Posts Tagged ‘Birth of a Nation’

Friday at the Movies: D. W. Griffith and the Birth of an Industry

July 10, 2015

Some people think film is just Keystone Cops crashing cars or somebody’s pants falling down.  But it’s a lot more.  It’s the new art: telling stories with light and motion.  This is going to be bigger than the Sistine Chapel!

Ranger Bell, I Don’t Know How the Story Ends 

hollywood2 (2)A lot of kids are bitten by the movie bug in their early teens, but Ranger, the pivotal character in IDK*, had the good fortune to be bit by the best.  D.W. Griffith is his hero, and Ranger’s burning ambition is to work for the master on the way to becoming a master himself.

Griffith broke into show business as an actor in cheap vaudeville houses, and everybody agrees he wasn’t a very good one.  But he did gain a sense of what audiences appreciated: emotion.  They liked thrills and chills and action, but also wanted to laugh and cry.  When he gravitated to film acting for the Biograph studios in New Jersey, he learned to tone down his hammy stage-acting style—for one thing, the camera couldn’t capture all those broad, wild arm gestures.  But the camera could move in on a face and catch the smallest twitch of a muscle or glimmer of a tear.  A face on film could connect with the audience more intimately than a live actor ever could, and once he discovered the emotional power of the movies, D.W. was never going back to live theater.  The story is that one day a director was sick and D.W. was drafted to take his place.  The director’s chair quickly became his perch for the rest of his artistigriffith1c career.

When Griffith left Biograph he took the studio’s best cameraman with him.  This was Billy Bitzer, who worked closely with him for the next sixteen years and collaborated on some of the most ground-breaking work ever produced up to that time–like The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915.

This is the film that made D.W. Griffith a household word, but it’s hard to even talk about, much less watch.  It’s the story of a southern family during and after the Civil War, and all they lost and suffered.  The first half includes some truly thrilling battle scenes and appealing family relationships.  But the second half is all about noble southerners fighting “bad Negroes” by raising up a little army later called the Ku Klux Klan.  The way African-Americans are shown (even the “good” ones) is racist and insulting, even though Griffith claimed to love and admire them.  Still, The Birth of a Nation can’t be ignored because it broke so much new ground in film-making.  Griffith used quick intercutting to make the battle scenes more dramatic, high angles to capture wider views, fades between scenes, lots of extras, and eyeline matches, where the camera is adjusted to frame the same view a character is seeing.   He even had an original score written, which was played by live orchestras in all the big theaters where the movie opened.  For emotional punch, audiences had never seen anything like it, and Birth of a Nation  was a huge hit.  (Although it’s worth noting that many Americans were not comfortable with its blatant racism even, and it was banned in some cities–even entire states, like Kansas.)

The praise and criticism showered on him was so overwhelming Griffith decided that he had to top himself for his next feature film.  He had already made a touching little drama called The Mother and the Law, but in the meantime he saw an Italian film called Cabiria, which was set in ancient Sicily and Carthage.  The movie used fabulous sets and shocking set pieces, like small children in Carthage being sacrificed to Moloch. (It’s disturbing to watch, even today: here’s a clip, and try to ignore the soundtrack).  Griffith was impressed by the spectacle and determined not to be outdone by any Italian, so he postponed the release of The Mother and the Law and decided to incorporate that story into a larger tale spanning centuries.  That became Intolerance, subtitled “Love’s Struggle through the Ages.”

“The ages” take in Babylon’s fall to Persia in 539 B.C., the earthly ministry of Jesus, the St. Bartholomew Massacre in France in 1572, and the modern story of The Mother and the Law—all intercut and stitched together with the theme of someone not tolerating someone else.griffith2

Most of the money and effort went to the Babylon segments (which Ranger describes with great enthusiasm in Chapter 3 of IDK).  Elaborate battle scenes and court scenes involved a literal cast of thousands, which meant some clever camera work.  Though not filming from a balloon.  They actually tried it, and Billy Bitzer got sick.  Most of the panning and zooming shots were done with a camera on tracks, but film historians to this day don’t know exactly how.

The monster Babylon set towered over Sunset Boulevard, and once filming was complete Griffith was so broke he couldn’t pay have it demolished.  The remains of Belshazzar’s court stood for four years, peeling and crumbling, until the city finally ordered it torn down as a public nuisance and fire hazard.  (That’s where Ranger takes the girls in chapter 3.)

intolerance-set2Intolerance won high praise but didn’t earn back enough profit to justify its expense.  In my opinion, though Intolerance has some fine moments and The Mother and the Law story is genuinely touching and sweet (this is the film Isobel sees in Chapter 4), it’s too long and incoherent to make a strong impression.  But it did enhance Griffith’s reputation, and he went on to make some great movies, like Hearts of the World (described in Chapter 11), Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm.  Were they “art,” as Ranger believed?  Most movie historians agree—

When he finished, he was the leader of an industry acclaimed not only as entertainment, but as art . . . Griffith did not achieve this miracle alone, but he deserves unstinting credit for achieving it at all.   Kevin Brownlow, Hollywood: the Pioneers

You can get Intolerance on Netflix, but I warn you, as Isobel is warned by the family cook Rosetta, “those dancing girls in Babylon didn’t wear enough clothes to dry a saucer with.”

Other posts in this series:

How to Watch Silent Films

Charles S. Chaplin

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