Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: race

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.

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.

The Redman’s View (1909)

Red_Man's_ViewThis film is sometimes held up (mistakenly, I would say, for reasons I’ll discuss below) in contrast to “The Birth of a Nation,” to argue that D.W. Griffith wasn’t really racist after all, he was simply misunderstood. It is among the movies he directed in his first year at Biograph and it does demonstrate his belief that the movies could be used to tell serious stories with messages. Even though he was to rebel against the short format for movies, is also demonstrates his ability to work effectively within that form.

Red Mans ViewIn the beginning of the film, a young Native American couple meets by the riverside. He shyly proposes to her and she shyly accepts (all in pantomime). When they return to their tribe, the young man is faced with a horrible choice between her or his father. A group of plundering white men suddenly arrive and insists that everyone leave the land. He protests that his father is to old and ill to move, and for a moment it looks like there will be a confrontation, but then the white men get ahold of his bride and keep her hostage. Reluctantly, the tribe begins their exodus. Whenever they stop to rest, suddenly the white men are there with guns drawn, telling them to keep moving. The girl tries to take advantage of this to escape, but is recaptured. Finally, the old man dies and a ritual is held to honor him. The young man returns to the camp to free his wife, but they are caught again. The white men appear ready to kill them both, but one white man stops the others and sends them on their way. They have lost their land, but they are together.

Red Mans View2Although Griffith tried hard to make this a powerful experience, there are a couple of flaws in this film. First, our sense of time and place is very ambiguous. We get the impression of a long trek (and even are given to understand that the natives reach the Pacific Ocean), but they never seem to be more than short walking distance from the white men’s camp, which never changes. At times it seems we are seeing simultaneous events cross-edited but then characters from one thread turn up in the other – as when the girl attempts her escape to be caught by the same men who are harassing her husband. The other problem is inherent in trying to make a silent movie about people suffering from walking. A lot of the movie is just shots of the Native Americans walking slowly across the screen, with sad expressions on their faces. It’d be hard to make this work with dialogue, but without it, it makes 15 minutes seem long. On the plus side, the New Jersey Palisades stand in nicely for the bleak yet unspoiled landscape Griffith wants us to believe of the West.

Red Mans View1So, doesn’t making a pro-Native American movie clear Griffith of the charge of racism? Well, not exactly, although it does complicate it a bit. This movie is steeped in the imagery of the “Noble Savage,” and the tragic-but-inevitable side of Manifest Destiny. In claiming to give us “The Point of View of the Red Man,” Griffith presumes to speak for numerous cultures, and he lumps them neatly together into a classic stereotype, albeit one less negative than that of “Gus,” the lustful African American. And, of course, he uses only white actors to portray them, although admittedly it would have been hard to find genuine Western Native Americans on 14th Street in New York, let alone good actors of that background. This is generally a less offensive movie than “Birth,” but that doesn’t make it un-biased.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Cast: Owen Moore, Kate Bruce, Arthur V. Johnson, Henry Lehrman, Lottie Pickford

Run Time: 14 Min

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

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.

Swords and Hearts (1911)

Swords_and_Hearts_1911

Several of the themes we’ve encountered before are present in this Biograph short by D.W. Griffith, including cross-dressing, blackface, questions of honor and loyalty, and rampaging Yankee looters. Here, we also get a comment on social worth, as the heroine (Dorothy West, who was in “The House with the Closed Shutters” and “His Trust Fulfilled”) is a member of the “poor white class,” which the male love interest (Wilfred Lucas, from “Enoch Arden” and “His Trust”) ignores for a more “beautiful, but calculating” wealthy neighbor (Claire McDowell, also in “His Trust” and “What Shall We Do with Our Old?”). She seizes the chance to replace him on a daring courier mission when Yankees are lurking about, and goes on a wild horse ride, with the enemy at her back, even shooting one of them down when he gets too close! Once again, Dorothy acquits herself well, and bears up under the wound she receives while doing her duty, but this time she doesn’t die for her efforts. A loyal African American slave hides away Lucas’s fortune and manages to save his father after the discouraged looters torch the house. Then, when Lucas’s lady love spurns him for a Yankee officer, he and Dorothy can have the last laugh – he’s rich again after all.

 Swords and Hearts1

All pretty typical stuff, and becoming redundant among the tropes we are used to seeing Griffith deploy. He uses editing to maximize suspense, particularly during the horse chase and also the rescue of the old man, which has elements in common with “An Unseen Enemy” as we anticipate the arrival of his savior – but will it be too late? Bitzer’s camerawork is more restrained here, with no panoramic shots of the scenery, but the chase is well covered. McDowell, as the fickle fiancé turns in a memorable performance, but West is once again the real focus. The problem is that this time she can’t top what she gave in “The House with Closed Shutters,” although her longing for Lucas from afar is convincing.

Swords and Hearts2

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Wilfred Lucas, Dorothy West, Claire McDowell, Charles West, Verner Clarges

Run Time: 16 Min

You can watch it for free: here.