Film History. 16. 2 (April 2004): 117

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Lennig, Arthur. "Myth and fact: the reception of The Birth of a Nation. " Film History.  16.2 (April 2004): 117. 
Academic OneFile. Gale. Duke University Library - Perkins. 22 Aug. 2007 

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2004 Indiana University Press

If it is right for historians to write history, then by similar and unanswerable reasons it is right for us to tell the truth of the historic past in motion pictures. D.W. Griffith (1915) (1)

The Truth. What is the truth? D.W. Griffith (1930) (2)

In mid-October of 1914 D.W. Griffith finished shooting The Birth of a Nation (then known as The Clansman) and began work on his next feature, The Mother and The Law. Meanwhile, he devoted his evenings to editing the miles of film that now lay before him. This was no small task. Having freed himself from the constraints of time and budget that had limited his Biographs and first features, he now claimed he had to cut 140,000 feet down to manageable size. (3) After discarding 'eight-tenths of our product', presumably of repeated takes, he still faced 'twenty-six thousand feet ... of consecutive story. But that is twice too long. We condense, condense, condense. At the end of more hard labor we edited The Birth of a Nation to twelve thousand feet or thirteen thousand feet' so that it would run 'two hours and forty-five minutes'. (4) Griffith may have exaggerated the amount of footage, but there is no doubt--given his enthusiasm and lack of a detailed script--that he filmed far more episodes than he eventually used. (5) When he submitted the film for copyright, it contained altogether 1640 separate shots and titles.

By late December the assembled film was ready for exhibition, 'with the exception of the remaking of a few scenes for the allegorical ending'. (6) The trade press thought that Griffith's much talked about special picture would run for perhaps nine reels, more than twice the length of most features, but no one expected that it would play for an unprecedented twelve. (7)

Griffith wanted to test the public's reaction and arranged for a preview--which in itself was somewhat of a first. This took place at the Loring Opera House in Riverside, California, on Friday and Saturday, 1 and 2 January 1915. An ad in the Riverside Enterprise of December 30 heralded The Clansman as 'the greatest of all motion pictures' and said it was made by D.W. Griffith, 'the world's foremost motion picture producer', and that it would be accompanied by a seven-piece orchestra. (8) (Another ad amended that to five pieces.) Although the theater usually charged a dime, seats would be offered at 20 cents and 30 cents.

In Riverside, Griffith first demonstrated his gift at publicity. His ads claimed that the film had taken 'six months' to shoot, had cost $500,000, and featured 25,000 soldiers, 50 companies of cavalry, and 25 batteries of artillery. Such exaggerations, though, were not always consistent. In another ad the 25 batteries of artillery became 30. (9) A related article informed the public that The Clansman would soon be shown in New York 'at the same price of the higher class' stage plays--fifty cents to two dollars--which suggested that the residents of Riverside were getting a real bargain. (10)

The local newspapers reported that Griffith had engaged Joseph Carl Breil (1870-1926), 'one of the country's greatest musicians', to write the score. (11) Breil had earned a reputation in New York for arranging and composing and conducting music for stage plays. Griffith perhaps first became aware of his talents when he attended a stage performance of A Good Little Devil, which featured Mary Pickford, who had left Griffith to return to the legitimate theater in 1913. Griffith had a keen ear for music and no doubt took note of Breil's effective accompaniment. In late September 1914, Griffith again heard Breil head the orchestra and chorus for Cabiria when it appeared in Los Angeles and was impressed by his talent.

Griffith had long been distressed that theater musicians often selected inappropriate compositions to accompany his films. He complained, 'If there's a lady to die, and the orchestra leader happens to want to play A Hot Time in the Old Town, the poor lady has to die in two hops, so as to keep time to the music; or if there's a battle on and the orchestra wants to play Hearts and Flowers, that battle scene looks like a calisthenic exercise in the Old Ladies' Home!' (12)

After Griffith engaged Breil, the two compiled a carefully synchronized accompaniment--in the 151 page copy of the score at the Museum of Modern Art there are 214 separate cues--employing a number of classical pieces as well as some original material. Griffith announced that the score for Birth would employ grand-opera methods by giving each character a distinct musical theme. It was even reported that he had helped write two of its compositions. (13) Among the pieces created specifically for the film were a charming love theme and a disturbing, barbaric-sounding tom-tom motif used for some of the scenes with the Negroes. Particularly memorable was the 'Clan Call', a whoop that Griffith used to yell out while shooting and which he had Breil arrange for the orchestra. This call was so effective that it was retained for the film's revival in 1921, although portions of the initial score were changed because some of the pieces had become too hackneyed. (14)

A few days before the Riverside preview, Breil arrived to rehearse the local players. (15) For this presentation and in all of the subsequent road-showings of the film, careful attention was also paid to synchronized sound effects--trumpet calls, drums to approximate cannon fire, and the sound of horses' hooves. (16) The overall effect was what Richard Wagner had dreamed of--the Gesamstkunstwerk ('the complete art work'--a blend of libretto, visuals, and music.) Without its fully synchronized orchestral score and accompanied only by a tinkling piano, or with no sound at all except for the whirring projector in many a film studies course, the picture loses a good deal of its emotional and dramatic power. (17)

The Riverside newspapers heralded the exciting fact that Griffith and his stars would attend the opening performances. Even at this early date in movie history, audiences were thrilled to see stars in the flesh. Griffith, anxious that his film be taken as a serious artistic effort, encouraged the press to mention his recently added allegorical ending, which alluded to the World War then in its fifth month. This grandiose finale, said Griffith, provided 'one of the most realistic sermons against the horrors of war that could be preached'. (18) Almost three months later, just prior to the New York premiere, Griffith repeated that his picture was 'the greatest indictment against war that any man could devise' and cautioned that the end of the European conflict, like the conclusion of the Civil War, would not resolve the issues. 'Peace after war is not real peace. Hatred, malice and bitterness, direct results of the long four years' struggle, were apparent in the relations of the North and South for twenty years after the actual cessation of hostilities.' (19) Such statements reflected Griffith's sincere effort to use the screen as a pulpit, but a sermon against war would hardly draw a crowd. Spectacle and powerful drama would. The stress on peace would soon vanish from the film's publicity.

On 1 January 1915 the public got its first exposure to the milestone film. The next day The Riverside Daily Press praised the work, noting that the audience applauded 'long and loud' when Walthall thrust the flag into the mouth of a cannon. The article also remarked that Griffith 'has treated his subject fairly. It is not overdrawn. It is a picture of true conditions that were brought on by the "carpet baggers" following the assassination of President Lincoln.' (20) The Riverside Enterprise was equally impressed: 'No photo-play of its proportions has been so enthusiastically applauded in this city ...' The reviewer also shrewdly remarked that the film 'is certain to be well advertised over the country, as it will arouse discussion of the negro problem both south and north. The resulting arguments will surely mean increased patronage of the motion picture houses showing it.' (21)

The Riverside Enterprise praised the film and only regretted 'that the effect of the story should be marred at the very end by the dragging in of alien matter ... depicting the god of war and Christ, the Prince of Peace. It is hard to conceive the relation between the allegorical finale and the play proper. This one flaw is the only possible adverse criticism ...' (22) When Birth finally opened in New York, the Dramatic Mirror also questioned the 'trite allegorical passages...dragged in to preach a universal peace moral'. (23) Variety too observed that 'some might not care' for the ending, but added that 'in the church neighborhoods and where the staunchest of the peace advocates live, it will go with a hurrah'. (24) Griffith, however, was proud of his allegorical epilogue which copied the Italian epics that ended with similar visions, and only omitted the ending for the shortened 1930 sound reissue.

Ebullient after the previews, Griffith told a reporter, 'I am highly gratified at the enthusiastic manner in which Riverside people received The Clansman'. He noted that the picture 'will be exhibited in only the best theaters and to the most educated and refined people of the United States'. He added that the film was made at twice the cost of the then-famous Italian epic, Cabiria. (25) Clearly, that prestigious imported work still remained a sore point with Griffith, who rightly felt that his filmic techniques were far better than those of the Italians. He told the reporter that after having observed the audience's reactions he would make 'a few minor changes' and then returned to Los Angeles to put the finishing touches on The Mother and the Law.

Back in the fall, Griffith and Aitken had held many discussions about how best to market Birth, but there is no doubt that from the very beginning it was designed to be a 'special'. The preview in Riverside reassured them that the film had an extraordinary box office potential. It would not be distributed through Mutual, for that company had wanted nothing to do with such a costly film and had refused to back it. Aitken and Griffith knew it could not be shown in even the best movie theaters, where seats ran 10 cents, 20 cents, and 30 cents, and make a profit. Instead, a nationwide policy was adopted: to rent legitimate theaters and to exhibit the film as a top-notch Broadway extravaganza. Italian epics like Quo Vadis and Cabiria had established this precedent and Griffith thought his film should also get special prices. What those prices would be, however, remained a matter of contention.

Griffith later took credit for the decision to charge a $2.00 top, an unheard figure of for a motion picture, although his wife, Linda, claimed it was Aitken's idea and that initially both Dixon and Griffith had opposed it. (26) The $2.00 price, in terms of publicity value, added to the film's importance, but is a bit misleading. Except for a few special loge seats, evening performances ran 25 cents, 50 cents, 75 cents and $1.00. Such prices were high, for at the time full course suppers at leading restaurants were $1.00 and workers in New York's garment industry were making from $10 to $15 a week. (27) Thus a $2 admission was the equivalent of almost an entire day's pay! Even so, higher prices for certain films were not that unusual. The latest Pickford films shown on Broadway, said Variety in February 1915, had a price range of 25 cents to $1.00. (28)


Up until the first days of February, the film had been known as The Clansman, but after Thomas Dixon, its author, saw it at a private screening in late January he suggested calling it The Birth of a Nation. (29) The idea embodied in the new title reflected Woodrow Wilson's thesis in his History of the American People that America had been essentially 'an aggregation of jangling, discordant, antagonistic sections', a collection of states, and only after the Civil War did it become a united nation. (30) Dixon had adopted a similar view in his novel, The Southerner (1913), which he 'dedicated to our first Southern-born President since Lincoln, my friend and collegemate, Woodrow Wilson'. Griffith, before the film's New York opening, explained the meaning of the new title, stating that only after the divisive issue of slavery had been settled and the union proved inseparable could the states become truly one country. (31) On 8 February the film was copyrighted as The Birth of a Nation; or The Clansman. (32) Mention of its new title appeared in the 10 February 1915 edition of the New York Dramatic Mirror.

Dixon was so impressed by the film that he wrote President Wilson on 27 January requesting a meeting. On 3 February, at the White House, Dixon told his college friend that he must see the picture. The President agreed, but because of the death of Mrs. Wilson the previous August, he was still officially in mourning and felt his presence at a public performance would be unseemly. To solve the problem, a private screening was arranged at the White House for 18 February. This showing of a film at the White House was not a unique event, despite what has been written, for on 26 June 1914, the President, the Vice-President and the rest of the cabinet had seen Cabiria there.

Meanwhile, news about the preview in Riverside traveled quickly to Los Angeles, where the film (still called The Clansman) had been promised to W.H. Clune--one of the original investors--for a first showing at his Auditorium on 8 February. (33) The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People became concerned. It had been formed in 1909 by a group of white liberals and Negroes (34) and by 1914 had fifty branches, but only 6,000 members. (35) The group wanted the film halted because it depicted Negroes in an unfavorable light and because it put in graphic and highly dramatic terms certain issues that by now had passed into history and that for racial harmony were best forgotten. (36) Furthermore, the NAACP felt opposition to the film's exhibition would be a good rallying point for the fledgling group (37) and demanded that the Los Angeles City Board of Censors ban the film before its premiere. (38) When the picture was passed after 'a few very slight and unimportant eliminations', (39) the disappointed NAACP then convinced the City Council to instruct the Chief of Police to suppress The Clansman. Clune defended the picture and announced that it 'is, more rightfully speaking, the story of The Birth of a Nation, or if you choose to call it so, the Rebirth of a Nation'. He explained that opposition to the film was based on a 'misunderstanding of the great historical purpose of the picture, which is not an attack on any race or section of the country. It is a most powerful sermon against war and in favor of brotherly love of all sections and nations.' (40)

Grace Kingsley, film reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, summed up the problem: 'And now ... comes the protest of the darkies and the interference of the police'. (41) Immediately a court injunction was secured restraining the Chief of Police from stopping the show. (42) The presiding judge stated that although the film had a 'tendency to aggravate a situation that is past and gone', he also felt, as paraphrased by Moving Picture World, that 'the picture was a good one and that the colored people should pass it by and not try to take any action or stir up agitation'. (43) These efforts to suppress the film, noted one newspaper cynically, stemmed from the coming city elections in which 'both the City Council and the chief, ...[have] shown a marked desire to please the colored element'. (44) These vain attempts to close the show created public interest and led to a lot of free publicity that caused even more people to want to see the film, precisely what the NAACP hoped to avoid.

Griffith wanted to oversee the film's Los Angeles premiere and arrived from New York in the early morning of 7 February. During the time remaining before the film opened the next day, he supervised the synchronization of the musical accompaniment and perhaps tinkered with the print once more. When informed of the controversy the film had created he was astonished, for the novel and the stage play had provoked no such reaction. (45)

The film opened on 8 February as planned and was still called The Clansman. Because of the NAACP's protests, seventeen policemen were posted at the theater's doors to prevent any demonstrations. At the end of the film, the applause was overwhelming. A writer for the Los Angeles Times called it 'the greatest picture that was ever made and the biggest drama ever filmed'. (46) As a result, the demand for seats, said a newspaper, 'was unprecedented, the house being sold out days ahead at prices ranging from twenty-five to seventy-five cents with box seats at a dollar. There was a line-up at the box office from early morn to late at night that would make a Sarah Bernhardt premiere line-up at the box office look like thirty cents.' (47) Speculators were buying seats at 75 cents and selling them a few hours later at $2.50 a piece. (48) (This was the only time the film would be shown at such low prices until its second runs years later.) It continued to play at Clune's Auditorium as The Clansman for twenty-two weeks and broke the theater's record for long runs. By the second week of September, over 350,000 people had paid to see it in Los Angeles. (49)

A few days after the premiere at Clune's, Griffith returned by train to New York, where he had a few hurried consultations about the film's official opening on 3 March. Aitken booked the legitimate Liberty Theater on 42nd Street, which rented for $1,250 a week and seated 1,200. (50) It was the same house where Dixon's play, The Clansman, had been performed nine years earlier.

Griffith then went to Washington, DC, where on 18 February in the East Room of the White House he and Dixon screened the film for the president, his family, and his cabinet. It was shown, the press said, at the behest of Wilson's daughters to divert him from his grief. (51) (The president would find an even better diversion a month later when he met Edith Galt and, mourning or no mourning, by May had proposed to her.) (52) The film was not shown as a mere entertainment, however, but as an historical account. One newspaper had announced earlier that the picture depicted 'the progress of slavery down to the present time' and another reported, 'The President's interest in the play is due to the great lesson of peace it teaches'. (53) Both statements were designed to excuse the President for seeing anything as frivolous as a movie in the sacrosanct White House.

One wonders about Dixon's motives for bringing the film to Washington. In 1939 Dixon, in his last novel, The Flaming Sword, said he had foreseen 'the deadly attack' that would be mounted against the film and hoped that a screening for the president--and his tacit approval--would short-circuit any protests that might arise. (54) When they did occur, Dixon explained his screenings in Washington to Wilson's press secretary three months later. Dixon claimed he didn't 'dare allow the President to know the real big purpose back of my film--which was to revolutionize Northern sentiments by a presentation of history that would transform every man in my audience into a good Democrat! ... [Dixon's italics] What I told the President was that I would show him the birth of a new art--the launching of the mightiest engine for molding public opinion in the history of the world.' (55) This may have been Dixon's intention, but not Griffith's. The director's main aim was to make an epic, tell a great story, and dramatize what happened during Reconstruction.


Wilson was impressed with the work, which echoed his own views as offered in his History of the American People (1902), (56) and he reputedly said that it was like 'writing history with lightning ... My only regret is that it is all too true.' Although this remark has often been cited, its provenance remains hazy. It seems to have stemmed from an interview conducted with Griffith only a few days after the White House showing and printed in the New York American on 28 February 1915. In it, Griffith claimed that the film 'received very high praise from high quarters in Washington' and explained that 'I was gratified when a man we all revere, or ought to, said it teaches history by lightning'. (57) (Notice the discrepancy between 'writing' his story and 'teaching' it. There is no mention of 'My only regret is that it is all too true'.)

The private presentation of the film at the White House created such interest that the National Press Club, at the urging of Dixon, arranged for another showing the next night in 'the big ballroom' at the Raleigh Hotel. Dixon wrote of these events in The Flaming Sword, claiming that to forestall any impending censorship problems, he had wanted it known that not only Wilson but also the Supreme Court had seen the film. In the novel he has a character (was it actually Dixon?) visit the usually cantankerous Chief Justice White and invite him to the showing. The judge had no time for entertainment, but became interested when he was told the picture dealt with Reconstruction and the Klan. The Chief Justice warmed, saying, 'I was a member of the Klan', and he asked, 'You've told the true story of that uprising of outraged manhood?' And, with that, he agreed to come along with his brethren. (58)

Among those who attended were Chief Justice White and members of the Supreme Court, the Senate, the House and the Diplomatic Corps. Altogether, five hundred people viewed the film, which was 'cheered and applauded'. (59) Evidently, Birth's depiction of carpetbagger and Negro conduct during Reconstruction created no controversy among the Washington elite of 1915: Not one word of protest was reported from the thirty-eight Senators and the fifty Representatives from the House who were present. (60) After this screening, Griffith returned to New York, but the National Press Club was so impressed by the film that the director was invited back on 25 February to address the organization about motion pictures. (61) For Griffith, who had been an almost complete failure a few years before, these Washington experiences must have made an extraordinary impression. He had arrived in the capitol city still a country-boy, but he soon would be famous throughout the country as The World's Greatest Director.

Griffith wrote to Wilson on 2 March that 'the honor you conferred on us has brought to me so much happiness that I cannot refrain from expressing my deepest and most sincere gratitude'. Griffith's letter continued, 'If we carry out the proposed series of motion pictures dealing with matters historical and political, of which I spoke to you, I should be most happy to have someone representing your views to pass upon our idea before beginning the initial work'. (62) Griffith felt that motion pictures had a mission to promote brotherhood, but one cannot be sure what subjects had been discussed. (At this time Griffith was anti-war and supported Wilson's current policy of keeping America out of the European conflict.) The president politely replied on March 5 that he was 'interested' in Griffith's plans for future motion pictures and 'if it is possible for me to assist you with an opinion about them at any time, I shall certainly try to do so, though, of course, you realize that there is always a violent probability that I shall be absolutely absorbed and my attention preempted'. (63) The President reiterated his favorable impression of Birth. 'I congratulate you on a splendid production'. (64)

During these days before the New York City premiere, Griffith bombarded its press with advertising, spending over $12,000 the first week (approximately the cost of a better-than-average feature). (65) Moving Picture World said the film would be exhibited on a scale that would not 'have been possible a year ago', that it would be accompanied by a forty-piece orchestra, and that it is 'the most stupendous undertaking of the kind the world has been shown'. (66) An ad for The Birth of a Nation said that the film contained 18,000 people, 3,000 horses, was 8 months in the making, and cost $500,000. As a result of this publicity, the public wanted to see what was being exhibited at such high prices at the prestigious Liberty Theater.

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