30th 08 - 2015 | 7 comments »

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Director/Coscreenwriter: D.W. Griffith


By Roderick Heath

One hundred years have passed since the release of the film long beheld as the very moment cinema came of age, and few films can speak so eloquently as to just how long that century has been. The faiths, ideals, and biases inscribed in the form of The Birth of a Nation, both separate from that form and wound into it with pernicious intricacy, tell us things we don’t necessarily want to remember or countenance, things that appall and beggar as well as things that still stir and fascinate. David Wark Griffith’s achievement with The Birth of a Nation was immediately hailed as a great event in the history of a young art form, but also the spur to furious debate, even murder and terrorism. The frightening power, redolent of some alchemist’s dream of mesmeric influence over a mass populace, of that new art form was confirmed at the same time as its enormous expressive promise. The Birth of a Nation became perhaps the pivotal work of moviemaking’s first quarter-century, overshadowing even Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1922), which it influenced, because it was a colossal hit as well as a successful aesthetic experiment. Griffith’s film would remain the highest-grossing film of all time until at least Gone with the Wind (1939), and perhaps still reigns supreme adjusting for inflation: as costar Lillian Gish put it, it made so much money they lost count. At the time The Birth of a Nation struck many viewers as like a historical document given the vitality and narrative power of legend. Woodrow Wilson reportedly described it as “history written in lightning,” though those words were probably placed in his mouth by his former schoolmate, Thomas Dixon, Jr, who proselytised tirelessly on the behalf of the work taken from his novel. The film premiered 50 years after the end of the Civil War ended, but everyone in the average American movie theatre of the time knew very well that the forces that had caused and ended that hideous conflagration were not yet quelled. Hell, they’re not past even now.


For a long time, no one argued with Griffith’s achievement. Certainly the most hyperbolic descriptions of The Birth of a Nation’s originality were incorrect. The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) pushed into the realm of the modern definition of narrative feature film when Griffith was still an actor. A wave of contemporaneous Italian historical films, including Enrico Guazzoni’s Quo Vadis? and Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (both 1913), drove Griffith to compete with their scale and dramatic heft. Most of the editing and filming techniques packed into his work already existed, awaiting the kind of show-off who could synthesise them, and Griffith had laid claim to inventing many in his acts of self-promotion. The famous ride of the Ku Klux Klan at the end of The Birth of a Nation with its cross-cutting structure was actually just a reprise of his earlier work, The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913). But the record still tells us that Griffith constructed something his audience felt it had not seen before, defining moviemaking at last as its own continent, for all Griffith’s debts to Victorian-era literature and his conversion of some well-established author’s tricks into visual style.


The Birth of a Nation perturbs now for less abstract reasons: it’s appallingly racist, and not just for modern eyes. In its own time, the film was the subject of bilious protest. Many saw it then as a legitimate account of the era it portrayed; others recognised it as blatant, partisan propaganda and racial libel passing itself off as a common folk-memory. Perhaps the controversy helped its success. The fledgling NAACP gained stature and clout objecting to it. Some blame it for sparking the new Ku Klux Klan campaigns of the 1920s. Violence certainly broke out in some screening locations. Today, the success of Ken Burns’ television documentary series The Civil War (1987) and Edward Zwick’s film Glory (1989) helped restore the Civil War to the centre of modern American mythology in a way that pop culture had rarely seemed comfortable with before, partly by confronting aspects of the war that had long been repressed. For a very long time, the tacit narrative of the postwar period was one of reconciliation between former antagonists, burying the causes for schism whilst inferring that the citizens whose fates were crucial to the war, African-American slaves, were best excised from the conversation, if not in some way to blame for it all. The Birth of a Nation, to put it mildly, records and exemplifies that convention.


Griffith’s film was based on Dixon’s novel, The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. Dixon was a South Carolina minister, politician, and pro-South ideologue who had been convinced by the anecdotes he heard as a kid that the Klan had saved the South from rapacious carpetbaggers and lawless freedmen. The Birth of a Nation was initially to be a straightforward adaptation of the novel, and first screened under its title. The contradictions here are many: Kentucky-born with Confederate roots, Griffith had just a few years earlier made a film where the Klan were villains. During production, Griffith’s adaptation of Dixon inflated into something far larger than intended, as Griffith worked without a scenario or screenplay, but simply kept the book in mind whilst conjuring his visions, creating a grandiose pageant begging for a more sweeping appellation. Griffith already had a reputation as one of the movie’s most innovative and distinctive talents: as cornball as a lot of his plots were, in works like The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), The Avenging Conscience, and Judith of Bethulia (both 1914), he had impressed viewers with works of a defined aesthetic density far above the run of mostly mercenary amusements. Griffith developed himself as a brand, and when he premiered his new film, he showcased it with a costly roadshow presentation and charged the then-exorbitant amount of $2 a ticket. Perhaps The Birth of a Nation is more a landmark in the annals of hype.


Still, what about the actual film, the relic shining out from under all the rhetorical dust? Does it still shout out its storied power above the din of its controversy? Yes and no. Even without taking on the sorry race portrayals, The Birth of a Nation is a mixture of the crude and the fine. Portions are undoubted displays of great cinematic effect and art, whilst others drag and slouch. The plotting is naïve and occasionally confused, the acting uneven. At times it’s a stock-standard melodrama of the kind readily found in turn-of-the-century novelettes and stage plays, complete with rosy-cheeked damsels in distress, lascivious villains, good-hearted patriarchs, and bellicose mammies. The characters it describes aren’t really people, but are mostly archetypes of a bygone society’s best self-image and basest anxieties.


The first third of The Birth of a Nation is still a vivid creation for all the qualifications, tethering the microcosmic, presented via the families of congressional leader Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis) of the North and Dr. Cameron (Spottiswoode Aitken) of the South, with the macrocosmic drama of erupting civil conflict. Stoneman upholds radical abolitionist policies, partly under the influence of his black housekeeper and mistress Lydia Brown (Mary Alden). In spite of brewing war clouds at the time of Lincoln’s election, Stoneman’s sons Phil (Elmer Clifton) and Tod (Robert Harron) visit their friends the Camerons, whose ranks include sons Ben (Henry B. Walthall), Wade (George Beranger), and Duke (Maxfield Stanley), and daughters Margaret (Miriam Cooper) and Flora (Violet Wilkey), in their South Carolina town of Piedmont. Ben falls in love with a photo of Stoneman’s daughter Elsie (Gish) given to him by Phil. The settled life of the Camerons, the bustle of household work, the roughhousing of the sons and the scampering of the kids, the quiet reclining of Dr. Cameron, is quickly and skilfully sketched by Griffith in the midst of the decorous, homey beauties of picket fences and rose bushes. The Stonemans also get a tour of cotton plantations, where slaves labour and readily dance gleefully for the visitors. Just after the Stonemans depart, Lincoln (Joseph Henabery) signs his call for volunteers, “using the Presidential office for the first time in history…to enforce the rule of the coming nation over the individual states.” War breaks out, and the Cameron sons join the Confederate cause.


Griffith builds these sequences, shifting from the bucolic to the ecstatic, with gathering force, capturing the mood of being swept up in what its characters see as a great, romantic, classical quest. Bonfires and dancing greet the news of war. “While youth dances the night away, childhood and old age slumber,” a title card notes, as the camera studies the snoozing Dr. Cameron and Flora, establishing a quality of dialogue, the existence of separate modes of life even within the frame of a single story. Griffith’s framings are often studied and still resemble the static state of much early filmmaking: his sequences often tend to comprise a few basic compositions, alternating between them. Two crucial aspects, however, imbue them with an uncommon life: the frames are packed with detail, often with Griffith pushing his actors to be in constant movement and expression in relation to each other, usually with elements arranged along diagonal axes to give the square frame depth and a definite dramatic quality. Griffith’s characters often look as if they’re perching on the edge of something, as in early scenes where they hover amidst the columns of the Cameron house, whose design splits the difference between Antebellum manse per Confederate mythology and normal suburban villa to which more of the audience could relate. Most vitally, Griffith cuts constantly, giving his moving pictures the same sense of velocity and a fluidic, implicit sense of relationship, rather than a flatly grammatical one. The depiction of Piedmont’s soldiers heading off to war thrums with a sense of motion and pictorial eloquence–the gyrating crowds in the town square and columns of parading soldiers, the lasses bedecked with flowers and the horses similarly garlanded, the young gallants stealing kisses before riding off, Ben teasing “pet sister” Flora by dangling the Confederate flag over her face as she naps, and the familial pietas of soon-to-be-bereft loved ones waving farewell. Billy Bitzer’s photography, justly celebrated as a grand technical achievement, is constantly striking, particularly the night sequences of bonfire celebrations. Griffith foreshadows with witty asides. A young kitten and pup, pets of the Camerons, tumble into each other and commence what is described as “hostilities” by the title cards.


The wartime sequences are even more impressive for the sense of rolling, panoramic drama. Freed from having to relate the audience to actors at the centre of focus and understanding, Griffith pulls off coups of pure visual power, covering fields of battle and scenes of history purely according to the needs of his camera rather than the call of an imagined stage, letting his images flow in a manner reminiscent conceptually of book plates and theatrical pageants, and sometimes based outright on artworks, but imbued with the illustrative force of cinema. One of the Cameron sons catches a bullet during an infantry charge. Tod Stoneman dashes in, ready to bayonet him, only to recognise his friend and stay his hand, moments before a Confederate bullet cuts him down in turn: Tod collapses, pulling his friend close and dying, leaving them entwined in a brotherly embrace. This vignette is trite on one level, and yet also a perfectly direct, visually powerful encapsulation of Griffith’s message regarding war, as direct and intelligible as anything in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Another Cameron boy dies during the retreat of the army. The burning of Atlanta is depicted in a crude but startling proto-matte shot, in which extras amidst life-size sets swathed in smoke reel underneath a burning model of the town. A long shot of Sherman’s army on the march through the countryside filmed from a hilltop sees the camera pivot to note a mother and her children looking on, an iris effect zeroing in on them before Griffith cuts to show us their faces beholding the annihilation of their world: the victims of war are privileged by the perspective Griffith takes on them over the distant, anonymous mass of men.


The most spectacular war sequence is set in the waning days of the conflict, where Ben Cameron, now beloved by his men as “The Little Colonel,” leads them in an attempt to break out of siege for supplies, only to be held off by Union soldiers commanded by Phil Stoneman. Ben stirs the admiration and then the cheers of his enemies by first helping a wounded Union soldier and then by defiantly dashing across no-man’s-land and jamming the pike of the Confederate battle flag into a Union cannon. Here Griffith wields but also varies a clear sense of geography, via the battlefield framed like a football field with the opponents on either side, studied first in high vistas and then long group shots, and then close studies of individual actions. At one point, the camera charges with Ben and his men, and the sequence builds to the shot of Ben at the cannon filmed from behind the cannon, capturing the pain and heroism of the gesture. This is all utterly familiar filming and editing method today, but represented the cutting edge of sophistication at the time, and moreover still shines with the peculiar intensity of real creativity. One can still almost share the effect that shot of the cannon spiking must have had in 1915, the animate drama and sensatory power of watching an actor, some sets, crew, and a strip of celluloid interact and be manipulated until it seemed as if the essence of life and death have been depicted. Whilst such oversized vignettes dominate the impression The Birth of a Nation leaves, the film is replete with testaments to the value of small gestures and fleeting, but vital, observations as part of the overall texture. There’s the droll humour of Stoneman letting Elsie fit the wig that conceals his bald pate and a guard in the military hospital sighing over Elsie’s untouchable beauty, and a purposeful linkage of images adding up to ideas, as when Ulysses Grant (Donald Crisp) and Robert E. Lee (Howard Gaye) shake hands at Appomattox, followed immediately by Ben and Elsie doing the same.


Griffith synthesised all of this for his own satisfaction, his own family’s part in the war perhaps lingering in the vividness with which he describes the struggle as well as a sense of discovery, the first poet of a new form to describe such a vista. Tellingly, most of what comes later in adapting Dixon more directly is lacking from this part, though early scenes are interpolated depicting Lydia Brown’s Uriah Heep-like patronisation of Stoneman’s Senate opposite Charles Sumner (Sam De Grasse), alternating with her fire-eyed tantrums motivated by her evident desire to be loftier, a desire she later realises as her hold on Stoneman becomes unshakeable and she begins contemptuously ushering Sumner away. Lydia is described as using her power over Stoneman to ends that will have dire consequences, though how and why, beyond pure wilful egotism, isn’t quite described; in any event, Stoneman uses Lincoln’s assassination to begin a forced social revolution in the reconstructing states after the war. Stoneman and Lydia were clearly based on Thaddeus Stevens, leader of radical Republicans, and Lydia Smith, his housekeeper who was probably also his mistress; The Birth of a Nation implies that this fatal act of miscegenation set the stage for civil war. One revealing aspect of Dixon’s paranoid racism captured in the film is how one could easily tweak this to make it seem heroic (as Steven Spielberg would when depicting Stevens and Smith in Lincoln, 2012), in the theme of the oppressed and disadvantaged released from their shackles and using new-found power to redress the moral books, an idea which The Birth of a Nation cannot countenance, and instead hides behind mendacious suggestions that it was rather the quintessence of duplicity and anarchy.


At the same time Griffith dissembles, referring to certain villainous black characters as “traitors to their own race” as well as to the larger nation, though the film infers that because of the bad actions of these specific wrongdoers, all must be subjugated. A clue as to how confused The Birth of a Nation is, politically speaking, is found in its treatment of Lincoln, who is described early on as trampling on states’ rights, as per Dixon’s outright Confederate propaganda, whilst his determined attempts to force the abolition of slavery are avoided altogether. (One scene purportedly cut from the remaining print after early screenings depicted a gang rape of a white woman by black soldiers with the title card “Lincoln’s solution.”) But the film also plays up the more familiar, positive image of the leader when it suits. When Mrs. Cameron (Josephine Crowell) goes to visit her son Ben in a Union military hospital, she learns he’s going to be shot, so she goes to see the President to beg for his life, and he grants her request.


When Lincoln is killed, Dr. Cameron laments that “our best friend is gone.” The depiction of Lincoln’s assassination is a masterly set-piece from Griffith, perhaps indeed the strongest sequence in the film. Rather than merely present the famous moment as tableaux vivant, Griffith instead depicts events with a flow of documentarylike detail, generating suspense with analysis of the mechanics of the act. He notes Lincoln’s bodyguard setting himself up in the hallway outside his theatre box, but then being drawn into another booth to take a look at the play. This gives John Wilkes Booth (played by future director Raoul Walsh, who was also the husband of Miriam Cooper at the time) the chance to storm the box, his act of violence and flying leap onto the stage and infamous cry of “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” delivered at concussive speed, capturing the deliberately theatrical power of the assassin’s deed. Booth’s showmanship suits Griffith’s, whilst history weaves in with fiction: Elsie and Phil Stoneman are in the crowd, and see the whole thing, whilst the President’s murder gives Austin Stoneman his chance to push his agenda unfettered.


One rarely contemplated aspect of The Birth of a Nation is one it shares with much of Griffith’s cinema: women were at the centre of his movies, and in many ways he helped codify the “women’s picture” with his tales of oppressed waifs, degraded mothers, and plucky gamines who soldier through trials. Whilst in hospital, Ben meets the object of his abstract obsession in the flesh, as Elsie Stoneman is working there as a nurse: Elsie forms a bond with Ben and his mother and helps her make the plea to Lincoln. The framework of Dixon’s story demands the ladies chiefly be used as threatened victims, and Griffith was always happy to serve up images of decorously beautiful young women audiences of the time loved. But Griffith emphasises the moral force of motherhood and the determined energy of the young women. Elsie, Margaret, and Flora are all as active in their way as the menfolk, absent from the battlefield, but guarding the gates of civilisation and dodging the predations of the age, as when the Cameron girls and their parents have to hide in their household cellar to avoid marauding Union soldiers in Piedmont.


One early shot captures young Gish’s mischievous screen quality and Griffith’s feel for actors, as she sets her brother racing off and then skips and jumps her way back toward the Stoneman manse, all distracted and tomboyish energy even as she clutches a kitten and looks entirely winsome. Both Elsie and Margaret hold off the men who romance them because of their ethical dimensions: Elsie holds loyal to her father’s creed when she realises Ben has become involved with the Ku Klux Klan, and Margaret refuses Phil’s overtures in memory of her slain brothers. By comparison, the male characters, apart from Ben, are blank slates, operating robotically according to assigned identities, from the young men signing up for state-sponsored carnage to the black and half-caste characters for whom the sexual conquest of a white woman is both their most verboten and most desired object.


As The Birth of a Nation moves into its second half, the focus shifts from war to fractious peace. It’s here the film becomes truly difficult, to say the least, both in terms of art and meaning. Griffith’s freeform exploration of the Civil War gives way to a more settled, straightforward adaptation of Dixon’s novel. Austin Stoneman relocates to Piedmont with his remaining children to oversee the Reconstruction programme being carried out by a horde of soldiers, carpetbaggers, and freedmen. Stoneman’s protégé is the biracial Silas Lynch (George Siegmann). The congressman gets him installed as lieutenant-governor with the aid of a rigged election where local citizens are refused participation whilst manipulated ex-slaves vote. All of this, the title cards inform, creates a state of lawless anarchy in the district, though little of this anarchy is actually depicted. What we do see is Ben Cameron taking inspiration from seeing a couple of white kids scare some black kids by hiding under a sheet and having the brilliant idea of applying the same principle to his brainchild. He creates a militialike force to strike back at the corrupt and chaotic regime and newly free black citizens seeking their rights without exposing themselves to reprisals: the Ku Klux Klan is born. Meanwhile, Lynch becomes increasingly megalomaniacal, believing he can use the black soldiers under his command not just to bully and oppress the Southerners but to carve out a kingdom that he will rule. He wants Elsie to be his queen, and looks for a chance to corner her, though she clearly prefers Ben. The situation comes to a head when one of the black soldiers, Gus (Walter Long), stalks Flora (played as a grown-up by Mae Marsh) with rape on his mind through the forest outside of Piedmont. Rather than submit, she jumps of a cliff. The Klan avenges her death by tracking down and lynching Gus. Lynch responds by threatening anyone proven to be participating in Klan acts with hanging. When Ben’s Klan costume is found in his house, what’s left of the Cameron family is arrested.


The Birth of a Nation’s pretences to creating a Homeric epic of America hinge unavoidably on a slanted portrayal of events that are still somewhat ill-served by film: there is a void in cinematic depictions of the Reconstruction era, and many that do exist take a similarly Southern point of view. Perhaps, as Buster Keaton said a few years later, when he made a Confederate his hero in The General (1926), that’s because it felt unfair to many to kick the losers much more. Gone with the Wind, the film’s immediate successor both in subject and success (and another work almost certainly influenced by it), bent over backwards to avoid Griffith’s mistakes, but created some thorny issues of its own. If there’s a salutary value to the way The Birth of a Nation depicts the dankest, sleaziest, most perverse fixations of a certain brand of American bigot, it is that it properly recorded them for posterity. This allows anyone with an ounce of intellectual honesty to see the way the ideas propagated here still define many of its precepts before various masking tactics were adopted–that black men are essentially lascivious, violent apes waiting for a chance to sexually assault white women and brutalise their menfolk, that attempts to reapportion social justice for African-Americans after the war and even today only facilitate the first point, that vigilante justice by gun-toting “ordinary” people is the only force that can stop it, and so forth. In spite of the film’s controversy at the time, there was nothing particularly uncommon about the historical thesis proposed: even President Wilson, a high-minded idealist in many regards, was also a deeply racist thinker whose writings on the topic of the Klan influenced Griffith’s presentation of it. “The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright,” a title card says late in the film when two former Union soldiers aid the Camerons in fending off the black soldiers stalking them, a line that’s deeply depressing but also perfectly revelatory.


One of Griffith’s most brilliant flourishes, a highlight of inspiration in the second half, is woven in inescapably with racist pseudo-history: a shot of the state legislature, empty at first, transitions to a later time when the house has been filled with rowdy freedmen serving Stoneman’s political program. This is another moment one can well imagine stunning an audience in 1915. Dissolves, superimpositions, and double-exposure effects had been used before, but Griffith uses them here to create an active, purely filmic device of satirical insight, albeit a vicious, wrong one. The installed black legislators make a mockery of the solemn institution by drinking whiskey, kicking their shoes off, and generally look like they’re having a good time in a way that’s actually not so far from the Marx Brothers’ similarly anarchic treatment of such settings–except by the 1930s anarchy, at least that plied by impish white guys, was cool. One real crux of the quandary The Birth of a Nation presents is that such sensitivity as Griffith often displays can coexist with such unregenerate contempt, in the process of watching art foiled by prejudice. Perhaps the lowest point of this fantasia comes in the concluding scenes when the Klan, having restored justice and order, keep black voters from going out to vote, presenting the beginning of the century of marginalisation and depression codified under the Jim Crow regime as a heroic, even funny vignette in the film, evident in the way the black would-be voters reel out of the bars, see the hooded, armed Klansmen outside, then promptly swivel and retreat. This moment is as despicable as anything I’ve ever seen in a film.


Ironically, most of the black roles are played by white men in blackface. Roger Ebert proposed this was because staging some of these images with real African-American actors would have been too incendiary, but perhaps it was to avoid production conflicts. In any event, the ridiculous look of these performers gives much of the film the quality of grotesque pantomime, accidentally highlighting the artificiality. The Reconstruction chapter has often been celebrated in spite of all this for exemplifying one of Griffith’s great innovations, as he cross-cuts between sectors and streams of action: the Camerons, who escape their military escort and face siege in a remote shack, Lynch in Piedmont taking Elsie captive for a forced marriage, and the Klansmen gathering and charging to the rescue. The second half, however, often feebly executed by comparison with the first, moving stolidly through its relatively few substantial plot points, with many elements left vague, like Lydia Brown’s fate. Amidst shoot-outs and rescues, the true climactic moment comes when Lynch tells Stoneman that he wants to marry a white woman. Stoneman congratulates and encourages him, but then when Lynch tells him that he specifically wants to marry Elsie, Stoneman erupts in outrage. This could easily be tweaked as a moment of satirical insight, making fun of a shallow form of white liberalism that’s perfectly okay with anything in abstract, and indeed it is after a fashion. But it’s also intended as both revelation and comeuppance for Stoneman, who is forcibly shown the logical end point of his politics, and reacts with the same natural repulsion, the storyline implies, any father would in the face of such depravity.


Much of the plotting here is, again, standard melodrama, with Dixon’s bullshit pasted over already very familiar roles and rituals of penny dreadful villainy. What’s new, however, is that stuff is matched here to a show of filmic technique that thrilled the audience of the day and gave unto later filmmakers a blueprint of how to achieve the same result again and again. Yet it also laid the seed of warning for followers, too, in seeing just how easy it could be to follow a programme of storytelling in the new medium that could manipulate them into siding with monstrosities. The famous ride of the Klan proves rather slow and arthritic for a contemporary eye, however. Radical as such technique was, there was still a long way to go in giving this gimmick the kind of rhythmic intensity it could wield. There are some eye-catching compositions, like the Klansmen riding silhouetted against the sky on a ridgeline, but the interpersonal scenes of Stoneman and Lynch arguing and the Camerons and their comrades in the shack returns to flat, two-dimensional framings. Lynch, if he wasn’t so set on marrying Elsie and arguing with her father, could have ravaged her a dozen times by the time the Klan actually reach Piedmont. Griffith would push his new technique much farther in his follow-up Intolerance (1916), where he cross-cuts not merely related but separate scenes, but whole storylines and timeframes.


Near the film’s very end, Griffith recaptures his visual invention as he shifts into symbolism and surrealism through visuals that evoke medieval artistic styles and literary pictorial plates: a diptych of War on horseback waving its sword over a pile of corpses, and another of Jesus reigning over a court of the faithful. Here, the feeling of cinema as art form as well as populist political sentiment are both revealed as perched on a wickedly sharp edge. Film is gaining its method and its voice at the same time as it is emerging from the influence of other art forms, and an accumulated system of meaning depending on assumptions that cinema perhaps served in part as a stronger beam of sunlight than had ever been seen before. The profound contradiction between the film’s ardent statements of pacifism and brotherhood and its equally ardent preaching of fascist, racialist hegemony is strange as well as appalling to me, as if in that disparity, if only one can grasp it, lies the seed of so much that would transpire in the 20th century. The past had been neatly reconfigured into a myth, but already new realities were pressing, begging their own mythologising.


The Great War was raging across the Atlantic when the film was released, and surely on Griffith’s mind as he questioned “Dare we dream of a golden dawn when the bestial War shall rule no more?” in one of the film’s last title cards. So, naturally, soon the Hun would be serving the same purpose black men had in warmongering movies. At the same time, black Americans could see what many thought of them all too clearly, and found that could be a weapon that cut two ways. Griffith himself would be elevated to the stature of god-king of an art form for a short reign, but at the same time was hurt and bewildered by the forced realisation he had created something deeply troubling. He would take up the themes of prejudice, abuse, and other pressing social problems often thereafter, struggling with films like Intolerance, Broken Blossoms (1919), perhaps his best film after all, and The Struggle (1931) to come to grips with such issues. He would fail politically and commercially, but grow poetically. The conflict between this sense of achievement and the urge for atonement would define the rest of Griffith’s career.

17th 05 - 2015 | 2 comments »

Traffic in Souls (aka, While New York Sleeps, 1913)

Director: George Loane Tucker

For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon IV

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The United States is undergoing another of its periodic hissy fits over waves of immigration that are disrupting the social pecking order and mobilizing some people to hop up and down on the hands of time to reverse the course of history. Nonetheless, as the saying goes, what’s old is new again. In the first decade or so of the 20th century, immigration set off a wave of concern that the pimps who were luring off-the-boat female immigrants into prostitution would start preying on the flower of white American maidenhood. (Perhaps it is no coincidence that director James Gray took up this type of story just last year in his historical drama The Immigrant [2014].) George Loane Tucker’s 1913 Traffic in Souls, one of the earliest feature-length films and from the same year as our blogathon project, Cupid in Quarantine, pretended a concern with so-called white slavery while offering audiences the titillation they craved in this era of the earliest film femme fatale—the vamp. Traffic in Souls was a huge hit, providing a solid foundation on which Universal Pictures was built, and earning its place on the National Film Registry as a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” film.

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Traffic in Souls is equal parts overwrought melodrama, social indictment, and documentary, which makes it a fascinating film as a crowd pleaser with actual relevance. The film stratifies the worlds of respectable American society, carpetbaggers in morning suits and silk, squalid criminals, and isolated and vulnerable immigrants. The Barton family comprises an invalid inventor father (William H. Turner), responsible eldest daughter Mary (Jane Gail), who is engaged to sincere Officer Burke (Matt Moore), and devil-may-care younger daughter Lorna (Ethel Grandin). Lorna is put in danger when she is spotted in the candy store where she and Mary work by the manager of a prostitution ring (Howard Crampton) run by the wealthy social climber William Trubus (William Welsh), who hides his activities by heading the International Purity and Reform League. Such reformist associations often were hissworthy villains in silent films, with meddlesome social workers tearing babies away from the bosoms of their destitute mothers with some frequency.

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Before we get to the main event—Lorna’s kidnapping and rescue—Loane Tucker offers a look at how brothels operate. The film, shot in New York City, offers location shooting at Ellis Island, the Upper West Side, and in Penn Station, where newcomers to the big city from small towns and other countries are waylaid by “helpful” procurers, like the seemingly safe “Respectable” Smith (William Burbridge), who offer to help them find their lodgings or take them to an employment service. Two Swedish girls (Flora Nason and Vera Hansey) looking like low-rent Nestle milkmaids in long-braid wigs, are separated from the brother (William Powers) who meets them at the boat, and lured into the brothel by a homemade sign scribbled in English and Swedish that says “Swedish Employment Agency.” Inside the brothel, the film increases its veracity by showing the African-American madams and prostitutes who actually comprised the largest part of the working girls in New York.

Technology plays a large role in this film. The manager writes the daily returns on a tablet that form magically on a similar tablet in Trubus’ office, the imagination of the film’s creators prefiguring email. Trubus is unmasked for what he is by Mary, discharged from the candy store because of the immorality attached to her sister’s situation—kidnapping is no excuse for low morals, apparently—and hired by Mrs. Trubus (Millie Liston) to replace the sexually loose secretary (Laura McVicker) she has discovered smooching with the manager. Mary learns the truth and brings a microphone her father has invented to eavesdrop on Trubus and his manager—an early phone bug. We also have an early example of product placement—Edison wax cylinders are used to record the conversation the bug picks up.

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I quite liked the precision of the police assault on the brothel. Loane Tucker builds suspense as the police get their orders and man various positions on top of and surrounding the building. When the police storm the building, the camera work is kinetic and dizzying, and Burke’s pursuit of the manager to the roof ends in a quick, realistic way with the manager ending as a slick on the cement below, a scene with which moviegoers are now quite familiar.

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The ruin of Trubus is the ruin of his family as well—his daughter’s (Irene Wallace) betrothel to the season’s most eligible bachelor unceremoniously ended, an outraged mob screaming for blood at his predatory hypocrisy, and his wife killed by the shock and shame of the double life he has been leading. The audience feels that Lorna has learned her lesson about straying into a willful life of her own, a redemption of their own for having thrilled to the madam’s whip hovering over her quivering, tearful form.


Traffic in Souls has been released on DVD by Flicker Alley, a great friend to precious film history from the silent age. Our blogathon is dedicated to restoring these priceless parts of our cultural heritage. Won’t you please make a donation to bring Cupid in Quarantine back into the world.


22nd 09 - 2013 | 2 comments »

Famous Firsts: Straight Shooting (1917)/Beyond the Hill (Tepenin Ardi, 2012)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut feature films of: John Ford and Emin Alper, directors

Straight-Shooting-B2-300aBeyond 2

By Marilyn Ferdinand

It isn’t every day that one can watch two films in one day—one from the early days of the motion picture industry and one hot off the presses—and see such a straight line of descent from the early to the new. Add to that “coincidence” the fact that both films represent the feature debuts of one legendary filmmaker and one possible legend in the making, and the experience is all the more powerful. Lucky was I! I had the rare privilege of seeing the first in what would be a long line of iconic Westerns by John Ford, and a more genre-mixed Western by one of the rising directors of Turkey’s emerging national cinema, Emin Alper. I had not realized the strong connection between these films when I made plans to see them, but the discovery was a highly illuminating one.


Straight Shooting was the first feature to emerge from the Cheyenne Harry short-film series Ford shot for Universal. The series’ star, Harry Carey, would continue to play kind-hearted outlaw Cheyenne Harry into the 1930s, though Ford’s working relationship with Carey would largely end by 1921. After getting a few shorts under his belt, Ford knew how to get what he wanted and delivered an action-packed Western centered on a range war, with homesteader Sweetwater Malone (George Berrell) standing fast against the threats of cattle rancher Thunder Flint (Duke Lee), who illegally stakes a claim on the creek they both share and threatens death to anyone who trespasses. Of course, Cheyenne Harry, who’d rather keep himself to himself, gets pulled into the fray.

Pete's hideout

A seemingly amoral rogue who finds himself pulled into the righteous side of a conflict, often with the enticement of a sweet and beautiful girl as partial incentive, is a stock situation that has been changed up and modified over the years, but never completely obliterated. With such a conventional through line, Ford insisted on injecting more realism with a strategy he would pursue his entire career—shooting on location. He chose Monument Valley (and is credited in some places with its discovery as a filming location), away from the artificial frontier of backlots and California ranches, to people with his ranchers, homesteaders, and outlaws. I can attest that the “hideout” for outlaw Black-Eye Pete (Milton Brown) and his gang—a valley beyond a steep rise guarded by lookouts on either side of the pass—looks very much like what a real gang would use.


Going from a short to a feature-length format may have set up a tendency I’ve seen in quite a few of Ford’s films to include a comic middle act that bears very little upon the main action of the film, and, in fact, could be popped out without any loss of continuity. With Straight Shooting, that middle act takes place in a saloon/rooming house where Harry goes to strike a deal with Flint to run the homesteaders off their land. After this bit of plot is slapped into place, a non sequitur involving the lily-livered sheriff surveilling Harry and Placer Fremont (Vester Pegg), one of Flint’s men, as they get drunk and pursue some burglars provides a bit of comic relief, though I was distressed to see Harry’s horse become so thoroughly spooked by the driving rain Ford engineered that it had to be removed after its opening appearance. In fact, horses and actors in danger during chases and descending the steep path to Pete’s hideout had me on the edge of my seat almost as much as the massing of the ranchers set to attack the homesteaders gathered at Malone’s cabin. One “dead” attacker had to “resurrect” to get out of the way of a horse on a path to trampling him. Although fascinating, such scenes are sobering reminders of how wild the early days of filmmaking actually were.


There’s no question in this fictional universe that there are good people and bad people. While Straight Shooting only goes so far as to indict Flint and his men through the cowardly act of shooting Malone’s son Ted (Ted Brooks) in the back, the film does seem to show a bias for people who settle down on the farm and start families. Malone’s daughter Joan (Molly Malone) switches her affection from her misguided beau Danny (Hoot Gibson) to Harry, and the final clinch inevitably comes after Harry weighs the pros and cons of giving up his crooked, carefree ways. While I haven’t seen the Cheyenne Harry films that follow this one, I reckon Harry slipped free of the marital noose to carry on his unofficial Lone Ranger duties.


The multi-award-winning film Beyond the Hill is a horse of a different color primarily in its insistence on withholding the blood-quickening violence from the audience and siding with the ranchers. The outlines of the conflict come slowly into view, as family patriarch Faik (Tamer Levent) welcomes his son Nusret (Reha Özcan) and grandsons Zafer (Berk Hakman) and Caner (Furkan Berk Kiran) back to the family homestead in a craggy corner of Turkey that quite resembles the Western frontier. Faik has 50 sheep grazing his pasturelands and a large stand of poplars, and Mehmet (Mehmet Ozgur), his wife Meryem (Banu Fotocan), and son Sulu (Sercan Gumus) are his hired hands. Faik declares that they will kill a goat to prepare a proper feast for his family, ignoring Mehmet’s suggestion that they wait a bit. Mehmet correctly susses that Faik means to kill the goat he took from a group of nomads that have been grazing their herd on Faik’s land.

Beyond 1

The nomads are instantly recognizable to Turkish audiences as the Kurds with whom Turkey has been fighting a protracted war for decades, and former soldier Zafer is a mental casualty of that conflict. It is also apparent from their dress and customs that Mehmet and his family are Kurds, living under the thumb of Faik in substandard quarters due to a financial debt Mehmet owes that is never explicitly outlined. The political parallels of the story may be lost on a foreign audience, but the relative position of master and servant that allows Faik to bark orders at Meryem, Caner to threaten Sulu and his dog, and Nusret to get drunk and try to assault Meryem is universal.


Unlike in Straight Shooting, the nomads are never seen. Faik assumes they are massing to attack him after he kills several of their goats for trespassing on and “destroying” his pasture—never mind that he has 50 goats of his own that put stress on the land. Like the ranchers in Ford’s West, the nomads’ argument, as communicated to us through Faik, is that they have been grazing the land since the Ottoman Empire; Faik is the newcomer/homesteader who insists on the sanctity of private property and his right to defend it in any way he sees fit, as though history began when his family settled the land.


An interesting parallel between the two films is a character that is essentially a double-agent. Danny belongs to Flint’s gang, but is courting Joan and feeding intelligence to the Malones and Harry about Flint’s impending attacks. Sulu keeps a place of his own away from the Faik compound and is frequently the messenger who speak of thefts and attacks on Faik’s livestock. The morning after Nusret accosts Meryem—whether he completed the rape or she fended him off is never known—he rouses from the spot on the floor where he passed out and goes outside. A figure with a rifle takes aim, and we soon learn from Sulu that Nursret has been shot in the ankle. A parallel scene occurs in Straight Shooting right down to the exact camera angle, similar landscape, and object of attack—the son of the patriarch. In Beyond the Hill, however, the shooter is never revealed. Nonetheless, by the end of the film, the enemy Faik locates as an outside band of intruders may, in fact, be one of his own, someone filled with resentment who may be trying to escalate the disagreement to incite violence that will drive Faik off the land for good.


In both films, the primacy of a manly code that is enforced with guns, not laws, is front and center. The sheriff in Ford’s film is cowardly and ineffectual, and the Turkish police know very well what is going on but choose to accept Faik’s lies while refusing the goat meat, religiously and legally unclean for having been stolen, he offers them. Beyond the Hill goes further in fetishizing guns, as Caner can barely keep his hands off his grandfather’s rifles, and the sound of gunfire provides a dramatic forwarding of the plot. Zafer, plagued by hallucinations of his fallen comrades, offers a corrective to the macho entitlement of his grandfather while ridiculing his younger brother for being a sissy, showing that little that is learned about the atrocity of war is passed on to the next generation. The final image set to upbeat, heroic music, the only nondiagetic music in the film, shows Faik and company marching along a ridge to meet the enemy, the half-lame Nusret dragging behind. We want to laugh, just as we laugh when Harry is domesticated by Joan, but the certainty that history will repeat itself makes for a rueful close to this eastern Western.


7th 06 - 2010 | 14 comments »

For the Love of Film, Look What We Did!

By Marilyn Ferdinand

UPDATE: Terrific interview with Brian Meacham, the AMPAS scholar who discovered the New Zealand cache.

By now, most of the film world knows about the partnership between the New Zealand Film Archive and the National Film Preservation Foundation to repatriate and restore 75 American motion pictures that no longer survive in the United States. The news broke in the New York Times yesterday and has been all over the media, Twitter, and Facebook. Frankly, Farran (The Self-Styled Siren) and I were a bit miffed. We were told we should not make the announcement until this afternoon, and here comes someone to steal our thunder! But scoops are what newspapers are about, and this was a big one.

Sworn to secrecy out of deference to the New Zealand government, Farran, Greg Ferrara (who did our ads and banners), and I have known since last fall that the New Zealand archive was the next big project for the NFPF, but we had no idea what the nitrate experts would find as they examined the existing footage. The news is amazing! About 70% of the nitrate prints are virtually complete, and more than two-thirds have color tinting. Included is John Ford’s full-length feature Upstream (1927), a backstage romance involving an aspiring Shakespearean actor and the daring target girl from a knife-throwing act, and a trailer for the director’s lost feature Strong Boy (1929), starring Victor McLaglen. Maytime (1923), an early feature with Clara Bow, was found, though afflicted with the “bloom” that signals nitrate deterioration. NFPF got to this film just in time!

And then, of course, there are the films that the participants and donors in For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon funded!

We promised the blogathoners a good film, and initially, we were to fund Moonlight Nights, a short comedy featuring child star Gloria Joy. But Annette Melville, the wonderful executive director of NFPF who has been so helpful to us, found a real treasure that helped double our money. The Sergeant is a very important short western that will be included on the Treasures V collection, thus receiving matching funds from the federal government. Here’s why it’s so unique.

The Sergeant is one of the earliest surviving narratives shot on location in Yosemite Valley. The one-reeler shows the magnificent terrain prior to the creation of the National Park Service, when U.S. Army cavalry troops kept order, and it is the military presence that provides the backdrop for the story.
The western was one of many made by the Selig Polyscope Company, the early motion picture company renowned for its action pictures. Based in Chicago, Selig sent director Francis Boggs west in 1908 to find authentic locations for westerns. Shooting films across the Southwest, Boggs made his way to Los Angeles, where he set up the city’s first movie studio. Boggs hired Hobart Bosworth, one of the first trained Shakespearean actors to crossover to the then-less-respected art of film; Bosworth appears to play the sergeant in this one-reeler, which he probably also directed.

Very little survives from Selig Polyscope, aside from Col. Selig’s papers in the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. After the murder of Boggs on the set in 1911, the company continued on with its popular Tom Mix westerns, the early serial The Adventures of Kathlyn, and animal pictures (the Selig menagerie became part of the Los Angeles Zoo). However, the company failed to make the transition to features and ended production in 1918.

This remarkable film—part western, part travelogue—survives through the single copy shared by the New Zealand Film Archive. The original nitrate distribution print was shrunken but complete. Thanks to our funding, the print was painstakingly copied to modern black-and-white safety negative film. This transfer was made from the negative at 16 frames per second and the tints added digitally to reproduce the colors on the original print.

For the exhibition print, color film will be cut in for the red- and amber-tinted intertitles so that the film can be enjoyed today as it was originally seen by audiences in 1910. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is supervising the preservation and will house the nitrate source material, preservation masters, and access copies so that they will remain available for years to come.

We also raised enough funds to restore The Better Man, a 1912 film produced by the Vitagraph Company of America. It’s another western in which a Mexican-American outlaw proves himself the better man. The stills look intriguing.
The newly recovered films will be preserved over the next three years and accessed through the five major American silent film archives: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, which are collaborating with the NFPF on this project. Copies of the complete films will also be publicly available in New Zealand and viewable on the NFPF web site. 
We extend many thanks to Jamie Lean, Division Director, the New Zealand Film Archive/Ngā Kaitiaki O Ngā Taonga Whitiāhua, who said, “Hundreds of American motion pictures from the silent era exist in archives outside the United States. We hope that our example will encourage other international partners who have safeguarded ‘lost’ American films for decades to share their long-unseen treasures with the world community.”
Clips of The Sergeant are up on the NFPF website, and you can take a look at a list of some of the other films returning from their long hiatus here. You can also kick in some more money for the rest of the films that need preserving (not to mention shipping: Each reel has to be sent using precautions for hazardous materials!). As Gareth over at the Siren’s place said, “I’ve almost never had a sense of such concrete value coming from a donation.” Amen.

14th 02 - 2010 | 12 comments »

A Fool There Was (1915)

Director: Frank Powell

For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon


By Marilyn Ferdinand

There are a lot of legendary eyes in the history of film: the impossibly beautiful lines of Greta Garbo’s, the bedroom eyes that won Rudolph Valentino millions of adoring fans, the fathomless blue of Paul Newman’s, and Elizabeth Taylor’s musgravite eyes.

CIFF%20logo.jpegChicago has only one set of famous movie eyes: the kohl-rimmed orbs of Theda Bara, the cinematic world’s first break-out femme fatale. Her eyes have been the symbol of the Chicago International Film Festival since its inception, looking back at the audiences that view the latest Ken Nordine CIFF trailer before each screening. The logo, in fact, is ubiquitous, appearing on programs, posters, street banners, and souvenir tee shirts. Would that we had as many frames of the rest of Theda Bara as we do of her eyes. Bara made 44 films, but only six have survived in full or in part, one of the lowest survival rates of any major star. Were it not for the fortunate survival of the film that launched her persona of The Vampire, A Fool There Was—with a crisp DVD transfer from the Killiam Collection print by Kino—we might never have truly understood what she meant to an entire generation of women, or why.

3923744076_09f60c2bff.jpgThe turn of the 20th century was the vampire’s first crucible moment. Bram Stoker had just published his Dracula, the template for vampire films largely centered on a male vampire for most of the 20th century. Yet, it was a painting Philip Burne-Jones exhibited in 1897 that actually created a rage for female vampires. The painting, The Vampire, shows a rapacious woman in a flowing nightgown leaning over a handsome man sleeping in bed. The raw sexuality of the painting stirred the primal current running beneath Victorian propriety. A play about a vampirish woman called A Fool There Was hit the stage in 1909 and was adapted for the screen. Unknown actress Theodosia Goodman of Cincinnati—soon to be redubbed Theda Bara—was chosen to play The Vampire.

Burne-Jones’ painting inspired Rudyard Kipling to write a poem, “The Vampire,” that is recited episodically in title cards throughout the film:

A fool there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you and I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair
(We called her the woman who did not care),
But the fool he called her his lady fair
(Even as you and I!)

Oh the years we waste and the tears we waste
And the work of our head and hand,
Belong to the woman who did not know
(And now we know that she never could know)
And did not understand.

A fool there was and his goods he spent
(Even as you and I!)
Honor and faith and a sure intent
But a fool must follow his natural bent
(And it wasn’t the least what the lady meant),
(Even as you and I!)

Oh the toil we lost and the spoil we lost
And the excellent things we planned,
Belong to the woman who didn’t know why
(And now we know she never knew why)
And did not understand.

The fool we stripped to his foolish hide
(Even as you and I!)
Which she might have seen when she threw him aside—
(But it isn’t on record the lady tried)
So some of him lived but the most of him died—
(Even as you and I!)

And it isn’t the shame and it isn’t the blame
That stings like a white hot brand.

It’s coming to know that she never knew why
(Seeing at last she could never know why)
And never could understand.


The film illustrates this poem by presenting us with the downfall of one John Schuyler (Edward José), a prominent diplomat shown at the beginning of the film literally enjoying the dawn of a new day with his good wife Kate (Mabel Frenyear) and young daughter (Runa Hodges). Their paths cross briefly with The Vampire (Bara) and her current amour, Reginal Parmalee (Victor Benoit), whom she has just about used up. A fleeting glance passes between John and The Vampire. When we see the sun set on the day, a title card tells us it is also the end of happiness. Reading in the paper that John is about to set sail for Europe on the “Gigantic,” The Vampire decides to sink her fangs into him, a task made all the easier because Kate will be tending to her injured sister (May Allison) instead of sailing with him.


The historical details in this film are fascinating. For example, in one scene, Kate is seen being driven through the streets to John, automobiles intermingling with horse-drawn vehicles. In another, The Vampire begins her seduction by arranging to have John’s deck chair positioned next to hers. Yes, the deck chairs actually had name tags on them, something I did not know before seeing this film. When she flirts with him on deck, she drops a flower that he is obliged to retrieve for her. As he bends down, she raises her skirt just enough for him to see her ankle!


Despite this outward timidity, the film reeks of sex. John, having abandoned his work and family to live with The Vampire in Italy, considers returning. Powell juxtaposes scenes of John’s daughter being tucked into bed after saying her prayers with The Vampire, her long hair reminiscent of the ubiquitous long hair of ghost women in Japanese horror films, sliding down John’s body to lay prone at his feet, her whole body beckoning him to pounce. The longer their affair continues—he returns with her to New York and moves her into his townhouse with him—the more dissipated he becomes. He drinks heavily, his eyes become as kohl-black as hers, and his form becomes stooped and feeble; he really seems to be losing his life essence to her as though she were draining his blood like a proper vampire. Men are powerless to resist her, even when they receive warnings, as Parmalee did from a beggar whom The Vampire had ruined financially, or when offered the comforting arms of wife and child.


The wanton cruelty of The Vampire, shown in the very first image of her picking up two roses and laughingly crushing one blossom in her hand, must have thrilled the Victorian-trained women who first saw it. To be so bad, so sexual, so assertive and domineering over men must have seemed like a breath of fresh air to these disenfranchised, proper ladies. We are meant to sympathize, of course, with the destroyed family and heed the message that Kate readily consented to when contemplating divorce, “Stick, Kate, stick.” But for a whole generation of women confined to domesticity, The Vampire’s parties, lavish wardrobe, and power over men proved irresistible as well. Bara became a star overnight, fetishized by women who wanted to wear what she wore, say what she said, and do what she did. Her run of fame lasted 10 years, until a more modern version of the emancipated woman—the flapper—supplanted the vamp.


Although the vamp seems hopelessly outdated, young women seem to have retreated from the sexual hunger Bara so effectively portrayed. Although clothing styles seem to be hooker-lite these days, the most popular vampire myth for girls today is Twilight, with its utterly chaste and good heroine and her chivalrous vampire lover. Women are consumed, not consuming, on the big screen. Yet, the vamp endures. Turn on a daytime soap opera and feast your eyes on the scheming females through which today’s domestic women fantasize a more exciting, free life.

6th 07 - 2009 | no comment »

Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919)

Director: D. W. Griffith


By Roderick Heath

D. W. Griffith is a difficult filmmaker to approach. So vital to the history of cinema and so problematic in the shadows of his unforgivably racist The Birth of a Nation (1915), the irony of Griffith’s career was that he destroyed it in trying to answer the criticisms leveled at his greatest success. Intoxicated by the melodramatic swoon of Thomas Dixon’s KKK-propagandising source novel and dismayed by the forced realisation he had produced a work that offended many, Griffith was to take up the theme of prejudice and social conflict again and again: an opening title for Broken Blossoms suggests there is a warning in its tale of a cold-hearted brute that the most casual insults are essentially the same as physical assault. His sophistication in cinema accompanied an artistic sensibility solidly rooted in the sentimental codes of Victorian fiction. Broken Blossoms itself is built around the most discomforting and titillating of themes for audiences of the era—miscegenation—as a Chinese hero and an English waif are thrown together as a match more or less made in heaven.

For such a director, a triangular character drama set in a slum might have seemed a comedown from recreating and demolishing Babylon for the colossally ambitious Intolerance (1916), and yet Broken Blossoms became a landmark in the career of Griffith and its star, Lillian Gish. Initially met by producer Adolph Zukor with dismay, the film proved a huge hit that revived Griffith’s career, and it’s still a tremendously intense and provocative experience 90 years later. Griffith used his innate gifts to create a statement confirming less as more, constructing a compulsively exciting melodrama and a cultural parable out of the most minimal elements.


Griffith, though inevitably wary and teasing in portraying interracial eroticism, isn’t subtle about reconfiguring audience sympathies. Its hero, Cheng Huan, referred to as The Yellow Man (Richard Barthelmess), is a conscientious, idealistic missionary, and its villain, “Battling” Burrows (Donald Crisp), is a vicious, depraved icon of Anglo-Saxon brutality. In between them is Lillian Gish’s victimised heroine Lucy, the epitome of the endangered, fragile feminine archetype in the Victorian pantheon. Three stock figures, but also three figures of nuanced realisation play in a work that seriously interrogates the nature of humankind as both impossibly aspiring and irrevocably bestial.

The opening scenes, set in a Chinese treaty port, establish the story and the theme of a clash of cultures and peaceful and warlike impulses. Here are the clearly organised and repeated images of yearning and transcendence: the sight of a ship steaming out of Cheng’s home port, and the act of a monk ringing a temple bell. Cheng Huan’s ambition, amusingly enough, is to take the Buddhist teachings of tranquility and peacefulness to the “barbarous Anglo-Saxons, sons of toil and strife.” His religious instructor encourages his desire and implores that he remember his creed out in the world. Cheng’s first encounter with rough Western ways happens before he even gets on the boat: a gang of American sailors who are brawling playfully. Mistaking this for serious conflict, Cheng Huan intervenes and offers a quote that evokes the common ideals of Buddhism and Christianity in a variation on “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Cheng Huan is immediately knocked over as the scrap continues, literally and metaphorically turning his perspective upside-down.


Several years later, Cheng’s fortunes have reduced his to a dispirited, opium-addicted “Chink store-keeper” in Limehouse. The only bright spot in his day is the sight of Lucy, who drifts aimlessly around the docks and alleys and delights at the dolls in his store, before returning home to face the relentlessly abusive Burrows, a professional boxer. Harried by his manager for his overindulgence in drink and women before a return bout against the Limehouse Tiger, Burrows is in an especially vicious mood. When he accidentally knocks a frying pan Lucy is holding to serve him supper and spills hot fat on his hand, he delivers to her a terrible beating, before departing for his training residence across the river. The physically shattered girl stumbles through the streets to Cheng Huan’s shop and collapses on the floor.


There are still very few commercial films that depict domestic violence with such unvarnished, unforgiving ferocity. “The manager’s complaint about drink and women puts Battling in a rage – he cannot take his temper out on him – he saves it for a weaker object,” a title-card puts it, explaining Burrows’ taunting of his daughter, who is so habitually unhappy she can only “smile” by pushing the corners of her mouth up with her fingers. The film is defined rhythmically by the build-up to Burrows’ two great explosions. The first, after the fat-spilling, sees father herd daughter with a whip in hand, Lucy trying to dissuade him by cowering and cleaning off his boots. She senses that her abuse can only have one end and begs her father to stop, not for her own sake, but because he’ll be hung for murder eventually. The second outburst comes, of course, after Burrows removes Lucy from Cheng Huan’s shop. Lucy, knowing what’s coming, locks herself in the cupboard, with ever-increasing terror as her father hacks at the door in a sequence that anticipates just about every horror movie ever made.


It’s Griffith’s technique that makes Broken Blossoms more than a tawdry melodrama, though his success is as manifest in the sense of realistic environment and attentiveness to the performances of Gish and Barthelmess as it is in the montage and structural showiness. Once the action shifts to London, Griffith puts us into the headspace of his three protagonists with associative flashbacks. Yellow Man, Lucy, and Burrows are introduced in their respective situations, and Griffith bends the narrative arc back to illustrate their lives: Cheng Huan reflecting on the world of vice and opium dens he’s trapped in; Burrows on his most recent pulverisation of an opponent; and Lucy on her alternatives, from the housewife with a filthy household who advises her, “Whatever you do, dearie, don’t get married,” to being “Warned as strongly by the ladies of the street against their profession.” Cheng Huan has arrived “where the Orient squats at the portals of the West,” as an intertitle puts it, scratching out a living and expending it in an opium den where the refuse of many nations congregate and, it’s hinted, copulate. “Fifteen years before one of Battler’s girls thrust into his arms a bundle of white rags – So Lucy came to Limehouse” explicates Burrows’ contempt for his daughter and her own desperate clinging to a scrap of velvet that is her mother’s only inheritance.


Although Griffith didn’t leave the backlot, there’s a documentary feel to the observation of Chinese musicians and the seamy environment of Limehouse. Griffith keeps his narrative moving, and its elements constantly interrelate structurally, such as the scene in which Burrows’s second bout with Tiger alternates with Cheng resisting his urge to make love to Lucy. Perhaps the most vital manifestation of his cinematic vision when the camera takes Lucy’s point of view in two crucial, late sequences that posit the two men who battle for her in likeness. Cheng Huan, almost overcome by his desire for Lucy in kissing her, and her father in his wrathful rage, are both photographed in looming, first-person ultra-close-up, each man rendered threatening and alien. The difference is in the resolution. Cheng restrains himself, and the title-card assures us that his love remained “a pure and holy thing.” Burrows has no such restraint. The film’s bitterness is remarkable, though leavened by an often corny, but heartfelt poeticised idealisation, in which Cheng renames Lucy with the “love-name” of White Blossom.


The narrative’s ironies extend from an opening in China where the everyday activities of the local families and promenaders are disturbed by foreigners, to Cheng’s encounter at his Limehouse shop with two friendly Christian ministers. One tells him that “My brother leaves for China tomorrow to convert the heathen.” The Yellow Man, suppressing a wry smile, offers, “I – I wish him luck,” before they give him a book on Hell, about which he already knows too much. Later, when Burrows discovers that Lucy is living with Cheng Huan, the card tells us, “Battling discovers his parental rights,” outraged at the notion of his daughter “with a dirty Chink.” The film becomes an almost cosmically realised battle of the sacred and profane, beyond the reach of the tawdry interracial dramas Sessue Hayakawa was starring in at the time. Cheng’s capacity to retain his humanism and defend Lucy’s femininity even when confronted with incredible degradation and temptation is the story’s great question; and even the peace-loving Cheng is finally driven to kill Burrows, if only in self-defence.


When Burrows’ sleazy mates discover his body and run to fetch a policeman, the bobby is discussing a story in the newspaper commenting on war news: “Better than last week – only 40,000 casualties.” It’s the only confirmation that the film is set during World War I, a virtual throwaway touch, and yet it confirms the film as a broader study of the destructive capacity of humankind in general, in which the only bulwark is Cheng’s religious and romantic idealism. Griffiths even subverts his own clichés, the climax employing his already-famous cross-cutting techniques in a race to the rescue. He ratchets up the tension as Cheng, arming himself with a revolver, dashes to Lucy’s aid as Burrows breaks into the cupboard, but he gets there too late to save her from a fatal beating. Griffith proved that manipulative cinematic techniques could be used to make tragedy as thrilling as triumph, and could then be used in a fashion that’s critical and not merely involving.


Broken Blossoms is not without faults, chiefly in some pretty overripe title cards, the presence of Cheng’s Chinese foil Evil Eye (Edward Peil Sr.), who doesn’t contribute anything to the story other than some stock ethnic sleaze, and Crisp. Crisp would develop into one of the talkie era’s more restrained actors and is physically fine for the part, but his idea of telegraphing psychotic rage is to warp his mouth in odd shapes like a grade schooler trying to be scary. That said, he does offer up a splendidly insidious touch in his final rampage of holding Gish down and repeatedly tapping the stock of his whip on her forehead in dreadful prelude. Whilst, obviously, Cheng ought to have been played by an Asian actor, Barthelmess nonetheless is splendid as the Yellow Man, particularly in the early scenes, with his resigned smile and air of cynical equanimity. He even indulges in a bit of stoner comedy when Cheng still intoxicated with opium, returns to his shop and thinks that the prostrate Lucy is a hallucination. When he and Crisp finally confront each other over Gish’s dead body, the mutual, animalistic hatred fairly vibrates. And Gish herself is quite remarkable in her understatement, whether drifting through scenes in dour misery, contending with Cheng’s attentions with a gentle, almost amused distraction, or building terrified hysteria when her father’s rages approach. She had protested to Griffith that she was too old for the part, but you’d hardly imagine it.

8th 09 - 2008 | 6 comments »

Nobel on Film: The Blue Bird (1918 and 1976)

Film interpretations of works by Nobel Laureates in Literature

Directors: Maurice Tourneur/George Cukor
Nobel Laureate: Maurice Maeterlinck


By Marilyn Ferdinand

In 1911, three years after he wrote and premiered his fairytale play The Blue Bird, Count Maurice Maeterlinck of Ghent, Belgium, won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel committee said in making its award, “In appreciation of his many-sided literary activities, and especially of his dramatic works, which are distinguished by a wealth of imagination and by a poetic fancy, which reveals, sometimes in the guise of a fairy tale, a deep inspiration, while in a mysterious way they appeal to the readers’ own feelings and stimulate their imaginations.”

The Blue Bird seems to be the stuff that inspires affection from generation to generation. It has been a movie at least five times over (though surprisingly not by German-occupied France in during World War II, which would seem to be a natural fit for the French-language fairy tale)—two silent versions, a 1940 version starring Shirley Temple, an animated telling in 1970, and finally, in 1976, the first U.S.-Soviet film collaboration, with Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, and Ava Gardner acting alongside dancers of the Kirov Ballet. I doubt we’ll ever see another retelling. Although the story tracks fairly closely to L. Frank Baum’s 1900 classic The Wizard of Oz—animals and inanimate objects that can talk accompanying children on a quest through various lands of enchantment, a mistaken apprehension of all witches/fairies as being ugly, true happiness found right at home among one’s loved ones—The Blue Bird has seen little but failure at the box office. What is it about this fairy tale that fails to appeal, and do the two film versions under consideration here bear the blame for their individual failures?

The play

Maeterlinck’s play tells of a brother and sister, Tyltyl and Myltyl, who live humbly with their woodcutter father and hard-working mother, Mr. and Mrs. Tyl, their dog Tylo and their cat Tylette. One night the children observe a great celebration taking place on the other side of the woods, at a rich family’s home. When they fall asleep, they share a dream in which the Fairy Berylune, who resembles their neighbor whose daughter is sick, sends them on a quest for a blue bird that will bring happiness and ultimate power and knowledge to all humanity.

Bluebird_silent_2.jpgThe fairy gives Tyltyle a hat with a diamond on it. When he turns the diamond, he can bring forth or dismiss the spirits of animals, plants, and things. His diamond brings forth the souls of Tylo, Tylette, Sugar, Fire, Water, Bread, Milk, and most importantly, Light. These beings will accompany the children on their quest. They will die, however, when the blue bird is found and returned to the fairy. Tylette determines to spot the children one way or another, even if it means harm will come to them. Tylo considers Tyltyl and Myltyl gods who he will protect to the end.

The searchers make several stops: the Land of Memory, where the children see their Granny Tyl and Gaffer Tyl and numerous dead siblings; the castle of Night, where Tyltyl bravely enters the many chambers the hold fearsome beings of darkness (ghosts, sicknesses, war, shadows and terrors, and finally, mysteries); the forest where the trees and wild and barnyard animals determine to kill Tyltyl to stop Man from conquering them forever. They go to the Palace of Happiness next to search for the blue bird. They encounter the Luxuries—the Luxury of Knowing Nothing and the Luxury of Understanding Nothing, the Luxury of Being Rich, the Luxury of Eating When You Are Not Hungry and the Luxury of Drinking When You Are Not Thirsty.

The troupe visits the Palace of Happiness next to search for the blue bird. They encounter the Luxuries—the Luxury of Knowing Nothing and the Luxury of Understanding Nothing, the Luxury of Being Rich, the Luxury of Eating When You Are Not Hungry and the Luxury of Drinking When You Are Not Thirsty. The Luxuries try seduce the group to stay with them, but Tyltyl turns the diamond, and the troupe ends up in the Cave of Miseries, where they do not linger, and pass into the Hall of Joys. Here the children learn of all the happinesses on earth—the Happiness of Being Well, the Happiness of Pure Air, the Happiness of Blue Sky, and most important of all, the Happiness of Maternal Love.

They pass through the Graveyard and enter the Kingdom of the Future, where the children waiting to be born work on the gifts they must take with them into the world—from the ability to achieve pure joy to leading a united solar system. The children meet their brother, who is to be born the following year and who will die quickly of the diseases he brings with him to the world.

At last, the children bid farewell to their companions, watching them fall silent again and facing fairy Berylune to tell her they failed to find the blue bird. At that moment, they see how beautiful their own home is. Of course, their parents are dumbfounded at their actions and their story about all the places they visited. Suddenly Tyltyl and Myltyl realize that their pet turtle dove is blue. Overjoyed, they run with it to the sick girl to help her feel better. She pets the bird, but it escapes. Tyltyl tells her, “Never mind…don’t cry…I will catch him again.”

The films

Each film, with some adjustments, is surprisingly faithful to the source material. With a six-act play, some shortening was called for. The silent film omits the forest scene and moves the Land of Memory to just before the children return home. The 1976 film shortens the Land of Happiness to include only Maternal Love’s encounter with her children and omits the beasts from the forest scene.

Each version uses a great deal of the dialogue Maeterlinck wrote, preserving his lessons about the state of the world and the important things in life. In Tourneur’s film, the ghosts in the castle of Night shrivel a bit. Night (Lyn Donelson) says, “(My ghosts) have felt bored in there, every since people Man ceased to take them seriously.” In Cukor’s film, the ghosts are actually frightened by the children. Costuming is different as well, with the silent ghosts little more than sheets and the more contemporary ghosts depicting famous specters, such as the Headless Horseman.

Nonetheless, despite its sometimes stagebound scenes and more rudimentary sets and costumes, Maurice Tourneur’s The Blue Bird is much more highly regarded that the star-studding, international creation of George Cukor. I’ll hazard a few guesses why.

Perhaps most importantly, the children who play Tyltyl and Myltyl in the silent version, Robin Macdougall and Tula Belle, are much more natural and realistic as country rustics than the cloying Todd Lookinland and Patsy Kensit. A good example is one scene in which the children bring back a dozen blue birds they’ve caught in the castle of Night, only to see them die when exposed to light. Macdougall and Belle are perplexed and saddened that they got fooled into catching blue birds that were not the authentic blue bird of happiness. In Cukor’s production, these avian deaths are an excuse to rustle up a song as his camera positively oozes over the crying faces of Lookinland and Kensit. Plus, I was distracted that the latter pair spoke with American and British accents, respectively.

The music is another important difference between these films. The Tourneur version features a brilliant new score by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra that is one of the best silent film scores I’ve ever heard, bringing drama, humor, and mystery in just the right amounts, and featuring sound effects that add to the pleasure of viewing the film. Irwin Kostal, a film scorer for Disney, turns in a banal, even laughable orchestration for the few songs that made the final cut. His Russian collaborator, composer Andrei Petrov, was singularly uninspired in creating songs for this film. His ballet for the genuine Blue Bird as beautifully danced by Nadezhda Pavlova and other members of the Kirov was the lone musical highlight.

Of course, another major difference is the cavalcade of Hollywood legends that lend their talents to Mr. Cukor’s effort. Elizabeth Taylor plays several roles (Mrs. Tyl, Fairy Berylune, Light, and Maternal Love). It has become fashionable to diss Taylor’s work of the 1970s as unbearable kitsch, but I think she does a good job in this children’s film. Her mother Tyl is a bit too harsh and wooden at first, but she is, well, a luminous Light in whose care I would happily put my trust if I were Myltyl or Tyltyl. Jane Fonda as Night plays her part as though she’s always aware that she’s in a children’s film; a more natural, less wicked witch, approach would have served the film better. Cicely Tyson as Tylette is completely wasted in a highly truncated role.


There is no single star better in this film than Ava Gardner as Luxury. She is dressed beautifully in red and moves among the circus performers, gluttons, idlers, and narcissists with ironic self-indulgence. In an exchange written for the film, Tyltyl asks her which Luxury she is. Her saucy, perfect answer is, “You’ll understand more about that when you’re older.” Cukor’s hand is most evident in bringing this fun performance out of Gardner. Indeed, the entire Luxuries scene is extravagantly entertaining.

Blue_Bird_silent_3.jpgThe Tourneur film, with its color tints and some effective special effects, really has the air of enchantment about it. (I’m told by a friend who saw it at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival a few years ago that it’s absolutely stunning on the big screen.) For example, in a close-up of the kitchen hearth from which Fire (S. E. Potapovitch) emerges, dancing flames are superimposed upon a writhing figure as the body of a man slowly comes into focus. It’s a great effect. Tom Corless as Tylette is absolutely wonderful, mimicking feline movements and habits with great skill and charm. It’s a shame his character is made out to be so nasty, but it certainly shows that actors have more fun playing characters that are bad rather than virtuous.

The audience reception

I was reasonably engaged with both of these films, noting how they departed from the play, yet finding those choices reasonable. I was taken by individual lines in the play that found their way to the screen. For example, in the castle of Night, only War still is a potent threat to humanity. The other spirits of the night no longer hold power. “(My ghosts) have felt bored in there, every since people Man ceased to take them seriously,” says Night. Or when Maeterlinck shows how memory keeps loved ones alive when Granny Tyl says, “We are always here, waiting for a visit from those who are alive. They come so seldom!” and Gaffer Tyl says, “Yes, we get plenty of sleep, while waiting for a thought of the Living to come and wake us. … Ah, it is good to sleep when life is done. . . . But it is pleasant also to wake up from time to time. . . .” Or when he extols the virtue of seeing beneath the surface of life, when Maternal Love says of her brilliant dress, which Tyltyl has never seen his mother wear, “No, no, I always wear it, but people do not see it, because people see nothing when their eyes are closed. . . . All mothers are rich when they love their children. . . . There are no poor mothers, no ugly ones, no old ones.”

So why has this story faded, why was the box office so quiet? The story is quite wide-ranging and a bit confusing, so that may be one problem. However, I think Maeterlinck’s philosophy of static drama, a kissing cousin to Berthold Brecht’s epic form, might be the culprit. Feeling that human beings are controlled and propelled by fate (brought out tidily in the Land of the Future episode), he preferred unemotional line readings. Certainly, the directors of these two films did not adhere to this standard, but the more global concerns of Maeterlinck meant he used his scripts as somewhat preachy bully pulpits. It seems odd that a writer who believed in fate would attempt to school people on the correct way to treat each other and the environment.

I consider these two films to be fine entertainments for children, and if you can get beyond the wretched music of the Cukor version, ones that parents might want to sit in on.

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