ; so he tagged a most likable young hopeful named Ralph Graves for the leading male part. And Graves gave of his best, even to the premium of reading his Bible before the taking of every scene, to the most talkative disdain of an atheist who was an electrician on the set.

Carol Dempster in 'Dream Street' (D.W. Griffith, 1921)
Carol Dempster in ‘Dream Street’ (D.W. Griffith, 1921)

But now there was no money for the rest of the cast, and no scenes could be taken without the presence of the second male part. So this mad waster of wealth, Griffith, solved that by hiring a property boy, raising his wages from thirty-five to fifty dollars a week, and creating for the films a very fine actor indeed—Charles Emmett Mack. So it went during the lean years while the big bull elephant was away from the herd. And now he is back standing with expectant feet, where the plot and money meet, in the powerful organization of Famous Players-Lasky ; trained as no other director is trained to make big films ; experienced in the resources of poverty, and now flooded with wealth in support of his talent; backed by the most perfect organization of its kind in the world.

Henry B Walthall and Mae Marsh - Reunion 2 - Birth of a Nation
Henry B Walthall and Mae Marsh – Reunion – Birth of a Nation

What will he do now?

Three things he has in the superlative : Imagination, courage, and industry. When film characters were but far figures distinctively dressed, he conceived the audacity of showing their faces to reveal the emotional progress of the drama, though his camera man quit in protest at such lunacy and the first audiences hissed their reproach for being disturbed by something new. He recognized the fecundity of film language and bred it from a tight little roll of five hundred feet up to a group of twelve reels of one thousand feet each. He sensed that films should be freighted with a nobler treasure than novelty and fun and drama ; that the camera could lens the scenery of a nation’s soul ; and in black and white he photographed the first epic, known wherever there are human eyes, as “The Birth of a Nation.” It pictured the voiceless instincts of peoples more vividly than the stripes on a gingham dress. Then he confused and affronted this world which stands dreaming from a balcony and imagines itself thinking from a mountain top, by a comet-thrust of his imagination which reduced itself to the film title, “Intolerance.”

Intolerance
Intolerance

And he took the welts of as sound a drubbing as ever was given a bull elephant for wandering away from log rolling. It pinched his savings from a six-figure fortune to an I O U. That work frightened picturedom as Rockefeller’s fortune frightened a country bank. With imagination, he has courage. He dared to recognize the blood soldiers ever under arms in the veins of the people white and the people black in watchful feud at a time when every one was saying “Good little black man, good little white man, be nice together, for you are brothers ;” but he showed it as a stitch in a nation’s heartache and not as box-office bait.

Lillian Gish - The Greatest Thing in Life
The Greatest Thing in Life

Again he showed a white soldier kissing a black one, in his film, “The Greatest Thing in Life.”

He made a Chinaman a hero when all the legends of the theater and films were that a Chinaman must always be a villain. Nor did he do it coweringly ; but with such a spring of passion as to irritate an editor into sewing his ideas with a Greenwich Village thimble and devoting a column to rebuking Griffith as a Sadist.

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

Incidentally, that film, a tragedy, called “Broken Blossoms,” started a sleek-haired young leading man in comedies into becoming a world-famous actor of authentic talent, known as Richard Barthelmess. Several directors have made one tragedy, and then have gone forever galloping after the black figures in the bank book. Griffith began years ago—even before his film, “Sands o’ Dee”—making them again and again ; even unto these recent days of his pernicious financial anaemia, when he told of the flat bellies and full hearts of some Germans in “Isn’t Life Wonderful?” with the beauty and pride of an artist who was speaking his impressions rather than the dividend-bitten formula: “Bust and leg and silken gown ; palatial sets, somewhere a clown; a naughty scheme, a lover’s cheat ; a knock-out scene, an ending sweet.” The big bull elephant was far from the log rolling that time ; and he certainly skewered his kosher with the exhibitors. Courage and imagination he has, and his industry is as plain as a pig’s knuckle. What will he do with them now?

David Wark Griffith Isn't Life Wonderful 1924
David Wark Griffith Isn’t Life Wonderful 1924

Report is he will make first “The Sorrows of Satan,” Marie Corelli’s opulent highway of emotionalism along which to crank a camera. To estimate the things Griffith will do, one must first know the things that are Griffith. To the clan that bagpipes through the highlands of picturedom, Griffith is a spiral mystery, up which they gaze with wonder or disdain to behold ever new turnings. A man of mystery, they call him! Yet where is there another man, in boots or under tomb, about whom it is so easy to be informed accurately? Around every celebrity, much is written, largely inaccurate perhaps, as succeeding generations of commentators cynically expose. In this regard, Napoleon has been most liberally attended. But greater than all the books on Napoleon, than the massed volumes discussing Shakespeare; greater even than the page-piled heights discussing Lincoln, is the library about the man Griffith—and one incorrigibly accurate. In it there are no myths, anecdotes, hearsay, questioned records or chance letters. It is one vast and true revelation of the man’s innermost tide of life stroke.

Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith, R Harron CloseUp 1914 hjk

Here the man’s soul unpockets its whims, beliefs, ambitions, and experiences, its joys, its strengths and its agonies. It is the truest confession ever read; and read by hundreds of millions. This library is composed of the motion-picture films published under the design “D. W. G.,” numbering in all more than a thousand. The successful productive author may average perhaps thirty novels—a little grove compared to Griffith’s forest of expression. A poet may publish one hundred poems, mostly short, and generally rivered along one narrow channel. A painter may hang one hundred canvases, often a single character study in portrait, or a landscape, or a scene to high-light some definite phase of humanity. Griffith has told his opinions, his understandings and sympathies regarding thousands of characters. Over and over again he has twined the hearts of lovers, from the shy tremors of first love to the flood throws of passion. He has swaggered with the bold and the ambitious; jested with the lofty and sneered with the degenerate; schemed with the connivers and skulked with assassins ; bowed in prayer with the humble ; grieved with the unfortunate; sung with the happy ; wept with the sorrowful ; and died with heroes and cowards. Again and again, he has told it all. To the world he has flown aloft the strange banner of a human soul — a soul literally photographed.

Griffith Early Biograph career
Griffith Early Biograph career

And all as part of a hard day’s work. All of Griffith is in his pictures. And the films that are of Griffith, are directed by a barefooted boy of LaGrange, Kentucky. Who is he, this lad who has seized an empire in the world of shadows? His father was a bold, life-spending Confederate cavalryman, forever hot upon the hazards ; always ready for a toss, whatever the risk. He roused to war’s pageant, enjoyed its honors, and suffered its penalties. The material rewards were some fifty-four wounds which incapacitated him for active work; and the ruin of his finances. Colonel Jacob Wark Griffith was Irish and Welsh, and a Southern gentleman. His reputation given me by a stout old Scotchman is that he entertained and drank and danced with a grace and flourish that enslaved the countryside until the sexton stopped him for their material engagement. His mother was Scotch of the Scotch, of the family of Oglesby; with the sturdy practicality, vigor, and mystic and poetic ideals of that race. Her daughter says that her mother never stopped working, praying, and dreaming.

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

There you have Griffith—a romantic warrior locked up in Scotch idealism with the patient, thrifty caution of a Scotch tradesman, and the picturesque gambling audacities of a Welsh-Irish cavalier. The Scotchman looks after his time and work ; the Irish-Welshman spends his money. Destiny punished David W. Griffith with the luxuries of a perfect motion-picture education. Since there were no motion pictures then, the conditions might not be considered luxuries by another standard. In his father’s house were many mansions ; such as the mansions of hospitality and good taste in social values that feed the decencies in life. Few were the books in the neighborhood ; and the few were the older classics. Every one worked while there was sun. Candles were an important item of expense. So the neighbors would gather in one household to benefit by the expenditure of a single candle. The elders exercised the privilege of reserving the chairs. The children were on the floor, often thriftily under the table when guests were numerous, as they always were. Then would the classics be read aloud.

Griffith on the ice floes - Picture-Play Magazine (Aug 1920)
DW Griffith on the ice floes – Picture-Play Magazine (Aug 1920)

Here was the ideal motion-picture school in session—the imaginative, dreamy boy lying in the dark comfortably on his back, listening to all the great deeds and emotions of man told with the splendor and force of the greatest masters. And the boy pictured them in his dreams, never reducing these immortals in their flights of love, adventure, and strife, to the pinched and squinty confines of inked type.

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

When the elders tired of reading, or the candle appropriated for the night was done, they would talk. With their thoughts still stiff from the saddles of the wars, they talked of battles. And lying in the dark, with the vivid mystery which darkness inspires, there flashed through the imagination of the little boy-director lying there, the deeds of battle, the rush and flare of gun-driven conflict. For him no mental bruise of reading the schoolbook- summary of war by clock in school. He saw the battles, heard the “thunder, and struggled in the hot strife. The belch of cannon were the footlights for his vast stage of dreams. The tale of a troop of weary cavalry onwarding under command grew in his vital dreams to a sky sewn with horsemen thundering with golden banners on to victory. Wise little director under the table in the dark ! Already he had been to the wars. Then were first given wing the visions that later were caught again in dramatic permanence as part of the film, “The Birth of a Nation.” They lived again in “Intolerance,” and were revised in “Hearts of the World.” The greatest battle scenes ever made have been done by Griffith, and they were created before he was ten years old. One night he shuddered to the local story of a drunken negro who had pursued a white girl ; and the “chilling” terror of that night later throbbed in scenes in “The Birth of a Nation” that shook Mae Marsh from freckled girlhood into screen immortality, if such there lie. His sister, Mattie, read and reread for him his favorites, the great love stories of the ages. The dreamy boy in denim, with a conqueror’s imagination, feasted upon these treasures of faithful hearts. He pictured these heroines apart from the neighbor girls he knew, something distant, shadowy, sublime, something less than angels, something beyond the flesh. And when he looked the first time upon the motion-picture screen in later years, he saw there the shadowland in which his dream heroines might live again. Always you find something of this dream girl in every Griffith heroine, the gentle, faithful, ideal of the little boy in Kentucky, who spoke poetry to her as he went through the woods in the twilight bringing home the cows from the pasture.

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

When an ill-wind comes hissing from the box offices, scolding against sentiment in his heroines, the Scotch that is in Griffith will roll down her silk stockings, wave her hair, indeed style her to the rising ripple of the moment’s fad, but she is the same girl—sister to all those heroines of youthful dreams, Little Nell, Virginia, Marguerite, Ophelia, Ruth, and all those sweethearts of the masters old. Sometimes she is blonde, and the long-age dreams open like a fan into the screen personality that is Lillian Gish. Again she is dark, and the world knows her as Carol Dempster, vital, buoyant, and fascinating. A strange girl, this Griffith heroine ! She is the sweetheart’s signal song at twilight, the lover’s moon, the evening star, all spun into young womanhood, virgin shy, yet passionate as a puckered mouth, and practical in the progress of mating as a schatchen’s guide.

CAROL DEMPSTER & RICARDO CORTEZ in The Sorrows of Satan - Photo 1926
CAROL DEMPSTER & RICARDO CORTEZ in The Sorrows of Satan – Photo 1926

These Griffith heroines have fruited the greatest moments in all screen literature ; have made the smug and the callous tremble with sympathy and glow with tears. And this Griffith heroine is one definite and undeniable influence that changed the standard of womanly beauty in this country from the Oriental preference of opulent bust and matronly hips to the slender stature that is universally a favorite to-day. The exact date of the change in public taste is the time when the Griffith heroine made her first appearance in the films. The little Kentucky dreamer has done more to erase sensuality from the appearance of the American woman than a hundred years of preaching or a thousand edicts from the fashion makers. So the things that are Griffith include the imaginative genius of the boy who has never grown up ; the deft, perfected skill of a patient and ever-working craftsman, so expert in technique that for sheer deviltry in fingering his magic, he distilled suspense from potatoes ; these, and the showmanship of a successful and experienced ruler of audiences, who understands their wayward traits and frank simplicities. These make up the institution that is Griffith : the force that has become the big bull elephant of the films, now back with the herd again. What will he do? Once he wrote a subtitle. It was in “Hearts of the World.” It said: “If you can’t get what you want, then want what you can get.”

What Will Griffith do Now - Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1925)
What Will Griffith do Now – Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1925) Sketch drawn by K.R. Chamberlain

 

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A Tribute To “The Birth Of A Nation” – By Rupert  Hughes (United Artists Pressbook, 1915)

The Birth of a Nation (United Artists Pressbook, 1915)

A Tribute To “The Birth Of A Nation”

By Rupert  Hughes

United Artists Pressbook, 1915

When a great achievement of human genius is put before us, we can become partners in it, in a way, by applauding it with something of the enthusiasm that went into its making. It is that sort of collaboration that I am impelled to attempt in what follows.

When I saw “The Birth of a Nation” the first time, I was so overwhelmed by the immensity of it that I said:

“It makes the most spectacular production of drama look like the work of village amateurs. It reduces to childishness the biggest things the theatre can do.”

For here were hundreds of scenes in place of four or five; thousands of actors in place of a score; armies in landscape instead of squads of supers jostling on a platform among canvas screens. Here was the evolution of a people, the living chronicle of a conflict of statesmen, a civil war, a racial problem rising gradually to a puzzle yet unsolved. Here were social pictures without number, short stories, adventures, romance, tragedies, farces, domestic comedies.  Here was a whole art gallery of scenery, of humanity, of still life and life in wildest career. Here were portraits of things, of furniture, of streets, homes, wildernesses; pictures of conventions, cabinets, senates, mobs, armies;  pictures of family lif e, of festivals and funerals, ballrooms and battlefields, hospitals and flower-gardens, hypocrisy and passion, ecstasy and pathos, pride and humiliation, rapture and jealousy, flirtation and anguish, devotion and treachery, self-sacrifice and tyranny.  Here were the Southrons in their wealth,   with their luxury at home, their wind-swept cotton fields; here was the ballroom with the seethe of dancers, here were the soldiers riding away to war, and the soldiers trudging home defeated with poverty ahead of them and new and ghastly difficulties arising on every hand. Here was the epic of a proud, brave people beaten into the dust and refusing to stay there.

The Birth of a Nation (United Artists Pressbook, 1915)

The pictures shifted with unending variety from huge canvasses to exquisite miniatures.  Now it was a little group of refugees cowering in the ruins of a home. A shift of the camera and we were looking past them into a great valley with an army fighting its way through.

The Birth of a Nation (United Artists Pressbook, 1915)

One moment we saw Abraham Lincoln brooding over his Emancipation Proclamation ; another, and he was yielding to a mother’s tears; later we were in the crowded theatre watching the assassin making his way to and from his awful deed. The leagues of film uncoiled and poured forth beauty of scene, and face and expression, beauty of fabric and attitude and motion.

The Birth of a Nation (United Artists Pressbook, 1915)

“The Birth of a Nation” is a choral symphony of light, light in all its magic ; the sun flashing through a bit of blown black lace and giving immortal beauty to its pattern; or quivering in a pair of eyes, or on a snow-drift of bridal veil, or on a moonlit brook or a mountain side. Superb horses were shown plunging and rearing or galloping with a heart-quickening glory of speed down road and lane and through flying waters. Now came the thrill of a charge, or of a plunging steed caught back on its haunches in a sudden arrest. Now followed the terror of a bestial mob, the hurrah of a rescue, streets filled with panic and with carnival. Life is motion and here was the beautiful moving monument of motion.

The Birth of a Nation (United Artists Pressbook, 1915)

“What could the stage give to rival all this?” I thought. “What could the novel give? or the epic poem?” The stage can publish the voice and the actual flesh ; yet from the film these faces were eloquent enough without speech. And after all when we see people we are merely receiving in our eyes the light that beats back from their surfaces; we are seeing merely photographs and moving pictures. I had witnessed numberless photoplays unrolled, pictures of every sort and condition of interest and value. I had seen elaborate “feature-films” occupying much time and covering many scenes. But none of them approached the unbroken fascination of “The Birth of a Nation.”

The realism of this work is amazing; merely sit at a window and actuality rolls by. The grandeur of mass and the minuteness of detail are unequalled in my experience. And so the first impression of my first view of this was that it was something new and wonderful in dramatic composition and in artistic achievement.

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

In his novel “The Clansman,” the Rev. Thomas Dixon had made a fervid defence of his people from the harsh judgments and condemnations of unsympathetic historians: With this book as a foundation, David W. Griffith built up a structure of national scope and of heroic proportions.

Of course, size has little to do with art. A perfect statuette like one of the exquisite figurines of Tanagra is as great in a sense as the cathedral of Rheims. A flawless sonnet of Milton’s need not yield place to his “Paradise Lost.” A short story of Poe’s has nothing to fear from a cycle of Dumas novels, nor has “The Suwannee River” anything to fear from the Wagnerian tetralogy. And yet we cannot but feel that a higher power has created the larger work, since the larger work includes the problems of the smaller : and countless others. The larger work compels and tests the tremendous gifts of organization, co-ordination, selection, discipline, climax.

One comes from this film saying: “I have done the South a cruel injustice, they are all dead, these cruelly tried people, but I feel now that I know them as they were: not as they ought to have been or might have been, but as they were: as I should probably have been in their place. I have seen them in their homes, in their pride and their glory and I have seen what they went back to. I understand them better.” And after all what more vital mission has narrative and dramatic art than to make us under­ stand ‘one another ‘better ?

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

Hardly anybody can be found today who is not glad that Slavery was wrenched out of our national life, but it is not well to forget how and why it was defended, and by whom: what it cost to tear it loose: or what suffering and bewilderment were left with the bleeding wounds. The North was not altogether blameless for the existence of slavery, nor was the South altogether blameworthy for it or for its aftermath. “The Birth of a Nation” is a peculiarly human presentation of a vast racial tragedy. There has been some hostility to the picture on account of an alleged injustice to the negroes. I have not felt it: and I am one who cherishes a great affection and a profound admiration for the negro. He is enveloped in one of the most cruel and insoluble riddles of history. His position is the more difficult since those who ardently endeavor to relieve him of his burdens are peculiarly apt to increase them.

“The Birth of a Nation” presents many lovable negroes who win hearty applause from the audiences. It presents also some exceedingly hateful negroes. But American history has the same fault and there are bad whites also in this film as well as virtuous. It is hard to see how such a drama could be composed without the struggle of evil against good. Furthermore, it is to the advantage of the negro of today to know how some of his ancestors misbehaved and why the prejudices in his path have grown there. Surely no friend of his is to be turned into an enemy by this film, and no enemy more deeply embittered.

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“The Birth of” a Nation” is a chronicle of human passion. It is true to fact and thoroughly documented. It is in no sense an appeal to lynch-law. The suppression of it would be a dangerous precedent in American dramatic art. If the authors are never to make use of plots which might off end certain sects, sections, professions, trades, races or political parties, then creative art is indeed in a sad plight.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” has had a long and influential career. Perhaps no book ever written exerted such an effect on history.  It was denounced with fury by the South as a viciously unfair picture. It certainly stirred up feeling, and did more than perhaps any other document to create and set in motion the invasion and destruction of the southern aristocracy. Yet it was not suppressed because of its riot-provoking tendencies.  And it is well that it was not suppressed.

“The Birth of a Nation” has no such purpose. It is a picture of a former time. All its phases are over and done, and most of the people of its time are in their graves. But it is a brilliant, vivid, thrilling masterpiece of historical fiction. Thwarting its prosperity would be a crime against creative art and a menace to its freedom. The suppression of such fictional works has always been one of the chief instruments of tyranny and one of the chief dangers of equality.

Poster - Birth of a Nation, The_05

I saw the play first in a small projecting room with only half a dozen spectators present.   We sat mute and spellbound for three hours. When I learned that it had to be materially condensed it seemed a pity to destroy one moment of it.  The next time I saw it was in a crowded theatre and it was accompanied by an almost incessant murmur of approval and comment, roars of laughter, gasps of anxiety and outbursts of applause. It was not silent drama so far as the audience was concerned. The scene changed with the velocity of lightning, of thought. One moment we saw a vast battlefield with the enemies like midgets in the big world, the next we saw some small group filling the whole space with its personal drama : then just one of two faces big with emotion. And always a story was being told with every device of suspense, preparation, relief, development, and crisis. I cannot imagine a human emotion that is not included somewhere in this story, from the biggest national psychology to the littlest whim of a petulant girl; from the lowest depths of ruthless villainy to the utmost grandeur of patriotic ideal.

All of the seven wonders of the world were big things. I feel that David W. Griffith has done a big thing and he has a right to the garlands as well as the other emoluments.  “The Birth of a Nation” is a work of epochal importance in a large and fruitful field of social endeavor. In paying it this tribute of profound homage, I feel that I am doing only my duty by American art, merely rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.

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The Birth of a Nation (United Artists Pressbook, 1915)

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The Birth of a Nation (United Artists Pressbook, 1915)

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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

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

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.

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