Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: NAACP

July 1917

This month, the headlines make it clear how intricately connected the First World War is with the Russian Revolution. Deciding which category some things went under was tough. Also, although Finland has long been a sovereign nation, that independence was most recently reasserted during (and due to) the revolution, so I’ve included Finnish news under that heading for now.

British mortar battery taking up position on July 31.

World War One

Russian General Brusilov begins the major Kerensky Offensive on July 1 in Galicia, initially advancing towards Lemberg.

Greece joins the war on the side of the Allies on July 2.

Battle of Aqaba: Arabian troops led by T. E. Lawrence capture Aqaba from the Ottoman Empire on July 6.

First Battle of Ramadi takes place from July 8 to 13. British troops fail to take Ramadi from the Ottoman Empire; a majority of British casualties are due to extreme heat.

Austrian and German forces repulse the Russian advance into Galicia. Fighting rages from July 20 to 28.

Allied offensive operations commence in Flanders on July 31, beginning the Battle of Passchendaele.

Alexander Kerensky

Russian Revolution

Russian troops mutiny, abandon the Austrian front, and retreat to the Ukraine; hundreds are shot by their commanding officers during the retreat, July 16 to 17.

Serious clashes in Petrograd in July Days (16-18); Lenin escapes to Finland; Trotsky is arrested.

On July 20, the Parliament of Finland, with a Social Democratic majority, passes a “Sovereignty Act”, declaring itself, as the representative of the Finnish people, sovereign over the Grand Principality of Finland. The Russian Provisional Government does not recognize the act, as it would have devolved Russian sovereignty over Finland, formerly exercised by the Russian Emperor as Grand Prince of Finland and alter the relationship between Finland and Russia into a real union with Russia solely responsible for the defense and foreign relations of an independent Finland.

Alexander Kerensky becomes premier of the Russian Provisional Government on July 20, replacing Prince Georgy Lvov.

The Russian Provisional Government enacts women’s suffrage on July 20.

The Parliament of Finland is dissolved by the Russian Provisional Government July 30. New elections are held in the autumn, resulting in a bourgeois majority.

The Silent Parade, n New York City, to protest violence against African Americans.

Labor/racial unrest:

East St. Louis riot occurs on July 2. A labor dispute ignites a race riot in East St. Louis, Illinois, which leaves 250 dead.

Bisbee Deportation occurs on July 12. The Phelps Dodge Corporation deports over 1,000 suspected IWW members from Bisbee, Arizona.

On July 28, the Silent Parade is organized by the NAACP in New York City to protest the East St. Louis riot of July 2, as well as lynchings in Tennessee and Texas.

King George V

Monarchy:

King George V of the United Kingdom issues a proclamation on July 17, stating that thenceforth the male line descendants of the British Royal Family will bear the surname Windsor, denying the Germanic bloodline of House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, which is an offshoot of the historic (800+ years) House of Wettin.

Government:

Sir William Thomas White introduces Canada’s first income tax as a “temporary” measure on July 25 (lowest bracket is 4% and highest is 25%).

Diplomacy:

The Corfu Declaration, which enables the establishment of the post-war Kingdom of Yugoslavia, is signed on July 20 by the Yugoslav Committee and the Kingdom of Serbia.

Philanthropy:

The Lions Clubs International is formed in the United States on July 7.

Hoaxes

First Cottingley Fairies photographs taken in Yorkshire, England during July, apparently depicting fairies; a hoax not admitted by the child creators until 1981.

Film:

Big Timber, starring Wallace Reid, released July 5.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (German, Das Bildnis des Dorian Gray) released July (date uncertain).

Births:

Virginia Dale, July 1, actress (in “Holiday Inn” and “Dragnet”)

Faye Emerson, July 8, actress (in “The Mask of Dimitrios” and “A Face in the Crowd”)

Phyllis Diller, July 17, comedian, actress (in “Splendor in the Grass” and “Mad Monster Party”)

Lorna Gray, July 26, actress (in “Flying G-Men” and “So Proudly We Hail”)

May 1917

The Century News roundup this week has some interesting trends, in addition to the expected war news and the militarization of the now officially belligerent USA. The Russian Revolution continues, but the big headlines for this month are about uprisings in France and Italy – reasons why people on both sides feared (or anticipated) a coming World Revolution. The Catholic Church has some major events, both at the top and the bottom of its hierarchical structure. And in a film world that is increasingly defined by major stars with huge salaries and unprecedented control of their work, we see important releases from Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, and Roscoe Arbuckle.

Phillippe Pétain

World War One

The Nivelle Offensive, an attack on the Aisne Front that resulted in over 180,000 French casualties, is abandoned on May 9.

Robert Nivelle is replaced on May 15 as Commander-in-Chief of the French Army by Philippe Pétain. Seen as a hero at this stage of his career, he will later lead the collaborationist regime of Vichy France.

The Selective Service Act passes the United States Congress on May 18, giving the President the power of conscription.

During the Stalemate in Southern Palestine the Raid on the Beersheba to Hafir el Auja railway by Desert Column of British Empire troops, destroys large sections of the railway line linking Beersheba to the main Ottoman desert base on May 23.

Over 30,000 French troops refuse to go to the trenches at Missy-aux-Bois on May27. This is one of several mutinies by French soldiers during the year 1917, as conditions at the Front become increasingly inhuman and the sense that generals sacrifice lives without concern spreads among the common people.

Pope Pius XII

Catholicism

The nuncio Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, is consecrated Archbishop by Pope Benedict XV on May 13.

Beginning May 13, 10-year-old Lúcia Santos and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto report experiencing a series of Marian apparitions near Fátima, Portugal, which become known as Our Lady of Fátima. These visions continue until October.

Pope Benedict XV promulgates the 1917 Code of Canon Law on May 27.

Disasters

Over 300 acres (73 blocks) are destroyed in the Great Atlanta fire of 1917 on May 21 in the United States.

A tornado strikes Mattoon, Illinois on May 26, causing devastation and killing 101 people.

Transportation

A new Coast and Geodetic Survey Corps of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey is created on May 22, giving the Survey’s officers a commissioned status that protected them from treatment as spies if captured, as well as providing the United States armed forces with a ready source of officers skilled in surveying that could be rapidly assimilated for wartime support of the armed forces.

Crime

Eli Persons is lynched in Memphis on May 22 in connection with the rape and murder of 16-year-old Antoinette Rappal. Parsons was arrested on the evidence of authorities who claimed they could see his face frozen in the pupils of the victim. His death was a partial motivator for the foundation of the Memphis Chapter of the NAACP.

Civil Unrest

A month of civil violence in Milan, Italy, ends on May 23 after the Italian army forcibly takes over the city from anarchists and anti-war revolutionaries. Fifty people are killed and 800 arrested.

Film

Release of A Romance of the Redwoods, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, starring Mary Pickford on May 14.

Release of One Law for Both directed by Ivan Abramson on May 19.

Release of  Souls Triumphant, starring Lillian Gish on May 20

May 21 – A Reckless Romeo, a ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle short on May 21.

Release of Frank Hansen’s Fortune directed by Viggo Larsen – (Germany). Exact date unknown.

Births

May 1 – Danielle Darrieux, actress (in “5 Fingers” and “The Earrings of Madame de…”).

May 10 – Margo, actress (in “The Leopard Man” and “Lost Horizon”).

May 16 – George Gaynes, actor (in “Police Academy” and “Tootsie”).

May 21 – Raymond Burr, actor (known for “Perry Mason” TV series and also in the American release of “Godzilla”).

May 25 – Steve Cochran, actor (who was in “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “Copacabana“).

The Birth of a Nation, Part VIII

Birth_of_a_Nation_Poster_-_SeattleWhen I started this year, it was my intention to map out a series of 12 articles on the release of D.W. Griffith’s nationalist epic, “The Birth of a Nation.” Each would cover a different aspect of the film and the whole would be a cohesive essay on the movie. Because of the claimed importance of the movie, it seemed like dedicating the whole year to its study was justified

Having reached August, however, I don’t find that I have all that much more to say about it. Here’s a quick summary of what I learned so far this year:

  • I don’t much care for the movie, either in terms of content or artistry.
  • It was a runaway smash hit and was praised to the sky at the time, by filmgoers, by critics, and by other directors.
  • Film historians have credited it with all kinds of amazing innovations, most of which had been developed much earlier, and will bend over backward to defend its content, ignoring flagrant racism with lame excuses like “that’s how things were then,” or, perhaps worse, will deliberately cover up its actual message.
  • Its release and distribution is directly linked to the rise of the second Klan in America.
  • D.W. Griffith agreed with its message and either couldn’t understand or refused to believe that it promoted divisiveness and hate in the country.

GriffithDWAnd while we’re on the subject of Griffith, here’s what I’m seeing:

  • He was a good, perhaps great director, but not the superhero he gets made out to be.
  • He is consistently credited with innovations (like the close-up, the fade-out, etc) that others did first and he appears to have accepted that credit while alive, either deliberately or mistakenly muddying the historical record.
  • His best work, and certainly his most innovative/original, was done while working in short format at Biograph. He never seems to have learned how to tell longer stories well, even though he desperately wanted to the whole time.
  • His most important contributions seem to have been in the field of editing, specifically in terms of showing simultaneous action across space. He was not the first to do this, either, however he did develop techniques that made it far more effective. In the best examples, such as “An Unseen Enemy,” cross-cutting makes the whole story work.

AlalogosmallThere’s just one more piece to all of this I want to talk about, and it’s the hardest one for me to approach: the question of censorship. I’m a librarian, and I’m therefore professionally dedicated to combating censorship in all forms. Even apart from that, I’ve always been one to fall on the side of “freedom of speech at any cost.” Certainly I would not want to see it become illegal or impossible for people to see “The Birth of a Nation” today – there’s too much to be learned from it. Honestly, I think if more people saw it, we’d have a better chance of getting a re-evaluation of its historical significance and meaning.

NaacplogoBut, what about back then? The NAACP fought hard battles to keep the movie from opening in various cities, and I’m very grateful to them for doing so. If they hadn’t spoken up, there would be no evidence that, yes, in fact people at that time did find this movie offensive, and their wishes were conveniently ignored. The “it was just that way back then” narrative would succeed. How else could they have made their point known except by trying to censor it? They could have (and did) try the route of “counter-speech,” making their own movies to show the value and worth of African Americans, or correcting the record on the Civil War. But, none of them even came close to capturing the popular imagination the way “Birth of a Nation” did. It’s easy to talk about counter-speech being the best way to fight hate speech, but the reality is that you don’t just make a blockbuster because you happen have the moral high ground or the truth on your side. It takes money, professional connections, artistic skills and distribution infrastructure, which are not easy to come by. In the end, the NAACP lost most of its battles, or won them technically, but still were unable to enforce their wins. “Birth of a Nation” was released all over the country, but not without a fight, and that fight remains part of the historical record.

Birth of a Nation7Am I saying that the world would be a better place if “Birth of a Nation” had not been released, or had been restricted to a clandestine release? I don’t think so. It would have been nice if the 20s KKK had not had access to such a powerful recruiting tool, but there probably wasn’t any way to stop that. The fact that the movie was released, and that it became such a runaway hit that nearly everyone in film agreed it was brilliant for generations is, in fact, an important reflection of the times. I’m grateful to the NAACP, not because they wanted to suppress speech, but because they used their campaign to remind Americans then and now that there was more than one side to the story. Even a campaign for censorship is itself a form of speech, and deserves to be listened to as much for what it says as for what it tries to stop others from saying.

Birth of a NationWhat disappoints me about modern historians and classic film fans is that they simply shrug off these complexities and accept the dominant narrative as the only one. “Classic” movies in America are generally defined as being those made during the period when the fewest non-white people were on the screen, and those that were there had the most stereotyped roles. This is something that needs to be challenged. Enjoying or studying old movies shouldn’t entail accepting the ideology of the period in which they were made without question. It’s possible for Griffith to have been both an innovator and a racist. The world is a complicated place, and understanding it requires a willingness to be honest about your evidence, and keep asking new questions, and, most of all, being ready to change your mind.

That’s all I have to say about this movie for now. The last question, how I’m going to handle it in terms of the “Century Awards,” I leave for next month.

Birth of a Nation, Part VII

David_Wark_Griffith_portrait

This month, I’m going to talk a bit about how historians have treated “The Birth of a Nation,” and where I stand in relation to that historiography as I proceed with this project. As it happens, fate placed in my hand a copy of William K. Everson’s book American Silent Film recently, and, though I hadn’t meant to read much of it, I realized I needed to look seriously at what he had to say about D.W. Griffith and “Birth” because he came from such a radically different position, and because he represents what might be seen as the “standard narrative” for the last forty years or so.

 American Silent Film

Before I get into where I differ with Everson, let’s start with his importance. Prior to his work, film historians often dismissed the silent era as “primitive” or even handicapped by the lack of dialogue. Everson proposed that we think of the silent film as an art form unto itself, “as different to sound film as painting is to photography,” and he was one of the first to suggest that silent film had achieved a level of art far in advance of where it would be in the early years of sound, in other words that the introduction of sound represented a serious setback for cinematography and artistry, one which took years to overcome. These are now pretty well accepted arguments, especially among cinematographers and film historians.

The other thing I should mention is that he had less to work with than we do today, due to the amount of recovered and remastered silent films that have been made available since the 70s. At several points in his book, he predicts that there will be relatively few new discoveries in the future, due to the fragility of nitrate originals and the increasing distance in time since their production. He could not possibly have predicted the power that digitization would have to restore then-unwatchable prints, nor the good fortune that film preservationists have had in finding fortunate survivors in the intervening years.

 GriffithDW

So, what does he say? Essentially, he argues that D.W. Griffith was the only serious artist in early cinema, that everything changed with the release of “The Birth of a Nation” and that everything that came afterwards just built on what he had achieved. Nearly every director he considers worthwhile was “apprenticed” to Griffith at some point, or “imitated” his innovations. He refers to “Birth” as “the full flowering of Griffith’s art” argues that it “established movies as an international art and an international industry almost overnight.” His argument is not based on erroneous ideas that “Birth of a Nation” was the “first” film to include Griffith’s “film grammar;” for this he discusses the Biograph shorts and argues that Griffith perfected his art before making “Birth,” but that by putting all of his talents into an epic, big-budget feature film, he broke through the wall that had kept film simple and un-imaginative for twenty years, establishing it forever as a serious form of expression. So far as content, he claims that the film’s “controversy [is] often artificially created and sustained” and has drowned out appreciation of its accomplishments. He argues that the source, Thomas Dixon’s “The Clansman” was far more racist, and that Griffith dialed back some of that racism for the screen, that the use of white men in blackface was standard practice at the time and necessary because Girffith didn’t know enough African American actors, and that Griffith’s historical perspective was supported by legitimate historians in the period he made it. He accuses the NAACP of “harassing” every showing of the film for over fifty years with “letters…indicating that the writers had never seen the film they were protesting so vehemently.”

 Toms Coons

Before I discuss this any further, I want to pause and take a look at another book from the 70s, Donald Bogle’s book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks. Bogle is an African American historian whose book explores the history of African American portrayals in film – essentially arguing that all of them were built on stereotypes, and making the point that African American actors always had to play against the stereotypes they were assigned. What does he have to say about “The Birth of a Nation?” Well, he does deplore the content, saying that it originated the stereotype of the “Buck” (through Gus) and also contributed to the “Tragic Mulatto” and the “Tom” with other blackface characters. But, he also says “[i]n almost every way, ‘The Birth of a Nation’was a stupendous undertaking, unlike any film that had preceded it.” He actually goes farther than Everson, claiming that it “altered the entire course of American moviemaking, developing the close-up, cross-cutting, rapid-fire editing, the iris, the split screen shot, and realistic and impressionistic lighting.” Bogle is actually more historically inept in heaping undue praise onto a movie he sees as damaging to African Americans than Everson is in defending it! It only makes matter worse that I’m quoting from the 1998 edition, by which time Bogle had had 25 years to correct these errors. With enemies like these, why would Griffith need friends?

 DW Griffiths Biograph Shorts

So, what we see here is the way that historians have over-played the importance of both Griffith and “Birth” for generations now. With Everson, we also see the desperate justifications for its content, although he is to be credited – unlike Martin Scorsese at least he didn’t try to hide it completely. With this project, I’ve discovered that there were plenty of films as good as “Birth” both before and afterwards and that, yes, other directors did see the motion picture as art and contribute to its development as well as Griffith. One of the reasons this distortion has taken place is that, for various reasons, the Biograph roster of films happened to be the best preserved and easiest to study for many years. It’s still easier to find a Griffith shorts collection than to do a thorough study of Selig pictures, or the career of Lois Weber or Maurice Tourneur. To say nothing of foreign films. And that’s another point. Everson’s book is called “American Silent Film,” but in arguing that Griffith established movies as an “international art form” he needs to take into account the huge distribution of European, especially French, movies in the US prior to World War One.

 Birth_of_a_Nation_theatrical_poster

I’ve discussed the content elsewhere, but so far as the art of cinema is concerned my own argument is this: Griffith did achieve one important “first” with “The Birth of a Nation.” For the first time in cinema history, he placed the importance of advertising and public relations above the importance of the film itself. People remembered “Birth” as the groundbreaking event it has been commemorated as because Griffith TOLD them it was. They shelled out $2.00 to see it, arguably the equivalent of paying $40 or more to see a movie today. He brought a new class of movie viewers to the new movie palaces, and gave them a spectacle that included a live orchestra, ushers in costume, and, yes, an exciting epic of a film. Not a film that stands up as unique to anyone who looks at what else was available at the time, but that’s exactly the point: his audience didn’t go to the movies before “Birth” was released! They saw “Birth” as the “first” all those things because they thought that moving pictures up to that point had been trivial and unimportant. Griffith achieved a publicity stunt that continued to convince the elites who create the narratives about movies for the next 100 years. My argument is that the time has come to challenge this.

March 1915

SMS Dresden, which would be scuttled after the Battle of Mas a Tierra off Chile

SMS Dresden, which would be scuttled after the Battle of Mas a Tierra off Chile.

Once again, it’s time for a new roundup of events 100 years ago.

World War One:

On March 14, the Battle of Más a Tierra takes place. Off the coast of Chile, the British Royal Navy forces the Imperial German Navy light cruiser SMS Dresden (last survivor of the German East Asia Squadron) to scuttle.

On March 18, a British attack on the Dardanelles fails.

Diplomacy: On March 14, Britain, France and the Russian empire reach the Constantinople Agreement, to give Constantinople and the Bosphorus to Russia in case of victory (the treaty is later nullified by the Bolshevik Revolution).

Plagues: The 1915 Palestine locust infestation breaks out in Palestine; it continues until October.

Science:

On March 3 The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor of NASA, is founded in the United States.

On March 19, Pluto is photographed for the first time but is not classified as a planet.

Military: On March 25 The U.S. submarine F-4 sinks off Hawaii during submarine maneuvers; 21 are killed. These are the first submarine fatalities in US history.

Sports: On March 26, the Vancouver Millionaires win the Stanley Cup over the Ottawa Senators three games to zero.

Film: On March 3, the movie “The Birth of a Nation” has its New York premiere, despite objections from the NAACP that it is “an offense to public decency.” The title has been changed since its debut February 8 in Los Angeles as “The Clansman.”

Births: March 2, Lona Andre (who appeared in “Slaves in Bondage” and “School for Girls”), March 17, Henry Bumstead (art director for “Vertigo” and “Unforgiven”), March 19, Patricia Morison (who had roles in “Dressed to Kill” and “Hitler’s Madman”).