The Birth of a Nation – How a Filmmaker and a Editor Reignited America’s Civil War – By Dick Lehr (2014)

  • The Birth of a Nation – How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War
  • By Dick Lehr
  • Copyright © 2014 by Dick Lehr

IN 1915, TWO MEN—One a journalist agitator, the other a technically brilliant filmmaker—incited a public confrontation that roiled America, pitting black against white, Hollywood against Boston, and free speech against civil rights.

Monroe Trotter and D. W. Griffith were fighting over a film that dramatized the Civil War and Reconstruction in a post-Confederate South. Almost fifty years earlier, Monroe’s father, James, was a sergeant in an all-black Union regiment that marched into Charleston, South Carolina, just as the Kentucky cavalry—including Roaring Jack Griffith, D. W.’s father—fled for their lives. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation, included actors in blackface, heroic portraits of Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and a depiction of Lincoln’s assassination. Freed slaves were portrayed as villainous, vengeful, slovenly, and dangerous to the sanctity of American values. It was tremendously successful, eventually seen by 25 million Americans. But violent protests against the film flared up across the country.

Monroe Trotter’s titanic crusade to have the film censored became a blueprint for dissent during the 1950s and 1960s. This is the fiery story of a revolutionary moment for mass media and the nascent civil rights movement, and the men clashing over the cultural and political soul of a still-young America standing at the cusp of its greatest days.


January 2, 1915

David Wark Griffith watched intently as curious residents of Riverside, California, filed into the Loring Opera House for a Saturday evening preview of a new movie promoted as the “Most Wonderful Motion Picture Ever.” The moviegoers crowded the ornate thousand-seat theater, which first opened in 1890 to showcase opera and musicals and had only just begun to present the new medium of film.

Excitement was building. Griffith, the motion picture’s director, had personally arranged the eight p.m. screening. He had even persuaded many of the film’s stars to attend the sneak preview: among them the enchanting Lillian Gish, doe-eyed Mae Marsh, and popular leading man Henry B. Walthall. The director had wanted to get away from the hubbub of his Holl5rwood studio, choosing this young city sixty miles inland from the expansive, big-sky locations in the California hills where he’d filmed some of the movie’s panoramic battle sequences. As was his custom for test screenings, Griffith settled into a seat at the back of the theater, not far from the booth where projectors were hand cranked. The operator had to find a frames-per-second speed that would satisfy Griffith: The pace had to suit both the fury of galloping horses and the solemnity of a death scene. His secretary and film editor—then called a film cutter—by his side.

Griffith was at once studying the film and gauging the audience’s reaction, dictating notes for additional edits. “Every single subtitle, every situation, every shift in scene or change in a sequence that is made in editing a film, has to go before an audience for its test before being accepted as part of the complete product,” the director said about his process. Griffith was fanatical about his finishing touches. He was preparing for the premier in Los Angeles the next month, with even bigger things to come afterward, including a trip to Washington DC, to show the movie to President Wilson in what would be the first-ever film screening inside the White House.

The Kentucky-born director was to celebrate his fortieth birthday in three weeks, but the personal milestone paled in comparison to the impact his film was going to have on the history of American cinema. For Griffith, 1915 marked the culmination of a professional journey that had begun in earnest at the turn of the century with his arrival in New York City as a raw, aspiring actor. He turned to directing in 1908, but nothing he’d made so far came close to the production quality of his new movie that took up twelve reels, or about 12,000 feet of film, consisting of more than 1,300 shots and 230 separate titles.

Griffith drew on his repertory experience in theater to assemble a quasi company for his film work. He recruited actresses, actors, and other talent to work regularly with him. The former stage actor Henry B. Walthall joined Griffith in 1909; he played an associate of the greedy “Wheat King” in A Corner of Wheat. Unsurprisingly, early on at Biograph Griffith often cast his wife, Linda, but their marriage faltered and the couple would split in 1911. He was impressed instantly with a young Canadian actress named Gladys Smith who, using the professional name Mary Pickford, became one of his regulars beginning in 1909. Within a couple of years, Pickford’s friends, sisters Dorothy and Lillian Gish, had joined Griffith’s stable, along with Mae Marsh and Blanche Sweet—all of whom became stars under his direction. With his own acting experience to draw on, he was adept at demonstrating for his players what he was after in a particular scene. Beyond the actors, Griffith developed an affinity with one of the company’s scenarists, a former newspaper reporter from Pennsylvania named Frank E. Woods. Griffith came to rely on Woods for many of the scenarios he filmed.

Then in April 1911 Griffith became aware of the New York premiere on Broadway of Quo Vadis?, an eight-reel Italian film with a running time of two hours. The historical drama, set in Rome during the rule of the emperor Nero and featuring elaborate sets with hundreds of actors, was a box office hit. In its review, the New York Times hailed Quo Vadis? as “the most ambitious photo drama that has yet been seen here.”

It was as if a gauntlet had been issued. Insatiably ambitious, Griffith was determined to make his mark in American motion picture production. Lillian Gish, for one, seemed to detect this during filming that very same month of The Mothering Heart, a story about a pregnant woman whose husband abandons her. Griffith insisted he needed two reels—almost 30 minutes—to fully convey the drama. “With two reels to work with,” Gish said later, “Mr. Griffith could concentrate more on the effects that he wanted and exercise more subtlety in his direction.” Griffith was demanding more and more leverage as a filmmaker, a course that was soon incompatible with his station in the Biograph system.

Back in California in the winter of 1913, D. W. Griffith began a new season of cranking out films for Biograph at his characteristic breakneck pace—nine in January and February alone. But now, in his sixth year with the company, he was also determined to follow his storytelling instincts and began mixing into his output films that ran longer than one reel and were ever more sophisticated. A benefit of working three thousand miles away from Biograph’s executives in New York City was that he had the independence to go off in ways he might not have been able to under the close scrutiny of studio bosses.

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

By spring he dispatched his crew to the nearby San Fernando Valley to construct his most ambitious and costly set yet—one that did not consist simply of flat storefronts to create an illusion, but was tantamount to a genuine western frontier town. Griffith wanted a three-dimensional set so that he could position cameras to film different angles, and then, when editing, be able to cut back and forth from the various perspectives to ramp up the action. The movie he shot there.

The Battle of Elderbush Gulch, showed off his maturing technical skills and his ability to interweave several story lines. The narrative threads included two sisters (one portrayed by Mae Marsh); their uncle and his family; a young couple and their missing baby (the wife played by Lillian Gish); and a local Indian tribe and the killing of the chief’s son. The story climaxes with an Indian attack on the town, an action-packed assault that appears fatal for the sisters and other town folk until the US Cavalry, sabers drawn and pistols firing, come riding on horseback to the rescue. Griffith used high-angle shots to capture the chaos and terror of the siege—as Indians storm the town, women and children run in all directions, some men fire wildly at the attackers—and do so to such great effect that when the film opened one viewer exclaimed, “The audience went into a frenzy of delight. ‘Come on, come on, come on!’ they called. That troop of cavalry hit those Indians with the impact of a huge sea swell bursting over a rock.”

D.W. Griffith’s ‘Home Sweet Home’ Program


Walking across the set one spring afternoon, D. W. Griffith leaned in to Lillian Gish and whispered that he had some news he wanted to share with her at the end of the day. He and his company were in the middle of making a film at the Sunset Boulevard studio of Reliance-Majestic. Based on the life of John Howard Payne, a nineteenth-century American actor who wrote the lyrics for the 1823 “Home! Sweet Home!,” and titled after the famous song, the drama was a five-reeler, nearly an hour long. But Griffith was bubbling with excitement about a new project, bigger than Home Sweet Home, bigger than anything they’d ever attempted.

Birth of a Nation Final Battle – Henry B Walthall

That evening he told Gish and other principal actors—Mae Marsh, Miriam Cooper, Walter Long, and Henry Walthall, to name a few—that he and Harry Aitken had acquired the rights to Dixon’s The Clansman. The negotiations had been touch and go: Dixon first had demanded $25,000 (or nearly $600,000 in 2014 dollars), then lowered his price to $10,000, which was still too costly, given that Griffith had informed Aitken he expected to need up to twelve reels and a budget of about $40,000 to do the story justice. Fortunately, Dixon ended up coming down further and agreed to take a payment of $2,500 along with a 25 percent stake in the movie’s profits. The director excitedly explained to his actors that he aimed to use the novel as a vehicle “to tell the truth about the War between the States.” He said, “It hasn’t been told accurately in history books. Only the winning side in the war ever gets to tell its story.” Rehearsals and set construction would begin on his fresh acquisition, Griffith told the company, as soon as they finished up Home Sweet Home and made one more film.

The story for the new movie was indeed big—the Civil War and Reconstruction—and would be largely built around two families: the Stonemans from the North, and the Camerons from the South. The epic would track their intersecting lives during and after the war, dramatizing their suffering and losses and, through the families’ experiences, convey the suffering of a nation. It would re-create history on a grand scale—with Civil War battles, the assassination of President Lincoln, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as saviors of the southern tradition. Interestingly, the home state chosen for the Camerons was South Carolina: where, forty-nine years earlier, Griffith’s father had been stationed as the invading Union army— an occupying force that included James T. Trotter of the 55th Massachusetts Infantry—closed in to help end the Civil War.

The Curtain Falls

William Monroe Trotter died in 1934; David Wark Griffith died of a cerebral hemorrhage, on July 23, 1948—each long out of the national spotlight at the time of their respective deaths. The epic film that was at the center of their protracted fight, however, was another matter. During subsequent engagements and reissued versions, protesters and pickets often accompanied the film. For a while the NAACP continued to seek bans, and, teaming up with Trotter once again, succeeded to briefly stop it in Boston in 1921. But despite chasing after it the way a police agency might a fugitive from justice, the chimerical effort to stamp out The Birth of a Nation ultimately failed. The movie endured—a cornerstone of American filmmaking and a milestone, if an ugly one, in American race relations. It has staying power, anchoring most any college class today on the history of film, with 2015 marking its centennial. In 1947, the year before Griffith died, a festival of film classics began in Los Angeles, and The Birth ofa Nation was selected to open the event. Announcing the choice, movie historian and organizer Raymond Rohauer honored Birth as “one of the earliest films of any consequence that is still worth seeing and discussing,” a statement still true today, with one caveat: that any such discussion be taken expansively and include race in America. That’s the complete legacy of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation—a masterpiece that, due to its bigoted slant, became a dramatic flash point in 1915 for a changing America in mass media and marketing, civil rights, and civil liberties.

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Documentary Film Classics – By William Rothman (1997)

  • Documentary Film Classics
  • By William Rothman
  • University of Miami
  • © Cambridge University Press 1997

Movies, too, may be said to bring “real life” to the screen. For example, in Griffith’s True Heart Susie, a film contemporaneous with Nanook of the North, the character Susie and the world she inhabits may be imaginary, but it is the real-life Lillian Gish who is the subject of the camera. And so-called “documentaries,” too, may be said to bring the life of the imagination to the screen, as we shall be reminded throughout this book.

Lillian Gish and Robert Harron – True Heart Susie

Griffith’s camera is capable of making no revelations about the fictional Susie that are not also revelations about the real woman who incarnates her, revelations that emerge through, that express and thus reveal, the relationship between the camera and Lillian Gish. True Heart Susie’s prevailing fiction is that it is Susie, not Lillian Gish, who is real. Or we might say that its fiction is that Lillian Gish is only acting, rather than revealing herself, when she incarnates Susie in the face of the camera, that the character Susie is only a mask she can put on or take off at will or upon direction.

What is fictional about True Heart Susie in other words, resides in its fiction that it is only fiction. What is fictional about Nanook of the North, by contrast, resides in its fiction that it is not fiction at all. Strip away what is fictional about the two films, therefore, and there is no real difference between them. Both equally exemplify Stanley Gavell’s maxim that in the medium of film the only thing that really matters is that the subject be allowed to reveal itself.

True Heart Susie

The opening titles of True Heart Susie likewise assert, at least rhetorically, the reality of the characters around whom Griffith’s story revolves. But in introducing Susie, the film’s protagonist, Griffith’s title also names the star who plays her (Lillian Gish), at once positing their identity (in the face of the camera, Susie simply is Lillian Gish; Lillian Gish is Susie incarnate) and acknowledging their separateness (Susie has no existence apart from True Heart Susie but Lillian Gish exists apart from her incarnation in this or any film, and, as a movie star, is capable of being incarnated as any number of different characters).

By contrast, when Griffith presents us with our first view of Susie in True Heart Susie – it is also our first view of Lillian Gish, of course – we are not authorized to take it as “documenting” a real encounter between camera and subject. As we have said, the film’s prevailing fiction is that it is Susie, not Lillian Gish, who is real, hence that there was no real encounter between camera and subject, for the camera that filmed Lillian Gish has no reality within Susie’s world.

True Heart Susie

To act as if she were Susie, Lillian Gish must act as if no camera were really in her presence. But how is it possible for Lillian Gish to have a real relationship with Griffith’s camera, a relationship through which Susie is capable of being revealed, if in the face of the camera she must act as if no real camera were present?

For Susie to act as if no real camera were present, there is no reality she must deny. For Lillian Gish to act as if no real camera were present, on the other hand, she must deny the reality of the camera that is in her presence, the camera that is really filming her. To deny the reality of this camera’s presence, Lillian Gish must relate to it, acknowledge its presence, in a particular way. And if the camera is to sustain the fiction that it is Susie who is real, it must relate to Lillian Gish in a particular way, too; it must be used in a way that at once acknowledges her presence and denies her reality.

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

What makes it possible for Griffith to use the camera in a way that acknowledges Lillian Gish’s presence even as it denies her reality is the fundamental condition of human existence that real human beings are also characters, imaginary creatures of fantasy and myth, and are also actors capable of becoming who they are imagined to be. What makes it possible, in turn, for Lillian Gish to acknowledge the presence of the camera even as she denies its reality is the equally fundamental condition of the medium of film that the reality of the camera’s presence is also the reality of its absence, the absence of its reality.

Lillian Gish trying to kiss Robert Harron (True Heart Susie)

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Mom in the Movies (TCM) by Richard Corliss (2014)

  • Mom in the movies : the iconic screen mothers you love (and a few you love to hate)
  • Mom in the Movies (TCM) by Richard Corliss (2014)
  • Copyright © 2014 by Simon & Schuster, Inc., and Turner Entertainment Networks, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.

Turner Classic Movies and film historian Richard Corliss present Mom in the Movies, the definitive, fully illustrated guide to the many ways that Hollywood has celebrated, vilified and otherwise memorialized dear old Mom. Here, you will meet the Criminal Moms, like Shelley Winters in Bloody Mama, and the eccentric Showbiz Moms, including those from Gypsy and Postcards from the Edge. You’ll also find Great American Moms, as warm and nourishing as apple pie, in movies such as J Remember Mama and Places in the Heart, along with Surrogate Moms, like Ginger Rogers in Bachelor Mother, Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame, Dianne Wiest in Edward Scissorhands and Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side. And who can forget the baddest mothers of all? No book on movie moms would be complete without Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate. With a foreword written by Debbie Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher, and sidebar essays by Eva Marie Saint, Illeana Douglas, Jane Powell, Sam Robards and Tippi Hedren, this book is packed with an incredible collection of photographs and film stills. Mom in the Movies makes a great gift for any mom— and for anyone with a mother who oughta be, in pictures.

Lillian Gish as The Eternal Mother in Griffith’s “Intolerance”

Silent Moms

If Pickford was the great female star of silent Hollywood, Lillian Gish was its greatest actress. Another child of a deserted mother who saw the theater as a way to support her family, Lillian moved in 1912 from Ohio to New York City, where Pickford introduced Lillian and her younger sister, Dorothy, to Griffith. Both Gish girls became popular performers, appearing together in Grifhth’s Orphans of the Storm (1921), but Dorothy was more the saucy soubrette, Lillian the elfin tragedian. Her wispy frame and doll face, dominated by soulful blue eyes, made Lillian ideal for demure young women who rise to heroism to battle life’s disasters. She played the female lead in The Birth of a Nation (1915), though the men carried that Civil War story to its controversial climax in the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. In Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), a film figure that interwove four stories across three millennia— think Cloud Atlas, but more wildly ambitious—Gish was the recurring figure of Eternal Motherhood, sitting next to a cradle, as Walt Whitman’s lines from Leaves of Grass (“Out of the cradle endlessly rocking . . . uniter of here and hereafter”) crept across the screen.

Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish – ice floe scenes (Way Down East)

Griffith’s Way Down East (1920) was famous for its climax: Richard Barthelmess running across the ice floes on a frozen river to save Gish (who spent so much time collapsed on the sheet of ice that her right hand never fully regained its feeling). But Gish is the real elemental sensation as the poor, saintly Anna, seduced into a fake marriage by the rich roué Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), who abandons her when he learns she is pregnant. Scorned as a fallen woman at the moment her own loving mother has died, Anna is left alone to tend both the ailing baby and her social shame. “Maternity—Woman’s Gethsemane” reads one of the intertitles that link Anna’s plight with Jesus on the way to Calvary. As she realizes her infant son is dying, Anna pours a lifetime of devotion and desperation into her few moments of motherhood.

Way Down East – “I baptize thee Trust Lennox …”

Like Pickford’s Tess, she baptizes the child (with the garishly ironic name Trust Lennox) and breathes on its cold hands in a futile fight to sustain its life. This is a performance of exquisitely balanced frenzy and subtlety; John Barrymore, the preeminent romantic classical actor of his day, called it “the most superlative exquisite and poignantly enchanting thing I have ever seen in my life.” Gish stayed with Griffith longer than his other top stars, leaving in 1921 for the company that would become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where she continued to suffer triumphantly in The White Sister, La Bohéme and The Wind. She was able to make The Scarlet Letter (1926) only after convincing balky Protestant groups that the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, about a fiery Puritan minister who sires a child with a member of his congregation, would not give religious offense. Gish and Frances Marion, the eminent scenarist who wrote twenty Pickford films, solved or sidestepped this problem by focusing on Hester Prynne (Gish), not the Reverend Dimmesdale (Lars Hanson), and by making her another in the actress’s long line of wronged women.

Lillian’s Protegee The story of “The Scarlet Letter” gave Lillian Gish, as Hester Prynne, many scenes with little Joyce Coad, who plays Pearl. And Miss Gish believes that Joyce, who is the winner of a California baby contest, will win an esteemed place for herself on the screen. Photo Motion Picture Magazine (Aug 1926-Jan 1927)

Marked with a scarlet “A” for “adulteress,” cursed and besmirched by the sanctimonious locals, Hester is every bit as unjustly ostracized as Anna was in Way Down East. This time, the love child, Pearl, gets a proper baptism—from her father the reverend—and grows into healthy girlhood. Eight years after Pearl’s birth, Hester wants to flee to Europe with her daughter and Dimmesdale; she tears off her embroidered “A” and removes her bonnet to let her long hair flow free as a signifier of her sexual liberation. But the minister must pay for his “sin.” He denounces himself before the congregation, revealing an “A” branded on his chest. In one of many Pieta images in Gish films, he dies in Hester’s arms, asking, “Is this not a better freedom than any we have dreamed of?” Well, no, but, under Victor Sjostrom’s acute directorial hand, the ending emphasizes the silent-film law that a lover’s survival is less important than a mother’s.

Photo: The Night of The Hunter (Die Nacht des Jägers), Billy Chapin, Lillian Gish, Sally Jane Bruce, Promotional – 1955


“It’s a hard world for little things,” says Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) in The Night of the Hunter (1955), the miracle of mood, depredation and redemption directed by Charles Laughton and scripted by James Agee from Davis Grubb’s novel. In the West Virginia swamps of the 1930s, Rachel has no government approval, only a selfless impulse to collect unwanted children. John Harper (Billy Chapin) and his younger sister, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), need her intervention.

lillian gish, cheryl callaway, bill chapin, mary ellen clemons, sally jane bruce – 1955 – the night of the hunter

Their father has been hanged, after first hiding his stolen money; their mother, Willa (Shelley Winters), has fallen for the Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), who wants that money and will threaten the children or marry Willa—and worse—to get it. As seductively malevolent as Powell is, with his baritone parables and the words L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E tattooed on his knuckles, so beatifically empowered is Rachel, describing herself as “a strong tree with branches for many birds.”

Lillian Gish and Gloria Castillo – The Night of the Hunter 1955

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The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress Vol. 37 1980 – INTOLERANCE

  • The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress Summer-Fall 1980: Vol 37 Iss 3-4
  • Intolerance

Intolerance is a long motion picture—on fourteen reels of film, it lasts over two hours. Audiences tend to find it bewildering and exhausting and are confused by the constant intercutting of the four stories representing four different time periods, each with its own set of characters: “The Modern Story” (or The Mother and the Law), “The Babylonian Story,” “The Medieval French Story (or the St. Bartholomew Massacre),” and “The Judean (or Crucifixion) Story.” Intercuts of a woman rocking a cradle are used to tie the stories together. The film grew out of a five-reel melodrama entitled The Mother and the Law that Griffith had almost completed before the release of The Birth of a Nation. After the financial success and critical acclaim of The Birth of a Nation, Griffith feared that audiences would consider The Mother and the Law disappointing. Anxious to live up to his reputation as the greatest genius of the cinema, he iook The Mother and the Law and intercut it with three other stories to create the epic Intolerance.* The Mother and the Law, set in a modern time period, deals mainly with social intolerance, the miscarriage of justice, and class hatred, bleakly revealing the wrongs inflicted by a pious factory owner on his employees and the events that ensue. The Babylonian episode illustrates the intolerance of one people for another and the intolerance of a priest for the beliefs of a different religion. The medieval French story deals with the massacre of French Protestants by Catholics in 1572.


The Judean story uses incidents from the life of Christ—Christ and the Pharisees, the marriage of Cana, and the Crucifixion. In each of the stories intolerance is the initial theme but the topic is not expanded or reinforced by the action. As a result, the film turns into a melodrama. Despite its length and complexity, Griffith created the entire film without a written script. It was all in his head.*? The film took almost two years to make and cost two million dollars to produce.* G. W. “Billy” Bitzer, the principal cameraman, was assisted by Karl Brown in shooting the film. Many of the scenes were tinted red, green, blue, and yellow. Unless fading has changed the originals, Griffith used varying intensities and combinations for these tints, which differ on various frames of the film. His use of color was unrealistic and contributes immeasurably to the emotional intensity of the film.° Music for full orchestra accompaniment was arranged by Joseph Carl Breil under Griffith’s supervision. The cast included sixty credits and hundreds of uncredited extras. Crowd and battle scenes used thousands of actors and actresses.


Some fifteen thousand persons and two hundred and fifty chariots were used for the filming of the “Fall of Babylon” sequence. Griffith drew on the talents of the regular members of the stock company as well as many relative newcomers who went on to become important actors, actresses, and directors.® The giant sets for the film were built without architectural plans on the corner lot of Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards. The structures rose to towering heights, growing from day to day as Griffith had new ideas and told his carpenters what he wanted.’ It was perhaps the greatest set ever constructed. Gigantic walls, painted to simulate stone, were built under the supervision of Huck Wortman. The walls rose to a height of one hundred feet and were adorned with reliefs of winged creatures and elephants. Towers reached much higher.*® The waiis were wide and strong enough to hold the weight of racing horses, chariots, and the throngs of soldiers used in battle scenes. Huge heavy gates, built like those of ancient Babylon, were opened by actors portraying slaves pushing big iron wheels on either side of the gates. Sets were also constructed to resemble ancient Judea and the Paris of Louis IX.


Thousands of pieces of furniture, decorative items, swords, guns, and other objects were built or collected. Although the Los Angeles fire department ordered the sets dismantled in 1916, Griffith managed to delay the destruction until 1917. They were so solidly built that parts of them survived on back lots for many years. Previewed in a theater in Riverside, California, on August 6, 1916, Intolerance opened at the Liberty Theatre in New York City on September 4, 1916. As was his custom, Griffith accompanied the film on its first showing in major cities, Cutting the prints at the theaters in an effort to improve it. In 1919 he cut into the original negative—somewhere between 13,500 and 13,700 feet in length—without making a duplicate in order to make new films from two of the stories in Intolerance: The Fall of Babylon and The Mother and the Law. Consequently, it has never been possible to restore the Intolerance negative to its original state. The master print in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art is missing two reels and measures only 11,811 feet.!° Some critical reviews after the New York opening acclaimed Griffith’s genius and declared the film a spectacle. Other reviews were generally favorable to Griffith but expressed some reservations about the film itself, which was a box office failure. Although attempts have been made from time to time to revive the film, especially in Europe, Intolerance has never been a popular success. But the film has had a lasting impact on the art of filmmaking and holds an important place in film history.

IntoleranceIntolerance – set

The Intolerance Theme

Intolerance cannot be discussed without reference to its predecessor, The Birth of a Nation, released the previous year. Some silent film scholars feel Intolerance was Griffith’s apologia for the racial bigotry portrayed in The Birth of a Nation and demonstrated his penitence for the violence the first film engendered wherever it was shown. Others believe that Intolerance was strictly a commercial enterprise and in no way reflected any change in Griffith’s attitude. Although Lillian Gish, Karl Brown, Miriam Cooper, Joseph Henabery, and Anita Loos all have differing views on Griffith’s purpose and accomplishments in both films, they seem to agree that Griffith fought all of his life for the right of freedom of speech and creative expression.

The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915, was a tremendous success for Griffith and established a place for him in film history. The film has been considered by some to be the single most important motion picture ever made. Iris Barry has stated that the picture established the film genre as the “most persuasive of entertainments and compelled the acceptance of the film as art.””

First shown as The Clansman in Los Angeles on February 8, 1915, and as The Birth of a Nation at the Liberty Theatre in New York on March 3, 1915, the film was twelve reels long. It was based on The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots, both written by the Reverend Thomas Dixon, Jr. Public response to it was overwhelming, but from the beginning the film was met with extraordinary protests and demands for censorship. Even today it stirs up controversy. Although portions of the film are deemed racist and inflammatory, few have considered Griffith himself as being a racist. Iris Barry states that the film was “a Southerner’s honest effort to portray events still very close to the experience of the community in which he grew up.”!? She goes on to say that Much of the film’s early success can be attributed to the controversy it aroused. Demonstrations and violence flared when the film was sl.own in Boston, Philadelphia, and other cities across the country. The protests and demands for censure may have angered Griffith, but they also created profits—the more protests, the more publicity, the bigger the crowds, and the larger the take at the box office.

Griffith’s public response to the bigotry charges leveled at him was couched in terms of censorship and guaranteed freedoms. The protests and demands to censure The Birth of a Nation seemed outrageous to him. He consistently defended the right of the motion picture to share with literature the privilege of free speech. In 1916, he published a pamphlet, The Rise and Fail of Free Speech in America, in which he condemned all censorship and defended the extension of the First Amendment to film. The word “intolerance” appears frequently throughout this declaration and lends credence to the notion that the title of Griffith’s next film was no coincidence. One paragraph in particular points to a defense of his integrity and challenges his detractors to criticize his second answer to their intolerance—his film Intolerance:

The reason for the slapstick and the worst that is in pictures is censorship. Let those who tell us to uplift our art, invest money in the production of an historic play of the time of Christ. They will find this cannot be staged without incurring the wrath of a certain part of our people. The Massacre of St. Bartholomew, if produced, will tread upon the toes of another part of our people.”

Opinions of the interviewees vary as to how they thought public response to The Birth of a Nation affected Griffith’s decisions on the production of Intolerance. Lillian Gish disclaims that Intolerance was a response to reactions to The Birth of a Nation. Miriam Cooper, on the other hand, claims that it was. Anita Loos states that there was nothing original in Intolerance as a theme. Karl Brown and Joseph Henabery both look on the film as a business enterprise and as Griffith’s attempt to capitalize on an opportunity.


In her autobiography Lillian Gish tries to dispel the theory that Griffith produced Intolerance as an apology for The Birth of a Nation. She suggests that Griffith in The Birth of a Nation showed on film what he had heard as a boy and believed to be true about the Civil War. Believing that Griffith had no reason to apologize for his film, Gish contends that Intolerance “was his way of answering those who, in his view, were the bigots.””*

Miriam Cooper states that Intolerance was a part of Griffith’s crusade against intolerance.

“He wanted to show intolerance throughout the world through the ages through thousands of years of intolerance.” She believes Griffith produced Intolerance because of the riots connected with the showing of The Birth of a Nation and because “people were so incensed at other people.”?®

In her interview, Anita Loos’s reaction to intolerance as a theme for the film is somewhat negative. She does not see anything particularly creative or new about Griffith’s idea that intolerance was the cause of everyone’s troubles.’”

Karl Brown agrees with Lillian Gish that Griffith portrayed the Civil War and Reconstruction in The Birth of a Nation as he thought the events had taken place. Moreover, he feels that Griffith, a showman and a businessman, produced his pictures to sell. Brown considers the reaction to the film and the riots around the country as “very good business. … Every riot meant another million dollars.” He says that Griffith gave no indication at the time of filming Intolerance that it was in any way a reaction to The Birth of a Nation. Rather, Griffith was “just making another film.” Although it was a bigger film than Griffith was used to making, Griffith himself, Brown believes, did not have the “faintest conception of what it was going to be like or what the reaction was going to be.” Brown further states that Griffith did not care particularly about intolerance as such but had the impression that “everybody else did” and chose the theme because he thought it was popular.’®

Tha famous baloon from where Griffith tried to shoot – thus inventing the crane concept

Joseph Henabery states that Griffith created Intolerance out of necessity. His impression is that Griffith found himself in an extremely awkward situation after the great popularity of The Birth of a Nation because nothing equal to it was ready for release. According to Henabery, Griffith felt the public would expect an even more spectacular film from him. Henabery has difficulty accepting the idea that intolerance is the overall theme of the film. He comments on his feeling in the interview:

Naturally, people were looking forward to the next work of this great artist who had made The Birth of a Nation. What did he have to show? A lousy, old, stinking “quickie.” I suppose like most directors he didn’t want to show a bum picture. He began to look for ways that he could improve Intolerance or The Mother and the Law, as it was called. That’s where he thought he was being treated unfairly. Intolerably, he said. So he got the idea of making a bigger picture by embellishing it with a few added scenes for the modern period but adding the St. Bartholomew episode, the Crucifixion, and the Babylonian episodes. I would say that first of all the kind of intolerance suffered in The Mother and the Law was not religious. But two of the things that he picked were religious intolerance—St. Bartholomew and the Crucifixion. He showed priests who were traitors but the major part of the picture was not devoted to that. Now, what was intolerance? God knows.’®

One may conclude that after the tremendous reception of The Birth of a Nation, Griffith must have had second thoughts about releasing The Mother and the Law and decided to enlarge upon it and to expand the intolerance theme with three additional stories.

The Production of Intolerance Griffith rarely discussed his scripts, production plans, or financial affairs with anyone except Frank Woods, his business manager. The production plans for Intolerance were no exception.

Intolerance – Babylon

They remained one of Griffith’s better kept secrets. Anita Loos calls Intolerance the studio mystery. She indicates that no one knew what the film was about except Griffith and Frank Woods. It was a complete mystery to the actors playing in it. The filming went on for month after month, and the constant shifting of sequences from modern to ancient was confusing. The sets became enormous.

She says, “We used to say, ‘What is D. W. doing?’ We never had the nerve to ask him.”?°

When Miriam Cooper was asked if she had any idea while the film was being made what Griffith had in mind, she responded, “He never told us. He never told my anything. [We did] what we were told. He wouldn’t describe anything.”

Karl Brown concurs:

No [we didn’t know what the film was about], and to compound the felony, we didn’t care. That’s what he wanted. That’s what we gave him. He was happy. So were we. We were all being paid.”

Brown recalls that Griffith had no plan or shooting schedule and that Griffith filmed “whatever came next. Whatever was ready next.”

No, there was no straight plan. The only time he was ever stuck with a plan was during the biblical sequences when he had to. He had no choice there. He could put his own interpretation on it, but he had to follow the letter of the Book. That’s the one place where he was really tied down.”

Lillian Gish believes that even though her role in Intolerance took less than an hour to film, she was closer to Intolerance than anyone else except Billy Bitzer and Jimmy Smith, the cutter. She feels there was more of her in the picture than any other in which she had ever played. She describes her feelings in her autobiography:

Perhaps because I wasn’t acting a long role, Mr. Griffith took me into his confidence as never before, talking over scenes before he filmed them, having me watch all the rushes, even accepting some of my ideas with the cutting. At night, as I watched the day’s rushes, I saw the film take shape and marveled at what Mr. Griffith was creating.”

Joseph Henabery describes himself as equally close to Griffith. Besides doing research and assisting in production, he acted in two roles in the film. He says he “very definitely” knew what Griffith had in mind:

I did ninety-five percent or more of the research work in the picture. I assisted him for over a year. I ran around at his heels or at his side for over a year and I believe I’m safe in saying that nobody is alive today that was as close to him as | was. But there are lots of things that I don’t know—that I don’t claim to know. I don’t know what his business arrangements were or a lot of interesting things. It wasn’t part of my job.

Henabery haunted local bookstores and spent hours pouring over materials in researching the film. He particularly liked one bookstore where the owner allowed him to come in on Sunday mornings and “systematically go underneath the counters, pull out … and look through everything.”


He found and purchased many items. For instance, the marriage market scene in Jntolerance was a replication of a picture he discovered. He found a photograph of a painting which served as a reference source for parts of the Belshazzar episode. He also picked up “bits of fiction about Old Babylon.” One he remembered as the Fall of Ishtar by a woman author named Porter. Another was called Semiramas, he believed. Henabery looked at many Bibles in researching the “Jewish period.” He settled on the Tissot Bible as a reference because he believed “Tissot gave the detail of the costumes and the phylactery and all the rituals and all that sort of stuff. Most of the [other] Bibles were illustrated like Doré, which are wonderful drawings, but not authentic.”®

In his autobiography Brown corroborates Henabery’s statement. Henabery, he writes,

“became our one-man research department,” collecting books, cutting out significant pictures and mounting them in scrapbooks for ready reference. In further support of Henabery, Brown states that Tissot’s illustrated Bible was set aside as a standard reference because the illustrations appeared to be more realistic, whereas the Old Masters’ paintings presented too many discrepancies to be of much help.?”

Henabery describes his relationship with Griffith in the day-to-day production of the film:

I was with him all the time. At the end of the day he would tell me about what he wanted to shoot and I’d get some rough idea of what he wanted. If it was to be a very big day I’d stop my work at noon the preceding day and start in on the logistics. [I would] see that everything that was needed was available. But I had to use my memory more than anything. Nowadays they have production departments where they have it all broken down and everybody takes his whack at it. [The director] knows how many people are needed, what horses are needed, how many chariots are needed, and so on. Well, I didn’t, you see.”*


Lillian Gish, however, presents another story of how research was done for the film in her autobiography, stating that “once again everyone became absorbed in history….Rabbi Meyers helped with the biblical research. Mr. Griffith knew the Bible well but it was his habit to use people as a sounding board. He talked to all of us, and we often came up with sound ideas.” She implies that she too had a part in the research when she continues, “research was no chore for me.”*®

Karl Brown’s autobiographical account supports Lillian Gish’s statement that Rabbi Meyers participated in the research for the biblical wedding scene. He adds that “the equally highly respected Father Dodd, Episcopalian, stood by to make sure no Christian beliefs would be shaken by this purely Jewish ceremony.”*°

Lillian Gish states in an interview with Anthony Slide that Griffith had all of Intolerance in his mind. She says that Griffith wrote every bit of it and designed every set and every costume.

He did not go on the set not knowing what to do. He did not improvise.*! Nevertheless, in the more than one and onehalf years that it took to film Intolerance, Joseph Henabery says “miles of film” were shot and many episodes were not used. He describes one of the scenes: [Griffith] had one episode that wasn’t shown about the courts of Hammurabi—the law courts—and he used to laugh himself to death. He had me playing this part and I’d improvise and build it up, you know. I was telling the story. I was a Babylonian soldier. I was walking along and I heard somebody whistle and there was a gal up there. So I went upstairs and I told this. I’m in a law court. I’ve been arrested. Just a poor dumb fool. I used to tell this story in pantomime and he’d laugh and laugh and laugh. And, I’d say to myself, “Well, what in the world? Why is he so interested in this bit? There’s no room for it in the story.” Well, that was true of so many things. I don’t think many others realized where we were going because they didn’t attend all of the rehearsals. When asked about her involvement in the editing of Griffith’s films, particularly The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, Lillian Gish replies: Oh, I always sat in on all of the pictures because Griffith would make me. He would say, “You go in there and pick your takes, my eyes get tired. Don’t discard what you’ve taken out, but you pick the best ones.” So that if I hadn’t he would have run the others. No, I helped. I knew cutting. At the time of the filming of Intolerance, Karl Brown had been promoted to second-unit camera. He shot many of the scenes that did not involve principals.

Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith – Intolerance

He assisted Billy Bitzer on the major scenes. He contends that the big shots—the crowd and battle scenes—were easy to film compared to the close-ups of the Christ character protrayed by Howard Gaye: The hardest thing were the close-ups of the Christ—to make him to look at all Christian, not like Howard Gaye with a lot of whiskers sticking on his face. The rest of it—those big shots—was easy. There’s absolutely no question about that. I shot with fifteen hundred, two thousand people in a good crosslight somewhere. You just set up your scenes. That’s all there is to it. There are no reflectors to handle. Nothing. You just take a picture of it. It’s the only way you can get into a close-up that big and it calls for some skill.* The Babylonian scene was one of the more extravagant in Intolerance. Griffith first tried to film it from a balloon suspended over the action, but the basket rocked too badly. Griffith then constructed a huge dolly with an elevator, which Billy Bitzer describes as being fifteen feet high, about six feet square at the top, and sixty feet wide at the bottom. It was mounted on six sets of four-wheel railroad car trucks and had an elevator in the center. Men pushed the dolly backward and forward on tracks while other workers operated the elevator, which had to descend at a regular rhythm as the railroad car moved. The entire scene was filmed in one continuous shot, in focus at every level, with a single hand-cranked Pathe camera. Bitzer did the tilt and pan cranks while focusing. Karl Brown, seated underneath the camera, did the cranking through a flexible shaft.** Anita Loos was an established writer for Griffith by the time Intolerance was released. It was logical that he called on her to assist with its titles. She relates that when Intolerance was almost complete Griffith sent for her and asked her to stay late to view a rough cut of the film with him alone in the projection room.


She thought the film was “terrible” and that Griffith “had gone out of his mind” with all of “these scrambled sequences.” And, then, he told me what he wanted to do and I realized that the titles he wanted would more or less pull it together and so I went to work and wrote a full set of titles. He told me where they were needed for time lapses and to connect for bridges between episodes. But he said, “If you see any places where you can put in a laugh, don’t hold back.” Griffith himself contributed to the writing of titles, also, and the stylized prose of Intolerance titles is typical of his films. The caption “A love blossoms from the prince stricken by her beauty as though struck by white lightning” Loos quickly acknowledges as Griffith’s. She says, “That is Griffith. That is D. W. himself. He fancied himself as a poet and his poetry was like his stage writing. It’s pretty banal.” Another specific title, “The loom of fate weaves death for the young boy’s father,” she also attributes to Griffith, saying,“ Oh, those are pure Griffith.”*” Loos liked to quote from Voltaire and recalls that her paraphrase of Voltaire, “When women cease to attract men, they often turn to reform as a second choice,” particularly pleased Griffith. She explains that she did not do research for titles: No, I never did any research for anything. I’m deadly against research. I think it bogs you down. I mean if you’re a humorist. I don’t think you should know the facts too well [because you can’t be funny if you do.]** Joseph Henabery also contributed to the titles. He relates to Kevin Brownlow that at the preview ofJ ntolerance he particularly objected to the titles and told Griffith the next day that the worst feature of the film was that it had so many titles that meant absolutely nothing to the audience. That afternoon Griffith asked Henabery to view the film with him and for about three hours they discussed the titles and reworked a number of them: I sat in there for about three hours. I hit the titles I particularly objected to. I made suggestions and they worked my ideas over and revamped the titles. In a way, this was very flattering to me. I’m human and I’m susceptible to flattery.*

Intolerance – set

Success or Failure?

At the grand openings Intolerance was acclaimed by the critics as wonderful, gigantic in spectacle, and novel in presentation. Audiences applauded the brilliant images but found the four concurrent stories confusing and difficult to follow. Theaters were filled for about five months and then attendance fell off to nothing. The film was withdrawn. Intolerance was one of the few pictures never to have a second run in neighborhood theaters. The timing of ihe film’s release was poor. In 1916 the American public was emotionally stirred up for war, but the film was a sermon on peace. As the country became more war conscious the film was censored and barred in many cities. It therefore had little chance for sustained success. The film had a similar reception in Great Britain. It was enthusiastically received in London by the critics and the public but ran only eight weeks before closing. During the filming of Intolerance, none of the interviewees fully comprehended the total scope of the picture or the full significance of the techniques Griffith employed in the production. All were incredulous at their first viewing, but in later years they realized the magnitude of what they had helped create. They attribute part of the ultimate box office failure to the unfortunate timing of the release of the film when the country was preparing to go to war. They all feel the film was too advanced technically for the average moviegoer to appreciate. Griffith typically previewed his films at towns in the Los Angeles area. Henabery went with Griffith and several others to the preview of Intolerance at Pomona.

INTOLERANCE Alfred Paget – Belshazzar

Henabery was “terribly disappointed—more so than I thought I would be.” He thought the picture was “Griffith’s biggest flop” and “failed in so many respects.” He criticized the film as “too confused for an ordinary audience.” They didn’t know what it was about. They were stunned.  They didn’t know what to make of these flashes that were that long [indicating a short distance]. They’d just about get their eyes open and [it was] gone.*” Henabery also criticizes the idea that the stories in the film run parallel: A parallel means that a similar thing happened at these different times. They were not similar things. They were usually quite different things. They talk about the wonderful parallel in the action at the end, but the train ride, the automobile race with the train, and the chariot race in Babylon, and all this. What similarity is there between a run to the rescue and a traitorous opening of the gates to let the invaders in? [And the Crucifixion]. Where is the parallelism? None. To begin with the whole Crucifixion period lacked movement. To me, it was, as I said, his biggest flop.” Brown did not share Henabery’s deep disappointment. He describes the reception of the Los Angeles opening as “tremendous because they were looking for something big and they got it.”** He saw the “picture more than once, mostly to try to find out what all these various critics were talking about.”**

During the shooting of the film he had not been able to make out the stories, “but once assembled and once its theme had been clearly stated in tones of brass from Breil’s great orchestra, everything fit together. Griffith had succeeded brilliantly.”** He disagrees with Henabery’s statement that the film does not use parallelism: Because [Griffith] had been doing it so long. He had been doing it over and over and over again. In his earlier pictures he’d have three or four stories running parallel or closely related, so finally when he came to this one he decided he’d go all the way—the same story in four different parallels—in four different settings.*® Brown believes that Intolerance was a big picture in every possible respect. It was designed to be shown as a great theatrical spectacle in fullsized theaters at advanced prices. It required a full orchestra of symphonic proportions and a backstage crew of sound effects men to build up the hullabaloo and clamor of battle. But it did not attract the crowds necessary to pay the cost of its screening. Brown admits that the film was a failure at the box office. “It was,” he said, “in short, a flop.”*” Griffith had succeeded “with the wrong thing at the wrong time for the world had changed.”** Griffith could not foresee the war. “I think it was badly timed.” Brown states that a little understood fact about Intolerance is that compared to The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance made more money during the first several months after being released.

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The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress – 1980

The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress Summer-Fall 1980: Vol 37 Iss 3-4

Billy Bitzer and D.W. Griffith

Fortunately for film historians, films, reviews, written reminiscences, and production records from the D. W. Griffith years have survived. This period is recalled in Erik Barnouw’s article on Arthur Sintzenich (“Snitch”), who was one of Griffith’s cameramen from 1923 to 1926, in Jean Tucker’s oral history of the early filmmaker based upon the observations of Lillian Gish and others who worked with him on Intolerance, and in Paul Spehr’s production study of the early years of the Biograph Company. Jean Renoir, in My Life and My Films, wrote that films are an emotional, not an intellectual experience. Griffith also expressed this nonverbal universality of films in his 1924 article, “The Movies 100 Years from Now”: It will never be possible to synchronize the voice with the pictures. This is true because the very nature of films foregoes not only the necessity but the propriety of the spoken voice. Music—fine music—will always be the voice of the silent drama. . . . In the year 2024 each motion picture theater will have symphonic orchestras of greater proportions than we now dream of employed for moods to fit the sublime and the grand. In a way this prediction has come true.

Hollywood, the pioneers – Griffith and Bitzer 1912

We do have the finest orchestras performing for films, only not in the theater pit. But what would Griffith have thought of Walt Disney’s Peter Pan and multiplane cameras and Fantasia and Fantasound and the magic that Disney’s musicians, animators, and technicians produced. Jon Newsom recounts, in his article on music for animated films, how this “magic” was created. The same technology for synchronizing sight and sound which was so finely applied to animation was handled less imaginatively in a series of 1930s films starring opera singers. David Parker, in his article on singerfilms, proves that certain film genre can survive despite, or possibly because of, their ridiculous plots, miscasting, and faulty production techniques. Based on another 1924 prediction, one would suspect that Griffith would have approved of Peter Pan’s “Flight to Neverland” on screen and Neil Armstrong’s moon walk on television in spite of the presence of “the spoken voice”: One hundred years hence, the airplane passenger lines will operate motion-picture shows on regular schedule. … Almost every home of good taste will have its private projection room where miniatures, perhaps of the greater films will be shown to the family. I close with my favorite Griffith prediction, hoping it was not his most fantastic. In the year 2024 the most important single thing which the cinema will have helped in a large way to accomplish will be that of eliminating from the face of the civilized world all armed conflict.

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

Voices from the Silents

by Jean E. Tucker

The origins of the motion picture as an art form can be traced to the turn of the century. Since the late 1800s, motion pictures have drawn what they have needed from the other arts— music, literature, and the theater—and have attained an artistic maturity of their own in a relatively short period of time. The artistic attainment has been accompanied by a coincidental evolution of motion picture technology. The development of a historical record of the motion picture has not kept pace with the advancement of the art and technology, however. Indeed, the history of the motion picture, particularly silent film, was neglected until the mid- 1960s and the early 1970s. It is fortunate that film scholars are now beginning to pay attention to the historical development of the art and that more and more people who worked in silent pictures are writing memoirs and consenting to taped interviews, thus sharing their experiences and knowledge. As a consequence, the history of the silent movies is being more fully documented in the voices and words of living persons who were directly involved in devising, developing, and perfecting the acting and production techniques that have become the art of the motion picture. Oral history especially lends itself to the study of silent film. Taped interviews make it possible to record or reconstruct events which occurred during the silent film era of the motion picture. Interviews enable participants to tell their own particular story and include specific facts about the birth of an industry that might otherwise be lost. They can replace or supplement written documents and clarify differing views of the same event, revealing personality in ways which cannot be represented in written form. The quality of information revealed in interviews depends upon the analysis made of it. After comparing the information to other interviews and written sources, it can be elaborated, explained, and interpreted, so as to supplement and validate known information and create original documents.

D.W. Griffith directing “Intolerance”

D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, a silent film produced in 1916 by the Wark Producing Company, has been particularly neglected by film historians and critics since its release. No definitive work on the film has been published. No one directly involved with the production of the film has written more than a chapter or two about it. And, until the time I began a search for persons associated with the film, no one had recorded a collection of taped conversations with individuals who took part in its production. The inspiration for this search came from Lillian Gish. I first met and talked briefly with her at the Library of Congress in 1969 at a presentation of her film-lecture Lillian Gish and the Movies; the Art of Film, 1900-1928. She made a lasting impression. She seemed so interested and enthusiastic about everyone and everything around her. Her devotion to silent film and D. W. Griffith and her desire to tell his story were clearly genuine. After a second meeting nearly a year later, I wanted to learn more about the woman who seemed to epitomize the silent screen. I quickly discovered she had been sorely neglected by biographers and other writers. I read all I could find, looked at existing films in the collections of the Library of Congress and the Museum of Modern Art, and eventually interviewed her. The Recorded Sound Section of the Library of Congress (now part of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division) accepted for its collections a copy of the tape of my conversation with her and expressed an interest in the tapes of interviews that I might record with other film personalities. I discovered there were at least four living persons in addition to Lillian Gish who had been involved directly in the production of D. W. Griffith’s film Jntolerance and that they would be willing to talk with me—not only about the film but about the development of the motion picture, acting and directing techniques, their early careers in silent film, and their relationship with D. W. Griffith.

D.W. Griffith and G.W. Bitzer filming “Intolerance”

They were Karl Brown, cameraman; Miriam Cooper, actress; Joseph Henabery, actor, researcher, and director; and Anita Loos, who had written titles for the film.! Their stories were told within the framework of their own particular skills, experiences, and contributions. Some bias and differences of opinion were inevitable. The value of the oral history approach was to bring the differing views out in the open where they could be compared. Taken together, the accounts of the experiences of the interviewees present a clearer understanding of why and how the film Intolerance was made and assist in interpreting the silent film period. None of the interviewees knew the full story of the production of Intolerance as they evaluated the film from different production aspects and degress of intimacy with Griffith. If the success or failure of the film is judged on its technical and artistic merits, the interviewees agree it was a success. They also agree that the film would never have popular general audience appeal because it is tediously long. Film historians concur. Only film students flock to see it. The interviewees express a great depth of feeling toward D. W. Griffith. Their enthusiasm is open and genuine. They share a great sense of pride in their association with him and are all devoted and loyal. They feel close to Griffith even though none of their relationships—with the possible exception of Lillian Gish—were ever on a personal level.

DW Griffith and Lillian Gish

They had courted his pleasure and were deeply appreciative of the smallest of compliments from Griffith. They bore no resentment that he did not credit their work in his films. Griffith treated the women with dignity and courtesy and expected them to be ladies. He encouraged their creativity. In turn, they gave him their undivided loyalty and devotion and worked hard to please him. The men were equally as loyal although somewhat more willing to admit flaws in Griffith. The intense effect Griffith had on the interviewees is as complex and difficult to explain as the man himself. It can be attributed primarily to the combination of his maturity, father image, personal magnetism, and leadership qualities and his ability to inspire creativity and to generate excitement in the work and the films they produced together. During the silent film era, the interviewees did not recognize the significant contributions they were making to their craft and the industry. With the passage of time, however, they realized the magnitude of the art they helped create.

Fine Arts – Griffith Stars Back Row: Dorothy Gish, Seena Owen, Norma Talmadge Middle Row: Robert Harron, Harry Aitken (producer), Sir Beerbohm-Tree, Owen Moore, Wilfred Lucas Front Row: Douglas Fairbanks, Bessie Love, Constance Talmadge, Constance Collier, Lillian Gish (Marfa in Sold For Marriage), Fay Tincher, DeWolfe Hopper Photograph – Raymond Lee of Roy George Association

They were proud of their role and wanted to talk about it. Theirs was a time of great experimentation and development. It is remarkable that except for technical equipment advances and sound, the basic filmmaking techniques they helped develop stand today. The interviewees were completely different in temperament and personality, but some common traits—such as pride in self and work, strength of character, tenacity, aggressiveness, desire to achieve, self-confidence, sense of humor, and a respect for one another—come out in the interviews. All had a natural talent for their work. They succeeded because they seldom considered failure. Lack of formal education did not deter them. They were in movies because they wanted to be. In order to stay there, they had to be the best. They were doing something that very few of their peers were able to do because it was a disgrace in many social circles to work in the movies. But they considered themselves very special people engaged in a very special craft. They all had great confidence in their abilities. They obviously were not well acquainted with one another when they worked with Griffith but grew to respect and admire one another in old age. They enjoyed being discovered by film historians, students, and others, and liked to share their experiences. They had a sense of history and were eager to get their life stories written or preserved on tape. Miriam Cooper, Joseph Henabery, Lillian Gish, and Anita Loos all arranged for their memorabilia to be deposited either in the Library of Congress or the Museum of Modern Art. Their films have not been as well preserved and many have been lost through deterioration or destruction. Still photographs are the only remaining source of information about many of the films they were involved in producing. The taped words and voices of the interviewees provide the means to experience more closely the period of the silent film.

DW Griffith filming team – Mamaroneck NY – Way Down East

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The Civil War on the screen by JACK SPEARS (1977)

  • The Civil War on the Screen and Other Essays by JACK SPEARS
  • © 1977 by A. S. Barnes and Co., In’ .

 Hollywood’s colorful treatment of the most tragic period in American history is traced in fascinating detail in The Civil War on the Screen and Other Essays. From D, W. Griffith’s monumental The Birth of a Nation to Clark Gable’s picaresque Captain Rhett Butler of Gone with the Wind, Jack Spears nostalgically recaptures the romance of dozens of Civil War movies. He explores the many screen impersonations of Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and other figures of history, including the infamous guerrilla chiefs Quantrill and Morgan. An entertaining look at the espionage drama, crinoline love stories, lighthearted comedies (Buster Keaton’s The General), and authentic battle epics is en-livened with many personality sketches of the captivating stars of the silents and talkies. There is a penetrating analysis of the social influences of the racist film and the historical inaccuracies of most Civil War motion pictures. The originality and freshness of this intelligent study will delight every film fan and Civil War student.

Milestone and Masterpiece: The Birth of a Nation

One of the screen’s lost films is Kinemacolor’s The Clansman (1912), which was never completed. No fragments of this picture are known to exist. Presumably, the few scenes that were shot have been destroyed, or have long since crumbled into dust with the deterioration of its nitrate film stock. The only significance of The Clansman is that a portion of its story later formed the basis for the last half of D. W. Griffith’s milestone of motion-picture history, The Birth of a Nation. Kinemacolor was a subsidiary of the British company of the same name that spent several years in developing a pioneer process of color motion-picture photography using a color wheel. Its films of The Royal Visit to India and the colorful The Durbar at Delhi in 1911 were a sensation, and the company moved to establish the process in the United States. After a series of frustrating differences with the powerful Motion Picture Patents Company, which did not want color films marketed in America, Kinemacolor was forced to set up its own studios—first at Allentown, Pennsylvania, and then at Whitestone Landing, New York. A California studio with three production units was established in Hollywood in 1912, using a crude building at the corner of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards previously occupied by the Revier Film Processing Company. Kinemacolor sold this studio the following year to the Aitken interests, and it was here that Griffith filmed The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, and other pictures. During the early part of 1912, Kinemacolor contracted with a stage impresario named George H. Brennan to film The Clansman, a lurid novel of the Reconstruction era by Thomas W. Dixon, a Southern clergyman. Several years earlier, in 1906, Brennan had produced a dramatization of the work (also by Dixon) on Broadway with Holbrook Blinn, Sydney Ayres, and DeWitt Jennings in the leads. Although this heavy-handed play was roundly panned by reviewers after its premiere at the Liberty Theatre, it became a popular vehicle for traveling stock companies, particularly those touring in the South and West. Brennan sold Kinemacolor officials on the unique idea of using the performers of such a company—the Campbell MacCullough Players—to repeat their roles in a film version of The Clansman. As the troupe moved through the South, scenes would be shot in authentic locales—plantations, antebellum homes, battlefields, and historical sites—using period furnishings and costumes, and utilizing local citizens as extras. William Haddock, who had directed for Edison, Méliés, and I.M.P. (and also for Kinemacolor at its Whitestone Landing studio) was assigned to direct. He found it difficult to do any shooting with the company jumping from town to town in a series of one-night stands. Finally, he persuaded MacCuilough to lay off for two weeks in Natchez, Mississippi, where some scenes were photographed. The picture was far from complete when Mac- Cullough insisted upon resuming the tour. Only a little more than a reel of film had been obtained when production on the ambitious project was abruptly halted. Reportedly, $25,000 was lost on the project. Haddock offered to take over The Clansman, but he could not find financial backing to complete it. Finally, he went to court to secure $1,155 due him in unpaid wages. Haddock later insisted The Clansman was made in an early sound process? (In 1907, he had directed several films for the Cameraphone Company, in which the actors mouthed words to records; the device was not successful and was demonstrated in only a few theaters.) There are conflicting accounts for the reasons for the abandonment of The Clansman. One story is that the color photography by inexperienced technicians was so poor that a usable print could not be obtained. However, the cameraman, Gerald MacKenzie, was known as a competent craftsman and had photographed several pictures in the Kinemacolor process. Another report says that Haddock’s direction was inept, and the acting by the stock company performers so exaggerated and amateurish as to be ludicrous. Yet another account blamed the script, which underwent several re-visions, including a complete rewrite while the picture was actually before the cameras. The original idea of using Dixon’s play-script verbatim was dropped after Kinemacolor executives perceived that it was too static for motion pictures. Another account of the ill-fated The Clansman says that all scenes were completed, which is unlikely, but that the film was never edited because of its mediocre quality. To compound the confusion, it has also been reported that the film was made without Dixon’s knowledge, and alleges that he stopped its release by threatening a lawsuit for violation of copyright. (A contrasting story has it that Dixon was actually a partner with Brennan in the project.) Perhaps the most believable explanation is that the backers, already stuck with $25,000 worth of unusable film, simply decided to suspend shooting and take their losses. One of the several writers on The Clansman was Frank E. Woods, who was paid $200 for his efforts. Originally a pioneer film critic for The Dramatic Mirror, he wrote titles and many scripts for D. W. Griffith at Biograph. Woods left the company in 1912, but soon rejoined Griffith’s unit after brief and frustrating associations with Universal and Kinemacolor. He followed Griffith to Reliance-Majestic, nominally as scenario editor but functioning increasingly as a production executive. He was largely responsible for the inexpensive program pictures turned out while Griffith was busy with more important features. An imposing but kindly man, Woods was for a considerable time the most influential of Griffith’s associates. D. W. Griffith did not make an auspicious beginning at Reliance-Majestic. The company was beset by financial problems and squabbling among its executives. To raise ready cash, Griffith hurriedly directed two undistinguished pictures for release in 1914, The Battle of the Sexes (made in only four days) and The Escape, as well as producing eight cheap potboilers directed by others.

Home Sweet Home

In February 1914, he moved his unit from New York to the new studio in Hollywood, where he immediately turned out Home, Sweet, Home—an episodic film based in part upon incidents in the life of composer John Howard Payne—and The Avenging Conscience. The latter, a psychological drama constructed from two stories by Edgar Allan Poe (“The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Annabel Lee”) , had many arty touches foreshadowing the innovations of the German cinema of the twenties. With the financial tension easing, Griffith set Frank E. Woods to searching for a property that could be made into an important feature.

Woods showed him the script he had written for Kinemacolor’s The Clansman and proposed a new version of Dixon’s play. With its background of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the restoration of white supremacy through the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the story had enormous appeal for Griffith. He was soon engrossed in the monumental film that became The Birth of a Nation. The first step was to buy the rights to the play and novel from Reverend Dixon, for which the clergyman demanded a whopping $25,000 (the figure is sometimes reported as $10,000). Eventually, Dixon settled for $2,500 cash and a share of the profits, which were to bring him a fortune. With some assistance from Woods, Griffith fleshed out a dramatic outline of the plot, but at no time was there a written script or continuity—it was all in Griffith’s head. He preferred to work this way, feeling it gave a greater flexibility and freshness to his work, and associates marveled at his mental ability to keep track of all the scenes. The extent of Woods’s contribution is not known, but it was sufficient for Griffith to give him screen credit. Much of Griffith’s time went into a detailed research to assure historical accuracy, and at one time he employed four persons to check on the minutest details of period dress, settings, and military and social customs. He often came to the studio with an armload of books and his pockets bulging with notes.

The cast of The Birth of a Nation was largely drawn from the Griffith stock company, performers whom he had discovered and developed at Biograph, and with whom he felt comfortable. There were auditions and try-outs for some parts. Blanche Sweet, his reigning star, was expected to be cast as the heroine, Elsie Stoneman, but Griffith felt a more petite and less full-bodied actress was needed. Mae Marsh was considered, but the role finally went to the fragile Lillian Gish, with Miss Marsh being wisely switched to the key role of the little sister. The thirty-six-year old Henry B. Walthall was an ideal choice for the Southern hero, Ben Cameron, combining striking good looks with an intelligent and usually restrained style of acting. Others cast by Griffith included Miriam Cooper, Elmer Clifton, Ralph Lewis, Robert Harron, Wallace Reid, Donald Crisp, George Siegmann, Josephine Crowell, Howard Gaye, Spottiswoode Aitken, and Raoul Walsh (as John Wilkes Booth). In an unusual departure from custom, Griffith put his players through six weeks of intensive rehearsals before shooting began. The Birth of a Nation went into production on July 4, 1914 and was completed on October 31. In the interim it weathered a series of acute financial crises that promised to (and at one bad point actually did) suspend filming altogether. Griffith persuaded Harry Aitken to allocate a record budget of $40,000 for the picture, but this sum was expended on the panoramic battle scenes alone, which were completed first. Most of it went for uniforms and hundreds of horses and extras. When Reliance-Majestic’s Board of Directors refused further financing, Griffith and Aitken personally took over the project. Their own funds were soon exhausted, and they raised money in small amounts here and there. Several of the cast and crew, including Lillian Gish and cameraman G. W. Bitzer, loaned their savings and went without salary. Griffith was unwilling to make any compromises to reduce the cost, and eventually $110,000 was spent on The Birth of a Nation, at the time a staggering investment for a single motion picture. (His four preceding films had cost between $5,000 and $10,000 each.) In its final version after last-minute cuts following the premiere, the picture ran twelve reels, an unheard-of length, and many exhibitors and industry leaders predicted that it could not be profitably shown.

Theatres advertising “The Birth of a Nation”

Whatever reservations Griffith’s competitors may have had about it, The Birth of a Nation was a sensation when it opened on February 8, 1915 at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles (where it ran for seven months). The critics were ecstatic after its New York premiere at the Liberty Theatre a month later, and it was shown in key cities on a reserved-seat basis for $2 per admission. Griffith’s ambitious picture, executed with superb artistry, was an enormous hit with audiences everywhere. Its drama and spectacle were deeply moving, and unlike anything yet seen on the screen. Following a showing at the White House, President Woodrow Wilson was reported to have said that the film was “like writing history with lightning.” (Later, after The Birth of a Nation came under attack for its racist bigotry, a Wilson aide denied that the President had made any comments of approbation.) The financial success of The Birth of a Nation made Griffith a millionaire, although he lost much of his fortune on the ill-fated Intolerance of the following year. Miss Gish, Bitzer (who had loaned $7,000) , and other investors also reaped astronomical returns. Aitken and Griffith were both naive in motion-picture economics and failed to realize what a valuable property they had. After its road-show engagements, they foolishly sold regional distribution rights to various independent exchanges for relative pittances.

The MGM girls : behind the velvet curtain – Louis-B-Mayer-1943-characteristic-pose

One of the lucky purchasers was Louis B. Mayer, a Massachusetts exhibitor and distributor, who bought the New England franchise for $50,000 against ten percent of the net profits. This investment brought his company a return of a million dollars, enabling Mayer to branch into production and provide the stepping stone to the gigantic Loew’s Incorporated and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer combine. Aitken later alleged privately that Mayer cheated him of substantial sums by understating the box-office receipts. Griffith originally planned to center the plot of The Birth of a Nation on Reconstruction and its effects upon a proud Southern family devastated by the Civil War. As his enthusiasm grew, he added a long section of battle scenes and historical incidents, including Sherman’s march through Georgia, the burning of Atlanta, Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The essential story concerns two families —the Camerons of the South and the Stonemans of the North—whose friendship is ruptured by the Civil War. They are eventually reconciled after many hardships and personal tragedies.

Although Griffith was careful to show the war wreaked its havoc on both North and South alike—sons of both families die on the battlefields—the sympathies of the film are clearly with its Southern protagonists, who are portrayed as decent and God-fearing people in spite of being slave owners. Villainy is symbolized by the character of Austin Stoneman, the crippled leader of the United States House of Representatives, who keeps a black mistress and vows “to crush the White South under the heel of the Black South,” as a title puts it. (Stoneman is based upon Thaddeus Stevens, the Civil War Congressional power known as “The Great Commoner.’’) The Griffith concept of Stoneman’s final punishment is when a mulatto carpetbagger, whom he had made Lieutenant-Governor of South Carolina, asks for the hand of his daughter in marriage, and, failing to obtain it from the horrified father, attempts to rape her. In a parallel climax, the young sister of the Southern hero throws herself from a cliff rather than submit to a black renegade. These outrages are viciously avenged by the militant Ku Klux Klan, which is made to appear as a savior force. Inevitably, The Birth of a Nation was bitterly attacked as a racist picture, and its showing was accompanied by numerous demonstrations and incidents, and by editorial protests in newspapers and magazines. Griffith seemed surprised at the furor his film created, and insisted that he bore no ill-will toward blacks, and that he had only shown conditions in the South as they actually existed during and after the Civil War. In all probability, he did not set out to make a bigoted picture—his friends consistently denied that he had race prejudice—but nonetheless it remains viciously racist in tone with blacks shown as objects of contempt and depravity. Those who were favorably portrayed— the family servants who came to the rescue of their former master—were caricatures from the Uncle Tom school, and were injected largely for comic relief.

The controversy over The Birth of Nation raged for years, and the bitterness that it caused has never been erased. Even today, it is seldom shown publicly, and then mostly to film scholars. Except for the glossy battle sequences done with great emphasis upon heroism and glory, The Birth of a Nation provides only a sketchy glimpse of the Civil War itself. The Birth of a Nation is filled with a succession of moving scenes, all marked in one way or an-other with Griffith’s perceptive talent. The impressive battle sequences and the stirring ride of the Klans cannot be discounted, but the meat of the drama lies in the more intimate passages. These include Lillian Gish’s brave good-bye to her brothers as they leave for war (only to collapse in tears in the lap of her black mammy), Mother Cameron’s appeal to Abraham Lincoln for her son’s life, the parting of Miss Gish and Walthall at the hospital door (with its mooning sentry) , the electrically charged confrontations in Stoneman’s quarters, and the heartbreaking death of the little sister.

Henry B Walthall – Reunion – Birth of a Nation

Most of all, there is the famous return of Walthall to his war-scarred home, in which he is received by a grown-up little sister in a worn dress adorned with raw cotton; the final scene of this episode, with the mother’s arms reaching out from the doorway, is of classic proportion. Of the action sequences, the guerrilla raid on Piedmont has a documentary quality that gives it a pulsating life and naturalness unmarred by theatrical heroics. Only occasionally does Griffith fail, as in the archaic epilogue in which a shot of the symbolical god of war dissolves into a vision of Jesus Christ (played by Wallace Reid). It is a scene that dramatically does not age well. The restrained acting in The Birth of a Nation set new standards of perfection, and few films have been so perfectly cast.

Henry B. Walthall gave admirable substance to his portrait of Ben Cameron, “the Little Colonel,” delineating the traditional qualities of Southern manhood that were somehow lacking in Leslie Howard’s faltering interpretation of Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. Lillian Gish brought her sturdy fragility to Elsie Stoneman, but she is overshadowed by Mae Marsh as the little sister for whom war’s privations cannot diminish the exuberance of youth.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman in Birth of a Nation

Ralph Lewis, an actor little appreciated, was powerful as the emotionally and physically crippled Stoneman. George Siegmann was on the whole just right as the fawning Silas Lynch, the mulatto carpetbagger, although his performance is blighted by overacting in the final rape scene. Joseph E. Henabery as Abraham Lincoln, Howard Gaye as Robert E. Lee, Donald Crisp as Ulysses S. Grant, Raoul Walsh as John Wilkes Booth—all are as pages from a book of Civil War daguerreotypes by Brady. Perhaps the most ideally cast are Spottiswoode Aitken as the gentle Dr. Cameron and Josephine Crowell as his wife. Her performance as the bewildered mother is a masterpiece of quiet heartbreak as she weathers the long series of tragedies that strike her family. It is difficult to believe that she is the same actress who is so incredibly bad as Catherine de Medici in Griffith’s Intolerance of the following year. It is an obvious piece of serious miscasting for which Griffith must be blamed. Later in her career, Mrs. Crowell became typed as the curmudgeon battle-axe of numerous slapstick comedies of the twenties—her role as Harold Lloyd’s bossy mother-in-law in Hot Water (1924) is typical—and her superb work in The Birth of a Nation was by then all but forgotten. In later years, fan magazines would refer to The Birth of a Nation, not without considerable truth, as a jinx picture for its talented cast. Many of the players subsequently had disappointing and un-productive careers, while ill health and poor judgment led others into personal tragedy, obscurity, and death.

Henry B Walthall – Birth of a Nation 2

Henry B. Walthall’s sensitive performance should have been the springboard of a long and distinguished professional life, but inexplicably it was rather a high-water mark of success from which he steadily declined. Only momentarily did Walthall, with his striking good looks, challenge such contemporary screen matinee idols as Francis X. Bushman and Harold Lockwood. He left Griffith soon after the release of The Birth of a Nation; characteristically, the great director did nothing to encourage him to remain. Walthall made the mistake of signing with the Essanay Company, a penurious and unimaginative studio lacking creative ; a leadership, which wasted his talent on a series Of cheap mediocre melodramas in 1917. A stint with ill-fated Paralta Plays, Inc. the following year (His Robe of Honor, Humdrum Brown) was even more un-productive. Walthall had his own unit, but Paralta’s unorthodox method of merchandising films netted only a fraction of the profits he was led to expect. By the 1920s, he was reduced to playing supporting and character roles, and work was less plentiful. He aged badly due to personal problems, and while still in his forties acquired a drawn and elderly appearance. Walthall was blessed with a good speaking voice, and talking pictures brought a greater demand for his services in bit parts. He died in 1936, a few months after participating in the emotionally charged ceremonies at which D. W. Griffith received a citation from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in recognition of his contributions to the screen.

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

Mae Marsh, the delightful but tragic little sister of The Birth of a Nation was cursed with much the same fate. The following year she gave a stunning performance in the modern sequences of Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) as the bewildered young mother beset by a series of incredible adversities. Griffith then teamed her with Robert Harron, her co-star in Intolerance, in several light program pictures designed to capitalize upon the popularity of the two players. When an offer came from Samuel Goldwyn, Griffith urged Miss Marsh to accept it, saying that the lucrative contract would bring her riches that he could never pay. Her Goldwyn films of 1917-19 (Polly of the Circus, Hidden Fires) were disappointing, although her vivacious work in The Cinderella Man was widely praised. The actress proved difficult to work with, and she quarreled with Goldwyn and her directors, and made unreasonable demands. Her professional reputation suffered, and for a time few roles came her way. Miss Marsh returned to Griffith in 1923 for The White Rose, filmed in the bayou country of Louisiana. Although she gave a fine performance, it did nothing for her faltering career. After a few pictures made abroad, she quietly left the screen to raise a family. She endured a trying marriage and saw her fortune swallowed up by poor investments and the 1929 stock market crash. A few years later, Miss Marsh filed for bankruptcy, listing debts of $5,250 and a 1931 model automobile worth $25 as her only asset. In 1932, Mae Marsh returned to films as the mother in Fox’s tired remake of the classic tear-jerker, Over the Hill. Only thirty-seven at the time (playing the mother of twenty-seven-year-old James Dunn), she looked twenty years older and was unrecognizable as the pert Flora Cameron of The Birth of a Nation. She needed little makeup for the part, and fans were shocked by her haggard and dowdy appearance. Over the Hill was too old-fashioned and downbeat for depression audiences, and her work went unnoticed. It was her last major role. In later years she supported herself with bits in numerous films (including many directed by old friend John Ford) before her death in 1968 at the age of seventy-three.

DW Griffith and Robert Harron

Robert Harron started with Griffith as an eleven-year-old property boy at Biograph. He had a small part as the youngest Stoneman son in The Birth of a Nation. His work in Intolerance made him a star, and his performance as the war-weary artist-hero of Griffith’s propaganda film, Hearts of the World (1918), was the best of his career. Harron reportedly began to brood when Griffith gave young Richard Barthelmess choice roles in Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920). He felt that he had lost favor with his mentor, whom he idolized, although Griffith had agreed to supervise films for Harron’s own company. In New York on September 1, 1920, Harron was dressing for dinner when a revolver (which he had bought from a hungry actor) fell from his pocket and discharged. The bullet pierced Harron’s lung, and he died five days later. There were peristent reports that he attempted suicide, although he denied it to a priest before his death. Harron’s friends are convinced that it was an accident.

Wallace Reid signed

Handsome Wallace Reid had been in films since 1910, and was the star of many program pictures produced by Griffith’s unit for Reliance-Majestic in 1914-15 (The City Beautiful; Her Awakening; The Craven). He was seen briefly in The Birth of a Nation as a muscular young blacksmith killed in a brutal fight in the gin mill of ‘““White-Arm Joe.” Soon afterward, Reid moved to Paramount (Famous Players-Lasky) , where he won acclaim as leading man to opera star Geraldine Farrar in several spectacular films directed by Cecil B. DeMille in 1915-17 (Carmen; Maria Rosa; Joan the Woman; The Devil Stone; The Woman God For-got). By the 1920s, his popularity was enormous, stemming from his familiar role as a brash young American of the Jazz Age who uses Yankee pluck to reach his goals and win the girl of his heart (usually Gloria Swanson, Bebe Daniels, Lila Lee, or Wanda Hawley). Following an injury on the set of The Valley of the Giants (1919), Reid was left with blinding headaches and pain from a damaged spine. At his doctor’s instructions, he began to take morphine in order to continue acting, and was soon addicted. Reid’s condition was further complicated by heavy drinking. In an effort to overcome the drug addiction, he entered a sanitarium, and on January 18, 1923, died of complications of influenza and renal disease. His death led to reams of sensational publicity in news-papers and magazines, and Reid’s addiction did much to damage Hollywood’s reputation (already tarnished by the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle scandal and the unexplained murder of director William Desmond Taylor, which involved two top stars, Mary Miles Normand) .

Elmer Clifton

Elmer Clifton, who portrayed Phil Stoneman in The Birth of a Nation, turned to directing soon afterward and in 1918-19 was responsible for a series of delightful comedies starring Dorothy Gish (Boots; Peppy Polly; ’ll Get Him Yet) and produced by the Griffith company. In 1922, he did Down to the Sea in Ships, a highly praised drama of New Bedford whalers that had a documentary quality. (It is more remembered as the film in which sexpot Clara Bow had her first important role.) Two years later, Clifton directed a creditable remake of the old Civil War spy melodrama, The Warrens of Virginia (1924), which was his last important assignment. Jobs became scarce, and, after the advent of talking pictures, Clifton was reduced to directing Westerns, serials, and sexploitation pictures made on miniscule budgets. He never realized the promise shown earlier, and seemed to have profited little by his association with D. W. Griffith.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Sroneman in Birth of a Nation

Others in the cast of The Birth of a Nation had disappointing careers. Elmo Lincoln, who was “White-Arm Joe” (as well as playing several un-credited bits) , was a sensation as Edgar Rice Burroughs’s jungle hero in the first version of Tarzan of the. Apes (1918). Despite his beefy appearance and a ridiculous fright-wig, Lincoln had great appeal as Tarzan, but unfortunately the public did not like him in other roles. After Romance of Tarzan (1918) and a fifteen-episode serial, Adventures of Tarzan (1921), and several serials at Universal in 1919-20 (Elmo the Mighty, Elmo the Fearless, The Flaming Disc), Lincoln got only occasional work as a bit player or stuntman, and eventually as an extra. He died in 1952, virtually penniless. George Seigmann, a gentle man who played such brutal roles as Silas Lynch in The Birth of a Nation, the sadistic Hun officer von Strohm in Hearts of the World, and Simon Legree in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927), had only moderate success as an actor until his early death in 1928. He aspired to be a director, but his few attempts at directing (mostly program pictures for Griffith’s unit) went unnoticed. Ralph Lewis, Walter Long, Mary Alden, and Sam de Grasse were others appearing in Griffith’s masterpiece who played character roles in Hollywood for years without achieving more than casual recognition. Erich von Stroheim can scarcely be said to have been in the cast of The Birth of a Nation—in the raid on Piedmont he is the man who falls from the roof of a house—but did serve Griffith as a third assistant director. Stroheim went on to become one of the immortals of the screen with his silent classics of directorial genius—Foolish Wives (1922) ; Greed (1924) ; The Wedding March (1928) —only to have his career vanish after a series of bitter controversies with studio moguls. In later years, he made a precarious living as an actor, writing scripts that seldom sold, and planning a comeback that never materialized. There were a few significant exceptions to the jinx of The Birth of a Nation.

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

Lillian Gish was to have a long and notable career on both screen and stage. She was washed up in Hollywood by the time talking pictures arrived—many felt that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had deliberately mishandled her in a series of dreary films—but for many years she was one of Broadway’s brightest stars. She periodically returned to Hollywood to play character roles in such films as Duel in the Sun (1946) and The Unforgiven (1960), never failing to give an intelligent and often memorable performance. Miriam Cooper, the older Cameron sister, was a successful albeit lesser star for ten years, mostly in pictures directed by her husband, Raoul Walsh (The Honor System, 1916; Evangeline, 1919) . Her career abruptly declined, and she faded into obscurity after her divorce. Raoul Walsh, the superb John Wilkes Booth of The Birth of a Nation, became one of the screen’s best-known directors and was responsible for a long series of commercially successful films (What Price Glory?, 1926; In Old Arizona, 1929; The Roaring Twenties, 1939). Always done with a sense of craftmanship, they were frequently tough, punchy dramas best suited to the talents of such stars as James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.

Donald Crisp

Donald Crisp, who was General Grant in The Birth of a Nation, had a lasting career as both actor and director, and was widely known for his many roles in both silent and talking pictures. (In later years Crisp would assert that he, and not Griffith, had actually directed the stunning battle scenes of The Birth of a Nation, an unfortunate allegation that was widely reprinted in Crisp’s obituaries in 1974. At most, he served as one of Griffith’s several assistants on the battle sequences.) He won an Academy Award for his role in John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) , although film buffs remember him for his portrayal of the sadistic Battling Burrows of Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919). Crisp became a wealthy man through his association with the Bank of America as an advisor on motion-picture industry loans. He lived to the age of ninety-three.

Donald Crisp, Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish – 1954

Joseph E, Henabery, who was a realistic Abraham Lincoln in The Birth of a Nation, had some early success as director of several of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.’s pictures, including The Man From Painted Post (1917) and Say Young Fellow (1918). Later, he worked at Paramount and for Cecil B. DeMille’s unit at Pathé. After talkies came in, Henabery directed some early sound shorts in New York for Warner Brothers, but soon found his career at an end. Bessie Love, glimpsed briefly in The Birth of a Nation, went on to stardom in many silent hits and in the pioneer screen musical, The Broadway Melody (1929). After she was no longer suitable for ingenue roles, she worked as a character actress, mostly in British studios, up into her seventies. The real significance of The Birth of a Nation Was not in its recreation of the drama of the Civil War and Reconstruction, but in its contribution to the art of the motion picture, Griffith’s creative technique made The Birth of a Nation an uncommon work of art in itself, blending the elements of cinema into a masterpiece of film construction. His superb use of visual imagery, movement, stunning photography (including innovations in irising, close-ups, and the use of stills), intelligent and refined editing, and even music, established the artistic supremacy of the director. The influence of The Birth of a Nation was tremendous, and its impact was reflected in the best work of imaginative filmmakers around the world (particularly Eisenstein and the Russian school of the 1920s) . Griffith also gave new dimensions to the spectacle film, and with Europe poised on the brink of war, The Birth of a Nation forecast the frightening potentials of the motion picture as a weapon of propaganda. The film revolutionized distribution and exhibition with fresh concepts of merchandising that brought enormous financial returns to the motion-picture industry. With The Birth of a Nation, cinema became of age.

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Bedside Hollywood : great scenes from movie memoirs (1985) – Edited by Robert Atwan and Bruce Forer

  • Great Scenes from Movie Memoirs
  • Edited by Robert Atwan and Bruce Forer
  • Foreword by Jack Kroll
  • Printed in the United States of America
  • Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 1985

Illustrated with photographs from the Film Stills Archives of The Museum of Modern Art, Bedside Hollywood adds up to an in-depth portrait of life in the movies. As new screen memoirs appear—nearly a dozen every year—perhaps the time has come for the film industry to establish a new category at the Academy Awards Ceremony: the Oscar for Best Autobiography. Until Oscar catches up, settle down with the cast of Bedside Hollywood and mingle with what would have been the previous winners.

Lillian Gish: The Birth of “The Birth of a Nation”

One afternoon during the spring of 1914, while we were still working in California, Mr. Griffith took me aside on the set and said in an undertone, “After the others leave tonight, would you please stay.”

Later, as some of the company drifted out, I realized that a simillar message had been given to a few others. This procedure was typical of Mr. Griffith when he was planning a new film. He observed us with a smile, amused perhaps by our curiosity over the mystery that he had created.

I suspected what the meeting was about. A few days before, we had been having lunch at The White Kitchen, and I had noticed that his pockets were crammed with papers and pamphlets. My curiosity was aroused, but it would have been presumptuous of me to ask about them. With Mr. Griffith one did not ask; one only answered. Besides, I had learned that if I waited long enough he would tell me.

“I’ve bought a book by Thomas Dixon, called The Clansman. I’m going to use it to tell the truth about the War between the States. It hasn’t been told accurately in history books. Only the winning side in a war ever gets to tell its story.” He paused, watching the cluster of actors: Henry Walthall, Spottiswoode Aiken, Bobby Harron, Mae Marsh, Miriam Cooper, Elmer Clifton, George Siegmann, Walter Long, and me.

“The story concerns two families—the Stonemans from the North and the Camerons from the South.” He added significantly, “I know I can trust you.”

He swore us to secrecy, and to us his caution was understandable. Should his competitors learn of his new project, they would have films on the same subject completed before his work was released. He discussed his story plots freely only over lunch or dinner, often testing them out on me because I was close-mouthed and never repeated what anyone told me.

I heard later that “Daddy” Woods [Griffith’s scenario department head] had called Mr. Griffith’s attention to The Clansman. It had done well as a book and even better as a play, touring the country for five years. Mr. Griffith also drew on The Leopard’s Spots for additional material for the new movie. Thomas Dixon, the author of both works, was a southerner who had been a college classmate of Woodrow Wilson. Mr. Griffith paid a $2,500 option for The Clansman, and it was agreed that Dixon was to receive $10,000 in all for the story, but when it came time to pay him no more money was available. In the end, he reluctantly agreed to accept instead of cash a 25 per cent interest in the picture, which resulted in the largest sum any author ever received for a motion-picture story. Dixon earned several million dollars as his share.

Mr. Griffith didn’t need the Dixon book. His intention was to tell his version of the War between the States. But he evidently lacked the confidence to start production on a twelve-reel film without an established book as a basis for his story. After the film was completed and he had shown it to the so-called author, Dixon said: “This isn’t my book at all.” But Mr. Griffith was glad to use Dixon’s name on the film as author, for, as he told me, “The public hates you if it thinks you wrote, directed, and produced the entire film yourself. It’s the quickest way to make enemies.”

After the first rehearsal, the pace increased. Mr. Griffith worked, as usual, without a script. But this time his pockets bulged with books, maps, and pamphlets, which he read during meals and the rare breaks in his hectic schedule. I rehearsed whatever part Mr. Griffith wanted to see at the moment. My sister and I had been the last to join the company, and we naturally supposed that the major assignments would go to the older members of the group. For a while, it looked as if I would be no more than an extra. But during one rehearsal Blanche Sweet, who we suspected would play the romantic part of Elsie Stoneman, was missing. Mr. Griffith pointed to me.

FILE – This 1915 file photo shows actress Lillian Gish as she appeared in D.W. Griffith’s movie, “Birth of a Nation.” The film’s cast also included some of the greatest directors of the talking era, among them Raoul Walsh (who played John Wilkes Booth) and John Ford (who played a Klansman). (AP Photo)

“Come on, Miss Damnyankee, let’s see what you can do with Elsie.”

My thin figure was quite a contrast to Blanche’s ripe, full form. Mr. Griffith had us rehearse the near-rape scene between Elsie and Silas Lynch, the power-drunk mulatto in the film. George Siegmann was playing Lynch in blackface. In this scene Lynch proposes to Elsie and, when she rebuffs him, forces his attentions on her. During the hysterical chase around the room, the hairpins flew out of my hair, which tumbled below my waist as Lynch held my fainting body in his arms. I was very blonde and fragile-looking. The contrast with the dark man evidently pleased Mr. Griffith, for he said in front of everyone, “Maybe she would be more effective than the more mature figure I had in mind.”

He didn’t tell us then, but I think the role was mine from that moment. . . .

During his six years with Biograph, Mr. Griffith had taken strides toward his ultimate goal: filming his version of the Civil War. He had made a number of early pictures that touched on the War between the States. But it was soon obvious to everyone that this film was to be his most important statement yet. Billy Bitzer [Griffith’s master cameraman] wrote of that time: ‘The Birth of a Nation changed D. W Griffith’s personality entirely. Where heretofore he was wont to refer in starting on a new picture to ‘grinding out another sausage’ and go at it lightly, his attitude in beginning on this one was all eagerness. He acted like here we have something worthwhile.”

Although fact and legend were familiar to him, he did meticulous research for The Birth. The first half of The Birth, about the war itself, reflects his own point of view. I know that he also relied greatly on Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War, Mathew Brady’s Civil War Photographs: Confederate and Union Veterans—Eyewitnesses on Location; the Nicolay and Hay Abraham Lincoln: A History; and The Soldier in Our Civil War: A Pictorial History of the Conflict 1861—1865. For the second half, about Reconstruction, he consulted Thomas Dixon, and A History of the American People by Woodrow Wilson. President Wilson had taught history before going into politics, and Mr. Griffith had great respect for his erudition. For Klan material, he drew on a book called Ku Klux Klan—Its Origin, Growth and Disbandment by John C. Lester and D. L. Wilson. But he did not use the uniform that is worn by Klan members today. Instead he used the costumes that, according to Thomas Dixon, were worn by the earlier Klans—white and scarlet flowing robes with hood and mask to hide the features of rider and horse.

Bradys photographs were constantly consulted, and Mr. Griffith restaged many moments of history with complete fidelity to them. The photographs were used as guides for such scenes as Lees surrender at Appomattox, the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and Shermans march to the sea. He telegraphed a newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, for photographs of the interior of the state capitol, which held a majority of Negro representatives after the war, and constructed the legislative chamber according to the photographs.

The largest interior was Fords Theater, the setting of the assassination scene, which was done in one day on the lot. So great was Mr. Griffiths obsession with authenticity that he unearthed a copy of Our American Cousin, which had been performed at Fords Theater on the night of the assassination, and restaged parts of it. In the actual filming, as Raoul Walsh, gun ready, steals into the Presidential box, the lines being spoken on the replica of the stage are precisely those spoken at the fateful moment on the night of April 14, 1865. This fidelity to facts was an innovation in films.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Sroneman in Birth of a Nation

Mr. Griffith knew the terrain of the battle fields, and he hired several Civil War veterans to scout locations similar to the original ones. After exploring the southern California country, they chose what later became the Universal lot for the countryside around Petersburg, Virginia, site of the last prolonged siege and final battle of the war.

He had studied maps of the major battles of the Civil War and, with the help of the veterans, laid out the battle fields. Trenches, breastworks, roads, brooks, and buildings were constructed to duplicate those of the actual battle fields. Troop movements were planned with the advice of the veterans and two men from Vest Point Military Academy. Civil War artillery was obtained from West Point and the Smithsonian Institution, for use when the camera was close.

Mr. Griffith also sent to the Smithsonian for historical records and then went over the documents with his advisers. But in the end he came to his own conclusions about historical facts. He would never take the opinion of only one man as final.

Henry B Walthall – Reunion – Birth of a Nation

The street in Piedmont on which the Cameron house was located was complete with brick walls and hitching and lamp posts. A small set, it achieved scope from violated perspective—an old stage technique in which each successive house and street lamp is a little shorter, so that the setting seems to “recede” without actually taking up much space or requiring the use of expensive lumber.

We had no stage designer, only the modest genius of a carpenter, Frank Wortman, known as “Huck.” Huck, a short, rather heavyset man in his forties, with friendly blue eyes and a weakness for chewing tobacco, didn’t talk much, but listened intently to Mr. Griffith. Even before rehearsals started Mr. Griffith explained to him what he wanted in the way of sets. He would show Huck a photograph that he wanted copied, or point out changes to be made in the reproduction. They would decide how the sun would hit a particular building three, four, even five weeks from then.

Men during the Civil War era were rather small in stature (it was before the age of proper nutrition), so genuine uniforms could not be used by the later generation. Uniforms for The Birth were therefore made by a small struggling company, which has since become the famous Western Costume Company.

The Brady photographs also served as models for the soldiers’ hair styles.

To absorb the spirit of the film, we came down with a case of history nearly as intense as Mr. Griffith’s. At first, between making other films during the day and rehearsing The Birth at night, we had scant time for reading. But Mr. Griffith’s interest was contagious, and we began to read about the period. Soon it was the only subject we talked about. Mr. Griffith didn’t ask us to do this; it stemmed out of our own interest. We pored over photographs of the Civil War and Godeys Ladies’ Book, a periodical of the nineteenth century, for costumes, hair styles, and postures. We had to rehearse how to sit and how to move in the hoop skirts of the day.

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

My costumes were specially made. One of them had a tiny derby with a high plume. When I saw it, I rebelled.

But Mr. Griffith insisted that I wear it. He wanted the audience to be amused. “It’s a darb!” he said, smiling.

In filming the battles, Mr. Griffith organized the action like a general. He stood at the top of a forty-foot tower, the commander-in-chief of both armies, his powerful voice, like Roarin Jake’s, thundering commands through a megaphone to his staff of assistants. Meetings were called before each major filmed sequence and a chain of command was developed from Mr. Griffith through his directors and their assistants. The last-in-command might have only four or five extras under him. These men, wearing uniforms and taking their places among the extras, also played parts in the film.

Griffith s camera was high on the platform looking down on the battle field, so that he could obtain a grand sweep of the action. This camera took the long shots. Hidden under bushes or in back of trees were cameras for closeups.

When the din of cannons, galloping horses, and charging men grew too great, no human voice, not even Mr. Griffiths, was powerful enough to be heard. Some of the extras were stationed as far as two miles from the camera. So a series of magnifying mirrors was used to flash signals to those actors working a great distance away. Each group of men had its number—one flash of the mirror for the first group, two for the second group, and so on. As group one started action, the mirror would flash a go- ahead to group two.

Care was taken to place the authentic old guns and the best horsemen in the first ranks. Other weapons, as well as poorer horsemen, were relegated to the background. Extras were painstakingly drilled in their parts until they knew when to charge, when to push cannons forward, when to fall.

Some of the artillery was loaded with real shells, and elaborate warnings were broadcast about their range of fire. Mr. GriflBth’s sense of order and control made it possible for the cast and extras to survive the broiling heat, pounding hoofs, naked bayonets, and exploding shells without a single injury. He was too thoughtful to the welfare of others to permit accidents.

In most war films it is difficult to distinguish between the enemies unless the film is in color and the two sides are wearing different-colored uniforms. But not in a Griffith movie. Mr. Griffith had the rare technical skill to keep each side distinct and clear cut. In The Birth, the Confederate army always entered from the left of the camera, the Union army from the right.

The Birth of a Nation – Massive troop movements wide shot

One day he said to Billy, “I want to show a whole army moving.”

“What do you mean, a whole army?” Bitzer asked.

“Everyone we can muster.”

“I’ll have to move them back to get them all in view,” Billy said. “They won’t look much bigger than jackrabbits.”

“That’s all right. The audience will supply the details. Let’s move up on this hill, Billy. Then we can shoot the whole valley and all the troops at once.”

They never talked much, but they always seemed to understand each other. People around Mr. Griffith didn’t bother him with idle talk.

When daylight disappeared, Mr. Griffith would order bonfires lit and film some amazing night scenes. Billy was pessimistic about the results; he kept insisting that they would be unsuccessful. But Mr. Griffith persisted. One big battle scene was filmed at night. The sub-title was to read, “It went on into the night.” Nothing like it had ever been seen before. Those of us who had time were there—the women to watch, the men to help.

Although everything was carefully organized, whenever he saw a spontaneous gesture that looked good—like the soldier’s leaning on his gun and looking at me during the hospital scene—he would call Billy over to film it.

In that scene, the wards were filled with wounded soldiers, and in the background nurses and orderlies attended their patients. In the doorway of the ward stood a Union sentry. As Elsie Stoneman, I was helping to entertain the wounded, singing and playing the banjo. The sentry watehed me lovingly as I sang and then, after I had finished and was passing him, raised his hang-dog head and heaved a deep, love sick sigh. The scene lasted only a minute, but it drew the biggest laugh of the film and became one of its best-remembered moments.

Lillian Gish – Birth of a Nation

The scene came about in typical Griffith fashion. We players had no one to help us with our costumes. We had to carry our various changes to the set, as we could not afford the time to run back to our dressing rooms. Those period dresses, with their full skirts over hoops, were heavy. A kind young man who liked me helped me with my props and costumes. The young man, William Freeman, was playing the sentry, and he simply stood there, listening, as I sang. Seeing his expression, Mr. Griffith said to Bitzer, “Billy, get that picture on film right away.” He knew that it would bring a laugh, which was needed to break the dramatic tension.

Since the release of The Birth of a Nation, I have often been asked by fans what happened to the sentry in the hospital. After The Birth was finished, I didn’t see William Freeman again until the first World’s Fair in New York. It was the day of the Fair’s closing. I happened to be riding on a float for charity, and there, walking toward the float, was William Freeman. I recognized him immediately.

“My son is here,” he said after we had greeted each other. “I would like you to meet him.”

He disappeared into the crowd and returned shortly with a bright four-year-old, whom he proudly introduced to me. Then we said goodbye, and I haven’t seen him since. . . .

In going through Mr. Griffith’s papers recently, I came across some “facts” about The Birth of a Nation that read like most press releases of that day. Robert Edgar Long, in his soft-cover book David Wark Griffith: A Brief Sketch of His Career, published in 1920, suggests that professors of history from at least a half-dozen universities were called upon for facts and figures, so that no errors would mar the film’s authenticity. He says that Mr. Griffith had plans to shoot some 5,000 scenes; to use 18,000 men as soldiers; to make 18,000 Union and Confederate uniforms for these men; to hire 3,000 horses; to build entire cities and destroy them by fire; to buy real shells that cost $10 apiece in order to re-enact the greatest battle of the Civil War; and to select fragments from about 500 separate musical compositions to synchronize perfectly with various scenes. Many scenes, he says, were photographed from fifteen to twenty times before Mr. Griffith was pleased with the results. He adds that the scene of Lincoln’s assassination was rehearsed at least twenty times before it was actually filmed.

I know that in later years Mr. Griffith himself was prone to exaggerations that were a press agent’s dream. Perhaps he too believed that these gross overstatements and inaccuracies would enhance the film’s prestige.

It seems to me, however, that the truth is a much finer tribute to Mr. Griffith’s skill. In the battle scenes there were never more than 300 to 500 extras. By starting with a close-up and then moving the camera back from the scene, which gave the illusion of depth and distance, and by having the same soldiers run around quickly to make a second entrance, Mr. Griffith created the impression of big armies. In the battles, clouds of smoke rising from the thickets gave the illusion of many soldiers camouflaged by the woods, although in actuality there were only a few.

The scene of Sherman s march to the sea opened with an iris shot—a small area in the upper left-hand corner of a black screen—of a mother holding her weeping children amid the ruins of a burned-out house. Slowly the iris opened wider to reveal a great panorama troops, wagons, fires, apd beyond, in the distance, Atlanta burning. Atlanta was actually a model, superimposed on the film.

The entire industry, always intensely curious about Mr. Griffith, was speculating about this new film. What was that crazy man Griffith up to? He was using the full repertoire of his earlier experiments and adding new ones. He tinted film to achieve dramatic results and to create mood. In the battle scene at Petersburg, the shots of Union and Confederate troops rushing in to replace the dead and wounded are tinted red, and the subtitle reads “In the red lane of death others take their places.” And, at the climax of the film, there were the thrilling rides of the Klan. These riders were beautifully handled—first, the signal riders galloping to give warning; then, one by one and two by two, the galloping hordes merging into a white hooded mass, their peaked helmets and fiery crosses making them resemble knights of a crusade.

Before the filming of this scene Mr. Griffith decided to try a new kind of shot. He had a hole dug in the road directly in the path of the horsemen. There he placed Billy and the camera, and obtained shots of the horses approaching and galloping right over the camera, so that the audience could see the pounding hoofs. This shot has since become standard, but then it was the first time it had been done, and the effect was spectacular. Billy came through safely, and so did his precious camera, as Mr. Griffith must have known it would. He would never have taken a chance with a camera; it was far too costly.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Sroneman in Birth of a Nation

Among the obstacles that cropped up during the filming was a lack of muslin needed for Klan uniforms. There was also a shortage of horses for battle scenes. Both were war scarcities. When the war in Europe broke out, the Allies were rounding up horses and shipping them to France. Mr. Griffith found himself in competition with French, English, Russian, and Italian agents, all in search of horses. Acting as his own agent, he was obliged to rent horses at higher prices from a dealer in the West.

We had outstanding riders like the Bums Brothers, who led the Klan riders and supervised any scene involving horses. Henry Walthall was a superb horseman, as were some of the other actors. The cowboy and circus riders beneath the Ku Klux sheets did a superb job. In the mob scenes they reared their horses until clouds mushroomed, but not one of them was hurt.

What I liked most about working on The Birth was the horses. I could always borrow a horse from the set, and during my lunch hour I would canter off alone to the hills.

I saw everything that Mr. Griffith put on film. My role in The Birth required about three weeks’ work, but I was on call during the whole time that it was being filmed. I was in the studio every day—working on other films, being available for the next scene if needed, making myself useful in any way that was required.

My dressing room was just across the hall from the darkroom, where Jimmy Smith and Joe Aller worked. Whenever I had a few minutes I would join them, watching them develop the film and cut it. I would view the day’s rushes and tell Jimmy my reactions to them. I saw the effects that Mr. Griffith obtained with his views of marching men, the ride of the Klan, the horrors of war. Watching these snatches of film was like trying to read a book whose pages had been shuffled. There was neither order nor continuity. Here was a touching bit from a scene with Mae; there was a long shot of a battle. It made me realize the job that Mr. Griffith had ahead of him after the filming was done.

The shooting was completed in nine weeks, but Mr. Griffith spent more than three months on cutting, editing and working on the musical score. I still remember how hard he worked on other films during the day and then at night on The Birth. Of all his pictures up to that time, none was more beset with difficulties. Without his spirit and faith, it might never have been completed.

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Hollywood 1920-1970 Edited by Peter Cowie (1977)

  • Hollywood 1920-1970
  • Edited by Peter Cowie (1977)
  • New York and South Brunswick: A. S. Barnes and Company London: The Tantivy Press

The true achievement of Hollywood is only now being acknowledged. For years the prodigious output of the major studios and producers was damned with faint praise by the pundits. But during the past decade a reassessment has taken place. Critics as well as thousands of film buffs are aware of the enormous influence Hollywood has exerted on the social fabric not only of the US, but of the world.

At its best — in the work of Lillian Gish or Garbo or Barthelmess or Keaton or in unpredictable flashes of brilliance in Valentino — screen acting for silent films had developed into an art, new and unique, which was lost when pictures spoke. Actors were obliged to develop new means of expression. The silent actors were serious about their work. Lillian Gish starved for days before she shot the fmal scene of La Bohéme. Mary Pickford studied to achieve the deportment of a girl who had spent her youth carrying smaller children about. Their methods of innervation, of working themselves into the mood and feeling of a role had all the intensity and sincerity of the Stanislavski studios. Mack Sennett re-called that Mabel Normand “‘insisted on working on a stage to the accompaniment of the loudest jazz syncopation the record library could provide.

D.W. Griffith and G.W. Bitzer filming “Intolerance”


A film of immense formative importance in the history of the cinema, Intolerance was never a commercial success; and Griffith spent many years painfully restoring debts the film had incurred. In 1917 he had gone to Europe to make Hearts of the World, a film intended originally to help bring America into the war, but which appeared only a few months before the Armistice in 1918. One more film, now entirely lost, The Great Love, about the galvanising of pre-war social butterflies into the war effort, completed his war-time activity. In the meantime he had become a successful producer of, among other films, the series of light comedies starring Dorothy Gish. It is worth recalling Griffith’s past career at this length in order to assess his stock at the end of the war. He had enjoyed an international prestige equalled by no one else in the cinema. He had created his own artistic medium — the paramount means of expression of the twentieth century. He had created the cinema’s first universally recognised masterpieces. At the same time he was no business man and he was burdened with the debts incurred by Intolerance (the Wark Producing Company was to go bankrupt in 1921). He was, at bottom, inseparably wedded to the nineteenth century — its literature, its drama, its tastes and its morals. He was on the verge of being overtaken by the cinema which he had done so much to create, by the post-war world in which at first he stood as a giant. His situation is summed up by Mrs. Eileen Bowser in her supplement to the Museum of Modern Art’s mono-graph: “Brought up in poverty and without adequate education, Griffith had aspirations to be a great writer, in particular a great playwright. Now he was hailed as the Shakespeare of the screen and he walked with the great of his time, the wealthy and the socially prominent. Although he knew that he had poured his heart into The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, he must have been a bit bewildered to have achieved such success in the medium he had originally despised. His was an intuitive genius, and fame made him self-conscious. His deliberate striving for artistic excellence or for popularity in his later films led him at times to descend into mannerism. The financial failure of Intolerance made him painfully aware of the need to cater more to popular taste, yet he was never sure of what popular taste was.”

But for the moment he had confidence, prestige and a great actress, Lillian Gish. A Romance of Happy Valley, Griffith’s first post-war release, was evidently a relaxation, a return to the simple anecdotes of Biograph days and to the Kentucky of his boyhood memory. Lillian Gish has said that it is impossible to evaluate Griffith without knowing his latter film (The Greatest Thing in Life (1918). The climactic scene in which a white boy kisses a dying negro soldier (on the lips, according to Miss Gish, though Mrs. Bowser says on the cheek) appears to have been unfailingly startling to all who saw it, and a striking refutation of ideas of Griffith’s racism. (The racist aspect of his work accords un-comfortably with other aspects of Griffith’s personality. It undeniably exists in The Birth of a Nation and in hints elsewhere in the work. At best it can be written off as being the effect of inherited habits of thought, innocently unquestioned, rather than positive and maliciously maintained opinion.)

Both The Greatest Thing in Life and The Girl Who Stayed at Home (1919) seem to have been undertaken as government propaganda films. Griffith was at this time busy working off a contract with Zukor’s Artcraft Company, and his next two films were made quickly, though conscientiously. True Heart Susie (1919) was another sentimental retreat to rural America, with a sweet performance by Lillian Gish, but it was hopelessly outmoded in the year that saw the release of DeMille’s Don’t Change Your Husband. A Western, Scarlet Days (1919), starring Richard Barthelmess, sounds attractive, but all prints of it have disappeared. Even now Griffith had masterpieces in him. Broken Blossoms (1919), adapted from a short story in Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights, was, incredibly, made in eighteen days (though Griffith’s method called for a lot of prior rehearsal — a method which Miss Gish long maintained after she had left Griffith). However much the techniques which Griffith pioneered in this film were abused by later film-makers, his success in producing richly evocative and poetic atmosphere and imagery is undeniable. The soft-focus photography, the eerie studio-manufactured London fogs still work upon the spectator, and are a tribute to Billy Bitzer’s endlessly resourceful camerawork for Griffith.

Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms

The performances of Gish as the little slum girl, Donald Crisp as her brutal father and Richard Barthelmess as the spiritual Chinese boy who falls in love with her and tries to save her are still as compelling as any surviving silent screen performances. Griffith was working at full pressure to re-establish his commercial independence and to build his new studios at Mamaroneck. Broken Blossoms was released through United Artists, which had been founded in 1919; but The Greatest Question (1919), a drama about spiritualism, and The Idol Dancer and The Love Flower, both exotic melodramas, were made for First National. For the first time in these films, Griffith seems to have been repeating himself, working with a slackened enthusiasm and inspiration.

Way Down East – Lobby Card

He recovered his forces completely however for Way Down East (1920) which is, perhaps, the masterpiece among the later films, still completely valid despite the anachronism of the subject — perhaps indeed by the very reason of Griffith’s fidelity to a period which was already past but which was essentially his own. His purchase of the rights of Lottie Blair Parker’s creaky old play at a cost of $175,000 was a matter of incredulity and ridicule at the time; but the film proved more popular than any Griffith work since The Birth of a Nation. At risk of the life and limb of every member of the unit (but particularly poor Lillian Gish who had to be defrosted constantly after exposure on the ice floes) Griffith shot the film with startling realism, the exteriors being filmed on the frozen Connecticut River. This, together with the integrity of the performances of Barthelmess and the incomparable Gish (the baptism of the dying child is still one of the most moving episodes in the history of the cinema) explain the lasting success of the film.

Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson – Hester Prynne and Rev Dimmesdale – The Scarlet Letter

In Lillian Gish) Sjostrom found his ideal actress. The Scarlet Letter. (1926) was her suggestion: “I wanted to make a film of The Scarlet Letter and play Hester Prynne, but Mr. Mayer told me that the book was banned for the screen. I said: ‘Mr. Mayer, this cannot be. It’s an American classic, taught in all our schools.’ Anyway, we applied for permission to make the film, and it was granted on the sole condition that Lillian Gish and no-one else played the leading role. “I was asked which director I would like, and I chose Victor Sjostrom (actually in America Sjostrom was known as Seastrom), who had arrived at M-G-M some years earlier from Sweden. I felt that the Swedes were closer to the feeling of the New England puritans than modern Americans, and that even though it is an American book, Mr. Sjostrom was more suitable than any of our own directors. I always considered it a great privilege to work with Mr. Sjostrom. “Tt was Mr. Sjostrom’s idea, of course, to use Lars Hanson in the part of the priest. He is a wonderful actor. We used to improvise our spoken lines before the camera, of course, and Lars Hanson’s speech from the scaffold was so eloquent and affecting that we were all tremendously moved by it.” On another occasion Miss Gish wrote with characteristic perception: “His direction was a great education for me. In a sense I went through the Swedish school of acting. I had got rather close to the Italian school in Italy. . . (The Italian school is one of elaboration; the Swedish is one of repression.” a Again Sjostrom was able to exercise his power for lyricism and his feeling for landscape. Two years later he was able to work again with Gish on The Wind, a film unjustly neglected, and Sjostrom’s American masterpiece.

William Orlamond, Lars Hanson, Lillian Gish and Edward Earle in “The Wind”

From Wine of Youth (1924) all Vidor’s silent films were made for M-G-M, where an early and trying experience was a collaboration with Elinor Glyn, on His Hour (1924). Vidor’s reputation was finally and firmly established with The Big Parade (1925), a massive, exemplary spectacle, at the centre of which was sensitively, if also sentimentally observed the experience and suffering of one, ordinary young man. It was a noble e indictment of war; and no less a great piece of mise-en scene with Vidor using the movement of troops and vehicles in a dramatic fashion hardly attempted, even by Griffith in The Birth of a Nation. After this he was requested as the director of La Bohéme by its star, Lillian Gish, whose rehearsal methods, learned from Griffith, caused the director some embarrassments; but ‘‘as the making of the film got under way we found ourselves subjected to Lillian’s will.” Vidor was impressed by the star’s complete commitment to the role, by the terrifying realism of her death scene. One of the many M-G-M films that have not seen the light of day since their first release, this must be worth revival, for the sake of Gish alone.

Lillian Gish (film director) – Remodeling Her Husband

It is worth recalling that Lillian Gish directed a film, Remodeling Her Husband, scripted by Dorothy Elizabeth Carter (Lillian Gish), and starring Dorothy Gish and James Rennie. Griffith persuaded her to do it, since he “thought that men would work better for you than for me’’. It was a pity that Miss Gish, with her high intelligence and sensitivity, never repeated the experiment, which in this case seemed to have been simply handicapped by technical inexperience.

The Gish girls have never retired, though after the arrival of talking pictures they returned to the stage, where their careers had begun. They were brought to Griffith in 1912, by Mary Pickford who had acted with them in theatres soon after the turn of the century. LILLIAN GISH was a heroine straight out of the romantic poets Griffith knew and loved so well. Her extraordinary fragility, her spiritual vibrance, her unique, strange beauty often uplifted the more commonplace concepts of Griffith’s Victorian sentiment. It is impossible to imagine Broken Blossoms or Way Down East without Gish: they would certainly not have survived as they have without her marvellous performances.

Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

It is an interesting indication of Gish’s creative approach to her acting to learn that she herself devised the form of the closet scene in the former film: ‘“You know the scene in the closet, where I spin round and ‘round in terror as Donald Crisp is trying to open the door to beat me and kill me. I worked that out myself, and never told Griffith what I was going to do. You see, if I had told him, he’d have made me rehearse it over and over again; and that would have spoilt it. It had to be spontaneous, the hysterical terror of a child. Well, when I came to play the scene in front of the camera, I did it as I’d planned — spinning and screaming terribly (I was a good screamer; Mr. Griffith used to encourage me to scream at the top of my voice). When we finished, Mr. Griffith was very pale. There was a man from Variety at the studio, and Mr. Griffith called him in and made me go through the scene again for him. It was so horrific that the man from Variety went outside and threw up his breakfast . . .”’ (interview with the author, published in Sight and Sound).

Way Down East – “I baptize thee Trust Lennox …”

There are innumerable similar anecdotes of the extraordinary intensity of Gish’s playing before the camera: how the baptism of the dying child in Way Down East was so real and affecting that the child’s real, off-screen father fainted; how Vidor and everyone else on the set of La Bohéme thought she really had died when they shot the death scene. Gish is by any standards a very great actress.) Seeing such a performance in The Wind, it is interesting, but bitter, to speculate what wonders she might have achieved if her career had carried on without interruption into the era of sound. But a new star eclipsed her at M-G-M which in 1925 had given her an $800,000 contract. After Garbo came, the studio put Miss Gish into routine chores, and then happily let her go before her contract was fulfilled. ‘‘Stigmatised as a grasping, silly, sexless antique, at the age of 31, the great Lillian Gish left Hollywood forever, without a head turned to mark her departure,”’ wrote Louise Brooks, not quite accurately, for in recent years Miss Gish has occasionally appeared in character roles in films, with notable distinction.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme

Duel in the Sun

Most of the action takes place on Spanish Bit, the Texas ranch of Senator McCanles (Lionel Barrymore) and his wife Laurabelle (Lillian Gish). Their two sons, Lewt (Gregory Peck) and Jesse (Joseph Cotten) are a Western Cain and Abel: Lewt, amoral, attractive, seduces Pearl (Jennifer Jones), a halfbreed relative of Laurabelle’s. Eventually, to save the upright Jesse from Lewt’s murderous designs, Pearl shoots her lover during a protracted encounter in which she is also killed; they die in each other’s arms.

Large of gesture, florid and monumental, Duel in the Sun had an almost operatic quality, each bravura set-piece shot, edited and scored for maximum kinetic effect: Pearl’s runaway horse, exhilaratingly filmed as it canters unrestrained across the Texan landscape; the celebrated summoning of the station-hands, a tremendous montage of galloping horses and riders massing to the accompaniment of reverberating bells; the subsequent confrontation between Lionel Barrymore and Harry Carey at the barbed-wire fence, a mob of Chinese coolies trembling at the expectation of violent death; and the final duel, preceded by Jones’s desert trek, a wordless chorus accompanying her as the inescapable sun shines full into the camera. This was film-making in the grand manner, utterly self-confident and self-sufficient, its plastic splendour ultimately cancelling out its colossal lack of taste.

King Vidor, Lionel Barrymore, D.W. Griffith and Lillian Gish on the sound stage of Duel in the Sun 1947 (The house of Barrymore)

Although Vidor directed most of the picture, with some sequences done by Sidney Franklin and Otto Brower, William Dieterle was responsible for possibly its greatest scene, Tilly Losch’s dance: on a raised platform in the centre of the gigantic Presidio Saloon, Losch as a wanton Indian gyrated to throbbing drums and screeching brass, while all around her milled the pleasure-seekers of the West. Here, and throughout the film, Dimitri Tiomkin’s pulsating score added immeasurably to the excitement: martial, sentimental or sensual, it was exotically orchestrated and played under the composer’s direction with impassioned intensity.

The Night of The Hunter

The Night of the Hunter

Old-fashioned elements were employed in a sophisticated manner for another of the maverick movies, The Night of the Hunter (1955), the first and only film directed by Charles Laughton. Robert Mitchum gave his finest performance as the insane preacher, lusting for money and also for vengeance against the sinful. The primitive situations were given metaphorical power by Laughton’s defiant use of throwback styles, including the “iris-out,” reminiscent of Griffith, and the strong black-and-white contrasts of light and shadow, a heritage of expressionist cinema. The floating hair of Shelley Winters, dead at the bottom of a river, and the lyrical yet terrorized flight of two children across a horizon viewed patiently by the preacher, were but two examples of Laughton’s relish for the image. And his major set piece, which haunts the memory, had Lillian Gish joining Mitchum in ironic religious duet (“Leaning—leaning—leaning on the everlasting arms”): she indoors with a shotgun at dead of night, wakefully protecting the children in her charge, while he sat in the open across the way, biding his time. It was sad that Laughton should have waited so long to show us that he could command the screen as a director, more powerfully than he had done at the peak of his career as an actor. For an actor to direct was regarded in Hollywood as a maverick activity in any case, although some actors persevered.

Charles Laughton and Lillian Gish filming “The Night of The Hunter”

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