Summer Silents – Lillian Gish and The Birth of a Nation (1915)
I’ve decided to get a little more thematic during the summer months since I have a break from school work. To kickstart this project is what I’ve called “Summer Silents,” where I focus on a particular personality in silent film that I don’t know much about. Along with viewing several of that star’s films, I’ll also be reading a biography in order to get a better understanding of the film (and star’s) evolution within the context of general film history.
The first in this series is Lillian Gish. I had already seen several of her films (Way Down East (1920), The Wind (1927), Night of the Hunter (1955)), but this really did not cover her profound partnership with D. W. Griffith. Lillian (along with sister Dorothy) was introduced to Griffith at Biograph Studios in 1912 by actress Mary Pickford. The sisters were hesitant to enter the immoral world of the “flickers,” as they had been performing on the “legitimate stage” for ten years by then. Financial concerns won the girls and their mother over, however, and the Gish-Griffith partnership began.
The Birth of a Nation (1915) is perhaps the most controversial and discussed film in United States history. Its reputation as a testament to the deep-seated racism of white America in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction is remembered first and foremost; it is rarely if ever popularly spoken of as a revolutionary piece of filmmaking produced while film was yet struggling to expand beyond the strictures of a few reels. The story for Birth came to Griffith from Thomas Dixon’s The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905), both literary bestsellers that portray the Ku Klux Klan as saviors of Southern whites. Griffith was an appreciative audience for such characterizations. As the son of one of the Confederacy’s decorated calvary, Jacob Griffith, the young D. W. was reared in the spirit of the Confederate South, which still simmered with resentment against their defeat. Financing for such a technically unprecedented venture proved to be shaky. Griffith even had to sell some personal stock in order to bring the films budget up to $110,000 — a remarkable sum for a film at that time. Because Griffith was constantly short of much-needed funds, Lillian, Dorothy, and their mother Mary Gish even invested some savings in exchange for a return of the profits.
Lillian’s role as Elsie Stoneman in Birth rarely gives her chance to stretch her talents as an actress or a tragedienne. Rather, her presence seems to inhabit a largely decorative purpose. Elsie is the daughter of congressman Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), a northern abolitionist. She is a doting daughter and a patriotic sister who sees her brothers off to war. Inspired by the cause, she becomes a hospital nurse. There is even one scene where, she passes by a young sentry who longingly sighs (twice) after watching her walk by. Her grip on the audience does not clench until the latter part of the film, when one of her father’s underlings — the mulatto Silas Lynch (George Seimann) — asks for Elsie’s hand in marriage. Elsie, clearly disgusted at the prospect, refuses and tries to leave his lascivious presence. Lynch grabs her, shaking her long, touseled blonde hair with his anger. At the last minute, Elsie is saved by the fortuitous arrival of the Klan. She even leads the victory parade that caps the film when, triumphant, the Klan march through town to the cheers of whites crowding both sides of the street.
Griffith rather famously excluded black actors from his cast because, apparently, he did not think they were talented enough to play the film’s black characters. White actors in blackface substituted for them instead, bringing out the worst beliefs of white racism. They are shown as buffoons, drunks, sexual predators, simpleminded lackeys, and every other conceiveable stereotype under the sun. Charles Affron notes in Lillian Gish: Her Life, Her Legend, that a 1916 article in Photoplay magazine rather candidly reveals that Griffith also did not want black-blooded actors to touch one of his white actresses.
Birth is credited with revolutionizing several cinematic techniques, including the use of night photography, the camera “iris” effect, the extensive use of color tinting to convey psychological moods of the characters, and many others (see Filmsite‘s exhaustive list here). This is not to say that this was the first time these techniques were employed — Griffith used at least some of them in his prevous Biograph works, and the international film scene (specifically in Italy) had already produced some impressive historical epics. Technical achievements aside, I tried to appreciate this film from (at least) its irrevocable place in film history. It is hard to really understand how audiences received the film in 1915, since we are so far removed from that time. President Woodrow Wilson famously claimed that it was his favorite movie. The primitive state of technology is evident, but what Griffith does with it is beyond much of the output of film generated at this time. I can’t say I would want to watch Birth again, because it struck me more than anything as an artifact of its time.