by Paul R. Spitzzeri
David Wark Griffith (1875-1948) was a towering figure in early American film, beginning with the Biograph Studio in New York in 1908 and then in Los Angeles, where his many innovations with such techniques as still shots, camera panning, close-ups and fade outs and his use of subtitles advanced the infant industry by leaps and bounds.
Griffith’s pinnacle through technical achievement was a twelve-reel, three-hour epic, filmed in greater Los Angeles in the summer of 1914, but which was also an unabashedly racist revisionist account of the Reconstruction era following the Civil War: an “amplification” of novelist Thomas W. Dixon, Jr.’s 1905 novel, The Clansman.
Released under that name, with its premiere at Clune’s Auditorium and Olive and 5th streets in Los Angeles, the film was soon retitled The Birth of a Nation and it has continued to provoke reactions about its artistic qualities, on the one hand, and its overt racism, which helped to reinvigorate the Ku Klux Klan, on the other.
Dixon (1864-1946) was a native of North Carolina with a master’s degree from Wake Forest College, but who tried his hand (not successfully) on the stage, studied law, served in the Tar Heel State’s legislature in his early twenties and then was a Baptist minister in New York and Boston. The Clansman, subtitled “A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan” was the middle of a trilogy on the KKK, which Dixon lionized as a necessary counterforce to the Northern Republican-imposed Reconstruction which, in his mind and that of most white Southerners, ruined the former Confederacy.
Griffith hailed from Kentucky and his father had been prosperous before the war, but, like most former well-to-do Southern families, fell on hard times during and after the conflict. Griffith tried writing plays from a young age and tried singing before turning to stage acting and traveled the United States with theatrical companies before becoming a film director. One of his principal actors in his company was Mary Pickford, who was long known as “America’s Sweetheart.”
Intensely sympathetic to Dixon’s reconstruction of Southern history, Griffith was not just eager to “amplify” the novel to the screen, but to showcase his seemingly unlimited ideas for the filmmaking process. Filming began on Independence Day 1914, with much of the shooting taking place at Griffith’s San Fernando Valley ranch, now a California historic landmark in Sylmar near where Interstate 210 and the 118 Freeway meet. Other locations were in Ojai, Big Bear, Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Burbank, Fullerton, and Whittier and large-scale battle scenes included technical assistance from military advisors.
The film starred Henry Walthall as the tragic hero and Confederate veteran Benjamin Cameron, while renowned actor Lilian Gish played Elsie Stoneman, daughter of a Union officer, who takes up the cause of petitioning President Abraham Lincoln for a pardon of Cameron, accused of participating in guerilla activities. Mae Marsh, Miriam Cooper, Spottiswood Aitken, Josephine Crowell, and Ralph Lewis are among the supporting cast, while British actor Donald Crisp, who went on to win an Oscar for 1941’s How Green Was My Valley, portrayed General Ulysses S. Grant. There’s more on the plot, however, below.
After an advance screening to enthusiastic audiences in Riverside early in 1915, the film’s premiere was scheduled for 8 February at Clune’s, but there was a concerted effort made by Los Angeles’ African-American community to forestall showings in the city by appealing to Mayor Henry H. Rose and the City Council. At the end of January, the Black-owned California Eagle newspaper asked:
Is it possible that Los Angeles will lower its dignity as one of the leading American cities by allowing even the picture play of the “Clansman,” a picture in fiction that lowers the standard in the eyes of the people of the moral dignity of six millions of its faithful citizens by one Thomas Dixon, whose ability as a modern fiction writer has dwindled in insignificance in the eyes of the American people, because of his petty prejudices, hurled at a struggling people only fifty-two years up from slavery[?]
The American Negro has ever been ready to protect and defend the rights and interests of Americans. For more than three hundred years the Negroes of this country have been demonstrating a spirit of ready service without any hope of returns . . .
The Negroes of Los Angeles have said that inasmuch as the “Clansman” serves as an agency to stir up race hatred, and further inasmuch as it has been denied admittance in many of the Northern and Southern cities of this country, we demand that it be denied theatrical recognition in Los Angeles.
Elsewhere in that 30 January edition, the Eagle observed that “if the clansman [sic] shows here it means prejudice will be so thick that you cannoty cut it with a knife.” An appeal to a Board of Censors created by the City led to the conclusion that the film did not pose a risk or problem and Mayor Rose, who the paper said largely owed his election in 1913 to the support of African-American Angelenos, chose not to challenge that decision.
Yet, Black organizations and individuals persevered and convinced the City Council to unanimously vote to ban any performance of the film within the city and to order Los Angeles Police Department Chief (and Rose’s successor) Charles E. Sebastian, elected later in 1915 (but who resigned because of controversy the following year), to enforce the edict. Superior Court Judge Grant Jackson, a key figure as a defense attorney for Yda Addis in her legal conflict with husband Charles Storke in the late 1890s, issued an injunction, however, to keep Sebastian from carrying out the order.
Notably, Judge Jackson, who retired from the bench later in the year, was reported to have said that “personally he did not approve of the picture, but that did not alter his duty . . . as a judge.” the Los Angeles Express of 10 February also reported that the jurist “assured the colored people of the city that the showing of The Clansman would not affect their standing in the community.”
When City Attorney Albert Lee Stephens told the court that the censors were limited to recommendations about any films that it felt shouldn’t be screened to the public, the judge stated, “if that’s the case, I would recommend that the ordinance be repealed and the board of censors abolished.” Finally, the paper ended by observing that the “courtroom was crowded to the limit, largely by negro men and women who sat patiently through the dry and intricate proceedings.”
In a statement issued on the 6th, Clune noted that the censors ordered “a few very slight and unimportant eliminations” and that further edits, presumably made by Griffith on his own initiative, “goes much further in the direction desired by the Board of Censors than they have asked for.” Demonstrating the shift in titles of the picture, the theater owner added, “the picture as now completed with its powerful allegorical ending and its historical subtitles . . . is, more rightly speaking, the story of the “Birth of the Nation,” or if you choose to call it so, the ‘Rebirth of the Nation,’ covering the Civil War and reconstruction period.” Finally, he offered that there was a misunderstanding of the film’s intent “which is not an attack on any race or section of the country.” Instead, The Clansman was “a most powerful sermon against war and in favor of brotherly love of all sections and nations.”
A week later, however, the Eagle parried this outrageous assertion quite effectively, stating clearly and simply,
The Clansman grossly misrepresents the Black race, [and] also the white race. It incites the races and makes more prejudice between the races. Our aims are that these things should not be, therefore it is the bounden duty of every good citizen to use every honorable means to see to it that this play does not appear in any community by moving pictures or otherwise, if it can be prevented.
Unfortunately, it could not be stopped and the opening night at Clune’s drew a capacity crowd of some 3,000 persons, including some Blacks. In the 7 February edition of the Los Angeles Times, critic Grace Kingsley reported that Griffith stated that, had he known the difficulties that would be involved in getting the film released and shown, “he would have hesitated at undertaking the task.” Yet, she praised the historical accuracy of the movie and noted that the auteur “has done it in a manner to startle the world—and the police!”
Kingsley, after going into detail about casting and characterization, location shooting, advisors for historical representation, wrote blithely that “in staging the southern scenes in the cottonfields, many darkies has to be subsidized to appear in the pictures” and that, as a flu outbreak occurred, “many of the darkies were laid low for a week or more.” She then added that “and now, as one last great difficulty, comes the protest of the darkies” trying to block the showing of the film.
On the 11th, the Express briefly reported that one of the members of the censor board, Emma L. Reed, reported to the City Council “praising the film as a work of art, but deploring the theme” and, while the paper added that the council “thanked Mrs. Reed warmly for her endorsement of their attitude toward the film,” the short article’s headline read, “Mrs. Reed, Censor, Endorses Clansman.”
That day’s Times included long-time columnist Harry Carr’s observation, under the heading of “Oh, You Suckers!” that “I think ‘The Clansman’ is rather rough—decidely rough, in fact, upon the colored people, and is a glorification of mob law that is not approved of” but he had harsh words to say for an impotent Board of Censors which only inspired “contempt for an agitation that chases itself around in circles like a cat in a fit.”
Stymied in its attempts to block showing of The Clansman, the city’s African-Americans decided to mount its own live production to counter the nefarious content of the film by staging, in recognition of the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War (and four days before what is the Juneteenth commemoration) and of slavery, a pageant called Fifty Years of Freedom. The first version was to have performed on 27 April for the benefit of the Black Young Men’s Christian Association, located on San Pedro Street near 8th Street, and a senior home for African-Americans.
The first act was “The Lament of the Colored Race, 1620 to 1861 with music from a 20-piece orchestra and soloists and choruses, with pictures showing William Lloyd Gibson and his abolition newspaper, the return of Anthony Burnes to slavery in New Orleans, and Garrison being attacked by a mob. The second attack was “Freedom, 1861 to 1865” including Lincoln’s call for troops and Black men “waiting for the call,” camp scenes and the sanitary commission, and emancipation, with orchestral accompaniment. The final act was “Education Since Slavery—Fifty Years Ago” with, interestingly, a performance of a scene from Wagner’s “Lohengrin” and a dramatic rendition of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, while a “Society and Art” component concerned “a sculptor’s studio (advancement made by the Colored race in 50 years), with a grand chorus as a finale.
Apparently, however, that showing was postponed and some changes were made to the pageant before it was produced at the original Shrine Auditorium on 15 June. A few days prior, the Eagle observed that “this performance should be made a splendid jubilee, showing the great progress of our race. It is a remarkable history and will be well presented by the masters of the professions of our race.”
While white newspapers like the Express and the Los Angeles Record only made brief references to the performance, the Times devoted much more space on 16 June in what was headlined “Three Thousand Help in Happy Celebration.” The paper recorded that “harmony that filled every corner of the great hall” was evident for the large assemblage and that more than $1,000 was raised, making it evident that “the celebreation was unquestionably a success.”
It was reported that the event began with the Hall Jubilee Singers and “a medley of old plantation and patriotic songs,” with the critique that “when the oc[t]ette of jubilee singers was allowed to go it alone, the audience swayed in time to the harmony.” After this, “tableaux representing the various periods of the history of the colored race followed one another.” Black veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic [Union Army] were among those with featured roles and “when the acting reached the sublime in patriotic utterances,” the Times noted that loud cheers were forthcoming. Speeches on “the religious and educational development ofthe colored race” were given towards the end.
The paper noted that Cora Pope, from Boston, was the director and that she “has been devoting her time for the past few years aiding the colored Y.M.C.A. to develop,” while Mrs. S. Chandler Cole assisted as chair of the Committee on Arrangements. The Times added that while the audience was primarily comprised of Black residents “the section reserved for white citizens was well filled.”
Among white women listed as lending “their hearty support to the affair” were Mary Foy (earlier the city’s first female librarian and later a Democratic party delegate to national conventions), Mrs. Arthur Letts (he being the owner of The Broadway department store), Mrs. Charles Edward Locke (he the pator of the prominent First Methodist Church), and Mrs. Hector Alliot (he was director of the recently opened Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art, now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.)
Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a program from Clune’s for the week of 23 August and the 19th week of the continuous showing of The Clansman. It averred that the film, costing $500,000, was “the greatest motion picture ever staged” and “required seven months to stage it” with the “most spectacular battle scenes ever enacted.” In addition to the cast, there was a detailed list of the music provided by an “Augmented Orchestra” conducted by Carli D. Elinor and featuring organist Ray Hastings. There was a “Clansman” overtur by J.E. Nurnberger and the performance of pieces by Rossini, Mozart, Verdi, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner and other famous composers, along with a vocal sextet.
A lengthy synopsis added that, “the first seen of disunion is planted by the African being brought to America in New England ships and sold by the traders to the South, pious Puritans blessing the traffic,” this making a case for a clear link of guilt for the North for its part in the slave trade. This is made more evident by the assertion that “the [slave] traders of the seventeenth century became the abolitionists of the nineteenth.”
The description went on to say that carpetbagger Austin Stoneman was “in supreme power and starts to make his dreams of negro equality come true” including using a northern protege, provocatively named Silas Lynch, “as the leader of the blacks and who “induces the negros to quit work” while he yearns to marry Elsie Stoneman (intermarriage and miscegenation were themes of white anger in this scenario), who was engaged to Benjamin Cameron as she lobbied for his release on the guerilla warfare charge.
As “the whites are disenfranchised,” the Camerons “confer with their fellow victims” and “in agony of soul over the degradation of his people by the blacks, now supreme in power,” Cameron climbs a mountain and sees white children “scare some picaninies [Black children] by hiding beneath a white sheet.” Benjamin Cameron sees a way “whereby he can use the negro superstitions as a club to defeat their insolent power” and “the result is the forming of the Ku Klux Klan.” Elsie, learning of this, ends her engagement with him, however.
Benjamin Cameron’s sister is pursued by a “renegade negro soldier” and “to escape with honor intact,” throws herself to her death from a cliff and her brother and the KKK try the accused and execute him, leaving his body at the steps of Lynch’s home. After the latter seeks to arrest KKK members, he proposes to marry Elsie so she can be “his queen of the black empire he is to found in the South. After she refuses his offer, he plans a forced marriage, even as Stoneman realizes too late “the Frankenstein he has himself created, but is helpless until the Klan arrives” and saves the dea, with Blacks decided to not to vote in the next election “and the threat of a black empire is dissolved.” Of course, Benjamin Cameron and Elsie Stoneman marry, while her brother marries Benjamin’s sister to top off the happy ending—for the whites.
While the film was a blockbuster in many areas of the country and endorsed by President Woodrow Wilson, a friend of Dixon, though there is some disagreement on how enthusiastic he was about the picture, Griffith turned to another epic that was, in part, a response to The Clansman/Birth of Nation, with 1916’s Intolerance, which sought to show the damage the lack of tolerance causes throughout history, including ancient fall of Babylon, the crucifixion of Christ, a 16th century massacre of Huguenos by Catholics, and modern conflicts involving labor, poverty and crime.
The epic, however, was a flop compared to the earlier film and, while Griffith founded United Artists in 1919 with Pickford, her husband Douglas Fairbanks, and Charles Chaplin (who credited Griffith with single-handedly making the film industry what it was), his star faded until he made his last film in 1931. His legacy is basically tied to the artistic achievements of his masterpiece with the odious and truly damaging racism (the KKK rose to great power into the 1920s, including the continuation of the horrific lynching of Black men) that still disturbs and dispirits.