Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: race

Watermelon Patch (1905)

This short film from Edison offers the opportunity to think about racial tropes in America and how they have (and haven’t) changed. While certainly not a flattering portrayal of African Americans, it avoids the use of blackface and has real black people portraying themselves at least.

The movie opens on a shot of a watermelon patch with two full-sized scarecrows on poles overlooking it. Two black men cautiously enter the shot and, after comedically bumping heads, signal to off-screen companions, who filter in and each claims a watermelon. While they are distracted, the scarecrows remove their clothes, revealing skeletons underneath (actually, people in black body-suits with skeletons painted on the front). One of the thieves turns and sees them, and the skeletons begin waving. The thieves panic and run, and the skeletons hop down from their poles and chase them off-screen. The chase continues for a few succeeding shots, and many of the watermelon thieves drop their ill-gotten gains as they run through a forest, leap over a fence, and hurry down a country road.

The scene shifts to the interior of a shack, with many African Americans dancing together. The dance has comedic elements – a very large fat woman is featured in one portion, and another section involves two men surreptitiously kicking one another at intervals in the dance. Then, the survivors of the chase come in, some of them still have their watermelons, and this is cause for general celebration. A watermelon is thrown on the ground so that it shatters into pieces, and everyone takes a piece and sits down to eat. We see a close two-shot of two men eating very large pieces of watermelon, occasionally looking up to grin at each other with juice-stained faces. They seem to engage in a kind of “Watermelon Contest,” with the one on the left pulling ahead and then breaking off a chunk of his opponent’s piece to get more watermelon.

The scene returns to the watermelon patch, where some white men with dogs have arrived. The dogs track the scent of the thieves through the forest, the fence, and the road, and the men arrive outside of the shack. One peers in the window, which is closed in his face. The white men board up the door from outside and cover the smokestack with a board. Back inside, we see one of the black men shut the window, then the feeding continues for a while until the place starts to fill up with smoke. Everyone gets up in distress, but they cannot open the door. Someone opens the window, and a woman tries to climb through it, getting stuck so that her undergarments are visible to the audience. Once again, we cut to outside, and again, we go back a bit in time so that we see the window open, and the woman climbs through. This time, she does not get stuck however, because the white men drag her out, and she runs away. Then several more people are brought out that way, and others climb out through a skylight. The white men let all of them go, although apparently they chastise them as they pull them out of the shack.

On the “Invention of the Movies” DVD, African American scholar Michele Wallace raises some interesting points about blacks and watermelons, and also black stereotypes generally. Watermelons are a staple Southern food (they will not grow in the North), which can be grown cheaply and with relatively little effort. They have, as we know, become associated with African American culture and with racial epithets. I think she misses the fact that they are generally messy to eat, with juice staining hands and faces, and the necessity of spitting out the seeds, which contributes to their consumption being seen as “uncouth” or infantile. She makes another interesting point that applies well to this movie, which is that most of the stereotypes about black culture from this period reflect poor, rural life in various ways (perhaps today it is poor, urban culture being reflected in black stereotypes). This movie centers around agricultural production, and also the question of ownership (and theft) of the means of living. Wallace points out that poor people often stole food like watermelons and chickens, because these were things that could feed a large group quickly, and could be hard to trace. Other stereotypes include their superstitious reaction to the skeletons, associated with a low level of education and world-experience, and their dancing, which is the only form of free entertainment available to them. The blacks seem to be a mix of “field hands” and “house servants” from their attire, although recall that slavery is now 40 years in the past. The field hands often seem to get the better of their “betters,” as in the kicking contest that takes place during the dance.

Technically, this film is also interesting. When I watched the opening, I thought, “if this movie had been made four years earlier, that opening shot would have been the whole movie, and that would have been just as good.” By 1905, Edwin S. Porter feels the necessity to drag out his thin plot over several shots by adding a chase, which may partly explain why chase films were so common during the Nickelodeon Era. But the really interesting aspect of this movie is the sequential editing, which requires us to see the window being closed from both the inside and the outside of the shack, and for the sequence to “jump backward” in time each time we cut between the two locations. Parallel editing is just a couple of years away, and in fact this is more neatly handled than “Life of an American Fireman” was a few years earlier, where an entire scene is re-played from two angles. I would say that this is a step in the evolution of editing, and suggests that it was not the genius of any one person that “invented” the technique.

Director: Edwin S. Porter & Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Edwin S. Porter & Wallace McCutcheon

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 11 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903)

This early version of the famous novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe is a little hard to accept in the modern world, because of the associations we have with the title and the way it portrays the African American experience. Nonetheless, at the time of its release it was an important attempt to recreate an important work of literature on the screen, and compared to other movies of the time, it demonstrates high production values and a seriousness of tone.

The movie begins with the Intertitle “Eliza pleads with Tom to run away.” We then see some actors in blackface on a proscenium-style set that depicts a cabin in the snow. They talk with each other and pantomime their conversation. “Eliza” is accompanied by a small child, and “Tom” seems to have a wife or other woman living in his cabin. The next scene is “Phinias outwits the slave traders.” Here, on a set built to resemble a tavern or store, Eliza speaks to a white character, who shows her out the back door, then distracts a well-dressed white man with liquor. Other men come in and “Phinias” keeps them in a huddle while Eliza re-enters the stage, then sneaks her child and herself out through the window. When the men turn around, Phinias holds them at bay with pistols. “The Escape of Eliza” involves an elaborate outdoor set that re-creates a river with ice floes floating along it. Eliza and the child run upriver, pursued by dogs and a group of men, then float past the other direction on one of the ice floes. Some men who try to catch them fall into the river and have to be rescued. Next is the “Reunion of Eliza and George Harris,” which takes place in a large room with a spinning wheel. George tries to hide Eliza, and when the pursuers show up he shoots one of them in the  foot from a high vantage point, then shoots another one dead when they don’t leave.

The narrative now shifts away from Eliza with “Race between the Rob’t E. Lee and Natchez.” This river-boat race is shown with very obvious miniatures, and the losing boat explodes and catches fire at the end. I was expecting “Rescue of Eva” to be rescuing someone from the burning boat, but rather it shows a group of slaves dancing in front of the disembarkation of the winner. Eva, a small white child, trips and falls off the gangplank into the river, and Tom leaps in to save her. The next scene is “The Welcome home to St. Clair Eva Aunt Ophelia and Uncle Tom” [sic]. This shows what seems to be the entryway to a plantation home and more slaves dancing. Eva rides in on a pony. Tom is now dressed in a very fine butler’s uniform. “Tom and Eva in the Garden” is an extension of this happy home life sequence, with a cakewalk-style dance. This is then broken by “Death of Eva” in which a double-exposed image of an angel floats down and takes Eva’s soul from her body on the sickbed. Tom pantomimes his profound sorrow at the child’s death. In “St. Clair Defends Uncle Tom,” we see Tom and his owner enter a fancy saloon. Tom stands deferentially to one side while St. Clair drinks and reads the paper, but some white men start trouble with him and St. Clair gets up and fights them. He is killed in the fight.

The next scene, “Auction Sale of St. Clair’s Slaves” is often criticized because it shows the slaves dancing (again) before the auction begins. Even more stereotypically, two of them are playing craps as well (as if they would have anything to gamble). I think what was more significant to audiences at the time is that Tom is no longer in his servant’s finery, he now is clothed as a field hand. In the next scene, “Tom Refuses to Flog Ema’line” and is flogged himself. This takes place before a backdrop of the plantation field. Then, back at the plantation home of Tom’s new owner, “Marks Avenges Death’s of St. Clair and Uncle Tom” [sic] by coming on stage and unceremoniously shooting the white man. The movie concludes with “Tableau: Death of Tom,” which includes superimposed shots from a magic lantern of the eventual emancipation of the slaves over the broken figure of Tom, chained to a wall and dying.

The movie assumes either a live narrator or an intimate familiarity with the story, despite the forward-facing Intertitles that precede each screen, which was itself an innovation in 1903. I was able to follow some of it. It helps to know that Stowe was an abolitionist, and created the character of Tom as a good Christian whose basic decency and humanity was contrasted with the white slave drivers, whose Christianity was often hypocritical. We don’t think of “Uncle Tom” today as a term relating to showing African Americans as human beings, but that was the original intent of the novel. This version undercuts that somewhat by using blackface and portraying stereotypes, but the basic message is still there: Tom rescues a little girl and refuses to whip another slave and dies for it. It doesn’t really seem like the Eliza sub-plot adds much to this in this version, but presumably audiences familiar with the book would have expected to see it, and I was reasonably impressed with the special effects on the ice floe sequence.

Michelle Wallace, who gave the introduction to “Scrap in Black and White,” also introduces this movie on the “Invention of the Movies” DVD, pointing out the popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin during the period (the same year, there was a version released by Lubin, a studio dedicated mainly to filmed versions of the classics), and to some degree defending it against its reputation as an agent of racism. I have some problems with the way she expresses this, saying that it is perhaps not “100% racist-fascist” and that it does not support the idea of “extermination” of black people in its interest in showing them at play or dancing. The problem is that these concepts do not apply in 1903. Fascism was still almost twenty years away in Italy and had no roots in American racism, which was never based on a need to exterminate black people. American racism did devalue black lives, and supported killing individual blacks, but the idea was to “keep them in their place,” as second class citizens, not to wipe them out. Of course, Stowe’s novel challenged this by arguing that a black man might be a better Christian than his white owners, but this version of the story preserves only part of that message, which is undercut by the stereotypical portrayals of African Americans on the screen.

Director:Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 19 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here with music).

 

What Happened in the Tunnel (1903)

This is a short comedy from Edison that exploits racial stereotypes as well as gender relations but isn’t likely to offend modern viewers.

We see the interior of a railroad car from a slight angle and above. In one seat, near a window, sits a young white woman and a large black woman in a maid’s outfit. Behind them is a white man with a large nose. The white woman is reading, but the man behind her strikes up a conversation. We can see by her reactions that he is being somewhat forward, and that she’s embarrassed, but the maid keeps smiling broadly. Suddenly the screen goes black (the train enters a tunnel). When the lights come up again, we see that the white woman and the black woman have changed places, and the masher is now kissing  the black maid! He shows extreme embarrassment and consternation and hides behind his newspaper.

Part of the reason that this movie still “works” in the context of modern sensibilities is that the only person shown as having racist attitudes is the masher, who we already don’t like because he is forcing his attentions on the white girl. In a totally non-racially charged context, the movie can still work: he is attracted to one girl and not the other, and gets tricked into kissing the wrong one in the dark. However, the known racial order makes this more effective: he isn’t just annoyed that he’s kissed the “wrong” woman, he’s worried about the judgment of others on the train who have seen him kissing a black woman. If you analyze it more closely, the racism under the surface becomes clearer. The black woman is in on the joke from the outset – we conclude from her smile that she has a plan to get rid of this obnoxious fellow from the beginning – but doing so requires her to experience the humiliation of being the butt of that joke. She has to accept being seen as undesirable or not entirely human by onlookers in order to effect her punishment on the villain (this would still apply if she were just a fat white woman in the same role, but it has further implications because of her race). It’s notable that they brought in a real African American for this role, instead of a woman or even a man in blackface.

Director:Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Gilbert M. Anderson, Bertha Regustus

Run Time: 1 Min, 20 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Scrap in Black and White (1903)

This short from Edison shows us something about race and children, but it may be hard to pin down exactly what that message is. From the ending punch line (forgive the pun), it appears to be intended as a comedy, although I’m not sure how funny it is.

scrap-in-black-and-white

An impromptu boxing ring has been rigged up in a park or backyard, and two boys of perhaps 10 to 12 years of age sit in chairs on either side. One is black, the other white, and they seem to be evenly matched in terms of height and musculature. White adults serve as referees and supporters, and there is another white child sitting on the grass as an audience. The two boys begin to fight, and after a short time the white boy goes down and the referee begins to count. He gets up before the count is over and the fight continues until the bell. Then the boys go to their corners and are fanned with towels. The white boy drinks from a water bottle, while the black boy drinks from a bucket. They get up and begin fighting again, winding up in an embrace, and they both go down. The men throw buckets of water on both of them, and then laugh heartily, when they get up wet and walk out of the ring.

Michelle Wallace, who has written about race in early film, gives a short intro to this movie on the “Invention of the Movies” DVD. She says that it raises some questions about the racial order, since “the black boy is allowed to win.” The problem with that (and I suspect she hadn’t seen the movie immediately before making that comment), is that neither boy actually wins, the fight is called on account of the ending joke. In fact, it looks to me as if the white boy “takes a dive” on instruction from the adults during the part where he is briefly counted over. Prior to that, he is fighting much harder and gets in what look like real hits, while the black boy merely taps his opponent occasionally and seems not to know how to box. I would agree that there is no clear racial hierarchy imposed on this film, however. The children appear to be equals, for the purposes of this simulated boxing match, and they both wind up equally humiliated by the adults’ joke. Unlike movies like “Watermelon Contest,” the point of this does not seem to dehumanize the black subject, which is interesting, although I have no explanation of why they wanted a white and a black fighter, instead of two white children, for this movie.

Director: Unkown

Camera: A.C. Abadie

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 11 secs

You can watch it for free: here (no music).

Watermelon Contest (1900)

This film is either a deliberate remake of the 1896 movie “Watermelon Eating Contest” or else an unintentional return to a theme seen as “natural” in American cinema. The movie shows that little had changed, so far as the depiction of African Americans was concerned, while cinema progressed.

watermelon-contest1We see a group of four men eagerly consuming watermelons and spitting out seeds. At first things are fairly orderly, although the men occasionally seem to joke or roughhouse with one another. One man finishes his slice of watermelon and reaches for another, but soon the others are fighting with him and the one man sitting in front who seems to have the largest piece. Pieces of watermelon get broken off and everyone gets messy.

As with the original, this is not a film that is likely to agree with modern audiences. Today there is much stronger sensitivity, even among white people, to the degree that watermelon has become a racist trope, confirming the inferiority, innocence and dependency of black people. This movie simply confirms all of this, including the animalistic way in which the “contestants” are shown eating and fighting with one another. It’s all the more noticeable because there have been so few other depictions of African Americans up to this point. They are only brought in for movies like this, which are designed to humiliate them as individuals and as a race. This would lay the groundwork for a century of racism in the American media, which still is felt to this day.

Director: James H. White

Camera: Unknown, possibly James H. White

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

A Morning Bath (1896)

This short film from Edison raises some issues about race in the nineteenth century, even though the content is in no way offensive to us today. It’s a reminder that all films have to be understood in context, and that context doesn’t necessarily excuse anything.

The movie is, simply, a woman bathing a baby in a washbasin, as women throughout the US did at the time. The baby is covered in soap suds (and crying), while the woman is looking off-screen, smiling somewhat nervously, for much of the picture, apparently receiving directions from men off-camera. None of this would be especially remarkable, except that the woman and child are African-American; so far as I can recall this is the earliest image of an African American woman on film.

Morning BathThe first interesting point about this movie is technical: although it seems to have been shot in a studio, presumably the Black Maria, this movie is shot against a white backdrop instead of the black backdrop usually used at the Black Maria. This “technical” issue, however, is probably related to race as well – a dark-skinned person would tend to fade into the background with a dark backdrop, especially with the quality of film available at the time, so they needed to use a lighter one. It wouldn’t surprise me if they had to shoot this a few times before they figured that out. The question this raises is, why use an African American for this role at all (especially given that it was pretty rare)? The answer seems to be indicated in the Maguire & Baucus Catalog, which states that “This is a clear and distinct picture in which the contrast between the complexion of the bather and the white soapsuds is strongly marked.” The contrast was exactly what the movie was filmed to demonstrate. It’s worth noting that the Library of Congress has excised offensive words from both this entry and a description from the Edison catalog – giving a sense of how the advertising for this film was handled, and presumably, the live narration that usually would accompany it. Thus, it is overly simplistic to think of this as a movie about an everyday event which happens to showcase diversity – the reasoning behind the film and its presentation was explicitly racist – although for us today this context is obscure.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here (no music).

Broncho Billy and the Greaser (1914)

This is probably one of the most “typical” Western shorts I’ve seen from Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, in the sense that it could most effortlessly be substituted for the kind of kids’ Western fare of later eras of movies and television.

Broncho Billy and the GreaserBroncho Billy delivers mail by horseback, and when he rides into town he quickly greets Marguerite Clayton, apparently the only single young lady for miles around, before going into the General Store that serves as a local post office. The postmaster there is dealing with the impatience of locals who seem to have little to do but hang around the store asking him when the mail’s coming in, but he’s happy to fill Marguerite’s jug while they wait. Meanwhile, a local “half-breed,” played by Lee Willard, has been making better (or worse) use of his time at the local saloon. He saunters in just after Billy delivers the mail, blustering his way to the head of the line by displaying his six-shooter. Billy, made aware of the situation by the post master, corrects the situation by drawing his gun and escorting the bad guy out of the store. Once she has her mail, Marguerite shows her appreciation with a chaste handshake that makes both of them ride their horses backwards. The villain, of course, observes all of this with glares.

Broncho Billy and the Greaser1Lee now gives us a performance, showing off how enraged he is, riding back to his shack and drinking from a flask, snarling at the camera. He watches as Billy rides past his shack and picks up a knife, showing us what is in his mind with slashing gestures, then gets on his horse and follows. Billy stops on the road to help a man who seems to be suffering from thirst and exhaustion, stumbling down the road and trying to drink from a stream. Lee goes into a bar to get more liquor, but is treated with suspicion by the proprietor, who demands money up front. This only raises his ire, and now he pursues Billy (and his invalid discovery) back to his shack, where Billy has put the man to bed and started a pot of coffee, before taking off his own bracers and laying down for a snooze. Lee peeks into the window and sees Billy asleep, but at this moment Marguerite rides up and sees what is afoot, hastily jumping on her horse for help after the devious Mexican enters Billy’s shack without knocking. Billy fights, but Lee is able to tie him up. So, Marguerite makes her way to the Lazy X ranch, where a dance is taking place, and calls on the men to help. The invalid tries to do something, but barely manages to fall out of bed. The men from the ranch ride to the rescue while Billy struggles to keep the knife away. Once there, they grab the bad guy and drag him away, barely pausing long enough to untie Billy, who now returns to helping the old man. Marguerite comes in and makes sure Billy is OK, before they again shake hands shyly.

Broncho Billy and the Greaser2The obvious thing to comment about in this film is the racist portrayal of a “half-breed” or “greaser” villain. There are no surprises here, and certainly no subversion of American racial hierarchies, but it’s interesting to note two things: First, much of the story is told from Lee’s point of view, and he may actually get more screen time than Billy. Second, for all of the villain’s apparent evil intentions, he in no way menaces the white virginal woman, as played by Marguerite Clayton. One could argue that this threat is implicit, inasmuch as Billy’s closeness to the girl seems to be what sets him off, but it is Billy that he acts out against. Even there, he’s decent enough (or drunk enough) to wake Billy up and tie him rather than simply slitting his throat while he sleeps – although really this is a contrivance to give the girl a chance to go for help. It’s also noteworthy that Billy’s sole “heroic” act against him is to point a gun at him in the general store. If the other (white) townspeople had not come to his rescue, Billy would not have had the strength to defeat his foe alone. Billy is a gentleman toward the girl, and tries to help a wounded man, so we know he’s “good,” but he doesn’t manage to save the day.

Broncho Billy and the Greaser3One more thing I’ve been meaning to comment on is an odd bit of fashion that I mentioned briefly above – the bracers or wrist guards that all of the cowboys wear in these early Westerns. It’s universal in Essanay films, and common from what I recall in Ince pictures and in the few early Westerns of Douglas Fairbanks that I’ve seen. But, if you look at a later Western (I watched “Once Upon a Time in the West” the other night, and kept an eye out, for example), they have been abandoned. Wikipedia only lists these items as protectors for archers, but I can imagine cowboys using them to avoid chafing their wrists with rope or reins. To me, it kind of gives these early cowboy actors a Heavy Metal look (although theirs aren’t studded or spiked), and it feels somewhat more authentic than later movie fashion, but I’m no expert here.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Marguerite Clayton, Lee Willard, Carl Stockdale

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

January 1916

As an aside note, I’d like to point out that the United States Presidential campaign of 1916 didn’t start until June. If there is one thing that indicates a more civilized era, I’d vote for that.

Mutual ads World War One: The British evacuate the last troops from Gallipoli on January 9, acknowledging the defeat of their major operation to seize Istanbul after the loss of over a quarter million soldiers.

The Battle of Wadi in present-day Iraq on January 13 results in failure for allied forces in another offensive against the Ottoman Empire.

Air war: The first bombing of Paris by Zeppelins takes place January 29. Few seek shelter as crowds line the streets to watch the novelty, as if it were a fireworks show.

Medicine: The first successful blood transfusion is carried out using blood that had been stored and cooled on January 1 by the British Royal Army Medical Corps. This advance allows for the large-scale use of blood banks to save lives during the First World War.

Climate: The largest recorded change in temperature takes place January 24 in Browning, Montana, when the temperature drops from 44 degrees (6.7 Celsius) Fahrenheit to -56 (-48.8 Celsius) in less than 24 hours.

Law: The Supreme Court of the United States upholds the Federal Income Tax in its decision on Brushaber v. Union Pacific Railroad, issued January 24.

Race: The Journal of Negro History is founded in January, 1916.

Pacifism: The Anti-Militarism Committee changes its name to the Anti-Preparedness Committee in January, apparently in response to the pro-war “Preparedness Movement” which has been agitating for American involvement since the sinking of the Lusitania the previous year.

MutualBirths: Maxine Andrews, born January 3 (future member of the “Andrews Sisters,” appeared in “Buck Privates” with Abbott & Costello), Betty Furness, born January 3 (actress, appeared in “Swing Time” with Astaire & Rogers, board member for “Consumer Reports”), Lionel Newman, born January 4 (composer, wrote the music for “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “The Girl Can’t Help It”).

Deaths: Arthur V. Johnson, January 17 at age 39 from tuberculosis (actor, appeared in “The Sealed Room” and “The Unchanging Sea”)

A Natural Born Gambler (1916)

Race is a consistently problematic issue with this project, especially for movies which depict African Americans for mostly white audiences. Here, we get a black actor who may have had black audiences in mind during his performance, but who was working for a decidedly white company in doing so. The result is more than a little uncomfortable, although still successfully funny at times.

Natural Born GamblerBert Williams (who plays a character named Bert Williams) is a member of Independent Order of Calcimine Artists of America, a fraternal order which meets in a saloon. He is forced to pay up his dues in order to stay for the gambling which follows the meeting. After the meeting and much argument, Bert carries home his right hand man “Limpy” Jones, because Limpy has a broken leg. As they walk through a graveyard en route from the saloon, they overhear two thieves whom they suspect to be the devil when they hear them speaking. This puts them in a panic and Bert drops Limpy in order to run away. Limpy gets up and runs, quickly overtaking Bert, and showing that his leg was not really broken after all. Bert runs into the thieves outside the graveyard, and is not frightened, since they are normal-looking men. They become friendly and Bert invites them back to the saloon, where Limpy has already run to. Bert joins another dice game, and the thieves lose the chickens they had stolen.

Natural Born Gambler1Meanwhile, Brother Scott of the Order is on a crusade against gambling. He has written an article for the paper claiming that the “evil” is all but gone from town. He breaks up the dice game and takes the money left behind. Another card game gets going when a rich gambler from the North arrives, and Bert and Limpy cheat to take his winnings. The lookout warns the gamblers that “the town sleuth” (a white man) is coming, and they clean up the place and Bert reads Brother Scott’s article against gambling aloud to make it look good. Unfortunately, the cop spots a stray card on the floor. The game resumes when he leaves. Suddenly, the sleuth returns with the police and since the lookout fails to give warning, everyone is arrested. The action now shifts to a courtroom, where the judge gives Brother Scott the winnings from the gambling as a lawyer’s fee, and sentences Bert to ten days in jail. Inside his jail cell, Bert is overcome by his gambling fever and fantasizes about being in a card game, showing through pantomime that he is living a game that isn’t really happening.

Natural_Born_GamblerThe “Slapstick Encyclopedia” presents this movie with a quote from Bert Williams: “It is no disgrace to be a Negro, but it is very inconvenient.” Similarly, this film is not an insult to Williams and his talent as a comedian, but it remains hard to watch in some ways. The African Americans in the film are lazy, shiftless, dishonest, stupid, superstitious, childish, and especially addicted to gambling. Williams himself wears blackface, to emphasize his African American features for the audience, a trick he picked up in the mostly white world of Vaudeville and the Ziegfeld follies, where he was the first black performer. Still, this is the first movie I’ve seen from this period with an African American star, and his name was heavily used to promote the movie. Williams, performing within the constraints of the situation, shows himself to be a talented comedian with excellent timing and an emphasis on comedic pantomime over slapstick. It is easy to see why he was such a success – a combination of talent and a willingness not to rock the boat of racial inequity too hard. W.C. Fields evidently referred to Williams as both “the funniest man” and “the saddest man” he ever knew, and that sums up a lot of what can said about the history of African American comedy.

Bert Williams out of makeup.

Bert Williams out of makeup.

The production is interesting in some other ways as well. It was produced at Biograph Studios, which had been crippled after the departure of D.W. Griffith and nearly all of his best artists in 1913. This year (1916) would include its final new releases, before it became a source only of re-issues of once-great films. It’s interesting to question how Bert Williams became associated with the dying company, and how much this movie did to keep the doors open at 14th Street. Wikipedia claims that this movie was shot by Billy Bitzer, the cameraman best known for his work with Griffith, and who had left with Griffith in 1913 and gone on to work on “Birth of a Nation” in 1915 and “Intolerance” in 1916. “The Silent Era,” a usually reliable source, puts question marks around this claim, but also suggests that Bitzer may have directed (!) as well. Bitzer’s autobiography, which includes a very detailed filmography of his work, makes no mention of the movie at all, so I’m going to assume it’s a mistake, barring new evidence. It’s hard for me to imagine Bitzer and Biograph reconciling for the duration of this one film.

Director: Bert Williams

Camera: Uncertain (see above)

Cast: Bert Williams, Wes Jenkins

Run Time: 22 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music)

The Birth of a Nation, Part IX

Last month, I felt that I didn’t have a lot more to say about “The Birth of a Nation.” This month I find that I do have a few things to add, but we’re still winding down the series.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

First, Woodrow Wilson: Fritzi Kramer at Movies Silently recently posted a debunking of the dual myth that BoaN was “the first movie screened at the White House” as well as “the first feature film” that is generally very good and covers most of the important ground. I think she goes a little too far in suggesting that the movie was screened to consider censoring its potentially divisive content (the source she referred me to on this didn’t back her up, and there was no precedent giving the President the power to censor movies), but the important points are correct: “Cabiria” had been shown at the White House the previous summer, Wilson agreed somewhat reluctantly to the screening on the condition that there be NO publicity about it (a promise that D.W. Griffith never intended to keep), and he certainly did NOT call it “history writ in lightning” or whatever.

Thomas Dixon

Thomas Dixon

Lest we be accused of being overly fair to Wilson, however, there are a few other points to make here. First of all, he was an old school chum of Thomas Dixon, the author of the play “The Clansman,” and it appears he approved the screening as a favor to his buddy. Dixon, let’s remember, was the driving force behind the racist content of “The Birth of a Nation” (William K. Everson claims the play was even more racist than the movie, if such a thing is imaginable), and was a true believer in the heroism of the KKK and the justifiability of slavery. In his discussion of the correspondence between them, which continued during the Wilson presidency, Dick Lehr mentions no instance of Wilson confronting or even chiding Dixon for his views. Furthermore, it was at Wilson’s instigation that Jim Crow segregation was introduced in the Post Office and other federal agencies, to Dixon’s outspoken approval. All of which is to say that, whatever the conditions and significance of the White House screening, Wilson was every bit as much integrated into the predominant racist culture of his time as others who, unlike him, openly praised the film.

GriffithDWSecond, a bit more on the origin of the Griffith Myth. I’ve been reading Seductive Cinema by James Card, who is somewhat of a curmudgeon about film studies in general, and Griffith-worship is among his peeves. On pages 32-34 of this book, he talks about an ad that Griffith took out in the New York Dramatic Mirror in December, 1913, less than two months after he departed from Biograph. Griffith used this opportunity to proclaim himself “[p]roducer of all the great Biograph successes, revolutionizing Motion Picture drama and founding the modern technique of the art.” This is pretty much what his fans still say about him today, but it’s interesting that anyone would have accepted it at the time. Card points out that “[i]n 1913, filmgoers were unaware of the names of any motion picture directors.” In other words, he was the first to proclaim himself a genius, and people went along with it because they didn’t know any better.

DW_Griiffith2But, I think there’s even more going on. In July 1915, while “The Birth of a Nation” was on top of the world, setting new standards for monetary and critical success, Maurice Tourneur gave an interview to the New York Clipper in which he was asked who was the greatest director of the time, and he quickly and unequivocally named Griffith. When I read it, it broke my heart a little. Here was the director of “Alias Jimmy Valentine” and “The Wishing Ring” praising a man whose talent was clearly inferior! It’s as if Ridley Scott said that Joel Schumacher was his favorite director. I think there’s a kind of strategy at work, however. By taking out that ad, Griffith had put directors into the public spotlight. A director who wanted to be taken “seriously” had to affirm his genius, because that was the best way to affirm by proxy that directors were important figures in filmmaking. Between the ad and the runaway success of “Birth of a Nation,” it was career suicide to say anything else at that time. Griffith’s supremacy was now an entrenched myth, which would last a century or more.