Category Archives: D.W. Griffith

The Sheer Impact of Birth of a Nation

So after hearing about D.W. Griffith and Birth of a Nation, I kind of wanted to see just how big of a movie this actually was. I know that it made a ridiculous amount of money, but that could be attributed to a couple of things, mainly it being the first film of its length and its propaganda content. It seems like it was directly built to appeal to the South, which makes sense, as D.W. Griffith’s father fought for the Confederacy, but it wasn’t just appealing to the South.

When the film first premiered, it wasn’t in Kentucky or Alabama or any Southern town. It premiered in Los Angeles. Afterwards, people were on their feet, cheering about the movie. I would like to think that this is just because it was the first feature-length film and critics just enjoyed seeing something of its magnitude pulled off. Apparently, one critic stated that, “The worst thing about The Birth of a Nation is how good it is.”

But, unfortunately, a lot of the film’s success did come from the fact that it was a very racist piece of propaganda. Woodrow Wilson, a president who, for all the good he did for this country, was shockingly racist, called the film “history written in lightning.” It was the first movie ever screened at the White House, and after viewing it, Wilson apparently was amazed at how true and accurate the film was.

Now, the film is a divisive piece of art. The message behind it, although horrible, is portrayed in a very innovative and impressive way. It really is the foundation for a lot of modern film. I suppose that the people who don’t show it have their point, but I think it should be seen as a mile marker for how far we’ve come as a people. This sort of film could probably never even be made today, let alone be successful. I’m thankful for that.

Most information here comes from this NPR article on the 100th anniversary of the film.

D.W. Griffith’s Transition to Talking Films

abraham-lincoln-movie-poster-1930-1020198617     The rise and fall of great film director D.W. Griffith is extremely fascinating considering his advanced artistic expression through cinematography. Although Griffith began his work as a stage actor and playwright, his success was in directing films. Griffith set the stage for modern motion pictures by deviating from the common static camera shots of complete scenes in that era. Instead, he chose to immerse the viewer into the action with a series of close-ups, angle shots, and most importantly told several overlapping storylines through crosscut shots. One example is the film “Birth of a Nation,” a film which grossed an estimated $18 million in its first few years — the astounding equivalent of $1.8 billion today. In comparison, modern blockbusters such as titanic and avatar grossed 2.187 billion and 2.788 billion USD respectively. Regardless of Griffith’s pioneering efforts in cinematography, he ended his career with much less notoriety and several less-successful productions.

Griffith was present during a paradigm shift in Hollywood, the transition from silent films to talking films. This shift is notoriously known for ousting actors with undesirable accents; however to what degree the filmmakers were affected captured my interest. Since talking films required a silent set, the directors were unable to constantly coach actors during scenes. In addition, sound producers had much more control on set and were responsible for monitoring the set and declaring, “cut!” to end scenes. By the time talking pictures replaced the silent films in 1930, Griffith was opposed to this transition stating, “We do not want now and we shall never want the human voice with our films.” However, Griffith did produce several full-length talking films, including part-sound Lady of the Pavements (1929), Abraham Lincoln (1930), and his last film The Struggle (1931).

I have reviewed clips from Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln film in order to understand how Griffith utilized dialogue. My first impression was how clear and properly synched the audio was with the film. The main character, Abraham Lincoln, is introduced through a bar brawl with a local group of men. Lincoln showed apprehension to fight, describing himself as a peaceable man, although when attacked showed his ability to defend himself against three other men. The dialogue importantly showed Lincoln’s witty humor and allowed the audience to build a rapport with the calm Lincoln prior to the fight. In silent films, the actors were much more expressive and utilized body language to communicate with the audience, however the dialogue enabled less physically expressive communication making it appear more natural to myself. In a later scene, Lincoln’s twenty-two year old first love Ann Rutledge lay on her deathbed from typhoid fever. Lincoln declares his love for her in an emotional scene only possible through their direct dialogue. In conclusion, D.W. Griffith was able to utilize the dialogue in his later films in an effective manner.

In my opinion, the fall of director D.W. Griffith may not be attributed to his inability to utilize dialogue in his later films. Famous actor and filmmaker Charlie Chapman described his descent in popularity, “Yet of late years he could not find a job in the town he had invented. He clung to the shadows, a bald, eaglebeaked man, sardonic and alone.”

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