The Civil War on the screen by JACK SPEARS (1977)

 

The Civil War on the screen by JACK SPEARS (1977)

  • The Civil War on the Screen and Other Essays by JACK SPEARS
  • © 1977 by A. S. Barnes and Co., In’ .

 Hollywood’s colorful treatment of the most tragic period in American history is traced in fascinating detail in The Civil War on the Screen and Other Essays. From D, W. Griffith’s monumental The Birth of a Nation to Clark Gable’s picaresque Captain Rhett Butler of Gone with the Wind, Jack Spears nostalgically recaptures the romance of dozens of Civil War movies. He explores the many screen impersonations of Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and other figures of history, including the infamous guerrilla chiefs Quantrill and Morgan. An entertaining look at the espionage drama, crinoline love stories, lighthearted comedies (Buster Keaton’s The General), and authentic battle epics is en-livened with many personality sketches of the captivating stars of the silents and talkies. There is a penetrating analysis of the social influences of the racist film and the historical inaccuracies of most Civil War motion pictures. The originality and freshness of this intelligent study will delight every film fan and Civil War student.

Milestone and Masterpiece: The Birth of a Nation

One of the screen’s lost films is Kinemacolor’s The Clansman (1912), which was never completed. No fragments of this picture are known to exist. Presumably, the few scenes that were shot have been destroyed, or have long since crumbled into dust with the deterioration of its nitrate film stock. The only significance of The Clansman is that a portion of its story later formed the basis for the last half of D. W. Griffith’s milestone of motion-picture history, The Birth of a Nation. Kinemacolor was a subsidiary of the British company of the same name that spent several years in developing a pioneer process of color motion-picture photography using a color wheel. Its films of The Royal Visit to India and the colorful The Durbar at Delhi in 1911 were a sensation, and the company moved to establish the process in the United States. After a series of frustrating differences with the powerful Motion Picture Patents Company, which did not want color films marketed in America, Kinemacolor was forced to set up its own studios—first at Allentown, Pennsylvania, and then at Whitestone Landing, New York. A California studio with three production units was established in Hollywood in 1912, using a crude building at the corner of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards previously occupied by the Revier Film Processing Company. Kinemacolor sold this studio the following year to the Aitken interests, and it was here that Griffith filmed The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, and other pictures. During the early part of 1912, Kinemacolor contracted with a stage impresario named George H. Brennan to film The Clansman, a lurid novel of the Reconstruction era by Thomas W. Dixon, a Southern clergyman. Several years earlier, in 1906, Brennan had produced a dramatization of the work (also by Dixon) on Broadway with Holbrook Blinn, Sydney Ayres, and DeWitt Jennings in the leads. Although this heavy-handed play was roundly panned by reviewers after its premiere at the Liberty Theatre, it became a popular vehicle for traveling stock companies, particularly those touring in the South and West. Brennan sold Kinemacolor officials on the unique idea of using the performers of such a company—the Campbell MacCullough Players—to repeat their roles in a film version of The Clansman. As the troupe moved through the South, scenes would be shot in authentic locales—plantations, antebellum homes, battlefields, and historical sites—using period furnishings and costumes, and utilizing local citizens as extras. William Haddock, who had directed for Edison, Méliés, and I.M.P. (and also for Kinemacolor at its Whitestone Landing studio) was assigned to direct. He found it difficult to do any shooting with the company jumping from town to town in a series of one-night stands. Finally, he persuaded MacCuilough to lay off for two weeks in Natchez, Mississippi, where some scenes were photographed. The picture was far from complete when Mac- Cullough insisted upon resuming the tour. Only a little more than a reel of film had been obtained when production on the ambitious project was abruptly halted. Reportedly, $25,000 was lost on the project. Haddock offered to take over The Clansman, but he could not find financial backing to complete it. Finally, he went to court to secure $1,155 due him in unpaid wages. Haddock later insisted The Clansman was made in an early sound process? (In 1907, he had directed several films for the Cameraphone Company, in which the actors mouthed words to records; the device was not successful and was demonstrated in only a few theaters.) There are conflicting accounts for the reasons for the abandonment of The Clansman. One story is that the color photography by inexperienced technicians was so poor that a usable print could not be obtained. However, the cameraman, Gerald MacKenzie, was known as a competent craftsman and had photographed several pictures in the Kinemacolor process. Another report says that Haddock’s direction was inept, and the acting by the stock company performers so exaggerated and amateurish as to be ludicrous. Yet another account blamed the script, which underwent several re-visions, including a complete rewrite while the picture was actually before the cameras. The original idea of using Dixon’s play-script verbatim was dropped after Kinemacolor executives perceived that it was too static for motion pictures. Another account of the ill-fated The Clansman says that all scenes were completed, which is unlikely, but that the film was never edited because of its mediocre quality. To compound the confusion, it has also been reported that the film was made without Dixon’s knowledge, and alleges that he stopped its release by threatening a lawsuit for violation of copyright. (A contrasting story has it that Dixon was actually a partner with Brennan in the project.) Perhaps the most believable explanation is that the backers, already stuck with $25,000 worth of unusable film, simply decided to suspend shooting and take their losses. One of the several writers on The Clansman was Frank E. Woods, who was paid $200 for his efforts. Originally a pioneer film critic for The Dramatic Mirror, he wrote titles and many scripts for D. W. Griffith at Biograph. Woods left the company in 1912, but soon rejoined Griffith’s unit after brief and frustrating associations with Universal and Kinemacolor. He followed Griffith to Reliance-Majestic, nominally as scenario editor but functioning increasingly as a production executive. He was largely responsible for the inexpensive program pictures turned out while Griffith was busy with more important features. An imposing but kindly man, Woods was for a considerable time the most influential of Griffith’s associates. D. W. Griffith did not make an auspicious beginning at Reliance-Majestic. The company was beset by financial problems and squabbling among its executives. To raise ready cash, Griffith hurriedly directed two undistinguished pictures for release in 1914, The Battle of the Sexes (made in only four days) and The Escape, as well as producing eight cheap potboilers directed by others.

Home Sweet Home

In February 1914, he moved his unit from New York to the new studio in Hollywood, where he immediately turned out Home, Sweet, Home—an episodic film based in part upon incidents in the life of composer John Howard Payne—and The Avenging Conscience. The latter, a psychological drama constructed from two stories by Edgar Allan Poe (“The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Annabel Lee”) , had many arty touches foreshadowing the innovations of the German cinema of the twenties. With the financial tension easing, Griffith set Frank E. Woods to searching for a property that could be made into an important feature.

Woods showed him the script he had written for Kinemacolor’s The Clansman and proposed a new version of Dixon’s play. With its background of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the restoration of white supremacy through the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the story had enormous appeal for Griffith. He was soon engrossed in the monumental film that became The Birth of a Nation. The first step was to buy the rights to the play and novel from Reverend Dixon, for which the clergyman demanded a whopping $25,000 (the figure is sometimes reported as $10,000). Eventually, Dixon settled for $2,500 cash and a share of the profits, which were to bring him a fortune. With some assistance from Woods, Griffith fleshed out a dramatic outline of the plot, but at no time was there a written script or continuity—it was all in Griffith’s head. He preferred to work this way, feeling it gave a greater flexibility and freshness to his work, and associates marveled at his mental ability to keep track of all the scenes. The extent of Woods’s contribution is not known, but it was sufficient for Griffith to give him screen credit. Much of Griffith’s time went into a detailed research to assure historical accuracy, and at one time he employed four persons to check on the minutest details of period dress, settings, and military and social customs. He often came to the studio with an armload of books and his pockets bulging with notes.

The cast of The Birth of a Nation was largely drawn from the Griffith stock company, performers whom he had discovered and developed at Biograph, and with whom he felt comfortable. There were auditions and try-outs for some parts. Blanche Sweet, his reigning star, was expected to be cast as the heroine, Elsie Stoneman, but Griffith felt a more petite and less full-bodied actress was needed. Mae Marsh was considered, but the role finally went to the fragile Lillian Gish, with Miss Marsh being wisely switched to the key role of the little sister. The thirty-six-year old Henry B. Walthall was an ideal choice for the Southern hero, Ben Cameron, combining striking good looks with an intelligent and usually restrained style of acting. Others cast by Griffith included Miriam Cooper, Elmer Clifton, Ralph Lewis, Robert Harron, Wallace Reid, Donald Crisp, George Siegmann, Josephine Crowell, Howard Gaye, Spottiswoode Aitken, and Raoul Walsh (as John Wilkes Booth). In an unusual departure from custom, Griffith put his players through six weeks of intensive rehearsals before shooting began. The Birth of a Nation went into production on July 4, 1914 and was completed on October 31. In the interim it weathered a series of acute financial crises that promised to (and at one bad point actually did) suspend filming altogether. Griffith persuaded Harry Aitken to allocate a record budget of $40,000 for the picture, but this sum was expended on the panoramic battle scenes alone, which were completed first. Most of it went for uniforms and hundreds of horses and extras. When Reliance-Majestic’s Board of Directors refused further financing, Griffith and Aitken personally took over the project. Their own funds were soon exhausted, and they raised money in small amounts here and there. Several of the cast and crew, including Lillian Gish and cameraman G. W. Bitzer, loaned their savings and went without salary. Griffith was unwilling to make any compromises to reduce the cost, and eventually $110,000 was spent on The Birth of a Nation, at the time a staggering investment for a single motion picture. (His four preceding films had cost between $5,000 and $10,000 each.) In its final version after last-minute cuts following the premiere, the picture ran twelve reels, an unheard-of length, and many exhibitors and industry leaders predicted that it could not be profitably shown.

Theatres advertising “The Birth of a Nation”

Whatever reservations Griffith’s competitors may have had about it, The Birth of a Nation was a sensation when it opened on February 8, 1915 at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles (where it ran for seven months). The critics were ecstatic after its New York premiere at the Liberty Theatre a month later, and it was shown in key cities on a reserved-seat basis for $2 per admission. Griffith’s ambitious picture, executed with superb artistry, was an enormous hit with audiences everywhere. Its drama and spectacle were deeply moving, and unlike anything yet seen on the screen. Following a showing at the White House, President Woodrow Wilson was reported to have said that the film was “like writing history with lightning.” (Later, after The Birth of a Nation came under attack for its racist bigotry, a Wilson aide denied that the President had made any comments of approbation.) The financial success of The Birth of a Nation made Griffith a millionaire, although he lost much of his fortune on the ill-fated Intolerance of the following year. Miss Gish, Bitzer (who had loaned $7,000) , and other investors also reaped astronomical returns. Aitken and Griffith were both naive in motion-picture economics and failed to realize what a valuable property they had. After its road-show engagements, they foolishly sold regional distribution rights to various independent exchanges for relative pittances.

The MGM girls : behind the velvet curtain – Louis-B-Mayer-1943-characteristic-pose

One of the lucky purchasers was Louis B. Mayer, a Massachusetts exhibitor and distributor, who bought the New England franchise for $50,000 against ten percent of the net profits. This investment brought his company a return of a million dollars, enabling Mayer to branch into production and provide the stepping stone to the gigantic Loew’s Incorporated and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer combine. Aitken later alleged privately that Mayer cheated him of substantial sums by understating the box-office receipts. Griffith originally planned to center the plot of The Birth of a Nation on Reconstruction and its effects upon a proud Southern family devastated by the Civil War. As his enthusiasm grew, he added a long section of battle scenes and historical incidents, including Sherman’s march through Georgia, the burning of Atlanta, Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The essential story concerns two families —the Camerons of the South and the Stonemans of the North—whose friendship is ruptured by the Civil War. They are eventually reconciled after many hardships and personal tragedies.

Although Griffith was careful to show the war wreaked its havoc on both North and South alike—sons of both families die on the battlefields—the sympathies of the film are clearly with its Southern protagonists, who are portrayed as decent and God-fearing people in spite of being slave owners. Villainy is symbolized by the character of Austin Stoneman, the crippled leader of the United States House of Representatives, who keeps a black mistress and vows “to crush the White South under the heel of the Black South,” as a title puts it. (Stoneman is based upon Thaddeus Stevens, the Civil War Congressional power known as “The Great Commoner.’’) The Griffith concept of Stoneman’s final punishment is when a mulatto carpetbagger, whom he had made Lieutenant-Governor of South Carolina, asks for the hand of his daughter in marriage, and, failing to obtain it from the horrified father, attempts to rape her. In a parallel climax, the young sister of the Southern hero throws herself from a cliff rather than submit to a black renegade. These outrages are viciously avenged by the militant Ku Klux Klan, which is made to appear as a savior force. Inevitably, The Birth of a Nation was bitterly attacked as a racist picture, and its showing was accompanied by numerous demonstrations and incidents, and by editorial protests in newspapers and magazines. Griffith seemed surprised at the furor his film created, and insisted that he bore no ill-will toward blacks, and that he had only shown conditions in the South as they actually existed during and after the Civil War. In all probability, he did not set out to make a bigoted picture—his friends consistently denied that he had race prejudice—but nonetheless it remains viciously racist in tone with blacks shown as objects of contempt and depravity. Those who were favorably portrayed— the family servants who came to the rescue of their former master—were caricatures from the Uncle Tom school, and were injected largely for comic relief.

The controversy over The Birth of Nation raged for years, and the bitterness that it caused has never been erased. Even today, it is seldom shown publicly, and then mostly to film scholars. Except for the glossy battle sequences done with great emphasis upon heroism and glory, The Birth of a Nation provides only a sketchy glimpse of the Civil War itself. The Birth of a Nation is filled with a succession of moving scenes, all marked in one way or an-other with Griffith’s perceptive talent. The impressive battle sequences and the stirring ride of the Klans cannot be discounted, but the meat of the drama lies in the more intimate passages. These include Lillian Gish’s brave good-bye to her brothers as they leave for war (only to collapse in tears in the lap of her black mammy), Mother Cameron’s appeal to Abraham Lincoln for her son’s life, the parting of Miss Gish and Walthall at the hospital door (with its mooning sentry) , the electrically charged confrontations in Stoneman’s quarters, and the heartbreaking death of the little sister.

Henry B Walthall – Reunion – Birth of a Nation

Most of all, there is the famous return of Walthall to his war-scarred home, in which he is received by a grown-up little sister in a worn dress adorned with raw cotton; the final scene of this episode, with the mother’s arms reaching out from the doorway, is of classic proportion. Of the action sequences, the guerrilla raid on Piedmont has a documentary quality that gives it a pulsating life and naturalness unmarred by theatrical heroics. Only occasionally does Griffith fail, as in the archaic epilogue in which a shot of the symbolical god of war dissolves into a vision of Jesus Christ (played by Wallace Reid). It is a scene that dramatically does not age well. The restrained acting in The Birth of a Nation set new standards of perfection, and few films have been so perfectly cast.

Henry B. Walthall gave admirable substance to his portrait of Ben Cameron, “the Little Colonel,” delineating the traditional qualities of Southern manhood that were somehow lacking in Leslie Howard’s faltering interpretation of Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. Lillian Gish brought her sturdy fragility to Elsie Stoneman, but she is overshadowed by Mae Marsh as the little sister for whom war’s privations cannot diminish the exuberance of youth.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman in Birth of a Nation

Ralph Lewis, an actor little appreciated, was powerful as the emotionally and physically crippled Stoneman. George Siegmann was on the whole just right as the fawning Silas Lynch, the mulatto carpetbagger, although his performance is blighted by overacting in the final rape scene. Joseph E. Henabery as Abraham Lincoln, Howard Gaye as Robert E. Lee, Donald Crisp as Ulysses S. Grant, Raoul Walsh as John Wilkes Booth—all are as pages from a book of Civil War daguerreotypes by Brady. Perhaps the most ideally cast are Spottiswoode Aitken as the gentle Dr. Cameron and Josephine Crowell as his wife. Her performance as the bewildered mother is a masterpiece of quiet heartbreak as she weathers the long series of tragedies that strike her family. It is difficult to believe that she is the same actress who is so incredibly bad as Catherine de Medici in Griffith’s Intolerance of the following year. It is an obvious piece of serious miscasting for which Griffith must be blamed. Later in her career, Mrs. Crowell became typed as the curmudgeon battle-axe of numerous slapstick comedies of the twenties—her role as Harold Lloyd’s bossy mother-in-law in Hot Water (1924) is typical—and her superb work in The Birth of a Nation was by then all but forgotten. In later years, fan magazines would refer to The Birth of a Nation, not without considerable truth, as a jinx picture for its talented cast. Many of the players subsequently had disappointing and un-productive careers, while ill health and poor judgment led others into personal tragedy, obscurity, and death.

Henry B Walthall – Birth of a Nation 2

Henry B. Walthall’s sensitive performance should have been the springboard of a long and distinguished professional life, but inexplicably it was rather a high-water mark of success from which he steadily declined. Only momentarily did Walthall, with his striking good looks, challenge such contemporary screen matinee idols as Francis X. Bushman and Harold Lockwood. He left Griffith soon after the release of The Birth of a Nation; characteristically, the great director did nothing to encourage him to remain. Walthall made the mistake of signing with the Essanay Company, a penurious and unimaginative studio lacking creative ; a leadership, which wasted his talent on a series Of cheap mediocre melodramas in 1917. A stint with ill-fated Paralta Plays, Inc. the following year (His Robe of Honor, Humdrum Brown) was even more un-productive. Walthall had his own unit, but Paralta’s unorthodox method of merchandising films netted only a fraction of the profits he was led to expect. By the 1920s, he was reduced to playing supporting and character roles, and work was less plentiful. He aged badly due to personal problems, and while still in his forties acquired a drawn and elderly appearance. Walthall was blessed with a good speaking voice, and talking pictures brought a greater demand for his services in bit parts. He died in 1936, a few months after participating in the emotionally charged ceremonies at which D. W. Griffith received a citation from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in recognition of his contributions to the screen.

The Birth of a Nation (1915) Directed by D.W. Griffith Shown: Mae Marsh

Mae Marsh, the delightful but tragic little sister of The Birth of a Nation was cursed with much the same fate. The following year she gave a stunning performance in the modern sequences of Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) as the bewildered young mother beset by a series of incredible adversities. Griffith then teamed her with Robert Harron, her co-star in Intolerance, in several light program pictures designed to capitalize upon the popularity of the two players. When an offer came from Samuel Goldwyn, Griffith urged Miss Marsh to accept it, saying that the lucrative contract would bring her riches that he could never pay. Her Goldwyn films of 1917-19 (Polly of the Circus, Hidden Fires) were disappointing, although her vivacious work in The Cinderella Man was widely praised. The actress proved difficult to work with, and she quarreled with Goldwyn and her directors, and made unreasonable demands. Her professional reputation suffered, and for a time few roles came her way. Miss Marsh returned to Griffith in 1923 for The White Rose, filmed in the bayou country of Louisiana. Although she gave a fine performance, it did nothing for her faltering career. After a few pictures made abroad, she quietly left the screen to raise a family. She endured a trying marriage and saw her fortune swallowed up by poor investments and the 1929 stock market crash. A few years later, Miss Marsh filed for bankruptcy, listing debts of $5,250 and a 1931 model automobile worth $25 as her only asset. In 1932, Mae Marsh returned to films as the mother in Fox’s tired remake of the classic tear-jerker, Over the Hill. Only thirty-seven at the time (playing the mother of twenty-seven-year-old James Dunn), she looked twenty years older and was unrecognizable as the pert Flora Cameron of The Birth of a Nation. She needed little makeup for the part, and fans were shocked by her haggard and dowdy appearance. Over the Hill was too old-fashioned and downbeat for depression audiences, and her work went unnoticed. It was her last major role. In later years she supported herself with bits in numerous films (including many directed by old friend John Ford) before her death in 1968 at the age of seventy-three.

DW Griffith and Robert Harron

Robert Harron started with Griffith as an eleven-year-old property boy at Biograph. He had a small part as the youngest Stoneman son in The Birth of a Nation. His work in Intolerance made him a star, and his performance as the war-weary artist-hero of Griffith’s propaganda film, Hearts of the World (1918), was the best of his career. Harron reportedly began to brood when Griffith gave young Richard Barthelmess choice roles in Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920). He felt that he had lost favor with his mentor, whom he idolized, although Griffith had agreed to supervise films for Harron’s own company. In New York on September 1, 1920, Harron was dressing for dinner when a revolver (which he had bought from a hungry actor) fell from his pocket and discharged. The bullet pierced Harron’s lung, and he died five days later. There were peristent reports that he attempted suicide, although he denied it to a priest before his death. Harron’s friends are convinced that it was an accident.

Wallace Reid signed

Handsome Wallace Reid had been in films since 1910, and was the star of many program pictures produced by Griffith’s unit for Reliance-Majestic in 1914-15 (The City Beautiful; Her Awakening; The Craven). He was seen briefly in The Birth of a Nation as a muscular young blacksmith killed in a brutal fight in the gin mill of ‘““White-Arm Joe.” Soon afterward, Reid moved to Paramount (Famous Players-Lasky) , where he won acclaim as leading man to opera star Geraldine Farrar in several spectacular films directed by Cecil B. DeMille in 1915-17 (Carmen; Maria Rosa; Joan the Woman; The Devil Stone; The Woman God For-got). By the 1920s, his popularity was enormous, stemming from his familiar role as a brash young American of the Jazz Age who uses Yankee pluck to reach his goals and win the girl of his heart (usually Gloria Swanson, Bebe Daniels, Lila Lee, or Wanda Hawley). Following an injury on the set of The Valley of the Giants (1919), Reid was left with blinding headaches and pain from a damaged spine. At his doctor’s instructions, he began to take morphine in order to continue acting, and was soon addicted. Reid’s condition was further complicated by heavy drinking. In an effort to overcome the drug addiction, he entered a sanitarium, and on January 18, 1923, died of complications of influenza and renal disease. His death led to reams of sensational publicity in news-papers and magazines, and Reid’s addiction did much to damage Hollywood’s reputation (already tarnished by the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle scandal and the unexplained murder of director William Desmond Taylor, which involved two top stars, Mary Miles Normand) .

Elmer Clifton

Elmer Clifton, who portrayed Phil Stoneman in The Birth of a Nation, turned to directing soon afterward and in 1918-19 was responsible for a series of delightful comedies starring Dorothy Gish (Boots; Peppy Polly; ’ll Get Him Yet) and produced by the Griffith company. In 1922, he did Down to the Sea in Ships, a highly praised drama of New Bedford whalers that had a documentary quality. (It is more remembered as the film in which sexpot Clara Bow had her first important role.) Two years later, Clifton directed a creditable remake of the old Civil War spy melodrama, The Warrens of Virginia (1924), which was his last important assignment. Jobs became scarce, and, after the advent of talking pictures, Clifton was reduced to directing Westerns, serials, and sexploitation pictures made on miniscule budgets. He never realized the promise shown earlier, and seemed to have profited little by his association with D. W. Griffith.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Sroneman in Birth of a Nation

Others in the cast of The Birth of a Nation had disappointing careers. Elmo Lincoln, who was “White-Arm Joe” (as well as playing several un-credited bits) , was a sensation as Edgar Rice Burroughs’s jungle hero in the first version of Tarzan of the. Apes (1918). Despite his beefy appearance and a ridiculous fright-wig, Lincoln had great appeal as Tarzan, but unfortunately the public did not like him in other roles. After Romance of Tarzan (1918) and a fifteen-episode serial, Adventures of Tarzan (1921), and several serials at Universal in 1919-20 (Elmo the Mighty, Elmo the Fearless, The Flaming Disc), Lincoln got only occasional work as a bit player or stuntman, and eventually as an extra. He died in 1952, virtually penniless. George Seigmann, a gentle man who played such brutal roles as Silas Lynch in The Birth of a Nation, the sadistic Hun officer von Strohm in Hearts of the World, and Simon Legree in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927), had only moderate success as an actor until his early death in 1928. He aspired to be a director, but his few attempts at directing (mostly program pictures for Griffith’s unit) went unnoticed. Ralph Lewis, Walter Long, Mary Alden, and Sam de Grasse were others appearing in Griffith’s masterpiece who played character roles in Hollywood for years without achieving more than casual recognition. Erich von Stroheim can scarcely be said to have been in the cast of The Birth of a Nation—in the raid on Piedmont he is the man who falls from the roof of a house—but did serve Griffith as a third assistant director. Stroheim went on to become one of the immortals of the screen with his silent classics of directorial genius—Foolish Wives (1922) ; Greed (1924) ; The Wedding March (1928) —only to have his career vanish after a series of bitter controversies with studio moguls. In later years, he made a precarious living as an actor, writing scripts that seldom sold, and planning a comeback that never materialized. There were a few significant exceptions to the jinx of The Birth of a Nation.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman in “The Birth of a Nation” promotional

Lillian Gish was to have a long and notable career on both screen and stage. She was washed up in Hollywood by the time talking pictures arrived—many felt that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had deliberately mishandled her in a series of dreary films—but for many years she was one of Broadway’s brightest stars. She periodically returned to Hollywood to play character roles in such films as Duel in the Sun (1946) and The Unforgiven (1960), never failing to give an intelligent and often memorable performance. Miriam Cooper, the older Cameron sister, was a successful albeit lesser star for ten years, mostly in pictures directed by her husband, Raoul Walsh (The Honor System, 1916; Evangeline, 1919) . Her career abruptly declined, and she faded into obscurity after her divorce. Raoul Walsh, the superb John Wilkes Booth of The Birth of a Nation, became one of the screen’s best-known directors and was responsible for a long series of commercially successful films (What Price Glory?, 1926; In Old Arizona, 1929; The Roaring Twenties, 1939). Always done with a sense of craftmanship, they were frequently tough, punchy dramas best suited to the talents of such stars as James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.

Donald Crisp

Donald Crisp, who was General Grant in The Birth of a Nation, had a lasting career as both actor and director, and was widely known for his many roles in both silent and talking pictures. (In later years Crisp would assert that he, and not Griffith, had actually directed the stunning battle scenes of The Birth of a Nation, an unfortunate allegation that was widely reprinted in Crisp’s obituaries in 1974. At most, he served as one of Griffith’s several assistants on the battle sequences.) He won an Academy Award for his role in John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) , although film buffs remember him for his portrayal of the sadistic Battling Burrows of Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919). Crisp became a wealthy man through his association with the Bank of America as an advisor on motion-picture industry loans. He lived to the age of ninety-three.

Donald Crisp, Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish – 1954

Joseph E, Henabery, who was a realistic Abraham Lincoln in The Birth of a Nation, had some early success as director of several of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.’s pictures, including The Man From Painted Post (1917) and Say Young Fellow (1918). Later, he worked at Paramount and for Cecil B. DeMille’s unit at Pathé. After talkies came in, Henabery directed some early sound shorts in New York for Warner Brothers, but soon found his career at an end. Bessie Love, glimpsed briefly in The Birth of a Nation, went on to stardom in many silent hits and in the pioneer screen musical, The Broadway Melody (1929). After she was no longer suitable for ingenue roles, she worked as a character actress, mostly in British studios, up into her seventies. The real significance of The Birth of a Nation Was not in its recreation of the drama of the Civil War and Reconstruction, but in its contribution to the art of the motion picture, Griffith’s creative technique made The Birth of a Nation an uncommon work of art in itself, blending the elements of cinema into a masterpiece of film construction. His superb use of visual imagery, movement, stunning photography (including innovations in irising, close-ups, and the use of stills), intelligent and refined editing, and even music, established the artistic supremacy of the director. The influence of The Birth of a Nation was tremendous, and its impact was reflected in the best work of imaginative filmmakers around the world (particularly Eisenstein and the Russian school of the 1920s) . Griffith also gave new dimensions to the spectacle film, and with Europe poised on the brink of war, The Birth of a Nation forecast the frightening potentials of the motion picture as a weapon of propaganda. The film revolutionized distribution and exhibition with fresh concepts of merchandising that brought enormous financial returns to the motion-picture industry. With The Birth of a Nation, cinema became of age.

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