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  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Art forms of a New Country

article number 451
article date 05-26-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Movie Director D. W. Griffith Creates an Uproar, “Birth of a Nation” 1915
by Terry Ramsaye
   

From the 1926 book, A Million and One Nights.

EDITORS NOTE: This article is decorated with pictures and captions of found in other books published in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

THE explosive, spectacular successes of the early feature pictures, typified by ‘Quo Vadis and Traffic in Souls,’ reacted tremendously on two of the motion picture’s most vigorous personalities.

Harry E. Aitken, president of the newly promoted Mutual Film Corporation, envisioned new heights of promotional success.

D. W. Griffith, until now the admitted master of the art of the screen, was challenged to attain anew.

Griffith had found his ambitions halted that day when he got Biograph’s decision to stick to the short pictures of the Trust’s General Film program output.

Then one day Tony O’Sullivan, formerly of Biograph and now of Aitken’s Majestic studios, said: “Mr. Griffith, meet Mr. Aitken.” Aitken and Griffith shook hands, and again history was headlong on its way.

October 1, 1913, Griffith left Biograph, at the end of five of the most significant years of motion picture evolution. On October 29, trade journal advertisements announced that D. W. Griffith was “now with Mutual Movies.”

Every motion picture patron of a decade ago will remember the famous slogan “Mutual Movies Make Time Fly” and the winged clock trademark. As a trademark the idea had some merit and the great demerit of offering the motion picture as a mere time-killer. It was too honest.

   
Mutual Movies Make Time Fly.

Griffith, with Mutual, plunged into a campaign of production with amazing speed and celerity. He was specifically in charge of the operations of the now amalgamated Reliance-Majestic studios. Griffith’s contract called for a large salary, a stock participation, and the privilege of making two independent pictures of his own each year.

He promptly discovered that if there was going to be any salary, he would have to make it quickly. ‘The Battle of the Sexes’ went into production overnight and was ready for delivery in seven days. When the situation calls for pot boilers, Griffith is a fast cook.

The advertisements had announced that D. W. Griffith, the great Biograph director, was to supervise all Mutual productions. The type was large and clear.

A few weeks elapsed and this campaign penetrated as far as Los Angeles. Then another advertisement appeared announcing that, despite Mutual’s Griffith proclamation, “he has nothing to do with Keystone comedies.” The advertisement was Mack Sennett’s signed declaration of independence.

Quite distinct and apart from the Mutual advertising of Griffith, a page broadside appeared in the ‘Dramatic Mirror’ of December 31, 1913, proclaiming in part:

“D. W. GRIFFITH
Producer of all great Biograph successes, revolutionizing motion picture drama and founding the modern technique of the art.Included in the innovations which he introduced and which are now generally followed by the most advanced producers are:

“The large or close-up figures, distant views as represented first in Ramona, the ‘switchback,’ sustained suspense, the ‘fadeout,’ and restraint in expression, raising motion picture acting to the higher plane which has won for it recognition as a genuine art.”

A list of productions which took in practically every picture Griffith had made from ‘The Adventures of Dolly’ in 1908 to ‘Judith of Bethulia’ followed. The advertisement was signed by “Albert H. T. Banzhaf, counsellor at law and personal representative.”

Griffith was getting relief after five years of anonymous labors at Biograph. No longer would he hide his light under a bushel. There was certainly nothing stingy about the credits which Banzhaf showered upon his client.

In a strict technical sense the claims can be disputed and early motion picture men have on occasion taken Griffith to task for them. The close-up, exemplified in ‘Fred Ott’s Sneeze,’ appeared in the Edison peep show pictures of 1894, and other bits of camera manipulation involving fade-outs, double exposures and the like figured in the early Melies magic pictures, all before Griffith’s advent.

However, the broader and more important claim of raising motion picture acting to a higher plane was amply justified. While Griffith may not have originated the close-up and like elements of technique, he did establish for them their functions in screen narration.

And the while, affairs were much astir in the Mutual Film Corporation. It was troubled within itself with the issue between the rising importance of feature picture and the current grind of program output of short subjects.

Mutual adhered for the moment to the same program idea which ruled the General Film. Meanwhile Aitken launched the allied Continental Features Corporation to sell big pictures, independently but linked to some degree with Mutual. The best of these bigger pictures came from the Reliance-Majestic studios under Thomas H. Ince.

Griffith, whose contract permitted him to make two independent pictures of his own each year, in addition to his work for Aitken, was now secretly preparing for his first big effort. February 14, 1914, Griffith arrived in Los Angeles, ostensibly to finish a screen version of ‘The Escape,’ a drama by Paul Armstrong.

But Griffith’s chief activity was concerned with arranging for the services of extra people by the thousands, with uniforms and horses for whole ‘armies. He was making picture preparations on a scale without precedent in motion history.

Griffith was deliberately setting out to make the world’s greatest motion picture. He was hungry for recognition and success.

The story which Griffith had chosen for his purpose was based on ‘The Clansman,’ a novel by the Rev. Thomas Dixon. A script for the speaking stage, dramatizing the Dixon novel, had been brought to Griffith’s attention by Frank Woods, head of the Mutual’s newly formed scenario department. Griffith’s first casual attention had grown into a deep interest.

   
WHEN D. W. GRIFFITH was directing ‘The Clansman’ in the hills of California, the picture which, a few months later under the title of ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ gave him world fame as the screen’s foremost director.

The Clansman story as Griffith visioned it for the screen, was a saga of the South, the Civil War, and the days of Reconstruction, all expressed in spectacular form with the sweep of battle lines and acute melodrama—a mingling of patriotism, hate, terror, suspense and mystery.

The historic Ku Klux Klan gave the story its major movement and its title. No doubt Griffith’s Kentucky nativity and early associations as the son of Colonel Jacob Griffith were an influence in the selection of the story and its production.

The novel which was Griffith’s inspiration for ‘The Birth of a Nation’ became in the same period the inspiration of Joseph Simmons, then attached to the national headquarters of the Woodmen of the World in Omaha, and looking for an order of his own to promote.

Simmons originally designed that his new secret society be named “The Clansmen,” and changed it to the Ku Klux Klan when he found the first title had been appropriated by a small western project of similar tenor.

The picture ‘The Birth of a Nation’ and the K. K. K. secret society, which was the afterbirth of a nation, were sprouted from the same root. In subsequent years they reacted upon each other to the large profit of both. The film presented predigested dramatic experience and thrills. The society made the customers all actors in costume.

To tell all of the romance of ambition, politics, and finance involved in the making of ‘The Clansman,’ would also require the space of a large volume. Half a dozen times the completion of the project was threatened when backers, terrified by Griffith’s expenditures, refused to continue support. Griffith reached everywhere for money.

His struggles are reminiscent of Bernard Palissy, the sixteenth century ceramic artist, burning his very home to keep the fires of his furnace going. In one desperate circumstance J. D. Barry, secretary to Griffith, obtained a loan from a Pasadena capitalist.

Griffith, grateful, insisted that Barry keep the usual commission, some seven hundred dollars. Barry refused, taking stock in ‘The Clansman’ to this amount to cheer his chief. Barry thought, of course, the money was gone. It was. But it came back, bringing a profit of $14,000.

The Mutual Film Corporation, through Aitken, the president, became an investor in the picture in the sum of $25,000. When this came to the attention of the directors there was a bitter session.

They insisted that Aitken had acted without authority and that he must relieve the Mutual of this wild venture. He did. The insuing profits of that block of stock amounted, Aitken admits, to something more than a quarter of a million dollars.

‘The Clansman’ was to be released in twelve reels. As the time for its marketing drew near, the question of its distribution became a serious problem. It was such a product as could not be handled by any of the existing distribution machinery of the older concerns.

W. W. Hodkinson, with his various West Coast feature exchanges and various exchange affiliations in Paramount, was considered.

Famous Players then also had a big picture in work, ‘The Eternal City,’ with Pauline Frederick in the leading role, under production by Porter in Rome. It involved some financial problems and many conferences with Paramount.

   
Stage actress Pauline Frederick joined Famous Players in 1915, making her screen debut in ‘The Eternal City.’

Paramount was rapidly becoming what it had set out to avoid, a program concern, with ten reels a week in two features. The old problem of a consistent regular commercial supply from sources which should be governed by the often inconsistent and irregular course of art was reasserting itself.

The ‘Eternal City’ was costing large sums, possibly $100,000 in total, and it was going to require special selling and presentation on a level above the Paramount routine.

This gave rise to a project for the formation of the Select Film Booking agency, as a Paramount special organization to place super-pictures in a super-market. It as an early step toward a solution of the problem which more recently has been met by the special road-show presentations of such pictures as ‘The Covered Wagon,’ ‘The Ten Commandments,’ and ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame.’

This Paramount effort toward the bigger market brought thoughts of the great Griffith picture in that direction. An appointment was made to discuss distribution of ‘The Clansman.’ Word of this went to the office of Famous Players.

Then word went back that ‘The Eternal City’ could never be handled by the same concern along with “that dirty nigger picture.” So does gossip shape the course of history.

The production of ‘The Eternal City’ was the valedictory effort of Edwin S. Porter, the director. When the picture was completed he sold his interest in Famous Players and withdrew from production.

Porter may be called the screen’s first director. His motion career began with Raff & Gammon in the remotely early days, and his fame began with the making of ‘The Great Train Robbery,’ first of the story pictures.

After his departure from Famous Players Porter entered into the affairs of the Precision Machine Company, makers of the Simplex projection machine. The Precision concern was financed by James A. Stillman of New York.

Griffith finally met the distribution problem for ‘The Birth of a Nation’ by forming the Epoch Film Corporation to exploit it independently as a road show. The choice of the name “Epoch” indicated what someone thought about it.

‘The Clansman’ had its premiere at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles on the night of February 8, 1915. It was the greatest motion picture event of that motion picture city. Talk of the vast operation on the Griffith lot, talk of the theme, had the city agog.

There were mutterings of race war because of the negro element. Politicians, scenting trouble with the dark vote, grew hostile. The police were massed against a possible riot. The picture was a sensational triumph before that first night audience.

In Washington the picture was shown at the White House to President Wilson and his family, and at special showings for the justices of the Supreme Court and members of the diplomatic corps. In New York a special showing was given the night of February 20, 1915, at the Rose Gardens, at Fifty-third street and Broadway.

   
Battle scene from ‘Birth of a Nation.’

Thomas Dixon, author of the basic story, as the final scene passed, shouted to Griffith, “Clansman is too tame—let’s call it ‘The Birth of a Nation’.”

On March 3, under its new title, the picture opened for the New York public at the Liberty Theater, with a top admission price of two dollars a seat. The motion picture had taken its place on a parity with the drama.

Because of the halo that ‘The Birth of a Nation’ has conferred upon them, some of the now famous names from the cast must be recalled:

- Henry Walthall,
- Mae Marsh,
- Elmer Clifton,
- Robert Harron,
- Lillian Gish,
- Joseph Henabery,
- Sam de Grasse,
- Donald Crisp and
- Jennie Lee.

Seven years before the producer then just Larry Griffith, an actor out of a job—found a chance to play a role in a little one-reel Edison drama for five dollars a day.

‘The Birth of a Nation’ broke all theatre records in various world capitals and became, as it remains today, the world’s greatest motion picture, if greatness is to be measured by fame. It has ever since continued to be an important box office success.

Early in 1924 ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ then nine years old, played in the great Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, surpassing any previous picture audience record for that house. The patronage of the Ku Klux Klan was credited with giving this run its extraordinary success.

‘The Birth of a Nation’ followed up its metropolitan successes with a sweep of the country by twelve road companies under the direction of J. J. McCarthy, who with his associate, Theodore Mitchell, became conspicuous figures in a running war of censorship agitations which rose in the path of the picture.

There were lawsuits, riots and political intrigues. McCarthy was drafted for the exploitation of the picture because of his success at the Chestnut Street Opera House in Philadelphia in the exploitation of the earlier feature film dramas.

A storm of opposition to the Griffith masterpiece swept across the United States, north of the Mason-Dixon line. The whole negro race and its white defenders rose in a clamor for the suppression of the picture, with local oppositions of serious strength developing in every community where there was a sufficient negro vote to influence the politicians and office holders.

The voters were there at home, whereas the picture was merely “a movie from New York.” The political attitude was inevitable.

D. W. Griffith became for the time an outraged, screaming pamphleteer, campaigning for the freedom of the screen on terms of equality with the press.

It is to be admitted that part of Griffith’s ardor grew out of the fact that he had money at stake in the picture, but it would be unfair to believe that this was the source of more than half of his zeal.

   
Henry Walthall and Lillian Gish in ‘Birth of a Nation.’

There is considerable evidence from time to time that Griffith would rather make pictures than make money. It was indeed this very fact which so early set him apart from the commonplace in motion picture production.

Griffith issued statements, made speeches and wrote letters proclaiming fundamental rights of expression which he held should be self evident. His fight for ‘The Birth of a Nation’ was really a fight for the whole institution of the screen.

The Boston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People upheld the “Black Abolitionist” tradition of New England by issuing a booklet against ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ broadcasting it to negro leaders in every part of the United States. The president of the Boston organization was Moorfield Storey, a white leader of the movement.

The Boston booklet, read after ten years have cooled the heat of controversy, appears somewhat lacking in the measured caution and poise to have been expected of the New England intelligentsia. From its pages one discovers that:

- Dr. Charles W. Eliot, head of Harvard and trademark of the “five foot bookshelf,” charged the picture with a tendency to perversion of white ideals.
- Jane Addams of Hull House, Chicago, was “painfully exercised over the exhibition.”
- Francis Hackett in the ‘New Republic’ lambasted the Rev. Thomas Dixon, author of the story, as a “yellow clergyman.”
- Booker T. Washington wrote letters to the papers.
- Oswald Garrison Villard wrote that ‘The Birth of a Nation’ was “a deliberate attempt to humiliate 10,000,000 American citizens and portray them as nothing but beasts.”

It was charged that audiences were sprinkled with Pinkerton men to suppress demonstrations. If so it was wise management.

These attacks helped mightily to make Griffith’s picture great. The roaring denunciations from the high places sent the whole public to the theatre to see what the row was about. It has been estimated that more than $15,000,000 has been spent at the box office for admissions to ‘The Birth of a Nation.’

It is an interesting commentary that this storm over the Griffith picture, rising for two years, was at its height while Europe was aroar with the World War. The United States had to fight the Civil War and the negro question all over again while the world was coming apart next door.

The bitterness of the battle gave Griffith the text for his next great screen effort ‘Intolerance,’ a tremendous endeavor to expose the absurdities of public opinion down the aisles of history.

‘The Birth of a Nation’ was a large influence of encouragement in the budding movement that was to supplant the factory grind production of mere movies with motion pictures.

Motion picture technique was developing and acquiring form. Griffith in his California studios was continuing and building upon the tradition of Biograph, the while training a new school of directors.

The Griffith sessions with his company about him on the grass under the pepper trees of California are reminiscent of the garden schools of the old Greeks. Griffith sat discoursing his enthusiasms, wearing the ruins of a most disreputable straw hat, often letting his interest run on to the neglect of rehearsals.

Elmer Clifton and W. Christy Cabanne were among the several directors trained and launched by Griffith in this period.

Experimenting his way along, Griffith began somewhat reluctantly to admit that the titling of films was of at least casual importance. Anita Loos, the girl who sent scenarios from San Diego, went to the Griffith studios to doctor scripts and sit in the councils of the cutting room. She was to become the founder of the modern art of film titling.

   
D. W. Griffith.
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