The Birth of a Nation, Part X (The Century Awards: 1915)
The year 1915 represents the transition in my Periodization from the “Nickelodeon Era” to the “Classical Silent Period.” I took this, partly at least, from David Kalat’s description of silent movie history in his commentary to Fantômas, one of the first movies I watched on reviving this project and beginning this blog. But, the more I have watched, the more convinced I have become that 1915 really does represent a profound turning-point, especially in terms of the American film industry. While there are some standout movies from 1914, even some really good American feature-length films, most of what you see from that year still carries the baggage of “early film” and looks slow, stagey, and static by modern standards. This is especially true if we eliminate French, Italian, and Russian films from consideration. In 1915, we start getting feature-length stories that draw us in, give compelling narratives, and use the camera creatively. The best movies of this year can be put up against any but the very best of later work and still come out looking at decent.
Traditional film histories would give most of the credit for this to D.W. Griffith and “The Birth of a Nation.” Everything that came after it was based on it, they’ll tell you, and film, or at least American film, would have remained in its stodgy and uncreative pigeonhole without Griffith and his genius. Folks who’ve been reading this blog for a while know that I regard that narrative with some distrust: it looks to me like at least some of it is because of Griffith’s own (very effective) ballyhoo and hype, and some of it is because for far too long, far too many of the people writing about film in this period had access to far too few movies of the period to make a reasonable comparison. Generations of film students were told by their professors that this was the “best” movie of the period, and, not having seen much else from before 1915 except maybe a Méliès and a couple of Edisons, they pretty much swallowed the standard story and wrote all their books based on it. In the era before home video, it took a lot of hard work to do the kind of research necessary to challenge this view.
As much as I believe that the traditional narrative deserves debunking, though, it’s possible to go too far. There’s one piece of evidence that any Griffith-fan can call to service that I simply cannot refute: this was a hugely popular film, a “blockbuster” by any standard of judgment, and a tremendous critical success that convinced many skeptics that the motion pictures really were a serious art form. People paid up to $2.00 to see it, as much as they did for live theater events, and they saw it in “traditional” theaters rather than nickelodeons, accompanied by a full orchestra and seated by uniformed ushers. Indeed, I suspect that part of the reason for its popularity and impact is that it drew many casual movie-goers or non-movie-goers to its screenings, who were the more impressed with its spectacle for not being accustomed to how advanced the other movies of the day already were.
Acknowledging this fact forces me to admit that the movie must have had an influence: if only because the reality of Griffith’s commercial success after taking what most thought was an insanely expensive risk influenced the way studios responded to other directors who now wanted to make large, expensive feature films. The investment now looked like a good idea, and it has to be said that more studios made more and longer movies after “Birth” came out than they had before it. They also started to push the “genius” and importance of their best directors in their ad copy, following Griffith’s self-promoting example. In other words, reluctantly, I have to admit that, yes, “The Birth of a Nation” is at least partly responsible for the improvement in quality we see in American filmmaking during and after the year 1915. There, I said it: there’s some merit to the traditional narrative after all.
All of which is a VERY long-winded introduction to my topic: what am I going to do with “The Birth of a Nation” in this year’s Century Awards? It’s a problem I’ve been thinking about all year. I’ve been tempted to just ignore the problem and let it go away, or to write it off as a non-problem. “Birth” came out at the beginning of 1915, and by the end you’ve got movies like “The Cheat,” “Alias Jimmy Valentine,” “Regeneration,” and “Carmen” which clearly trump “Birth” in any technical category. But, is that really fair or accurate?
If the Century Awards represent my attempt to guess what the Motion Picture Academy would have done if it was in existence 100 years ago, “The Birth of a Nation” would have to win hands down. It was the movie on everyone’s lips at the time, it was the holy grail everyone else wanted to recreate, it was huge. It would have swept any awards given by the industry that year or the next. It would have made “Titanic” look like an also-ran. Again, it may not make me happy, but that’s what the historical evidence suggests.
But, if the Century Awards represent my own growing understanding about film history over time as a result of watching the movies and applying my current awareness and education to make judgment calls, that’s another thing altogether. I gave “Kid Auto Races” an award last year, not because people flocked to see it then, or because critics at the time said much about it, but because 100 years later I can see that Charlie Chaplin’s “little tramp” is one of the most iconic costumes of all time. I can see that “Birth of a Nation” was an over-rated film today, and I can certainly see that it was a hateful and racist production, so why should I feel compelled to give it awards I don’t think it deserves? I have a policy on my goodreads account that I don’t give star-ratings to materials written to promote racist viewpoints, and I can carry that over to this blog as well. “The Birth of a Nation” isn’t going to get any awards from me, whatever contemporary film makers might have done. You want to give it one, start your own blog.