#370. D.W. Griffith

Some directors may have been prolific, but then there are directors like D.W. Griffith. In the 23 years of his career, he directed over 500 movies. Most of these films were directed before 1914, as Griffith made the newfound medium of filmmaking his playground to discover and cement many of the film techniques we know today. It’s weird to think the close-up shot wasn’t widely used before Griffith made it a standard. It is also interesting to note that Griffith worked almost exclusively in the medium of silent films. Of his 518 movies, only two were with sound: Abraham Lincoln (1930) and The Struggle (1931). These were the last two films he ever directed. With a catalog of movies this large, there are bound to be a few gems. This week’s two films highlight some of the most significant films D.W. Griffith ever directed.

The Birth of a NationThe Birth of a Nation
Year: 1915
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 195 minutes / 3.25 hours

Partly because the length of a reel of film was a technical limitation, many directors of the silent era made their movies on a single reel of film. At a length of 1,000 feet, silent movies could fit about 15 minutes of footage on a single reel. Longer movies would often advertise their run-time in terms of reels. With so many short films in circulation, it was a little odd to find D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) was comprised of a whopping 12 reels. Even modern movies rarely break a three-hour run-time, but this silent spectacle certainly does. With movies like this, D.W. Griffith ushered in the era of the “feature-length” movie. He showed how much could be done in 12 reels of film, not only in terms of plot but also in terms of the creative and artistic methods used to tell a story of this length.

The Camerons of South Carolina enlist to fight the Civil War and soon find that Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) is the only surviving son of his two brothers. His headstrong attitude caused him to lead a charge at a major battle and earned him a nickname: “The Little Colonel.” Unfortunately, he is captured after being wounded in battle. While he is accused of treason by the Union and sentenced to hang, his mother asks Abraham Lincoln to pardon him and has her request granted. After Lincoln is assassinated, Ben finds the freed slaves of the South are using underhanded techniques to become elected officials. These former slaves don’t seem to know proper manners for governing individuals, which is why Ben tries to “scare” them into behaving by starting the ghost-themed Ku Klux Klan. Soon, order returns as the Klansmen ensure the slaves are no longer stuffing ballot boxes.

Year: 1916
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 197 minutes / 3.28 hours

If The Birth of a Nation was long, Griffith’s follow-up, Intolerance (1916) was even longer. Around 200 minutes long, this epic is actually four different stories told in parallel. Because of the backlash he received for the racially insensitive The Birth of a Nation, Griffith answered the only way he knew how: through film. He wanted to show intolerance in its many forms as a form of apology for glorifying the racist ideals of the Ku Klux Klan in his previous movie. Fortunately, this apology seemed to work, as he continued to direct many films after this point, including the classics Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1921). Regarding his legacy, the American Film Institute originally put The Birth of a Nation on its Top 100 list in 1998, replacing it with Intolerance during the 10th Anniversary list. A fitting substitution, considering the original circumstances.

To show “Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages” (the subtitle for this film), Griffith follows four instances of intolerance across history. The oldest story is from the Babylonians, whose intolerance between different sects of followers of two different gods led to their demise. Even Jesus Christ (Howard Gaye) Himself experienced intolerance, the penultimate result of which was His eventual crucifixion. Centuries later, Catholics were intolerant of Protestants, which resulted in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Finally, in the modern times of 1914, the socially backward situation that leads to a man being sentenced to hang just for protecting his wife from the boss who put him in prison the first time. Most of these moments of intolerance end in tragedy. There is one story that does manage to pull out a happy ending, while still enforcing the huge influence intolerance has over people.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 great D.W. Griffith movies

Bacon #: 3 (San Francisco / Roger Imhof -> Man Hunt / Roddy McDowall -> The Big Picture / Kevin Bacon)

#369. Shameful Nations

We all have that one thing we’re ashamed of. Whether it’s a guilty pleasure, like enjoying a children’s television show, or something more sinister, like breaking the law, individuals will usually have something in their life they want everyone to forget. While many of these shameful things can be common for a large number of people, when a society forms around a group of people, there are inevitably individuals the group would rather outsiders just outright ignore. These individuals can bring shame to the entire group, either through their actions or by their strongly-held beliefs. Unfortunately, because these anomalous individuals are often seen representing the whole group, shame is brought to everyone. This can be scaled up from something as small as a workplace, to as large as a nation. This week’s two films highlight shameful nations and the individuals and groups who formed them.

Year: 1932
Rating: Passed
Length: 93 minutes / 1.55 hours

Crime doesn’t pay, but when criminals become popular, there’s a bigger problem with society. If people don’t feel remorse for their crimes, and if they’re lauded for standing up to a system keeping them down, then the laws that hold everything together will have a difficult time supporting a civilized nation. While criminals can be part of larger organizations, the famous mobsters of the 1920s were personalities who often made headlines all by themselves. Individuals like Al Capone, Frank Costello, and Carlo Gambino made the police and law enforcement of America look foolish by breaking numerous laws and getting away with it. In shaming the legal system, these individuals in turn shame the entire nation these laws were enacted to protect. And yet, these gangsters provide entertainment via their hijinks.

Loosely based on the real-life gangster, Al Capone, Antonio “Tony” Camonte (Paul Muni) is inspired by the sign outside his apartment which states, “The World is Yours.” Working underneath Italian mob boss John “Johnny” Lovo (Osgood Perkins), Tony is helping the Italians take over the south side of Chicago. Of course, just being a lackey isn’t enough for Tony. Not only does he start pursuing Johnny’s girlfriend, but he makes a move to take over the north side of Chicago from its Irish gangs. To aid in achieving his goals, his friend Guino Rinaldo (George Raft) helps Tony kill Johnny after a botched assassination on Tony’s life. However, when he learns his beloved sister is in a relationship with Guino, Tony goes insane and kills his friend, which inevitably results in the police coming in and taking Tony down.

The Birth of a NationThe Birth of a Nation
Year: 1915
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 195 minutes / 3.25 hours

While history is written by the victors, there can be embarrassing or shameful events in this history which are difficult to gloss over. Especially as time marches on and sentiments change, what was once condoned as appropriate behavior is condemned by future generations. These shameful events in a nation’s history cannot and should not be overlooked, lest the nation repeats them. For the United States, much changed in the wake of the Civil War, but the shameful veil of racism still seems to hold onto many of its residents more than a century later. Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan disgrace an entire nation that considers itself “enlightened.” Unfortunately, early Hollywood did not help with this, since films like The Birth of a Nation (1915) bolstered a rebirth of the KKK that still exists today.

The lives of a family from the North and a family from the South are intertwined during the Civil War. Both families send their sons to the front lines of war, but the daughters and wives end up working in the hospitals. When one of the Southern boys, Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) is captured and taken to a Union hospital, he is stricken with the daughter of the Northern family. Similarly, the eldest Northern son falls in love with one of the Southern daughters. When Abraham Lincoln is assassinated, everyone returns home and tries to rebuild. While the Northern family makes sure Reconstruction policies are enforced in the south, Ben Cameron observes the freed slaves abusing the government and not taking their responsibilities seriously. After starting the Ku Klux Klan, Ben manages to bring the freed slaves back in line and restore order to the southern governments.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 shame-filled societies