The first reviews of “The Birth of a Nation” or “The Clansman” as it was then known ever published following its first screening to the public in Riverside, California on January 1, 1915.
Riverside Enterprise Sunday January 2 1915
“The Clansman” Receives Enthusiastic Approval
Crowded Houses Audibly Express Approbation of Spectacular and Gripping Photoplay Depicting Strong Story
The biggest thing in the way of a thrill producer that has ever been seen in Riverside, or probably anywhere, is now showing in the Loring Theater – D.W. Griffith’s “The Clansman,” a picturized version of the book and play of the same name by Thomas Dixon Jr. It would be difficult to imagine more exquisite photography than has been achieved in this production. Of marvelous beauty are the settings against which the swift action of the story is thrown. Whatever may be the attitude of the audience toward the pro-southern ideas of the play, there is no denying that it grips the attention from the start and that it works up into a tremendous climax.
Below are presented the articles in their entirety, including the original newspaper pages of that time.
This booklet is the work of many people who have been associated with the National Film Theatre during the past eight years. Apart from the contributions which are credited in the text, there are critical assessments by Lotte Eisner (Cinematheque Francaise), Penelope Houston (editor of “Sight and Sound”), Gavin Lambert (lately editor of “Sight and Sound”), Ernest Lindgren (Curator of the National Film Archive), Rachael Low (film historian and author), Liam O’Laoghaire (Film Acquisitions Officer of the National Film Archive), and Karel Reisz (film director). We take this opportunity of thanking them for their work which has helped so much to bring this present series of National Film Archive programmes into existence. In addition, these programmes could also not exist without the active co-operation of the entire film industry. Particular assistance has been given for the present series by:
Associated British Picture Corporation Ltd.
Avon Distributors Ltd.
British Broadcasting Corporation.
Contemporary Films Limited.
Mrs. Frances Flaherty.
Paramount Film Service Ltd.
Rank Film Distributors Limited.
Robin International (London) Limited.
Twentieth-Century Fox Film Co. Limited.
United Artists Corporation Limited.
Warner Bros. Pictures Limited.
(PROGRAMME CONTROLLER NATIONAL FILM THEATRE)
BIRTH OF A NATION
U.S.A., 1915 12 reels
Production company I Epoch Producing Corporation (D. W. Griffith)
Direction D. W. Griffith
Script: D. W. Griffith and Frank Woods, from the
novel “The Clansman” by the Rev. Thomas
PHOTOGRAPHY G. W. Bitzer
Elsie Stoneman – Lillian Gish
Flora Cameron – Mae Marsh
Col. Ben Cameron – Henry B. Walthall
Margaret Cameron – Mirian Cooper
Lydia, Stoneman’s Housekeeper – Mary Alden
Hon. Austin Stoneman – Ralph Lewis
Silas Lynch – George Seigmann
Gus – Walter Long
Tod Stoneman – Robert Harron
Jeff, the blacksmith – Wallace Reid
Abraham Lincoln – Joseph Henaberry
Phil Stoneman – Elmer Clifton
Mrs. Cameron – Josephine Crowell
Dr. Cameron – Spottiswoode Aiken
Wade Cameron – J. A. Beringer
Duke Cameron – Maxfield Stanley
Mammy – Jennie Lee
General V. S. Grant – Donald Crisp
General Robert E. Lee – Howard Gaye
Born in Kentucky, U.S.A., in 1875, Griffith had to start earning his living at an early age. Soon tiring of clerks’ and salesmen’s jobs, he decided he wanted to be a writer and attached himself to the “Louisville Courier”. He had several short stories and poems published, and a drama staged in Washington. This last success, though a minor one, was sufficient to rouse his interest in the stage, and at 27, after some experience as a stage actor, he became employed by the Biograph Company where he played his first film part in Edwin S. Porter’s Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest. Finding he could make as much as five dollars a day acting in the movies, and even more by writing for them, he stayed with the Biograph Company although his ambition to write—particularly for the stage—remained.
In 1908, owing to the illness of one of the directors of the Company, he began his own directing career when he took over the making of The Adventures of Dolly. For the next four years, until he left Biograph and began producing films on the epic scale, he directed films at an average rate of one a week. It was during this period that he explored and developed the use of film editing, and transformed the film from a primitive method of pictorial storytelling into an expressive medium of immense possibilities which were subsequently to be explored by later directors. Griffith’s methods sprang from a comparatively simple idea, namely that of moving the camera nearer to the actors to obtain a more detailed view of their reactions. This had, of course, been done before; he did not, as is sometimes claimed, “invent” the close-up. Unlike his predecessors, however, he instinctively realised that the close-up was something more than an insert, an interruption to the smooth flow of the dramatic action ; it was the key to a new technique of film-making. The close shot gives us a single detail of a scene, the rest being excluded ; but the rest can be supplied by other close shots of other details. In other words, instead of showing a dramatic scene in a single full shot, which is the method of the theatre, it can be built up, both in the director’s imagination and in fact, by a succession of shots of detail (technically made possible, of course, by the fact that it is quite easy both to cut cinematograph film, and to join separate strips together).
This method not only brings the spectator nearer to the dramatic action, indeed into the midst of it, and thus makes it more vivid. It also gives the director a far greater control over his material. It enables him to select only the most significant details of a scene, to show them from a wide variety of viewpoints (a small change of camera viewpoint in a long shot is hardly noticeable; in a close shot it can produce an entirely different picture), and to vary the length of his cutting pieces in order to control the pace and tempo of the scene. It replaces the artificial theatrical view of life seen through a proscenium by a method which corresponds much more to our everyday visual experience. As Lewis Jacobs expressed it, in his “Rise of the American Film”, ‘Griffith suddenly understood (that) in movie making, guiding the camera, even more than directing the actor, is the trick.’
In his two major films, The Birth of a Nation (1914) and Intolerance (1916) D. W. Griffith utilised his new discoveries with a maturity and power which astonished the world at the time, and which have seldom been equalled since, despite the great technical progress made by the cinema in other ways. Parts of The Birth ofa Nation were savagely attacked on the grounds that they showed an anti-Negro bias. Griffith denied this, and considered the attacks unjust. Intolerance, therefore, became in some measure a personal protest against the way he had been treated; at the same time, of course, it is very much more. For the purposes of generalisation it may be said that the cinema received its final recognition as a new artistic force on the occasion of the premiere of Birth of a Nation at the Liberty Theatre, on 3rd March, 1915. True, it had a previous showing in Los Angeles under its original title of The Clansman, but the New York run brought the film into the limelight of world opinion and the result was nothing short of revolutionary.
The film enshrined all that Griffith had learned about the visual presentation of a story during his apprenticeship as director of some hundreds of shorter films and less ambitious subjects. With one grand leap into the saddle Griffith took command of the film industry as its leading creative artist and led it to a position which it has never lost in the affection of cinema audiences. Not merely did Griffith establish the claims of the cinema to be an art but he challenged the supremacy of the theatre and presented it with a serious rival. From now on the cinema was regarded as a powerful artistic and social manifestation of the age.
In taking the novel “The Clansman” Griffith was committed to the depiction of the American Civil War and the Reconstruction Period in the Old South in terms of Southern bias and anti-negro prejudice which, in effect, comes through pretty strongly in the film. The glorification of the by then notorious Ku Klux Klan and the scurvy delineation of the coloured race in the film are blemishes which no plea of historical accuracy can minimise. The showing of the film has been in many cases the signal for outbreaks of anti-negro feeling. On the other hand, it appears that Griffith, carried away no doubt by his personal allegiances and the creative ambition of his work ignored the implications contained in it and may be quite genuinely sincere when he claims that he was recording history and had no intention of defaming a race he had the warmest regard for. This is old controversy now and, as if to atone for misunderstandings, his next work was a passionate plea for tolerance. A charitable view may imply indiscretion rather than malice.
The vast scale of the film called for production in a way never before visualised in movies. The finance was provided by private backers and the film was really made completely outside the scope of the existing industry. Griffith’s company, Epoch Producing Corporation, expended 110,000 dollars on the film. This, a trifling sum today, was considered at the time to be a monstrous outlay. After six weeks of rehearsal, shooting commenced on the 4th July, 1914, and the first shots covered were those of the Civil War. Locations were mainly situated in the hills and valleys of Southern California. Interiors were shot at the Fine Arts Studio in the outskirts of Hollywood, then little more than a village. The total filming period ran from July to October. The tremendous organisation of personnel and shooting schedules, and the planning of photography were carried through by the indomitable will of Griffith. And when the three and a half months’ editing was complete the problem of distribution had to be tackled since the Hollywood producers refused to handle the picture.
The presentation of the film in New York for a consecutive run of forty four weeks inaugurated what has come to be accepted as modern de-luxe film presentation. The film which contained 1,375 individual shots totalled twelve reels with a footage of about 12,500 feet. Griffith’s players had been familiar figures in his earlier films and many such as Donald Crisp, Raoul Walsh, Joseph Henaberry and Erich von Stroheim (who appears in a tiny coloured role) were to become important film directors in their subsequent careers.
Gilbert Seldes in his appreciation of the film wrote: “To this picture Griffith gave the fundamental brainwork which a work of art, however inspired, must have; it has structure, proportion, coherence and integrity. It can be separated into a dozen different themes or stories, but it obstinately remains one film, into which all the parts are woven . . . The rhythms are delicately felt ; the whole picture has pace and sweep.”
The correct use of technical devices subordinated to artistic effect distinguishes the film in many ways. The carefully chosen viewpoints, the camera flexibility, the use of natural scenes, the realism especially of the battle scenes and the emotionally expressive editing treatment were to set headlines for future film directors in both America and Europe.
Lillian Gish in – Birth of a Nation – Photo Gallery
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Note: Illustrations are not part of Mr. MacCann’s book.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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