Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Mae Marsh

Intolerance (1916)

Probably the most talked about film of 1916, “Intolerance” remains a kind of enigma to film historians. Despite the large amount of ink and computer bytes shed writing about it (see the bibliography at the end of this review for a small sample), it seems no better understood than most of the more typical releases of the year. What is this movie that has inspired so much discussion and debate? Is it one of the most important movies in history or just a giant flop?

Intolerance_(film)

Quick Summary

Regular readers of my blog know I usually begin each review with a recap of the action from the film – I don’t worry too much about “spoiling” 100-year-old movies, but if you want to see it first, you can always scroll down to the link and then come back and read the review. In this case, I’m going to be a bit less specific about the sequence of events and just give a summary of the stories, not accounting for the editing or sequence. In part,  this is because there are several different movies today calling themselves “Intolerance,” and deciding which is the “most authentic” is one of the sources of debate among scholars. It is complicated by the fact that the director, D.W. Griffith, kept making changes for each new re-release of the movie, beginning shortly after the premier on September 5, 1916. Some have argued that the 1917 re-release is more definitive, or even that the version Griffith reconstructed in 1922 after chopping up the print to release one of the storylines as a separate film is the most accurate. In 1990 the Museum of Modern Art attempted to reconstruct the movie based on the score written by Joseph Carl Breil for the opening night, in an attempt to get back to an “original” form, but it needs to be noted that this reconstruction is highly debated, and that it is possible that most viewers in 1916 were seeing a quite different movie. Read the rest of this entry »

The Birth of a Nation, Part VI

Birth of a Nation

We’ve reached the middle of the year that is the centenary of this controversial and problematic movie, and I went back to review what I’ve written so far. I realized that I have yet to provide the novice viewer with a basic summary of what you see when you watch “The Birth of a Nation,” and that I’ve referred to certain things (like “Gus” or “the scene in the House of Representatives”) without providing any context. Therefore, this post will be a simple re-counting of the storyline and action of the film. I don’t think there’s much danger of losing sight of the underlying message of the movie: The content is precisely what makes it such naked propaganda for the racial order of the old South. I’m not going to worry here about “spoilers,” so if you plan to watch it and care about such things, you’ve been forewarned. Besides, Griffith based it all on “actual historical fact,” so there won’t be any surprises for history buffs.

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The movie sets the stage in a similar manner to the earlier D.W. Griffith short, “The Fugitive,” but with the advantage of more time to develop character. Two families are presented, one Northern and one Southern, in the period before the outbreak of War. The Northern family is the Stonemans, and it is led by the corrupt abolitionist Congressman Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis, also in “The Avenging Conscience” and later “The Hoodlum”). Stoneman has two sons and a daughter, Elsie (Lillian Gish, long a staple in Griffith’s work, including “The Unseen Enemy” and “The Mothering Heart”). The Southern family is the Camerons, headed by the aging Dr. Cameron (Spottiswoode Aitken, who has my favorite first name ever, and was in “The Battle” and “The Avenging Conscience”). The Doctor has two daughters, Margaret (Miriam Cooper, later in “Intolerance” and “Kindred of the Dust”) and Flora (Mae Marsh, whom we know from “The Battle at Elderbush Gulch” and “Judith of Bethulia”), as well as two sons, the most notable of which is the elder, Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall, who starred in “The Avenging Conscience” and “The House with Closed Shutters”).

 Birth of a Nation2

In the happy times before the war, the Stonemans come to visit the Camerons, and, being white and of the same class, get along very well. Various potential matches are made, with sons of the Stoneman house showing interest in the Cameron girls, and Ben clearly interested in Elsie’s photograph, as well as a developing bro-mance between the younger lads, which involves a lot of wrestling and fisticuffs. Along the way, we also see happy African American slaves at work in the fields and dancing spontaneous jigs on their generous lunch breaks to show their appreciation for their white masters. Then the elder Stoneman is manipulated by his mixed-race mistress into believing that a white Senator raped her while in his home, and the Stoneman visitors are recalled home to the North (it is implied though not stated that this is the real reason that war breaks out).

 Birth_of_a_Nation_war_scene

As with the many Griffith Civil War shorts I’ve discussed before, we get more tearful farewells and proud marches as the young men sign up for their respective armies. This sequence, which covers the war itself, is the focus of much of the praise this movie has received, although I think that Griffith and other directors had actually managed more emotionally effective and exciting battle scenes on lower budgets before this. One sequence involves a group of African American militiamen attacking the Cameron house and looting it, a gross distortion of the brave and disciplined service of such units during the war. At this time, the senior Cameron is struck down by the “scalawag white Captain” of the unit. The part that really stood out to audiences then and critics since is the massive “Siege of Petersburg” battle, in which Walthall’s character earns the moniker “The Little Colonel” due to his bravely charging the Yankee lines long after his men have fallen to their bullets. Again, I think there were better battles, this one actually relies too much on long-shots covered in smoke to hide how few extras Griffith had to hand, but it is one of the big claims of the film to large-scale spectacle. The bros wind up killing each other in combat and the Little Colonel is captured after his mad dash at the trenches.

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Having built the audience up with the thrills of combat and women in jeopardy, Griffith now takes a bit of a breath, and gives the audience a sense that, despite the tragedies and injustices, things may work out after all. Abraham Lincoln is portrayed as “the Great Heart,” who will give the defeated South a fair deal, in spite of the insane radical wing of his party, led by Stoneman, who want to give African Americans legal equality. While in convalescence, Ben Cameron meets Elsie Stoneman working as a nurse in the military hospital. She is as taken with him and he with she, but their hearts are broken by the knowledge that he is to be executed as a saboteur. Mrs. Cameron now steps in, after making a Yankee guard feel guilty enough to permit her to visit her son, she goes off to see Lincoln himself and beg for clemency, which he grants. Everything seems to be returning to normal.

 Raoul Walsh

Enter Raoul Walsh (who later directed “Regeneration” and “The Roaring Twenties”) as John Wilkes Booth, a skulking villain with a mad plan. The assassination of Lincoln is, to my mind, one of the better parts of the movie, with a beautifully re-constructed Ford’s Theater set which apparently had no roof in order to allow the use of natural light. Walsh shoots Lincoln, jumps to the stage, speaks his famous line, and exits dramatically.

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Now we enter the Second Act, the most critical part so far as Griffith and Thomas Dixon, the author of the story, are concerned. This is the depiction of the Reconstruction, the terrible dark time in which the South was punished for losing a war. Stoneman and his cronies are in control of the government, and their twisted ideas of racial equality are forced onto the South, despite all the indignities this causes the white population. Men are forced to salute African American veterans (a reversal of the situation in “Martyrs of the Alamo”), women are accosted in the street, and no white southerner is safe.

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The characters of Silas Lynch (played by George Siegmann, from “The Avenging Conscience” and “Intolerance”), a mixed-race carpetbagger, and Gus (Walter Long, from “Martyrs of the Alamo,” and “The Avenging Conscience”), a “renegade negro” (white in blackface) occupation officer are introduced. Lynch comes down to Piedmont along with Stoneman, to see what a good job of reconstructing the South “his people” are doing, and gets elected Lieutenant Governor by seeing to it that whites aren’t able to vote. In fact, the South Carolina House of Representatives is now overflowing with African American representatives, who have the audacity to eat fried chicken and drink liquor in that hallowed hall. One new congressman goes a bit too far when he takes off his shoes and puts his feet on the desk; a motion is passed forcing him to wear shoes.

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The Little Colonel hasn’t given up the fight, however, and when he sees some black children frightened by a “ghost” (another child under a sheet), he has the brilliant inspiration to form the Ku Klux Klan. His first opportunity to enact justice comes when his sister, Flora, runs across Gus in the woods while out fetching water. Gus insists that she marry him, a freedman with full civil rights, and she runs away. This is probably the most objectionable single scene in the movie (it was certainly the one the NAACP cited most frequently in protests), in which the blackface Gus leers and menaces, while the innocent Mae Marsh shrinks in fear. Finally, to avoid being defiled, she hurls herself off a cliff. Ben rallies the Klan and kills Gus, dumping his body on Lynch’s doorstep.

Shut down all the garbage mashers on the detention level!

Shut down all the garbage mashers on the detention level!

Lynch and the reconstructionists respond with force, attempting to arrest Dr. Cameron when they can’t find his son. He, along with his daughter and some loyal African American servants (former slaves) flee to a cabin in a field outside of town. This is intercut with Stoneman’s final upbraiding by Lynch, who has decided to marry his daughter Elsie. Lynch traps Elsie in a back room, but she is able to get word to the Klan. Now the local militia surrounds the house the Camerons are hiding in, Dr. Cameron stands poised to bash his daughter’s brains out rather than let her fall into the hands of the enemy.

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The Little Colonel leads a heroic charge of robed Klansmen to save, first Elsie, then his father and sister. This is probably the other scene most often cited as innovative and exciting, after the battle of Petersburg. The camerawork is good, with tracking shots following the horses at high speed and several shots of horses charging directly towards the audience. The crosscutting of the two scenes does heighten the tension, but it’s hard today to imagine anyone cheering for hooded Klansmen (and a little frightening, to think of our grandparents doing so).

What a free election looks like, to D.W. Griffith.

What a free election looks like, to D.W. Griffith.

This is followed by a brief celebration and a picture of the new order. On election day, when African Americans prepare to go out and vote, they find mounted Klansmen in front of their doors. They wisely choose to go back in. Terror has won the day. Then there’s a pleasant double wedding of the surviving heroes (Elsie and Ben, Margaret and the largely irrelevant Phil Stoneman), and it ends on an overblown and seemingly hypocritical religious note.

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So, that’s the story of the film people raved about in 1915, and which people have defended and praised ever since in the name of “film history.” The questions this blog keeps asking are, “Whose history?” and “What does this heritage suggest about film as a medium?”

Birth of a Nation (1915), Part II

Birth_of_a_Nation_war_scene

So, having completely bashed the picture for its racist content last time out, I’m stuck with a big question: If it’s so terrible, why is it so important? At the risk of creating an essay that’s guilty of the very problems I identified then, I need to talk about two things: technical advances and ballyhoo. To start with the first, let’s be clear: “The Birth of a Nation” was not, as has occasionally been claimed, the first feature film. It was not the first use of tracking shots, pans, or close ups. It was not the first film to edit within scenes or even the most advanced example of editing or lighting or any technique that had ever been used before. However, it was one of the first movies to combine all of this into an emotionally affecting narrative. For many viewers, it may have been their first experience seeing the above techniques used so well or so frequently.

And the second half of the equation partly explains this. D.W. Griffith had poured his life into making this movie (more about him as a person in future installments) had called in every favor he could and was in serious debt. He needed the movie to succeed, and he used every tactic of media exploitation he could to promote it. People heard about the movie long before they saw it. The stage was set for them, the thrills predicted. Moreover, they went in primed for a “new” experience. While “the movies” were seen in the United States (less so in Europe) as being “common” entertainment for poor people and immigrants, Griffith promoted his “photo-play” as an uplifting experience for the middle classes. Legitimate theaters (as opposed to nickelodeons) were rented for premieres in various cities, and ticket prices were as much as $2.00 (as opposed to five cents), making this an exclusive experience but also setting up an expectation that one was really going to “see something.” Orchestras were hired to play the original score. Ushers wore Civil War uniforms. People went wild, cheering and applauding. Of course, the minority of African Americans who saw the movie came away with a different feeling, but for the dominant white majority, this quickly became part of their personal narratives – one of the most exciting experiences of their lives, and an example of how motion pictures could be more than a minor diversion. The result is that more people, and certainly more influential people, saw the movie and were blown away by it.

Side note/tangent: I find that New York City’s Film Forum will be screening the movie tomorrow for its centenary. Wisely, they have invited an African American author to introduce it. I wonder whether it still may draw a few protestors.

Birth of a Nation (1915), Part I

Birth_of_a_Nation_theatrical_poster

Up to now, my reviews have been quite short. This is not a mistake: I want to cover as many films of each year as I can, and I want to make my discussions accessible. I also see them as potential jumping-off points for more detailed discussions in the comments. For this year, however, I’m making an exception. The legacy of the movie “The Birth of a Nation,” by D.W. Griffith is too much to handle in a single post of a few hundred words, so I’m giving myself all year to unpack it. This represents its powerful impact on film history, but no less its controversial and problematic content.

Let’s start with that. This movie is a blatant glorification of the Ku Klux Klan of the Reconstruction Era South and a continuation of the “Lost Cause” narrative of the Civil War which furthered the cause of white supremacy by framing the South as the noble victim of Northern industrial and technological advancement. The movie was so powerful in delivering this message that it facilitated the rebirth of a new KKK in America, which became a powerful political force throughout the country by the early 1920s and was still active in fighting the Civil Rights movement a generation later. As late as 1988, former klansman Thomas Martinez claimed that KKK-inspired organizations would use the silent movie as a recruitment device, more than 60 years after the introduction of sound film. In short, the movie is racist, and at least part of its legacy is racism. That’s all pretty obvious, but it has been known to get lost in discussions about how important, groundbreaking, original, etc. the film was. Perhaps more importantly, many people at the time, including D.W. Griffith himself, actually didn’t believe that it espoused race hatred. In short, it makes the movie a case study in the ways that a society glosses its own prejudices, until enough things change to make it obvious. If some people in 1915 couldn’t see the racism in “The Birth of a Nation,” what are we missing in 2015?

See for yourself: here.

Judith of Bethulia (1914)

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This is the big contender from 1914 for D.W. Griffith and the Biograph Company. Biograph allowed Griffith to make this feature-length film, but then blanched at the cost and refused to make any more, causing Griffith to depart, taking most of Biograph’s big stars with him. Left with little to show for it, Biograph let the movie languish on the shelf for several months before releasing it to strong critical acclaim. I want to highlight one of the reviews from Moving Picture World, which said it “will not only rank as an achievement in this country, but will make foreign producers sit up and take notice.” This illustrates the degree to which American film was still regarded as “inferior” in the international film market, where it would be “dominant” just a few years later. Anyway, this movie is based on a story from the Apocrypha, about a devout young woman (Blanche Sweet, who we’ve seen in “The Avenging Conscience” and “The Last Drop of Water”) who saves a city from attack by the Assyrians by seducing the general (Henry B. Walthall, from “The Avenging Conscience” and 1915’s “Birth of a Nation”) and chopping his head off while he is drunk on wine. It’s pretty heady stuff for 1914, and the battle scenes and other large-scale scenes are impressive, even when compared to foreign works like “Cabiria.”

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Blanche Sweet, Henry B. Walthall, Mae Marsh, Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish, Robert Harron

Run Time: 48 Min

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913)

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This 2-reel Western wraps up my exploration of D.W. Griffith’s early shorts. Unlike “The Massacre” and other examples, this movie has no narrative of sympathy for Native Americans, using them as truly stereotypical villains – the poster seen above is vividly accurate, and could only be embellished if the “Indian” in the image had a half-eaten puppy in his mouth. The story is that two orphans (one of them is Mae Marsh, who appeared in “The New York Hat” and “Birth of a Nation”) arrive in a settlement town with their puppies, but are told by their strict uncle to leave them outside. One goes to see that they are OK, and finds two natives stealing them for a feast. The uncle comes to the rescue, and shoots one, who happens to be the chief’s son. This brings the whole tribe down on the village, and puts the one baby in town (its mother is Lillian Gish, from “The Mothering Heart” and “Intolerance”) into jeopardy, until the cavalry rides in. The baby is saved by one of the “waifs” and everyone seems happy at the end, despite the fact that the stinginess of one man has caused the deaths of dozens on both sides. It doesn’t seem to me that Griffith really needed the longer format to tell such a cliché story, although the battle scenes are undeniably impressive.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish, Alfred Paget, Robert Harron, Henry B. Walthall, Kate Bruce.

Run Time: 29 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Lesser Evil (1912)

Lesser Evil1

The beginning of this Griffith short looks somewhat like “The Unchanging Sea,” suggesting that it may have been shot in the same area of California where he made that one, but I have no definite information about this. Unlike that movie, this is not a story of love parted by the sea, but rather a classic “damsel in distress” scenario, in which Blanche Sweet (who was in “The Painted Lady” and later starred in “Anna Christie”) is abducted by a rowdy crew of smugglers, while her beau (Edwin August, who we’ve seen in “One is Business, the Other Crime” and also appeared in “The Girl and Her Trust”) rushes to the rescue. Griffith shows he has mastered cinematic tension at this point, putting the girl into additional peril by having the crew decide to take advantage of her, while the gruff but gallant captain (Alfred Paget, from “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” and “The New York Hat”) tries to hold them off with two pistols. He’s a notably bad shot, however, and soon he’s down to his last bullet, which he offers to use on Blanche as a “lesser” evil than the loss of her honor. Even as the police, along with the hero, are climbing aboard the ship, his hand trembles on the trigger…

Director:D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Blanche Sweet, Edwin August, Alfred Paget, Charles West, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh.

Run Time: 13 Min, 20 seconds.

You can watch it for free: here.