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“The Hollywood we were driving to that fall of ‘63 was in limbo. The Old Hollywood was finished and the New Hollywood hadn’t started yet.”
Andy Warhol
Popism

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is a strange mixtape (with alternative tracks) of the ups and downs of the movie industry. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino could have picked any era in the past 100 years and told a different version of the same story. Only the names change. He chose 1969 which was a memorable year in so many ways.

The movies True Grit and The Wild Bunch were the old guard and Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy were the new guard and they well represented the changes going on in Hollywood. And in the 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid the famous old west bank robbers are told,It’s over don’t you get that? Your times is over and you’re gonna die bloody, and all you can do is chose where.”

Tarantino wraps his fictitious story around the true events of the Manson cult killings in Los Angeles in the summer of ’69 that for many signaled the end of the peace and love hippy movement.

“Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969.”
Joan Didion

But Tarantino actually made a buddy love story of sorts between fading actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) that is full of his high brow, low brow approach to filmmaking. Some of Tarantino’s favorite movies are male bonding stories (Big Wednesday, Fandango, Rio Bravo).

Burt Reynolds would have loved this movie as his influence on Tarantino is unmistakable. (Reynolds was originally cast in the movie but unfortunately died before the movie was shot.)

Reynolds was one of those actors that did what movies and television shows he could in the ’50s and ’60s until he was able to become a movie star  with release of Deliverance in 1972. (After becoming the biggest box office star in Hollywood for several years he would eventually have his own Rick Dalton moment of falling off the Hollywood radar. But he was able to bounce back an earn his sole Oscar nomination for his role in Boogie Nights.)

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“Navajo Joe” (1966) starring Burt Reynolds and directed by Sergio Corbucci

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Quentin Tarantino was named after the character Quint (Burt Renyolds on the right) from the classic Tv show Gunsmoke. Hal Needham performed the stunts for Reynolds on Gunsmoke.

“I’ll tell you one of the greatest moments I’ve had in these however many years we’ve been at it in this town: getting to spend two days with Burt Reynolds on this film.”
Brad Pitt (on doing table reads and spending time with Reynolds)
Esquire interview with Michael Hainey

Watch the 2016 documentary The Bandit centered around Reynolds and his stuntman (turned Smokey and the Bandit director) Hal Needham either before or after watching Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and it will only enhance your appreciation of Tarantino’s creative gift of making old things new.

“Needham, if ever I’m in a fight, I want you on my side.”
John Wayne to the former Army paratrooper turned stuntman Hal Needham
Stuntman! by Hal Needham

And while the Reynolds/Needham close actor/stuntman relationship may have shaded Once Upon a Time… , Tarantino says it was a lesser known (and less successful)  actor/stuntman combo that was his way into starting the develop the story.

“Cliff (Brad Pitt) is based on two things – it’s when I worked with an actor, I can’t say his name, who had once had a long-time stunt double. And we really didn’t have anything for that stunt double to do. But there was one thing he could do and so the actor would ask, ‘Can my guy do that? I haven’t bugged you about him because there haven’t been many things for him to do, but that’s something he could do, and if I could throw my guy that thing, that would be really great.’ [I say,] ‘Yeah, sure, OK, bring your guy in.’ And so, this guy shows up and it’s like they’ve been working together for a long, long, long, long time. But you could tell, OK, this is the end. Because everyone’s gotten older.”
Quentin Tarantino
Interview with Kim Morgan

And the second part was another stuntman who Tarantino said “scared everybody. Men who pride themselves on not being intimidated by other men were intimidated by this guy because he was just dangerous. If he wanted to kill you, he could have, and he was just a little off enough.”

This post isn’t a review of the movie but more what the movie stirred in me with the hopes that it will help provide you a roadmap wherever you are on your filmmaking journey.

Tarantino is two years younger than me and I imagine we have many of the same cultural references growing up; watching Batman, Kung Fu, The Lone Ranger, Bruce Lee in The Green Hornet reruns and old westerns and war movies on TV, and Billy Jack and Willard in theaters. Before learning to drive a whole generation was exposed to its share of fist fights and gun battles. As it’s been said—movies reflect the culture they help produce. Heck, that could be the theme of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood as one of the Manson family cult members says as much.

Inspired by many great films of the ’70s I found my way to Hollywood, California in 1981. If Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood captures the glorious fading light of old Hollywood, I found a decade later that the glory had all but departed. Seedy would be the best way to describe Hollywood at that time. I quickly landed a studio apartment in safe and quiet Burbank.

I finished film school at Columbia College Hollywood which at that time was on North La Brea which meant everyday I drove past Disney Studios, The Burbank Studios, and the back of Universal Studios as I made my way over the hill from the San Fernando Valley on Barham Blvd in Burbank to Cahuenga into Hollywood and usually down Sunset Blvd. or Hollywood Blvd., and past the studio that Charlie Chaplin built all in a 20 minute drive to school.

My first job while in school there was as a driver for BERC (Broadcast Equipment Rental Company) in Hollywood and that was my ticket to getting into NBC, CBS, and ABC studios delivering equipment. Other jobs led getting on the Paramount lot in Hollywood and Twentieth Century Fox in Culver City.

Back in the ’80s I bought books and scripts at Larry Edmonds Cinema and Theatre Bookshop, ate at The Musso & Frank Grill and the Formosa Cafe, saw movies at the Egyptian Theatre, the Cinerama Dome, and the Chinese Theatre, and went to concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, drove through Beverly Hills, rented equipment from Birns and Sawyer, and of course, walked many times down the Hollywood Walk of Fame. All things that you can still do today if you want to experience old Hollywood.

And if you really want to be trippy go see Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood at the Bruin Theatre in Westwood Village which is featured in the movie when Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) goes to see the movie she’s in (The Wrecking Crew).  And if you want to go full Tarantino you can go watch Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood again at the New Beverly Cinema owned by Tarantino.  (Which is just one block off La Brea and around the corner from Pink’s Hot Dogs and where I went to film school—because all things are connected in Tarantino’s universe.)

Here’s another odd connection. When I was a fresh out of film school 16mm camera operator/editor for Motivational Media I once shot an interview with Kirk Cameron at the lesser known Warner Bros. Ranch in Burbank which is 32 acres full of Hollywood history dating back to the 1930s. That shoot was in 1987 when Cameron was a teenager and one of the stars of the TV show Growing Pains. Also appearing in episodes of Growing Pains was not only an up and coming actor named Leonardo DiCaprio, but a then unknown actor named Brad Pitt.

While living in Burbank director Paul Mazursky (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) once walked in front of my car and at crosswalk by the Warner Bros. lot, I walked on the set on The Johnny Carson Show (thanks to a security guard on one of my deliveries), and I saw director John Huston (The Searchers) in a wheelchair outside of FotoKem a few months before he died in 1987. (Actually the same facility where some of the post-production work was done on Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.)

And one final touch of Hollywood history I experienced in Burbank was meeting Richard Farnsworth standing in line at a movie concession stand in the mid-’80s. He was best known then as an actor in The Grey Fox and The Natural, but he first spent 30 years as a Hollywood stuntman working on films like Red River, Gunga Din, Spartacus, Ben Hur and a whole bunch of TV westerns. (Farnsworth’s Oscar nomination for The Straight Story at age 79 and 167 days is still the record for the oldest Oscar nominee for Best Actor.)

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Because all things are connected in Quentin Tarantino’s world, notice that  the character Farnsworth plays just got released from San Quentin.

I think Farnsworth would have gotten a kick out of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. When I asked him if he was Richard Farnsworth he genuinely seemed pleased that I recognized him. I’m sure he saw plenty of Rick Dalton’s in his days—and probably felt like Rick Dalton when he was no longer needed to fall off a horse or drive a chariot.

P.S. Just last week I was watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid again and did a couple of screen grabs because I thought I could use them on a post about lighting. But Robert Redford and Paul Newman seem to fit in right here along side Pitt and DiCaprio.

“The theme [of  Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid] is times are changing, and you have to change with them—if you want to survive.”
William Goldman
Adventures in the Screen Trade

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Related posts:
Tarantino Gumbo Soup Film School
Star Wars Vs. Smokey and the Bandit (Remembering Burt Reynolds)
Sacred Land, Moving Pictures (post ends with a clip from Billy Jack) 
Writing ‘Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid’
‘The way I wrote…’ —Tarantino

 

Scott W. Smith

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“If you polled the world’s film critics, asking them who was the most universal and beloved of all directors, Ozu would rank at or near the top of the list, along with Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, and Alfred Hitchcock.”
Roger Ebert (in 1993)
Saluting a Master of the Cinema, Yasujiro Ozu

Over the weekend I watched Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece Tokyo Story on the Criterion Channel.

It’s a simple story but a profound and emotional one that touches on universal truths. It made me think of two other great Japanese films that deal with death and dying, Kurosawa’s Ikiru and the more recent Departures (written by Kundô Koyama and directed by Yôjirô Takita)

If you you are unaware of Tokyo Story (or even Ozu) consider today’s post as a good primer for one of the greatest directors in cinematic history.

Suggested reading:
Transcendental Film Style: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer by Paul Schrader
Ozu: His Life and Films by Donald Richie

Scott W. Smith

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“When we speak of silent comedy we speak instantly of three names—Chaplin, Loyd, Keaton.”
Walter Kerr
The Silent Clowns 

The eyes of the world are on the Midwest today. Tomorrow they could shift back to the Middle East and Israel vs. Iran. But for at least a few hours during Super Bowl XLVI it will be New England vs. New York. Manning vs. Brady.

One-third of the entire United States population will be focused on the game (or the commercials) as the Patriots battle the Giants in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (The game will also be broadcast in more than 200 countries.)

I thought it would be a fun challenge  to see if I could connect the silent film era that I have been writing about recently with the Super Bowl. And so here’s the Harold Loyd Vs. Buster Keaton debate—in the battle of football movies.  (I didn’t include Chaplin because he recently had his own post—Mr. Silent Films—plus he didn’t make a film about football.)

“It is taking nothing from Keaton or Loyd to say that Chaplin built the road along which they swept to success.”
Kevin Brownlow
Hollywood; The Pioneers 

Despite Loyd being famous for his clock management, and Rudy-like zeal (Indiana reference #2) of not being that gifted athletically—he was only a first year player in The Freshman (1925):

Keaton would appear to have the advantage because as Walter Kerr  pointed out, “Keaton ran so often during the twelve features he made in the 1920’s that the sprint became a trademark.”   And, in fact, he did run a good deal in  Three Ages  (1923):

And the winner is—Buster Keaton. Why? Three reason:

1) First, Keaton not only starred in Three Ages, but he’s also credited as producing, directing and writing the film.
2) The Freshman was said to be pirated from H.C. Witwer’s short story, The Emancipation of Rodney.
3) I trust drama critic Walter Kerr’s (1913-1996) assessment of Keaton in his book The Silent Clowns:  “Let Chaplin be king and let Keaton court jester. The king effectively rules, the jester tells the truth.”

P.S.  Just for some added Midwest mojo, Buster Keaton was born in Piqua, Kansas and Harold Loyd was born in Burchard, Nebraska—more unlikely places for Hollywood icons to come from. Talent comes from everywhere. Kerr (who was also a produced playwright, on top of writing for the New York Times) was born in Evanston, IL just about 200 miles north of today’s big game and received his BA and MA from Northwestern, on his way to becoming a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer in criticism.

P.P.S. And if you catch the game today, you might see a singer who was born in Bay City, Michigan and has sold more than 300 million albums. Madonna will be performing the half-time show.

Scott W. Smith 

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“She learned about movies by seeing ones she liked three or four times, studying them frame by frame.”
Douglas Martin
New York Times article on Frederica Sagor Mass

“I would work so hard on some of the scripts and the minute I’d turn it in, someone else would take credit for it…Unless you wanted to quit the business, you just kept your mouth shut.”
Frederica Sagor Maas

Less than a month ago a part of Hollywood died. A part of old Hollywood—a link to the silent era of movie making.

When screenwriter Frederica Sagor Maas died in La Mesa, California on January 5, 2012 she was 111 years old. That’s a long time, especially when you consider that she once contemplated committed suicide in 1955 when she was 60 years old.

Of course, she wasn’t literally a silent screenwriter, she just wrote silent pictures. She not only lived through the entire 20th century, but she lived to tell about it in her 1999 (at the ripe age of 99) autobiography, The Shocking Pilgrim, A Writer in Early Hollywood. (Her take on early Hollywood? An unethical, chauvinistic, heartless and shallow place where screenwriters didn’t get any respect.)

One of the serendipitous things about writing this blog is these little discoverers. In the same week that Maas died I happened to watch the movies Hugo and The Artist back to back, and it revived my interest in the early days of cinema. I’ve been blogging about that era for the past month.

In was in doing research that I came across an article about her death in the Los Angeles Times.

Maas was born in Manhattan, studied journalism at Columbia University, worked as a copy girl for the New York Globe, at age 23 became an assistant story editor for Universal in New York, before moving to to Hollywood at age 24. She co-wrote The Plastic Age (1925) which was Clara Bow’s biggest picture to date on her road to becoming “The It Girl.”

Maas went on to work on more than a dozen movies, but like many, didn’t survive the transition into the “talkies.” She married fellow writer Ernest Maas, but their careers didn’t continue to rise.

“(By) the fall of 1934, it was plain that we were not a success in Hollywood. In these five years we only found work doing short studio assignments – cleaning up other people’s scripts – and had failed to sell our own stories.
Frederica Sagor Maas
The Shocking Pilgrim, A writer in early Hollywood

Lack of work and losing a lot of money in the stock market crash of ’29  took its toll, and the fact that she subscribed to two alleged communist publications didn’t help the daughter of Jewish Russian immigrants career in era of McCarthysim.

“Many of the screenplays she and her husband wrote between 1938 and 1950 were never produced. Hopeless, humiliated and having little money, the couple drove to a hilltop overlooking Hollywood with the intention of committing suicide in their Plymouth. Clutching each other, they started sobbing and realized that “none of these things mattered. We had each other,” wrote Maas.”
Valerie J. Nelson
Los Angeles Times 

The couple struggled financially and at age 50 Maas was totally done with Hollywood and ended up working in the insurance business.

Before her death she was the third oldest Californian, the 44th oldest person in the world, and I believe the oldest living person on IMDB. And just to come full circle with the silent and Oscar-nominated film The Artist (2011), here’s a clip from the 1926 film Flesh in the Devil which Maas did uncredited writing on. The film stars Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. The rise and fall of the movie star Gilbert (once the highest paid actor in Hollywood) was one of the inspirations behind the lead character George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) in The Artist,

P.S. The only silent film to ever receive a “Best Picture” Academy Award is the 1927 film Wings (starring Clara Bow).  In January, the same month Mrs. Maas died, The Artist was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.  Tell me Harvey Weinstein doesn’t know what he’s doing.

Related posts:
Writing “The Artist” (Part 1)
Writing “The Artist” (Part 2)
Writing “The Artist” (Part 3)

Scott W. Smith

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“We’re a great country. We’ve got great stories. And for the most part, the great stories of people of color have not been told.”
Spike Lee
(at the NYC Premier of Red Tails)

“Americans trust black people when we sing, dance or tell jokes. It’s when we stop laughing that people get itchy.”
Author Charles Fuller (A Soldier’s Story)

As a response of the release of The Birth of a Nation (1915) plans were set in place by black leaders to give a response to stereotypes portrayed in D.W. Griffith’s widely praised film. Plans to film Booker T. Washington’s book Up from Slavery fell apart, the start of World War I didn’t help with film funding, but eventually The Birth of a Race did get produced and was released in 1918. According to the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance the film “was considered a critical and popular failure, and it was a financial fiasco.”

But the one thing it did do was inspire Oscar Micheaux to become the first Africa-American to write and direct a feature film—The Homesteader in 1919.  (On IMDB, Jerry Mills is also listed a co-director.) He would go on to make 41 films over the next 29 years. But his direct response to The Birth of a Nation was the film Within Our Gates (1920).

Now here’s the great thing about technology—there was no known copy of Within Out Gates until 1990 when one was found in Paris. Now the whole version pf the film is available for free on You Tube.

While it’s generally accepted that Micheaux is the first African-American to make a feature film, back in 1910 William D. Foster of Chicago founded the Foster Photoplay Company—the first independent African-American film company. He was a sports writer from Chicago and his first film was The Railroad Porter, a short film made in 1912 and starred William D. Foster.

And back when Jacksonville, Florida was known as “winter film capital of the world,” writer/director Richard Norman (also an African-American) made several features in the 1920s. Long before Tyler Perry opened his film studio in Atlanta, Norman owned the Norman Studios. A studio which is still around today as a museum.  And before Red Tails (currently in theaters as I write this) Norman was the producer, director and writer on The Flying Ace (1926)—about a World War I pilot— with an “ALL COLORED CAST” as one old advertisement promised.

That movie is part of the Library of Congress. Here’s the trailer for The Flying Aces (with a little updated music):

Related posts:
The First Black Feature Filmmaker
Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting
Shrimp, Giants & Tyler Perry

Scott W. Smith

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“Pioneer, visionary, ‘father of film technique,’ primitive poet, social agitator, king of screen sentiment and melodrama—all are apt descriptions of David Wark Griffith, the first of the great film directors.”
Frank Beaver
On Film, A History of the Motion Picture 

“It is unfortunate that the reputation of pioneer filmmaker D.W. Griffith will forever be stained by virulent racism of his 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation. The controversy surrounding that film has blinded many viewers to the fact that Griffith made a number of films seeking to expose and oppose racial prejudices.”
William M. Drew 

Got a few hours to spare? Three to be exact. Here’s D.W. Griffith’s response to the negative feedback for making The Birth of a Nation, the epic Intolerance.

“In his next picture, Intolerance (1916), Griffith made an impassioned plea for peace and tolerance, cutting back and forth between two epochs. The structure was too demanding for contemporary audiences; the tone excessively preachy. Worse, it was released on the eve of America’s entry into the European war, which pacifists and dissenters were considered as traitors. Its failure was a setback for Griffith—and for movies of shaping history.”
Hollywood: Legend and Reality
Edited by Michael Webb

Other Griffith films pointed out as being empathetic to minorities are Ramona:A Story of the White Man’s Injustice (1910)—which was based on a book and true story—and The Red Man’s View (1909) both featuring Native Americans, and Broken Blossoms (also titled The Yellow Man and the Girl) was perhaps the first positive interracial (white-Asian) relationship captured on film. When the movie was released in 1919, interracial relationships were actually illegal.

Other defenders of Griffith point out that in his 1911 film The Rose of Kentucky  that the conflict actually centers around a man refusing to join the KKK and is critical of the modern-day version of the group. Still others say that Griffith merely chose to make The Birth of a Nation because of its large scale visual spectacle. Griffith is quoted as saying, “I could just see these Klansman in a movie with their white robes flying.” No doubt, visually stunning—but packed with deeper philosophical ramifications.

I’m certainly not an expert on the KKK, but in Melvyn Stokes’s book D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, he states that, “In 1869, (the KKK’s) Imperial Grand wizard, ex-Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest, formally disbanded it. Embers of the Klan still glowed, however, and those embers were finally extinguished by the Force Acts of 1870 and 1871, which provided that the Klansman could be tried for their crimes in federal court.”

Meaning that at the time of Griffith’s birth in 1875, the KKK for the most part was gone. There’s no doubt looking back on all of this almost 100 years after from the making of The Birth of a Nation, and over 150 years after the start of the Civil War (or “the War Between the States” as some of my Southern friends call it)—that we’re swimming in murky waters, and the truth is hidden in there somewhere. What we do know is there is a lot of ugliness in American History, and one thing The Birth of a Nation does is expose that ugliness.

What is clearer in 2008, is that Barack Obama was elected as the first African American president of the United States. And as I’ve said before, even if you stand across the aisle politically from the president, you have to marvel at the symbolism—and the journey. What an amazing history—scars and all—the United States has had in its 230+ years.

Griffith continued to make films into the ’20s and some historians believe that his Orphans of the Storm was his best film ever. Though he made the transition into making “talkies” his first, Abraham Lincoln (1930) was not a hit, and The Struggle (1931) also proved to be a box office and critical disappointment and was his last film. He was fifty-six years old.

“Having for several years suffered from a drinking problem, Griffith conceived of a film that, while opposing Prohibition, reflected his own torments. The Struggle relates the story of a good-natured but weak-willed working man who succumbs to the allure of the speakeasy, causing a personal decline that nearly destroys his family.”
William M. Drew 

In a show of that film last year at  The University of Chicago they started a description of The Struggle by saying, “By 1931, Griffith was dismissed by the industry he had created.”

The final year of D.W. Griffith’s life (1948) was lived in the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood where he lived alone and reportedly spent much time in the Renaissance Bar telling stories about the good ol’ days of Hollywood. In 1953, the Directors Guild of America instituted the D.W. Griffith Award—its highest honor, but in 1999 according to Wikipedia, “the DGA Board announced that the award would be renamed the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award because Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation ‘helped foster intolerable and racial stereotypes.'”

D.W. Griffith is buried at Mount Tabor Methodist Church Graveyard in Centerfield, Kentucky.

I traded a few emails with writer/director Brian McDonald, author of The Golden Theme and The Invisible Ink blog, screenwriting teacher, and Pixar consultant (and who just happens to be black) about how he handles talking/teaching about Griffith and The Birth of a Nation, and he replied;

“There is this myth that talking about racism somehow creates it, but it is in not talking about it that we keep it going. We must talk about these things or we will never be rid of them. When we teach Birth of a Nation we have to teach both the artistry and the bigotry…I think we can take the good with the bad with those old filmmakers,
but we do have to talk about the bad. If we don’t we condone the bad with our silence.”

And that’s what I’ve tried to do in these three posts about Griffith. And one thing I did learn from Brian yesterday is that throughout the South there were postcards mass-produced of lynching of black men. “Sometimes printed in the ten of thousands….and sold in drugstores and pharmacies,” according to a BBC documentary. I understand why some would rather forget this history, and also understand why others never want it to be forgotten.

Scott W. Smith

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“To watch (D.W. Griffith’s) work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination, and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man.”
James Agee

“Despite every valid attack on the biased history presented by The Birth of A Nation, there also can be no denying the unsurpassed artistic impact it had on virtually all subsequent pictures.”
Peter Bogdanovich

This is a difficult post to write because it’s like sticking your hand in a bag of snakes to separate the poisonous ones from the non-poisonous ones.

While many filmmakers from many countries laid the ground work of the early years of cinema, it was D.W. Griffith who laid the axe at the root of the tree—and when he was done, everyone knew that things were going to be different. It was offical that movies had matured beyond the cheap entertainment of the Nickelodeon Theater.

The road Griffith took was paved by making 450 short films before arriving at the epic film The Birth of a Nation. The film is as controversial as it is long. I’m not sure what the longest film to date was at that point, but in the states one and two-reelers were still common place. (Under 30 minutes total.) (Update: The 1913 Italian film Quo Vadias? was the first film to surpass the two-hour mark. No original print is known to exist.)

Back in 1906 Charles Tait directed the Australian film The Story of the Kelly Gang, which around 60 minutes in length and is considered the first feature film. Over the years other filmmaker in Europe followed and I think they too had running times in the 40-60 minute range.  When Cecil B. DeMille made the first feature in Hollywood, The Squaw Man (74 minutes), it was 1914.

Some people at that time thought that human eyes could not endure viewing a film much longer than an hour. (Reminds me of those early quotes by some that thought television wouldn’t catch on because people wouldn’t stop working around the house and just sit and watch t.v.) So just telling a long story was a risk for Griffith. It would also not only be the longest film, but the most expensive up until that time. In Frank E. Beaver’s film history book On Film he writes of The Birth of a Nation, “In compelxity of story structure, in technical assimilation, in mere magnitude, audiences had never been exposed to anything like it.”

The original title for Birth of a Nation was The Clansman, the name of the book by the Reverend Thomas Dixon, on which the movie was based (along with another Dixon book, The Leopard’s Spot.) I have never read the books and it’s been many years since I watched The Birth of a Nation so I’ll depend on others to give a clearer view on the lay of the land. The script was written by Griffith with Frank E. Woods.

Let’s address the elephant in the room. Yes, the film does give a favorable view of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). After the Civil War, the south went through a long and major reconstruction. Families had lost sons in the war, buildings had been destroyed, the economy was in shambles, and a way of life was forever changed. Griffith experienced this first hand when as a teenager his mother sold the family farm in Kentucky.

After the Civil War ended, there was much lawlessness in the South and the KKK was seen by some as a way to restore order. Out of that perspective and history was born The Birth of a Nation. Keep in mind that between 1776 and 1865 (ending just ten years before Griffith was born) slavery was legal in the United States of America.

In general, what film critics and historians do with Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is the same thing they do with the pro-Nazi film Triumph of the Will—that is separate the film from the message. Director Peter Bogdanovich has called Griffith “a flawed genius.” He also goes on to explain the times;

“Remember, in 1915, the First World War having just begun, women—-black or white—-still didn’t have the right to vote. Do we no longer revere Washington or Jefferson because they kept slaves? In his brilliant documentary on the black heavyweight Jack Johnson of the 1910s, Unforgivable Blackness, Ken Burns quotes lengthy, virulently racist passages from such contemporary newspapers as The New York TimesLos Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune. As Robert Graves has pointed out, it is impossible not to be a part of your times, even if you are against them.”
Peter Bogdanovich
Indiewire 

And so over the years, the filmmaking influence of Griffith was felt on a wave of filmmakers ranging from John Ford to Alfred Hitchcock. (And there is no question that part of what set Griffith a part was the great cinematographer Billy Bitzer, who had 18 years of camera experience before he shot The Birth of a Nation.)

Now imagine a young Spike Lee—fresh from his undergraduate work at the historically all male & black Morehouse College— walking into classes at NYU film school and being shown The Birth of a Nation for the first time and being taught about the all the glorious film techniques of the great D.W. Griffith.

“They taught that D.W. Griffith is the father of cinema.  They talk about all the ‘innovations’—which he did. But they never really talked about the implications of Birth of a Nation, never really talked about how that film was used as a recruiting took for the K.K.K.
Spike Lee
The New Yorker article by John Colapinto

Even back in 1915 there were theaters and cities that refused to show the film. And in some cities where the film was shown, riots did break out. (Riots also occurred when the play The Clansman toured the country in 1908.)  Motion pictures could no longer be seen as a simple entertainment. And Griffith proved that people could watch a 3 hour movie—and they would pay top dollar for it as well.

“Appalling as its message might seem now, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ was the blockbuster of its day.  Grossing pre-inflationary $18 million, it was the second biggest blockbuster office success of the silent film era.  Immediately perceived as a classic, it was re-released in 1921, 1922, and 1930. Some 200 million people saw it before 1946.”
Ann-Marie Nurnberger 

It’s been a while since I’ve repeated one of my favorite quotes that “Movies reflect the culture they help create.” In the case of Birth of a Nation, I saw one old photo that showed a person holding a sign outside a movie theater that read; “Birth of a Nation Revives KKK—N.A.A.C.P.” The KKK did experience a revival in the 20s that would last into the 60s.

In The Father of Film (Part 3) we’ll look at how Griffith addressed the charges of racism, how he created more classic films (even one about an interracial marriage), and how he was abandoned by the industry he helped create.

“Racism pervades Americam film because it is a basic strain in American history. It is one of the ugly facts of film history that the landmark The Birth of a Nation (1915) can be generally hailed as classic despite its essential racism.”
James Monaco
How to Read a Film 

P.S. For what it’s worth (and lest you think the film’s success was just a southern thing) when The Birth of a Nation (then called The Clansman) was first shown at the Clune Auditorium in Los Angeles—according to Frank E. Beaver in On Film—it “resulted in a standing ovation by audiences who first saw the film during its initial run.” The title was changed to The Birth of a Nation when it first played in New York—to sold out crowds at a then record $2 per ticket. The film reportedly made its money back in the first three months of its New York run.

A link to a list of some of the film techniques Griffith established making The Birth of a Nation.

Update 2/3/12:

After the success of the The Birth of a Nation, Thomas Dixon (former politician, turned minister, turned writer of The Clansman) went on to becoming a screenwriter. Included in his IMDB credits are the 1937 film Nation Aflame about the organizing of the Ku Klux Klan.

The full title of his book that inspired Griffth (linked here as an ebook) is The Clansman, A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan.

Dixon writes in his 1904 introduction:

“In the darkest hour of the life of the South, when her wounded people lay helpless amid rags and ashes under the beak and talon of the Vulture, suddenly from the mists of the mountains appeared a white cloud the size of a man’s hand. It grew until its mantle of mystery enfolded the stricken earth and sky. An “Invisible Empire” had risen from the field of Death and challenged the Visible to mortal combat.

How the young South, led by the reincarnated souls of the Clansmen of Old Scotland, went forth under this cover and against overwhelming odds, daring exile, imprisonment, and a felon’s death, and saved the life of a people, forms one of the most dramatic chapters in the history of the Aryan race.”

Update 2/4/12:

“The most depressing fact to emerge from the tumult (surround The release of The Birth of a Nation) was the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. This organization, which Griffith himself admitted had spilt more blood than at Gettysburg, had disbanded in 1869. The modern Klan began its clandestine cruelty on Thanksgiving Night, 1915, on Stone Mountain in Atlanta, where in June 25,000 former Klansmen had marched down Peachtree Avenue to celebrate the opening of the film.”
Kevin Brownlow
Hollywood, The Pioneers

 

Scott W. Smith

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