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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
A performance off screen as well as on – was required …
The seriousness with which Lillian Gish took her work was undermined at MGM in 1927 when it was suggested that a scandal might improve her performance at the box office. “You are way up there on a pedestal and nobody cares.” said the producers. “If you were knocked off the pedestal, everyone would care.” Lillian Gish realized she would be expected to give a performance off screen as well as on. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I just don’t have that much vitality.” Shortly afterward, she returned to her first love, the theater, and the cinema lost her for the better part of a decade. What the film producers failed to comprehend was how much value for the money she gave them, for she was part of an older tradition. Griffith had imbued his players with the discipline and dedication of the nineteenth-century theater, and Lillian Gish carried these qualities to unprecedented lengths. If Lillian Gish ever had any enemies, she has outlived them. Longevity has obscured her importance. It is subtly patronizing when one is given credit for simply managing to stay upright after all one’s contemporaries are underground. (Kevin Brownlow)
The guilty, incredible suspicion that MGM had put her under contract at a spectacular salary in order methodically to destroy her might not have been forced upon me had I not seen The Wind at the Dryden Theatre in Rochester’s Eastman House one night in 1956. I had never heard of it! And I could find no clue to its making. Gish’s clothes were charmingly contrived from all periods, from no period. Millers had been making those dancing slipper since 1915. Her hair was either piled up in a dateless fashion on top of her head or swirling round her throat and shoulders, more tormenting than the wind. Victor Seastrom [Sjostrom], in his direction shared her art of escaping time and place. They were meant for each other- Seastrom and Gish – like the perfume and the rose. After the picture, I could hardly wait to ask Jim Card when and where it was made. “In Hollywood in 1927 at MGM? Why, I was there then, working at Paramount! How come I never heard a word about The Wind?” Determined to solve this mystery of obliteration, I went at once to the files of Photoplay magazine. Its editor, James Quirk, seems to have wept and raged, danced and exulted, with every heartbeat of the MGM executives. And I found that the last kindness Photoplay howed Lillian Gish, until after she left the MGM studio, appeared in a caption under her photograph in the October 1924 issue. Romola was “one of the highly promising things of the new film season.” From then on, I pursued Quirk’s fascinating operations on Gish like Sherlock Holmes. Her unprecedented contract ($800,000 for six pictures in two years) was belatedly tossed off on a back page in June, 1925. In September, even before her first picture, La Boheme, had gone into production, Photoplay became unaccountably worked up in an editorial reading: “What does the future hold for Lillian Gish?
Louise Brooks – Sight and Sound 1959
“What does the future hold for Lillian Gish? (excerpt)
Gilbert works on mood. Lillian would film a scene only after it had been rehearsed several times. When the time came that the scene was actually being photographed she knew exactly the effects she was going to create and when and where. Gilbert was loud in his praise of her. He expressed the opinion that she was the great artist of the screen and that she knew more technically than anyone else. Yet plainly his work was suffering under that method. During the first and second rehearsals of the scene his work would be magnificent. After the fifth or sixth repetition of it, he was stale. The term “technician” should not be disparaged, provided it is properly employed to signify one who gains effects mentally rather than emotionally. It is what the screen requires. The camera does not wait on heaven for moments of inspiration, and no human being could go on feeling his part through several rehearsals and a half-dozen “takes.” It has to be felt first over the script and then mathematically planned for effect if chances are not to be taken. Miss Gish is perhaps the greatest student among motion picture actresses. A humorous story is told of how she learned to swim. An instructor had told her that she should learn to float first if she wanted to be the best swimmer. Water terrified her, but she bravely clamped a clothes pin on her nose and went floating for days until she was proficient. Today she is a mermaid. That is Lillian Gish — thoroughness, conscientiousness, perseverance. Will she overcome all limitations, her own and those artificially imposed? Will she prove to be, as many believe she will, the greatest actress of an immortal screen? Personally I feel that she is going to be either one of the enduring great or a complete failure. A half-way position for her is impossible. (James R. Quirk – editor of Photoplay)
Returning to Hollywood
Old Dr. Howe, of Rome and the Riviera, feels the pulse of the film colony, fills out a few prescriptions, and advises a little tincture of sense of humor for all hands
By Herbert Howe
Photoplay Magazine – May 1925 Vol. XXVII No.6
Lillian and Pola
The Gishes have been in precarious position because of unhappy contracts. As soon as Lillian Gish is free she can just about make her own terms. I happen to have seen a few telegraphic bids for her services. Miss Gish holds a peculiar position. She has never been a great box office star, but she has gained tremendously in the last two years. Her claim for popularity rests entirely upon her ability as an artist. The public is slow to appreciate great art. Duse at her best found no audience here. It was only when she had become a tradition—a celebrity whom it was fashionable to see—that she returned, a wraith of herself, to the acclaim of the multitudes. I predict a longer screen life for Lillian Gish than for any other actress of today.
Pola Negri is another great actress, of magnetic personality, who has been handicapped because of a lack of understanding, both on her part and the company’s, as to the type of stories and direction she should have. Mr. Lasky is authority for saying that her box office rise has been phenomenal since ” Forbidden Paradise,” directed by Lubitsch.
Studio News & Gossip East and West
By Cal York
Photoplay – June 1925 Vol. XXVIII Number One
THE abrupt ending of Charles H. Duell’s — suit against Lillian Gish proved once more that the man who tries to mix hearts and dollars—in an effort to win both—finds the answer to be Trouble. The judge dismissed the suit, ordered Duell to stand trial for perjury, and announced that the court would move to have him dismissed as a practicing attorney. In addition to the judge’s ruling, Miss Gish’s attorneys announced that she is to receive the sum of $120,000 from Inspiration Pictures.
Duell seems to be laboring under the illusion, and tried to prove, that he was engaged to the young star of Inspiration Pictures, but no one else knew it. Certainly not Lillian. At the time Duell was laying siege to Lillian’s hand he had a wife, Lillian Tucker, a former actress. Later Miss Tucker secured a divorce in the Paris courts. As soon as Lillian Gish’s contract with Charles Duell was declared null and void, every producer in the business sought her services.
Lillian finally signed with Metro-Goldwyn. She will receive five thousand dollars a week and twenty-five per cent of the profits. Which isn’t so bad for a girl who never has made any great effort to produce box-office pictures.
WHEN an irresistible star meets an immovable bachelor, what happens? Matrimony, of course. This means that all signs point toward a wedding in which Lillian Gish will play the leading role with George Jean Nathan as support.
SAMUEL GOLDWYN feverishly followed the developments of the suit between Lillian Gish and her former manager, Charles Duell. It was the big drama of Sam’s life because he made it no secret he wanted to star Lillian. Now Lillian is no business woman, but she knows human nature. Goldwyn was one of the first to call on her when she was freed from her contract. He painted a rosy picture of her career, her future, and her art as a star under his direction. He talked salary, stories, directors, and. above all. he tried to make the proposition attractive to a star of Miss Gish’s artistic ambitions.
After he had finished describing his vision, Lillian turned a glowing face toward him. “How lovely. Mr. Goldwyn! How tempting!” she exclaimed. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to make beautiful failures!” And that’s when Samuel’s enthusiasm went out like a light.
Lillian felt a slight chill as the welcome became even more hysterical. ”Looking at it all, I said a silent prayer that they would be equally warm in farewell.” Her premonitions weren’t unfounded. While she was making La Boheme, a series of sinister threats were made against the actress, although they were kept hidden from her.Mayer barely greeted the actress. Then he shoved a sheaf of papers across the desk at her. “Sign these. We need it done right now.”
Lillian pointed out that her attorney had always refused to allow her to sign anything until he’d had a chance to study it. Mayer’s face turned red. “I want to take you off salary until we have a property for you,” he yelled. Lillian remained calm. “Look, Mr. Mayer, you’ve had plenty of time to find a film for me to do, and, I must repeat, I can’t sign anything until my attorney studies it.”
The MGM chief leaped to his feet, screaming, “If you don’t do as I say, I can ruin you!”
Lillian slowly put on her gloves, grasped her handbag, and stood face-to-face with Hollywood’s most powerful mogul. “This is the second time you’ve said that to me, Mr. Mayer. I’m sure you can ruin me. But I will not sign anything without the advice of my attorney.”
Through mutual agreement, Lillian’s contract was not renewed. The defenders of Mayer, and there have been many, claim that his imperious ways developed only after years of corrupting, absolute power.
The problem started with Lillian Gish, the star of stars in the monumental silent pictures of D. W. Griffith. She had been hired through a process that offered her MGM’s first million-dollar contract. Unfortunately, it guaranteed her approval of everything from the lace on her underwear to the use of her lips. When she arrived at the Culver City lot she found a banner soaring above MGM and across two streets, Lillian Gish is now an MGM star, said the banner under which paraded bands, a cart of roses, and lines of executives to greet her. Since it was her choice, she selected the tragic La Boheme for her first production, with the studio’s top-line director King Vidor to guide her. Lillian, pampered and convinced of her invincibility by D. W. Griffith, introduced a few bizarre practices to the lot—including full rehearsal. There were some grumbles until Vidor told Mayer that Lillian’s system was helping them bring in the picture under budget and ahead of schedule. Then “the affair of the kiss” began, almost bringing the picture down with it. As the lover of the doomed heroine, Mimi, MGM had of course provided the dashing John Gilbert, a man whose reputation was based on a sexy walk, a perfect body, languid eyes, and an ability to kiss equaled only by Valentino. Vidor was leisurely plotting an outdoor scene one afternoon when Lillian walked up with her script. ”Look at this, Mr. Vidor, there’s a kiss and an embrace planned during these scenes. Now that is simply not right. Rodolphe [Gilbert] will demonstrate the powerful love he bears for Mimi if he doesn’t embrace her at all—and he certainly shouldn’t kiss her.” Known as ”the great lover of the silent screen,” John Gilbert was incensed and ran to Mayer’s office. “This is a love story … a love story! Does she realize that?”
“What are you talking about?” Mayer asked.
“Lillian refuses to kiss me.”
“What?” Mayer yelled.
“You heard me. She says the audience will believe our love more poignantly if we don’t even touch,” Gilbert said.
”Leave it to me,” said Mayer. Through a series of negotiations that would have strained a secretary of state, Mayer convinced Lillian that John Gilbert’s career might truly be hurt if he simply mooned around making eyes at Mimi. And after three days of love scenes, Vidor managed to coax the actress closer and closer to John’s embraces. He was achieving about one usable kiss every eight hours. On the way home, Lillian complained to her chauffeur: ”Oh, dear, I’ve got to go through another day of kissing John Gilbert.” Protestations aside, Lillian must have been doing something right: John Gilbert proposed to her twice before they wrapped up filming. Lillian Gish never truly became a major box office star for Metro, but she added greatly to its prestige. And there was one more all-out battle for a Gish kiss. This time she was filming the American classic “The Scarlet Letter” which gave her the type of long-suffering scenes she did best. Of course the film had to graphically show how Gish, as Hester, became pregnant and was forever forced to wear the adulteress’ A. She pleaded, she trekked to Mayer’s office three times, she offered her own versions of the script, and, grasping at straws, suggested that it be explained in the titles that ran before the scenes in the still silent movies. “No, absolutely not,” Mayer told Thalberg, who was now overseeing the Gish vehicles. “Irving, the way Lillian is working her way through these love scenes, the audience is going to think that the ‘scarlet letter A’ stands for abstinence.” (Peter Harry Brown & Pamela Ann Brown)
By October 1927, with The Wind finished but the studio postponing its release, Gish was writing that “I hardly think that I will continue with Metro. Theirs is such a large organization that I feel they haven’t the room or the time for me.” Shortly afterward, MGM let the greatest film actress of her generation go—not because her films didn’t make money, but because they didn’t make enough. Gish was “difficult” and single-minded about her work, which was more important to her than the MGM method. (Scott Eyman)
Mr. Goldfish /Goldwyn forgot his birth, “his” MGM built on “Birth of a Nation”. Ruling his empire as only a dictator would for years, as long as “his stars” did as Mayer wished, their own road was paved with the yellow bricks Judy Garland would sing about later. Then, when the good roles began going to other actresses, Mayer humiliated them by reminding them how often MGM had come to their “rescue.” Even big stars, some of them with immortal names, were subject to this form of creative blackmail. To enforce his domination, he had servants with sharp plumes ready to smear and tarnish any star reputation. Thus, Lillian Gish returned to her first love, the theater, and the cinema lost her for the better part of a decade. She never left the footlights, even when she returned on filming sets again. Her impressive stageography can be studied, accessing the link below:
Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia, made in 1913, is usually designated as the climax of his Biograph period. In fact, it is more properly a tentative beginning of his transference to the feature-length film. Because of Griffith’s eminence, film history has tended to magnify the importance of Judith of Bethulia. It has often been called the first American feature; it was neither that nor the longest American film to date. At four reels, it was still a transition film in terms of length, though admittedly, the silent speed of projection gave it a running time of about an hour.
(This was still too long for the conservative Biograph Company, which, despite ample audience proof to the contrary, refused to believe it was commercially viable and held off its release for a year. Later, out-takes and additional titles were inserted to pad the length, and the film was reissued under the non-Biblical title The Unpardonable Sin, to cash in on the enhanced reputation of Griffith and its stars.)
As a climax to the Biograph films, Judith of Bethulia inevitably disappoints. The increasing subtleties and clarity of story-telling that had been apparent in Griffith’s last one- and two-reelers for Biograph appear to have been sacrificed almost entirely to a length that the film does not really need.
Placed side by side with another 1913 Griffith Biograph, the two-reel The Battle of Elderhush Gulch, its inadequacies are especially apparent. Both films are in a way related, since they deal with one specific “military” engagement and its solution. But even allowing for Griffith’s greater affinity for the western, the two are miles apart in technique. The western is lean, clean-cut, and builds steadily to a climactic crescendo of excitement. The Biblical feature is confused and protracted, and since the climax is essentially a dramatic/ emotional one, the action scenes that follow it—no different from those that precede it—are merely anti-climactic. Admittedly, there are extenuating circumstances. The movie was not conceived as a feature, and Griffith’s decision to film it that way not only meant reshuffling and expanding a fairly tight continuity but working with an inadequate budget. Too, all of the exteriors were shot on drab Chatsworth locations, which gave Griffith no opportunities for dramatic use of landscape, let alone symbolic or lyrical treatment. Chatsworth has always been a convenience for Hollywood rather than an asset. Its close proximity to the studios has meant that production units could commute back and forth every day; its terrain may be dull, but it does encompass open plains, rocks, hills, trails, and a small lake. Quickie producers could shoot an entire film on its acreage without any problems. The nondescript quality of the scenery has allowed it to be used for the Old West and Old England, desolate terrain in some post-atomic age, the moon and various planets, Africa, Iron Curtain countries, and, of course, both prehistoric and Biblical terrain. From the 1950’s on, an increasing use of color spruced up the drabness somewhat, but it has always remained an uninteresting location which eventually found its true level as a background for half-hour television series. Its function, if any, was to enable good directors to film odd inserts or pickup shots that had been neglected on expensive location jaunts to more picturesque locales. It fulfilled this function for John Ford in many films, notably Stagecoach and Fort Apache.
Griffith, however, had neither color, other than toned stock, nor panchromatic film, so that to the drabness of rocky scrubland was added the gray, washed-out look of sky and horizon. The garb of the opposing armies was virtually indistinguishable, and the action scenes became Direction-less skirmishes in which identical extras were absorbed into a background of dust, rocks, and sun-dried grass and foliage. The Chatsworth location wasn’t all that was wrong with Judith of Bethulia, but it is signfficant that Griffith had rarely used it before ( and then for his prehistoric duo. Mans Genesis and Brute Force, where he obviously wanted a non-recognizably California locale) and never used it again on a major film. And just as the perfectly constructed The Battle of Elderbush Gulch might well have been spoiled had its length been doubled, so might Judith of Bethulia have been improved had its length been halved. However, it is not entirely without merit or interest. Griffith’s genius for using space and suggesting size is evident from the way a few very economical sets form a convincing walled city. Best of all is the acting—the dignified underplaying of Henry B. Walthall as Holofernes and the rich, often subtle, always passionate performance of Blanche Sweet, a performance which is valid today and deserves a better showcase but which must have seemed outstanding in its day. Judith of Bethulia certainly shows far less control and instinctive understanding of the medium than the best of Griffith’s Biograph films, but it was a useful transitional step, enabling Griffith to encounter the problems of feature length before he segued into fullscale feature production.
With his Biograph ties severed, Griffith took G. W. Bitzer and the best of his Biograph acting troupe and moved to Hollywood, to join Reliance-Majestic. Without his leadership, the talent he attracted, and, of course, the quality of the Griffith-directed films, Biograph floundered.
They held on for a year or two by making imitation Sennett comedies and imitation Griffith melodramas—the latter often looking more like parodies—and by making a handful of films of genuine (if not particularly cinematic) interest that starred such Broadway personalities as Bert Williams. But Biograph, still refusing to explore beyond the boundaries of proven formulas, could not hope to survive indefinitely on a continuation of their one- and two-reelers. Within a year or so, the company that had once been considered the leader of the film industry became first obsolete and then extinct. Griffith’s arrival at Reliance-Majestic did not at once produce startling results.
His immediate aim was to keep the studio going and to meet the payrolls, and to do this he turned out a quartet of very presentable features utilizing Henry B. Walthall, Mae Marsh, Blanche Sweet, Robert Harron, and Lillian Gish. All of them were better than Judith of Bethulia, and the best of them. The Avenging Conscience, a film that Seymour Stern once appropriately described as “an Edgar Allan Poe mosaic,” was quite remarkable in many ways. However, none of the four could be said to equal the best feature production of the day. Still, Griffith knew that he was marking time, and as features designed purely for commercial needs and to make an immediate profit. they were well above average standards. Perhaps of more interestnow, in retrospect, if not then—were the one- and two-reelers being produced by Griffith’s protege directors. So well did these men understand Griffith’s methods, and know what would meet with his approval, that the one-reelers seemed almost like polished extensions of the Biograph shorts, while some of the two-reelers even seemed a blueprint of elements in Griffith features yet to come. Today, it is difficult to know for sure exactly how much personal supervision on Griffith’s part was involved. If one can accept the similar period of Triangle in 1916 as a criterion, however, it is highly possible that, despite his busy schedule, Griffith did in fact find time not only to approve stories but also to involve himself in shooting and editing. It is also possible, however, that his directors were by now so skilled at making films in his image that Griffith had enough confidence in them to afford them relative autonomy, and even at times to benefit from their initiative and incorporate some of their ideas into his own work.
A good example of work by a Griffith protege is The Doll House Mystery, an unusually expert little melodrama co-directed by Chester and Sidney Franklin. On the surface, it was almost a definitive Griffith two-reeler, building suspense steadily, opening up the chase in the final sequences to include a locomotive and an automobile, and climaxing with a shoot-out in a deserted cabin, its location allowing for extensive overhead panoramic shots. Yet, unlike similar Griffith shorts, the story was not just an excuse for an exercise in excitement and editing skill. It is important in its own right, and more time than usual is spent in establishing the story and its characters before the plot gets underway. The characters, particularly a socialite wife (played by Marguerite Marsh, Mae’s sister) and the son of an ex-convict, well played by the child actor George Stone, are far more rounded than the average protagonists of the earlier Griffith Biographs. The final chase scenes even involve some locations and specific camera placements that Griffith copied precisely in the climax to the modern segment of Intolerance. Not many of the Reliance-Majestic shorts from this period survive, but those that do are indicative of a rapidly advancing sophistication. Even the comedies, despite the proven popular appeal of Mack Sennett’s frenzied slapstick, are relatively gentle, human, and even satiric. Cupid Versus Cigarettes is not only a pleasing little comedy on its own terms but also remarkably up-to-date on two counts—as a hard-hitting if genially presented attack on the physical harm of cigarette smoking and as a staunch advocate of equal rights for women. It would be quite fair to suggest that the short films made under Griffith’s supervision at Reliance, and directed by men like the Franklins, represent some of the most sophisticated technique on view in 1914, whereas the features directed by Griffith personally in that year must be considered less advanced than those of Maurice Tourneur or Cecil B. DeMille. On the other hand, Tourneur selectively and DeMille prolifically (he directed seven full features in 1914 and was to accelerate his pace to twelve in 1915) were working at the peak of their artistic capabilities for that time. Griffith, on the other hand, worked hurriedly, efficiently, but without marked artistic inspiration in the first half of 1914, so that he could devote his full energies to The Birth of a Nation.
The Battle of the Sexes was followed by The Escape, for many years now an apparently lost film. Even if Griffith used this film to mark time, it is perhaps indicative of his faith in the medium and of his over-generous estimation of audience intelligence and taste that he would have selected this story—from a Paul Armstrong play—as having commercial potential. For The Escape, despite an ultimately happy ending for two of its protagonists, is an almost unrelievedly sordid procession of brutality, madness, sex, disease, and death—the last including both a baby ( crushed to death by its drunken father ) and a kitten. If nothing else. The Escape might well qualify as the first feature-length film noir, just as Griffith’s 1909 one-reeler In the Watches of the Night might be considered the very first foray into what is generally regarded as a filmic style of the forties.
Home Sweet Home, which followed The Escape, was an all-star film—Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Robert Harron, Miriam Cooper, Owen Moore, Blanche Sweet, and most of the other Griffith players. It was a naively symbolic tale, too consciously striving for “meaning” and artistic pretension, a weakness that was to mar such later Griffith films as Dream Street ( 1921 ) . However, audiences liked the film far more than The Escape, and critics were kindly disposed toward its somewhat over-wrought filmic poetry. In at least three ways, the film resembled elements of the later Intolerance. It was an episodic film, its separate stories linked by a none-too-sturdy device—a much exaggerated and even falsified account of the life of John Howard Payne, writer of the lyrics of the title song.
( In Intolerance, the titular theme was the linking device, even though the film was only partially about intolerance.) And as in Intolerance, the Mae Marsh-Robert Harron-Miriam Cooper sequence was actually planned (and even released) as a separate entity, then recalled, reshaped, and inserted into the body of a more ambitious film. The last of Griffith’s 1914 quartet. The Avenging Conscience, is one of the most fascinating and bewildering of films, by turns innovative and mature, naive and listless. Some of the usage of Poe material is justified, other material pointlessly dragged in. The film does substitute psychological tension for physical action; the ghostly apparition that accompanies the killer’s guilt pangs is smoothly done; cross-cutting for emotional suspense rather than thrill is often quite creative ( especially in a Raskolnikov /Porfiri-like encounter between a detective and the man he is sure is a murderer ) ; and at times, the film has much of the doom-laden power of the celebrated German films of the twenties. Its dream ending is quite modern, too, and much in the manner of Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944); the nightmarish story is brought to a conclusion, with all the loose ends wrapped up. The revelation that it was all a dream—a less common device in 1914—provided an appropriate sense of relief but was in no way merely a convenient resolution of an otherwise insoluble plot dilemma (as was frequently the case in melodramas in the forties). The main problem with The Avenging Conscience is its lack of cohesion and general untidiness. One would like to think that the film’s strongest element, its brooding power, is there by design. But if so, then the shortcomings of the rest of the film are inexcusable. In any event, if it is not quite the milestone film that Griffith’s admirers would like it to be, its flaws at least throw into stark relief the enormous advances made by Griffith during the latter part of 1914.
When The Avenging Conscience premiered in New York on August 2, 1914, Griffith, Bitzer, Lillian Gish, and Mae Marsh were already at work on The Birth of a Nation. It is virtually impossible today to appreciate fully the impact that The Birth of a Nation made on audiences, on film-makers, and on both the art and industry of movies when it premiered in February 1915. So controversial has it always been because of its racial content—a controversy often artificially created and sustained—that its artistic and innovative qualities have frequently been acknowledged almost grudgingly, as a lesser asset that did not compensate for the film’s inflammatory qualities. Yet no other single film in movie history has ever done what The Birth of a Nation did : established movies as an international art and an international industry almost overnight, and influenced the manner of narrative story-telling in American films for at least the next six years. Griffith’s methods were not new, but prior to The Birth of a Nation they were neither understood nor considered important enough to be worth copying. The incredible financial success of the film “justified” Griffith’s techniques, and at least through the end of 1920 the film was copied (lazily) by the lesser directors and instinctively—and out of a sense of homage—by the newer and more talented directors (John Ford, Henry King).
Probably more acting and directorial talent was nurtured among the film’s cast and crew than that of any other film, with the possible exception of Griffith’s own subsequent Intolerance. The film established and justified the practice of raised admission prices, taking the motion picture forever out of the ten-cent category. It has almost certainly become the industry’s top-grossing box-office champion. While this claim is not necessarily a criterion of artistic achievement—many of the industry’s top grossers are of singularly negligible value artistically—it is an incredible achievement for a film that was made in 1915 and has been in constant exhibition, including commercial exhibition, ever since. Admittedly, it might be a hard claim to support in terms of dollars and cents. Existing financial records can only prove a minimum income from the film, since Griffith did not have national distribution in 1915 and sold the film on a state’s rights basis. This means that records exist only on the flat or percentage payments made to Griffith for distribution rights to given territories, not on the gross income from those territories. Nevertheless, existing figures do indicate a minimum return over the years of 50 million dollars. If it were no more than that, it would be an incredible profit for a film that was estimated to cost between $65,000 and $112,000. These two figures represent production cost and the final cost up to presentation, including a substantial sum for advertising and such added niceties as a full, live orchestral score.
Grosses in terms of dollars mean very little anymore, when contemporary grosses are invariably inflated by the casual use of the $5 admission charge. The only fair estimate of a film’s success, in the long run, should be the number of paid admissions, an unchanging guide to a film’s popularity. On that score, there can be no question of the leadership of The Birth of a Nation. In the first six months of its release, it was seen by more people than had attended all the plays presented in the United States in the previous few years! It was this obvious competition and commercial threat that caused the theatre to hit back by coining the phrase “the legitimate stage” as a deliberate insult to the medium of film. At twelve reels, or a running time of three hours, The Birth of a Nation was at least twice as long as that of the average American feature of the day. It represented the tremendous faith of GrifiBth, who was forced to subsidize the film by raising completion money himself, when the estimated budget was depleted. Part One ( slightly more than a third of the total film ) dramatizes the events leading up to the Civil War of 1861-65 and the war itself, including the surrender of Lee and the assassination of Lincoln.
Also included in this section is a prologue depicting the introduction of slavery into America in the 17th century and the rise of the Abolitionist movement 150 years later. Despite the brilHant crescendo of cross-cutting in the climax of the second half, the first half is certainly better. It is here that Griffith’s ability to humanize history is seen at its best. His story is told through the interaction between two families, one Northern and one Southern, showing the heartbreak of the Civil War in personal as well as ideological terms. The head of the Northern family, Austin Stoneman ( played by Ralph Lewis ) , is actually a thinly disguised portrait of Thaddeus Stevens, a prominent Radical Republican Congressman proponent of harsh approach to Southern Reconstruction, while such key figures as Lincoln, Lee, Grant, John Wilkes Booth and Senator Charles Sumner naturally appear under their own names. So adept is the interweaving of factual and fictional characters that it would be quite possible to edit out most of the romantic and fictional elements of the film and still be left with a virtual documentary.
Many of the most striking images occur in the first half: the tragedy of war is as poignantly portrayed by a single shot of a dead soldier, half curled up as if in sleep, and preceded by the subtitle “War’s Peace,” as it was to be later by that bravura crane-shot pullback of the entire Atlanta square filled with the dead and dying in Gone With the Wind. One of the first outstanding examples of “painting with light” in film can be seen in the brief sequence of Sherman’s march to the sea. A small group of refugees ( probably a family whose home has been burned) huddle at the left of the screen in a stylized and partially painted set suggesting the wreckage of a house. The camera moves across to a panoramic overhead long shot of Sherman’s troops marching away from the camera, past a burning building. There is an insert to a closer view, then a cut back to the end position of the previous pan, and the camera retraces its move back to the pathetic refugees. Within a few seconds, apart from the narrative point made by the poignant scene, one sees the welding of stylized and harshly documentarian styles, close-shot and extreme long shot separated by two kinds of lighting and composition, yet linked emotionally by a cause-and-effect motif and physically by a camera movement.
Henry B Walthall – Reunion – Birth of a Nation
Miriam Cooper, Josephine Crowell, Mae Marsh – Renunion – Birth of a Nation
Henry B Walthall – Reunion – Birth of a Nation
Henry B Walthall and Mae Marsh – Reunion – Birth of a Nation
Henry B Walthall and Mae Marsh – Reunion – Birth of a Nation
Another superb moment in Part One is the homecoming of Colonel Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) to his mother (Josephine Crowell) and sister (Mae Marsh) after capture, imprisonment, and a sojourn in a military hospital. In the scenes immediately prior to the reunion, Griffith creates a mood that is first joyful (the happy preparations for his return) and then sad (the realization of the poverty thrust on them by the South’s defeat).
The reunion itself, starting with a long shot of the tattered soldier entering the frame at the end of the street and climaxing with his embrace of his sister at the door, and then being drawn into the house by the arms of his mother ( who is otherwise not shown) is a beautifully tender and underplayed scene. Further, it indicates a great respect for the audience’s ability to inject its own emotions into a scene, to accept suggestion rather than outright statement, and to imagine actions ( and the conclusion of the scene ) taking place off screen. Although this scene has been imitated (knowingly and otherwise) many times, perhaps most effectively by John Ford in a 1933 talkie, Pilgrimage, the original has somehow never been surpassed; even out of context, as a film “clip,” it still has the power to be intensely moving. Incredibly, the superb underplaying and meticulous timing of this sequence were achieved through careful rehearsals designed not so much to perfect the actors’ performances as to get the scene completed within a specific time. This occurred partly because, even while shooting, Griffith could envision the rhythm of the completed film, and partly because of economics; he could not afford the luxury of reshooting.
Towering over all else in Part One of The Birth of a Nation were the monumental battle scenes (shot in the area now totally covered by Universal Studios ) , which may since have been surpassed in terms of sheer size but have certainly never been equalled in terms of realism or excitement. Deliberately patterned after Matthew Brady photographs, subdirected by a group of unit directors who were able to turn the “huge” armies into masses of individuals rather than tableau-like mobs, these battle scenes, staged with extreme camera mobility and the usual Griffith juxtaposition of close detail shots with panoramic long shots, have vitality, savagery, and an incredible sense of spontaneity. No matter how many times one has seen these sequences, one tends to jump along with the extra, who is clearly surprised when a mortar bomb explodes behind his back, or to be moved by the destruction of a tree hit by a shell. (Griffith had an astonishing ability to crystallise the awful, massive destruction of war into shots of simple symbolism or metaphor. Despite the grimness of the often authentic war scenes in his World War I film Hearts of the World, its most moving single shot is of a brace of swans, with their cygnets, swimming away from the ripples in their pond caused by falling dirt from a bomb explosion.)
Part Two of The Birth of a Nation traces the exploitation of the newly emancipated Southern Negroes by Northern bankers and industrialists (carpetbaggers) and by political fanatics of both North and South ( scalawags ) . It dramatizes the struggle against, and ultimate defeat of, a vengeful movement by these elements to “crush the White South under the heel of the Black South” (quoting from Woodrow Wilson) and to rule the defeated South through a Northern-controlled economic, political, and racial dictatorship. It was this second portion of the film, with its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan of that period, that has caused most of the film’s problems. Not only does this section of the film draw heavily on the writings of Thomas Dixon but because of the elimination of most of the authentic historical characters, and the involvement of the Thaddeus Stevens parallel in much of the fictional melodrama, it is more open to questions of historical distortion.
It was, of course, the dynamic quality of The Birth of a Nation that caused—and still causes—the film problems on racial grounds. No movie with such imagination and persuasive power had ever been seen before. With no disrespect to the remarkable early films of Tourneur and others, it was as if an audience familiar only with comic strips had suddenly been introduced to the works of Tolstoy, and in a way that they could understand. Yet audiences were, understandably, not yet sophisticated enough to understand film technique, or how it was manipulating them. It is extremely unlikely that even Griffith fully understood the awesome power of the film medium. In Griffith’s eyes, The Birth of a Nation did tell the truth; however, it was only one side of a truth. The assertive style of the film left no option for another side.
Audiences, confronted with an overpowering flow of images, often connected by fully documented and undeniably accurate titles, had no way of knowing how the linkage and arrangement of shots could lead the spectator to the film-maker’s point of view. Thus, Griffith introduces a sequence, backed up by historical references, showing the passage of a bill permitting the inter-marriage of blacks and whites. But he follows it with a quick shot of a young black looking up lecherously, and then a shot of a white girl and her companions ( presumably parents ) shuddering and drawing back as they watch the proceedings from a balcony. There is nothing in the film to prove that the black man is looking at the white girl, yet from the arrangement of shots, the implication is obvious. Here, historical reconstruction slides unobtrusively into pure editorializing.
At another point in the film, the mulatto villain Silas Lynch (played by George Siegmann ) confronts Colonel Cameron on the street and tells him, “The sidewalk belongs to us as much as to you, ‘Colonel’ Cameron.” There is nothing unreasonable in his statement or even in his manner, but the insertion of the quotes around the word “Colonel” in the title immediately injects a note of insulting derision. Ironically, the use of the same filmic method that Griffith evolved to tell his story has been in part responsible for the effectiveness of the campaign against the film ever since. A David Wolper television documentary of the 1960’s, Hollywood, The Golden Years, told the history of the silent period in superficial but generally acceptable terms, considering the non-scholastic mass audience it was aimed at. However, it sustained and enlarged on the myth of the riots that were supposed to have greeted The Birth of a Nation on its initial showing in Boston.
(There were protests and demonstrations, but of a small-scale and well controlled nature.) After the narrator set up the “massive” nature of the protests, the screen was filled with montages of newspaper headlines, some of which may even have been authentic, but superimposed over unidentifiable shots of huge rioting mobs sweeping through city streets which definitely had no connection whatsoever with the opening of the film in Boston. Yet, quite logically, audiences assumed it to be a bit of “truthful” reportage. Through the years, The Birth of a Nation has constantly been harassed by the NAACP, which has bombarded announced showings of the film with masses of “protest” letters, evenly divided into three different and always word-for-word styles, indicating that the writers had never seen the film they were protesting so vehemently.
While The Birth of a Nations immense power as entertainment was grasped immediately by the critics, not all of them were as enthusiastic over its innovations: a veritable textbook of cinematic grammar, style, and devices that would remain intact until the coming of sound, and even thereafter be of continuing influence. Some critics felt it absurd that the use of the moving camera in the battle and chase scenes placed the audience in the “confusing” position of being absorbed into the action, resolutely holding to the theory that the audience should remain firmly separated, as a spectator only, in the tradition of the theatre.
The shaping of the screen into iris, vignette, and other forms—even the use of horizontal panels, anticipating the CinemaScope image—likewise confused those critics who still regarded the film as an alternative to the stage. But the basic construction of the film—a methodical beginning; the establishment of time, place, and characters; the building up to an initial climax; the relaxing of tempo to repeat the process and build up to a second, longer, greater climax; the mathematical precision of editing within that climax, even to throwing in a brief, seemingly unintended “joke” so that audiences could relax, release their pent-up tensions, and draw greater excitement from the remainder of the film’s climax—all of this became a model on which the structure of American film was to be based for the next half-decade. It was to reach its purely academic peak in Intolerance, a commercial failure. But so great and long-lasting was the commercial success of The Birth of a Nation that even the failure of Intolerance, considered an artistic indulgence, was over-ridden by the phenomenal box-office success and artistic influence of what is still one of cinema’s peaks: The Birth of a Nation.
CUPID has had a busy spring season in Hollywood. Being composed of so many beautiful women and handsome members of the sterner sex, it is but natural that many marriages and engagements would be announced among the movie colony. And being modern in every way, some of their matrimonial ships were bound to run aground
THE rumored engagement of Lillian Gish to George Jean Nathan, critic, writer and magazine editor, is of particular interest, coming, as it does, just after Lillian’s spectacular court victory over C. H. Duell, who said he was at one time “unofficially engaged” to Miss Gish. Mr. Nathan has been, to judge from his writings, one of the American woman’s severest critics. With such a lovely example as Miss Gish so close to his heart, it is quite possible that Mr. Nathan will now look at the American girl in a more appreciative and less critical light.
Photoplay Magazine Volume XXVI, Number Two – July 1924
“Birth of a Nation” Breaks All Records
Seven years before the producer of “The Birth of a Nation,” then just Larry Griffith, an actor out of a job, found a chance to play a role in a little one-reel Edison drama for five dollars a day. Seven years since he sold his first script to Biograph for fifteen dollars.
“The Birth of a Nation” broke all manner of theater records in various world capitals and became, as it remains today, the world’s: greatest motion picture, if greatness is to be measured by fame. It has ever since continued to be an important box office success. Early in 1924 “The Birth of a Nation” played in the great Auditorium Theater in Chicago, surpassing any previous picture audience record for that house.
No other dramatic screen product has lived so long, with the single and interesting exception of the little one-reel Sennett Keystone comedies featuring Charles Chaplin.
Henry B Walthall and Lillian Gish as Elsie Sroneman in Birth of a Nation
Lillian Gish as Elsie Sroneman in Birth of a Nation
Lillian Gish – Birth of a Nation
Henry B. Walthall in “The Birth of a Nation”
Lillian Gish as Elsie Sroneman in Birth of a Nation
Here, perhaps, is a test of screen art. “The Birth of a Nation” was Griffith vindication for his flourishing departure from Biograph. Because of the halo that “The Birth of a Nation” has conferred upon them, some of the now famous names from the cast must be recalled: Henry Walthall, Mae Marsh, Elmer Clifton, Robert Harron, Lillian Gish, Joseph Henabery, Sam de Grasse, Donald Crisp and Jennie Lee.
Lillian Gish Promotional Hartsook – The Clansman (The Birth of a Nation)
The Birth of a Nation (David W. Griffith Corp., 1915). Herald2
Lillian Gish Salem Daily Capital Journal article (Of The Birth of A Nation) – NOT Lillian Gish in the photograph
Griffith’s attainment in “The Birth of a Nation” must be credited with a large influence in extending an acceptance and appreciation of the screen art into new, higher levels. Here was a picture that could not be ignored by any class. It also exerted a large, even if indirect, influence on the course of motion picture finance. Hundreds of thousands and million were now to become easy figures in the manipulation of the thought of the industry. “The Birth of a Nation” is said to have cost over a quarter of a million. It would have been cheap at a million. The public has paid 815,000,000, according to the estimate of J. P. McCarthy, who has put the picture on the screens of the world.
Lillian Gish as Elsie Sroneman in Birth of a Nation
Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman (Birth of A Nation)
In this single picture, Griffith, above all others, forced an indifferent world to learn that the motion picture was great. In the next chapter we shall tell some untold tales of screen destiny, rich with personal drama and adventure, stories of Charles Chaplin, Pancho Villa. Jack Johnson and Jess Willard. a curious bypath story of the world war and Broadway, and the amazing truth of how one idea and one little girl, Mary Pickford, rocked the whole vast institution of the screen and set all of its invested millions a-tremble.
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