Saturday, February 28, 2015

Boyhood


Boyhood (2014) Starring: Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke. Directed by Richard Linklater. Screenplay by Richard Linklater. Produced by Richard Linklater, Cathleen Sutherland, Cathleen Sutherland, John Sloss. Run Time: 165 minutes. U.S. Color. Drama.

Thirteen years ago, Richard Linklater, the director behind Slacker (1991), Dazed and Confused (1993), SubUrbia (1996) and Waking Life (2001), had an idea to make a movie showing the life of an adolescent boy growing up with divorced parents. While the story idea might not be ground shaking, it was the film’s production schedule that would be very different. In order to show the life of the boy from first grade through to college, Linklater and cast would assemble for a few weeks every year for the next 12 years to make this movie. IFC had the foresight to go along with the idea and provided a shooting budget of $2.4 million, $200,000 per year, and Linklater began making his movie in 2002, wrapping in 2013. Few films have had longer shooting schedules: Blood Tea and Red String, released in 2006, took 13 years to complete and Coffee and Cigarettes, released in 2003, was shot over a period of 17 years.

The cast Linklater assembled would be considered eclectic, a mixture of unknowns and seasoned professionals. Ellar Coltrane (Mason Evans, Jr.) was an unknown child actor from Austin, Texas, whose previous credit was Lone Star State of Mind (2002). Patricia Arquette (Mason’s mother Olivia), a fine actress and probably the best of the acting Arquette siblings. Ethan Hawke (Mason Evans, Sr.), an accomplished actor and writer. He first drew attention as Todd Anderson in the Dead Poets Society (1989) and had worked with Linklater on the films Before Sunrise (1995); The Newton Boys (1998) and Waking Life (2001). And Lorelei Linklater (Mason’s sister, Samantha), the director’s daughter, who had only previously appeared in Waking Life.

Director Richard Linklater with his daughter Lorelei, who plays Samantha Evans in Boyhood.

While he had an idea about how the story would end, every year Linklater would write the bit of script that would be shot that year, after watching the last year’s shooting and incorporating changes he saw in each actor. Since the shooting schedule was to last twelve years, the cast could not sign contracts. According to California’s De Havilland Law, named after actress Olivia De Havilland, contracts for personal services cannot be longer than seven years.

The project was fraught with possible issues affecting everyone involved. Actors could become unavailable due to work or for personal reasons. And there was also the possibility one of the cast members could die. Linklater had considered his own mortality, advising Hawke that he would have to finish the film should the director die before filming was completed.

However, all the big obstacles were overcome. When Patricia Arquette got the lead in a television series, shooting had to be confined to weekends. And all the cast members and the director made it through from start to finish.

The film hit the festival circuit with the premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 19, 2014. Since then it has won many major awards, including the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Drama and the BAFTA for Best Film. The directing, writing and acting have also all been recognized with either awards or nominations. When I saw the film for the first time, it was already nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Ethan Hawke), Best Supporting Actress (Patricia Arquette) and Best Editing (Sandra Adair).

The movie itself is an epic independent film which follows the life of Mason as he grows up in a series of broken homes with his mother, sister and father as the only constants in his life. There are touchstones throughout, but not necessarily milestones. We’re not shown an ending parade of firsts for Mason (kiss, driving, etc); it is not that type of a movie. There is a universality about the experience of growing up and anyone who has made it to college can no doubt see something from their own life in the experiences of Mason.

The film has a lot of autobiographical references for Linklater, who, like the protagonist, is a Texan from a broken home raised by his mother. And as the filmmaking continued, there are autobiographical elements included from the other cast members as well, including Hawke’s Black Album, an unofficial collection of solo Beatles 
recordings he made for his own daughter, which in the film Mason Sr. gives to Mason Jr. on the latter’s birthday.

If there are autobiographical elements throughout the film, one has to hope that Lorelei Linklater is nothing like the Samantha character that she plays in the film.

Speaking of the acting, it is very good across the board. The performances of Arquette and Hawke, two actors whose careers I have not followed closely, make me think that I should have. While you would expect them to be good, since they are professionals, the performance, given over a twelve year period, is very believable and they both deserve whatever accolades are given to them for this film. Of the two, Arquette as the mother raising Mason is present for more of the story than Hawke, who plays a father with a second family. Not only is he sometimes emotionally distant from his children, Mason Sr. lives hours away throughout most of the story.

Ethan Hawke (r) plays Mason Evans Sr. to Ellar Coltrane's Mason Evans, Jr.

Arquette, who would receive the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, along with many other such awards, gives a very powerful performance as a single mother trying to do what’s best for her children and for herself. It is not easy and she gives a performance which shows both maternal pride and personal heartache.

Patricia Arquette won an Academy Award for her performance as Olivia Evans,
a single mother who does the best she can for her children and herself.

But it is the unknowns, Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, who are surprisingly good. While Linklater is very believable as a self-absorbed drama queen, it is really Coltrane that the film depends on. Director Linklater got very lucky that the choice he made for the child actor playing Mason Jr. would be able to not only hold up over twelve years, but be as interesting to an audience at six as he is at eighteen. If Coltrane decides to pursue a career in acting, I would predict he would do very well as he seems to be a natural.

A poster that shows the changes Mason (Ellar Coltrane) goes through during the course of the film.

My only complaint about the film is that so much either happens off screen, which is unavoidable given the breadth it is trying to cover, and that conflict and perilous situations are created, but are not concluded or dealt with at all. The film is really a two and half hour character study. Mason is a changed person by the end of the film, but his change is not really all that unprecedented, but rather somewhat predictable as everyone is changed merely by the act of growing up. And, as is in line with the rest of the movie, we don’t see what Mason Jr. ultimately becomes. But of course, we are all still changing and evolving throughout our lives. We are never done and as far as Boyhood goes, neither is Mason. It’s just that in art you want the kind of conclusions that escape us in real life, not necessarily a reflection of that unresolved state.

That said, the film is quite engaging and the changes between the years are handled extremely well. Not only is there a consistency in the acting and in the look of the film, but the editing makes the transitions almost unnoticeable. The pacing is such that the film does not seem long at nearly two and a half hours. Having been filmed in pieces, the movie rings true to the passing years it represents. While the opinions expressed may have a liberal slant, they are still accurate in a way that only present tense can provide. There is no need to recreate; there is a subtle history lesson for future generations, as the film captures the changes in attitudes, fashion, music and gaming without dwelling on any of them.

Like Birdman, which beat this film out for Best Picture honors, Boyhood is more than just a gimmick film. True it is somewhat unique due to its lengthy production schedule, but it tries to give a different slant on the adolescent years of the protagonist. This is truly one of the better recent films, but I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for the sequel.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Stubs – Foreign Correspondent


Foreign Correspondent (1940) Starring: Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, Herbert Marshall, George Sanders, Albert Basserman, Robert Benchley. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Charles Bennett, Joan Harrison, James Hilton, Robert Benchley. Based on the book Personal History by Vincent Sheean (1935). Produced by Walter Wanger.  Run Time: 120 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Thriller, Drama, Espionage

I find 1940 to be an interesting year in Hollywood. One year removed from Hollywood’s Golden Year, 1939, it is also one year prior to America’s entry into World War II. Hollywood was still exporting films to Germany, even though they had started the War by invading Poland on September 1, 1939. Films varied on their treatment of Europe with few calling out the Nazi regime. There were exceptions, Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), Espionage Agent (1939), The Three Stooges’ short You Nazty Spy! (1940) and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), being among those that clearly drew sides prior to the U.S. declaring war on Germany.

As Europe was edging closer to war in the late 30s, Alfred Hitchcock came to the U.S. under contract to David O. Selznick. Drawn to Hollywood by superior resources of the studios here, as compared to back in England, Hitchcock was pursued by both Selznick and Samuel Goldwyn. Even though there was tension between director and producer, Hitchcock’s first film for Selznick, Rebecca (1940), was a major success, both commercially and critically. The film would win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, beating out a competitive field which included Foreign Correspondent.

Because independent producers like Goldwyn and Selznick made only a few pictures a year, they often lent out the talent they had under contract to other producers and to the larger studios. After making Rebecca, Selznick would loan out his new director to Walter Wanger.

Wanger was a producer who got his start with Paramount Pictures in the 1920’s. His first big success was The Sheik (1921), starring Rudolph Valentino. He would also have a hand in the Marx Brothers first film for that studio, The Cocoanuts (1929). After leaving Paramount, he tried his hand at being an independent producer. For the rest of his career, Wanger would go between being a contracted producer or an independent one. In 1939, he had produced Stagecoach and Eternally Yours, both released through United Artists.

Wanger had purchased the rights to the memoir Personal History, written in 1935 by Vincent Sheean, a reporter who had worked for the New York Herald Tribune. Several attempts were made over the next five years to adapt the story for the screen, but none of them seemed to work until Wanger allowed their stories to diverge from the source material. There were a number of writers who worked on the screenplay, but who did not get screen credit, including Ben Hecht.

Finally with a screenplay to produce and Hitchcock available to direct, the next step in the process was casting. Hitchcock had wanted Gary Cooper and Joan Fontaine, the latter who was also under contract to Selznick. Cooper turned down the role because it was a thriller, a move he would later regret. And Selznick wouldn’t loan Fontaine out.

The title role went to Joel McCrea, an actor who was just starting to come into his own. He had begun working as a stunt double while still attending Hollywood High School. He appeared as an extra in The Enemy (1927) and The Fair Co-Ed (1927) before signing with MGM. There he appeared in his first leading role in The Jazz Age (1929). In the 1930s he moved to RKO where he starred opposite Dolores del Rio in King Vidor’s Bird of Paradise (1932).

Late in the decade, he appeared in Westerns, including Wells Fargo (1937) and Union Pacific (1939). That same year, he would also appear in one of the first pre-World War II espionage films to identify the German Nazis as the enemy, the above mentioned Espionage Agent.

The other lead went to Laraine Day, an actress who had made her film debut only a few years before in Stella Dallas (1937) and who up until then was best known for her role as nurse Mary Lamont in the Dr. Kildare series of films starring Lew Ayres and Lionel Barrymore.

Filming began on March 18, 1940 at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio in West Hollywood, known as “The Lot”. Using some locations in Los Angeles and Long Beach, production ended on June 5th.  Following the end of production, Hitchcock returned to England. When he returned on July 3rd, he brought with him a report that the Germans were expected to start bombing London anytime. Screenwriter Ben Hecht was hired to write the epilogue to the movie and filming took place on July 5th.

The film opens in the editorial offices of the New York Globe. Mr. Powers (Harry Davenport) believes there is a crisis brewing in Europe, but he’s not getting the story from his foreign correspondents. Deciding he needs a crime reporter instead, he calls up Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) from the city room. Jones is a reporter who has shown a willingness to get into trouble to get a story. Giving him the pen name Huntley Haverstock, which he thinks is more akin to foreign correspondent than Jones, Powers sends him to Europe.

Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) is rechristened Huntley Haverstock when the editor
of the New York Globe (Harry Davenport) promotes his crime reporter to foreign correspondent.

He meets his first assignment, Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), the leader of the Universal Peace Party, in Powers’ office before leaving aboard an ocean liner for England. There he meets the Globe’s London-based foreign correspondent, Stebbins (Robert Benchley), who has made a habit of doing exactly what Powers claims to hate, submitting government releases as news reports.

Robert Benchley plays Stebbins, the Globe's London-based foreign correspondent.

While Stebbins is meeting a woman at the hotel, Johnny is headed for an event to honor Dutch diplomat Van Meer (Albert Bassermann), whom he sees getting into a taxi. Van Meer invites him to ride along, but while Johnny tries to interview Van Meer, he is only interested in making idle chit chat about the birds in the park.

Johnny meets Van Meer (Albert Bassermann) and they share a taxi.

At the party, Johnny meets Fisher’s daughter, Carol (Laraine Day), who works closely with her father. Johnny, however, assumes she’s there to handle the press and makes his attempt at a pass. Throughout the luncheon, Johnny passes notes to Carol, asking her questions like how big of a family she wants. When Van Meer disappears unexpectedly, Carol is called upon to speak in his place and Johnny is duly impressed again by her.

Johnny leaves London to follow Van Meer to a political conference in Amsterdam. Johnny waits anxiously outside for Van Meer to arrive, but when he does, Van Meer has no recollection of who Johnny is, despite having shared a taxi only days earlier.

Van Meer is apparently shot by a man pretending to be a photographer as Johnny watches.

It is on the steps that a man posing as a photographer assassinates Van Meer in front of a crowd of people who have gathered on the steps of the hall. Johnny takes chase, but the assassin eludes him and makes his way to a waiting getaway car. In order to take chase, Johnny tries to commandeer a car, which just happens to have Carol in it and is driven by Scott ffolliott (George Sanders), a reporter for a rival paper. Scott explains the odd spelling of his surname is that the capital letter was dropped in memory of an executed ancestor.

Johnny jumps into a car driven by another reporter Scott ffolliot (George Sanders)
and the woman they are both in love with, Carol Fisher (Laraine Day). Together
they chase Van Meer's assassin through the Dutch countryside.

Despite the fact the getaway car fires at them, the three take chase until the getaway car suddenly disappears when they come to a row of windmills. The police, who are also chasing the assassin, drive past, but Johnny is convinced the getaway car is in the first windmill they see. Johnny notices that the windmill is turning in an opposite direction of the wind and figures it is signaling a plane that is circling overhead.

Johnny sends Carol and ffolliott for help, but stays behind to snoop around. He finds the getaway car in the garage and, after sneaking into the house, finds the real Van Meer drugged in one of the upper rooms. The Van Meer look-alike Johnny had seen was killed to hide the fact the real Van Meer had been kidnapped. The real Van Meer is about to be taken away in the plane.

Johnny discovers the real Van Meer is really alive and being held hostage in a windmill.

Things get tense when Van Meer’s kidnappers come up to his room on the only stairwell and Johnny has no place to go, but out the window. Johnny goes into the nearest town to get help, but it takes too long to get the local authorities to believe him. By the time they get back to the windmill, Van Meer is gone, as is the getaway car. The only man they find on the premises pretends to be a homeless man and tells the police he’d been sleeping there all day.

Back at his hotel room, Johnny is typing up his submission for the paper before he gets ready to take a shower. Wearing his underwear, socks and a dressing gown, he opens the door. Two men dressed like policemen enter and tell him they want to take him to headquarters. Fearing they’re there to kill him, Johnny goes out through the bathroom window and, hugging onto the building, manages to make it across the ledge to an open window. On the way, Johnny touches the E in the neon Hotel Europe sign, reducing the name to Hot Europe. The open window belongs to Carol’s room and she is in the middle of entertaining some world leaders. She is not happy to see Johnny, especially in his dressing gown and almost kicks him out. She decides to help him. Johnny calls everyone from hotel security to room service to his room in an effort to confound his kidnappers. In the midst of the confusion, the hotel’s valet manages to slip in and grab clothes for Johnny and later, he and Carol manage to escape.

Dressed only in his dressing gown, Johnny escapes through his hotel's bathroom window.

Johnny and Carol board a British boat back to England. When they fail to get a cabin, they spend the night out on the deck, even though there is a furious storm in progress. Johnny confesses his love for Carol and asks her to marry him.

When they arrive in London, they go straight to her father’s house. Mr. Fisher is having breakfast with Mr. Krug (Eduardo Ciannelli), one of Van Meer’s kidnappers he’d seen in the windmill. He informs Fisher about this and he tells him to leave it to him to handle as he goes off to a private meeting with Mr. Krug.

Mr. Krug and Fisher, who are in cahoots with each other, decide to hire Rowley (Edmund Gwenn), a “bodyguard” whom they’ve used in the past to get rid of their enemies. Johnny has no idea what Rowley is up to. Rowley convinces Johnny that they’re being followed and they stop at the Westminster Cathedral to try and lose their tail. Rowley then talks Johnny into visiting the cathedral’s tower. After waiting for the crowd to thin out, Rowley attempts to push Johnny over, but Johnny moves out of the way just in time and it is Rowley who plunges to his death.

Rowley (Edmund Gwenn) is hired to kill Johnny, but ends up falling to his death when he misses.

Johnny and ffolliott are both convinced that Fisher is a traitor and they hatch a plot to get Carol out of the city. Carol thinks she’s kidnapping Johnny and drives him out to Cambridge and gets him a room at a B and B. But ffolliott wants Johnny to keep her out of the city until morning, so Johnny tries to book her a room. But when she overhears him making arrangements and thinking he has prurient interests, she flees back to London. 

Johnny and ffolliott plot to kidnap Carol to Cambridge, where
things get to heavy for Carol and she flees back to London.

Meanwhile, ffolliott tries to coerce Fisher into divulging where Van Meer is being kept in exchange for Carol, whom he convinces Fisher he’s helped to kidnap. Just when Fisher is about to capitulate, he hears Carol’s car pull up outside.

ffolliott tries to blackmail Fisher into divulging Van Meer's location.

With Stebbins with him, ffolliott follows Fisher to the hotel where Van Meer is being held. He sends Stebbins back to wait for Johnny and goes into the hotel. The receptionists, fearing reprisals to their families back in Germany, take ffolliott hostage and take him to the room where Van Meer is being interrogated. When Fisher fails to convince his old friend that he needs to tell him the secret paragraph, Van Meer is roughed up until he breaks. Just as Van Meer is being forced to divulge the information the organization wants, an unwritten paragraph in a treaty recently signed, ffolliott distracts the interrogators. He manages to jump out the window, his fall broken by the hotel’s awning. He lands on the street just as Johnny arrives. They go back into the hotel, but Fisher and Krug have escaped. Van Meer, who has been left behind, is rushed to the hospital in a coma.

The hotel where Van Meer is being held.

Johnny and ffolliott are aware of Fisher’s plans to fly to America with Carol the next morning and manage to get passage on the plane. War has been declared between England, France and Germany, following Germany’s invasion of Poland.

On board the plane, Fisher manages to intercept a message for ffolliott and learns that authorities will be waiting for the plane when it lands. Knowing he’ll be tried for treason. Fisher confesses his involvement to Carol. Thinking Johnny has been using her to get to her father, Carol won’t listen when Johnny tries to explain he was just doing his job as a reporter.

The pilots try to react as the plane is being shelled. Germany and the UK were already at war.

Seconds later, the plane is shelled out of the sky by a German destroyer and crashes into the ocean. Only a handful of passengers survive, including Fisher, Carol, Johnny and ffolliott. They manage to scramble onto one of the plane’s wings. Realizing that it cannot support all the weight and everyone, including his daughter, is in danger, Fisher slips off the wing and is drowned.

After being shot down, Carol and Johnny take refuge on a wing of the plane.

The survivors are rescued by an American ship, the Mohican, heading to London. Because of American neutrality, the ship’s Captain (Emory Parnell) doesn’t want them calling in any news about the shoot down. But Johnny, who has Mr. Powers at the Globe on the ship to shore, instead pretends to tell the Captain the story he would be reporting, so the whole story is told.

The film ends back in London. Johnny and Carol are together while Johnny makes a radio broadcast back to the states. London is being bombed by the Germans as Johnny warns America to be vigilante saying as he signs off “Hello, America, hang on to your lights: they're the only lights left in the world!” Pretty heady stuff for a film made in a country that was not yet part of the war.

Life imitates art. Johnny makes a radio report to America about the German
bombing of London. The film was released before Edward R.
Murrow would be reporting on the same event in real life.

While Gary Cooper might have been the first choice to play Johnny Jones/Huntley Haverstock, Joel McCrea is excellent in the role and in retrospect was probably a better acting choice. He exudes American determination and naivety at the same time, which is right for the time. Like Cooper, McCrea shows that he can be both understated and still manage to be heroic.

Following this film, McCrea would try his hand at comedy, working with Preston Sturges on two projects, Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942). After that, he would mostly be known for Westerns: The Virginian (1946), Colorado Territory (1949), Frenchie (1950), Stranger on Horseback (1955) and his final film, Mustang Country (1976).

Laraine Day is good as the love interest. Pretty without being exotic, the type of woman an American like Johnny Jones would fall for. She would return to the Dr. Kildare film series: Dr. Kildare Goes Home (1940), Dr. Kildare’s Crisis (1940), The People v. Dr. Kildare (1941), Dr. Kildare’s Wedding Day (1941) and Dr. Kildare’s Victory (1942). She would also star opposite Cary Grant in Mr. Lucky (1943), Robert Mitchum in The Locket (1946) and Kirk Douglas in My Dear Secretary (1948). She would marry Leo Durocher, the manager of the then New York Giants baseball team, in 1948 and was known for a while as “The First Lady of Baseball,” even hosting a 15-minute TV interview program, Day with the Giants, before each New York Giants home game.

George Sanders, who plays rival reporter ffolliott, had worked with Hitchcock on Rebecca. Sanders always seems to play the same sort of character, at least in the films I’ve seen him in. Witty, urbane Sanders can play cunning or cruel. In this film, he actually gets to play the action hero which is something I haven’t seen him do before. I have to say Sanders makes a good comrade and foil for Johnny Jones in Foreign Correspondent.

The rest of the supporting cast is very good as well. Herbert Marshall as Mr. Fisher, Eduardo Ciannelli as Mr. Krug and Edmund Gwenn as Rowley stand out. Albert Bassermann, who played Van Meer, was also singled out by the Academy, receiving, but not winning, a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Robert Benchley, the humorist turned actor, has a small but humorous part as the ne’er do well foreign correspondent, Stebbins.

That’s one of the things I like best about the movie and something you find repeated in Hitchcock’s films. Not only do the minor characters seem to be real three-dimensional, but there is also humor throughout, something you might not expect in a thriller. Rowley, as an example, a hardened killer, takes the time to lift up a school boy on a field trip so he can see the view from the Cathedral tower minutes before trying to push Johnny from it. Who else but a Hitchcock character would have a surname start in lower case, ffolliott, with a good story behind it? And who can forget the Latvian diplomat (Edward Conrad) who shows up in a couple of places in the movie. He shows the international concerns about the pending war, but he also provides a bit of comic relief.

Latvian diplomat (Edward Conrad) provides comic relief to help break the tension.

And while there is humor, there is a sense of reality to the film as well. The world was already at war when this film was made, only the U.S. wasn’t yet involved. In his radio address, Johnny Jones speaks to America the same way that Edward R. Murrow would do later. The film was released on August 16, 1940, Murrow started his broadcasts, London After Dark, on August 24, 1940 and the actual Blitz didn’t start until September 7th. The chilling and powerful ending, calling for American vigilance, still gets to me and I know I’m not the intended audience.

Director Alfred Hitchcock makes a cameo early in the film.

While I feel Hitchcock was one of the great directors, the screenwriters: Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison, chief amongst them, deserve a lot of the credit as well. Let’s also throw in Ben Hecht, who added the Johnny Jones speech at the end.

Johnny looks down on the Van Meer conspirators inside the windmill.

I know I rarely talk about the look of a film, but with Foreign Correspondent I’m going to make an exception. The cinematography and the Art Direction combine nicely here, providing many memorable set pieces, including the exterior and interiors of the Dutch windmills. I really love it when we go inside and not only see the machinations of the equipment, but the thin multi-storied staircases. There is Johnny’s escape route from the fake police, out the bathroom window and out to the ledges of the Hotel Europe. The viewpoint is foreshadowing of the chase on top of Mount Rushmore in North By Northwest (1959), another Hitchcock thriller, nearly two decades later.

The camera provides an interesting point of view while Johnny makes his escape.

Some of the special effects, the home of The New York Globe and the airplane they get shot down on near the end of the film, are obvious models and we all know Hitchcock’s affinity for shooting on a sound stage, but these are minor annoyances and have to be overlooked as they don’t really take away from the movie.

The film was a modest success at the box-office, but actually lost money. While critics thought of it as a glorified B movie, the film did receive six Academy nominations, including Best Original Screenplay (the first year the Academy had this category); Best Cinematography Black and White; Best Art Direction Black and White, Best Special Effects; as mentioned before Best Supporting Actor and Best Picture. Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels took notice, as well, calling Foreign Correspondent, “A masterpiece of propaganda, a first-class production which no doubt will make a certain impression upon the broad masses of the people in enemy countries.”

I would highly recommend the film. This is a ripping yarn from a master filmmaker, working from a great screenplay with really good acting. There is little not to like and so much to enjoy. The film, if you’re anything like me, will make you laugh and it will make you cry.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Stubs - The Story of Temple Drake


The Story of Temple Drake (1933) Starring: Miriam Hopkins, William Gargan, Jack La Rue, Florence Eldridge, Sir Guy Standing Directed by Stephen Roberts. Screenplay by Oliver H. P. Garrett. Based on the novel Sanctuary by William Faulkner (New York, 1931). Produced by Emanuel Cohen. Run time: 72 minutes. US. Black and White. Drama

It’s easy to get the impression that Pre-Code Hollywood films were full of nudity, sex, drugs, murder and gambling, but in reality, for the most part, they dealt with very similar topics to those made from 1934 to 1968 when the Production Code was in force. Every film made and released between 1930 and 1934 is technically Pre-Code, though that moniker is usually reserved for films like The Story of Temple Drake (1933), meaning that its subject matter would not be dealt with at all or not dealt with in the same way after 1934.

The Code, which was Hollywood’s attempt at self-censorship, grew out of what were seen by some as excesses on the screen, in dealing with topics like sex and violence, as well as off the screen scandals that popped up in the film community. Perhaps the two best known are the murder of film director William Desmond Taylor and the charges of rape leveled, but never proven, at Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in the death of actress Virginia Rappe.

Just as Major League Baseball had set up the office of Commissioner to right its image following the Black Sox scandal in 1919, Hollywood turned to Will Hays, former Postmaster General, to guide it. With pressure from state censorship boards and the Catholic Legion of Decency, Hollywood adopted a code by which the studios agreed to subjects and situations their films would and would not deal with.

Hays was brought in to head the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, the precursor to today’s MPAA, in March 1922. He spent the majority of his time trying to convince state censorship boards not to ban or censor Hollywood movies. At that time, the states required the studios to pay the censor boards for each foot of film excised and for each title card edited. Add to that, studios also had the expense of duplicating and distributing separate versions of each censored film for the state or states that adhered to a particular board's decisions.

The original code, or what Hays called "The Don'ts and Be Carefuls," was written to reduce the likelihood cuts would be required, since each board kept their standards a secret. Hays’ set of guidelines did reduce the calls for the Federal government to get involved.

The Production Code was actually written in 1929 by Catholic bishops and lay people, including Joseph Breen, and presented to Hays, who was enthusiastic about it. However, the studio heads were not. From 1930 to 1934, they worked under the Code, but largely ignored it, that is until Breen was brought in as its enforcer. Films like The Story of Temple Drake led to the code's enforcement.

The novel the film is based on, Sanctuary, was one of the first novels that established William Faulkner as a great American novelist. Controversial because it dealt with the subject of rape, it was considered his commercial and critical breakthrough as an author.


Sanctuary by William Faulkner. A book the Hays Office didn't think should be made into a movie.

Making a movie about such a book was not without controversy. George Raft, an actor who turned down more parts than anyone I’ve heard of, refused to play the role of Trigger (Popeye in the novel). Paramount suspended him for his refusal.

And of course, the Hays Office had its problems with making such a novel into a movie. Joseph I. Breen, who was in charge of public relations for the Hays Office, admitted in a memo dated March 17, 1933 that he had not read the novel but was convinced that people would say that the filmmakers had adapted for the screen "the vilest book of the present years." Any reference to the book was forbade in advertising for the movie.

After a preview screening, the Hays Office gave a list to Paramount of cuts it wanted made, but more about those later.

In the film, Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins) is the granddaughter of Judge Drake (Sir Guy Standing) in the Southern city of Dixon. No exact location is ever given, but the novel takes place in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi.


Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins) comes home late and runs into her grandfather, Judge Drake (Sir Guy Standing).

Temple is a wild child who teases men, but does not sleep with them. Despite that, reputable lawyer Stephen Benbow (William Gargan) is in love with her and asks her to marry him. But Temple thinks Stephen is too serious and turns him down.

She would rather cavort with other suitors, including Toddy Gown (William Collier, Jr.), who’s preoccupation with Temple is only surpassed by his love of drink. When Temple and Toddy arrive at a party, she ends up dancing with Stephen, who gets too serious on her again. In order to escape, she asks Toddy to take her someplace and he has liquor on his breath and on his mind.

Toddy Gown (William Collier, Jr.) thinks he's on top of the world.

Speeding through the country roads, it isn’t long before Toddy crashes the car. In these pre-seatbelt/air bag days, the couple is thrown from the car, but except for a cut on his head, they both don’t seem worse for wear. A tough bootlegger named Trigger (Jack La Rue) and his simple-minded sidekick, Tommy (James Eagles), are the first to find them and Trigger tells Tommy to take them back to a nearby speakeasy run by Lee Goodwin (Irving Pichel), which is in a dilapidated southern mansion.

Tommy (James Eagles) leads Temple and Toddy to a speakeasy after their accident.

Temple doesn’t want to go, but she has no choice. A thunderstorm is brewing. When they get to the house, she doesn’t want to go in; the room is full of men, which now includes Toddy, who are sitting around getting drunker by the minute. But it starts to rain and she eventually comes in through the kitchen, hoping the woman of the house, Ruby Lemarr (Florence Eldridge), will be more sympathetic to her plight. She isn’t.


Unhappy with her predicament, Temple turns to Ruby (Florence Eldridge) for sympathy, but her pleas fall on deaf ears.

Temple, being the only single woman in a room of men, is manhandled. When Toddy tries to defend her honor, he is knocked out unconscious, leaving Lee to defend her. Ruby takes some pity on Temple, who is in over her head, and takes her upstairs to one of the bedrooms where she can get out of her wet clothes.

The men have to make a pre-dawn delivery to the city, but still have time to try and put the moves on Temple. It takes shotgun wielding Tommy to keep them at bay. Trigger insists on taking Toddy with them, but is as insistent that Temple stay there.

Feeling that she might be safer out in the barn, Ruby moves her in the night. Even with Tommy sitting by the door, shotgun across his lap, she has a hard time getting to sleep. The next morning and the men are back from their delivery in the city and Temple is still out in the barn.

Trigger returns and, sneaking through the haylofts, gets around Tommy’s protection. However, Tommy hears him and does check on what’s going on. Trigger shoots him for his troubles and then rapes Temple.


The rape of Temple by Trigger (Jack La Rue) as shown in the film.

But the torment doesn’t stop there. Trigger takes Temple with him to the big city to Miss Reba’s (Jobyna Howland) place, a brothel where he has a room. He tells Temple she’s free to leave, but he doesn’t let her. The time Trigger and Temple are at Miss Reba’s is left vague. It could have been a matter of days or it could have been weeks. We’re spared the details, but they are there quite a while as she gets new clothes and doesn’t try to escape, no doubt feeling that her reputation was ruined forever and she couldn’t go home.

You can argue Temple goes away with Trigger willingly, but
 when given a chance to attempt an escape, she does nothing.

Judge Drake, who doesn’t know Temple’s true nature, plants a story in the press that she’s visiting relatives in Pennsylvania. Toddy, who wakes up in a Dixon warehouse the morning following the storm, skips town.

And they might have stayed hidden from sight, except for the murder of Tommy. Lee is charged with the crime and Stephen is assigned to defend him. But Lee is afraid of Trigger and won’t talk. He is doomed to be convicted, but Ruby offers that Trigger and some girl were there that night. She suggests Trigger might be at Miss Reba’s and Stephen, armed with a subpoena, goes looking for Trigger.

He bluffs his way into the house and enters Trigger’s room where he is shocked to find Temple. Stephen is prepared to fight for her honor, but unbeknownst to him, Trigger has a gun on him. Seeing Trigger going for his revolver, Temple intercedes. She tells Stephen that she is there on her own will and is in love with Trigger. Stephen doesn’t like what he hears, but he leaves.


Temple does her best to convince Stephen (William Gargan) that she's happy in her life with Trigger.

Trigger is fooled by Temple’s play and is surprised when she is preparing to leave him. But Trigger isn’t done with Temple and throws her down on the bed. Unfortunately for him, it’s right on top of his gun. Temple shoots and kills Trigger. Temple manages to avoid detection and sneaks out of Miss Reba’s, hails a cab and is driven the 100 plus miles back to her hometown of Dixon.

Meanwhile, Stephen is trying to defend Lee, who still refuses to speak on his own defense. During a brief recess, Stephen is confronted by Judge Drake, who doesn’t want Temple to have to testify. Temple tries to convince Stephen not to call her by telling him what she’ll have to confess to in the trial, including the murder of Trigger. But Stephen feels compelled by his duties to call her.

But when she’s in the witness stand, his love for her prevents him from questioning her, knowing that it will lead to ruin, and dismisses her as a witness. Suddenly Temple, knowing right and wrong, confesses about all that has happened to her, including being witness to Tommy's murder, being raped by Trigger and finally her killing Trigger to get away.


Stephen can't bring himself to question Temple when she appears on the witness stand.

After she’s said everything, she faints. Stephen picks her up and carries her out of the courtroom, telling Judge Drake that he should be proud of her because he is.

The Hays Office had already pronounced their concerns about making Sanctuary into a movie and even things in the film that hinted at some of the action in the novel had to be changed after Previews. In the book, Popeye, the rapist, uses a corncob to violate Temple. In the original version, there were shots in which a corncob was picked up and looked at following the rape scene. The location of the rape was moved from a corn crib to the barn and no mention of corncobs or references to corncobs or corn cribs were allowed.

A shot of the hat rack at Miss Reba’s filled with men’s hats was also cut from the film, in an effort to keep it from too obviously being a house of prostitution. Also cut was Miss Reba’s line “I got some of the biggest people in town right here in this house spending their money like water” and "Just got back from church myself." Reba’s use of the word chippie (slang of the day for a young woman of low moral character) was covered up with a clap of thunder.

Likewise a line of Ruby’s that she could pay "Lee's" lawyer with sexual favors was also cut from the final film.

There was even some disagreement about handling Temple’s testimony on the witness stand. The matter of how long she was at Miss Reba’s had to be dealt with somehow. Originally, in her confession she states "No, I wasn't a prisoner" was excised. Instead, when she admits she stayed at Miss Reba's place, the judge interjects, "a prisoner, you mean," and her response is an ambiguous stare.

An epilogue showing Temple doing welfare work in China was suggested, but the Hays Office rejected the idea, insisting she not be shown working as a missionary and feeling it is obvious she is not a fugitive from justice.

The success of the film depends on the performance of Miriam Hopkins. While I’m not all that familiar with her work, she shows a wide range as Temple goes from being a vivacious tease to a Stockholm syndrome survivor. After her rape, Temple seems to succumb to Trigger’s will. While it might be argued if she is willingly going away with Trigger, the fact that she makes no effort to escape shows that the spark in Temple is gone.

Temple does get out from under Trigger’s influence, but only by committing a murder she will apparently not be tried for. Killing someone is something that the pre-rape Temple wouldn’t have been capable of doing.

Hopkins began making films in 1930, debuting in Fast and Loose. The following year, in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Hopkins played a prostitute, Ivy Pearson, and even though her part was eventually cut down to five minutes of screen time, she still received rave reviews. Her big break came in Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932) in which she plays a beautiful and jealous pickpocket, Lily.

She is somewhat known for her Pre-code films, like The Story of Temple Drake and Design for Living (1933), her third and final film with Lubitsch directing. In that film, she is supposedly engaged in a menage a trois with Fredric March and Gary Cooper. Hopkins was approached about, but turned down, the role of Ellie Andrews in It Happened One Night (1934).

An actress known for her versatility, Hopkins would appear in Virginia City (1940) with Errol Flynn, The Heiress (1949), The Children’s Hour (1961) and The Chase (1966), in which she played Robert Redford’s mother. Her final film was Savage Intruder (1970). She would die of a heart attack in 1972.

Jack La Rue was a Broadway actor who was discovered by Howard Hawks. Brought to Hollywood to play a gangster in Scarface (1932), a role he lost to George Raft, he was similarly replaced by Humphrey Bogart in the film version of The Petrified Forest (1936). A poor man’s Bogart, La Rue would never achieve the fame of the actor he was sometimes confused for. He did have a long career appearing in A Farewell to Arms (1932), 42nd Street (1933), Captains Courageous (1937) and The Sea Hawk (1940). He was the narrator for the television versions of Lights Out for 32 episodes in 1949-50. His last film was Paesano: A Voice in the Night (1977).

La Rue’s Trigger represents the dark side of the pseudo-Bogart persona he evokes. But Bogart never played a character like Trigger. He may have played gangsters in many, many films, he may have been a murderer, but he never portrayed a rapist. This is a thankless role and La Rue does his best with it.

The other characters don’t carry as much weight, so to speak, but two are worth noting. William Gargan, who portrays Stephen Benbow, had been in films since 1929’s Lucky Boy and had appeared in Rain (1932) and would appear in films throughout the 1930’s and 40’s. Later, Gargan would find some success on television in the Martin Kane, Private Eye and The New Adventures of Martin Kane, which ran for 39 episodes in 1957-58.

Sir Guy Standing, who portrays Temple’s grandfather, Judge Drake, served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve throughout the First World War and reached the rank of Knight Commander (KBE) in 1919. After becoming a stage actor in Britain and the US he moved to Hollywood in 1933 under contract to Paramount Pictures. The Story of Temple Drake was his first of about 18 films. His last role was in Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937). He would die from a heart attack after being bitten by a rattlesnake while hiking in the Hollywood Hills.

As with the book, rape is at the center of the controversy surrounding the film. While I haven’t read Sanctuary, the rape in it is supposedly depicted in much more brutal terms, committed with a corn cob. Still, in the movie, Temple Drake’s rape, at the hands of Trigger, is portrayed in some ways as her comeuppance for having wielded the promise of sex to get what she wants from the boys in her life. That all works until she comes across Trigger; he is not a boy, but a man who doesn’t take no for answer. He takes what he wants.

His murder is presented as Temple’s only means to escape his negative influence on her. With Stephen complicity, she seems destined to escape punishment for the crime, something else censors within and outside the industry would have problems with. I’ve read reports that The Story of Temple Drake is responsible for the enforcement of the 1930 Production Code, since the film proves that the studios couldn’t be trusted to police themselves.

Fast paced, so much of the action is not depicted, but is rather inferred. The audience has to fill in the gaps the movie leaves, but it makes it easy to connect the dots. In the end, the film is really more of a character study than a morality play. We don’t see anything that wouldn’t appear on television today, granted on cable, but there is nothing on the screen that most people would consider obscene by today’s standards.


My interest in the film is based on the fact the title is frequently mentioned when Pre-Code films are discussed. I knew about its notoriety going in, which is one of the reasons I wanted to watch it. I also knew not to expect a 1930s version of something I’d see on Showtime or Netflix, but I was a little surprised at how tame it really looked when all was said and done.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Stubs – The Birth of a Nation (1915)


The Birth of a Nation aka The Clansman (1915) Starring: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry Waithall, Miriam Cooper, Mary Alden. Directed by D.W. Griffith. Screenplay by Frank E. Woods (Scenario), Story arranged by D.W. Griffith. Based on the novel The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan by Thomas Dixon (New York, 1905) and his play of the same name (New York, 8 Jan 1906). Produced by D.W. Griffith. Run Time: 190 minutes original release. (187 minutes as viewed) U.S.  Black and White. Silent, Drama, Melodrama

In 2013, Trophy Unlocked celebrated the 100th anniversary of the production of the first feature film made in Hollywood, The Squaw Man (1914). In 2014, the centennial of the start of Charlie Chaplin's career with Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914) and the release of the first feature length Hollywood comedy: Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914).

For 2015, we look back at one of the most controversial films ever made on the 100th anniversary of its release, The Birth of a Nation (1915). The film went into wide release on February 8, 1915.

If you only know the name D.W. Griffith from this film, you’re missing out on a lot. He was a major film director and is arguably one of the most influential filmmakers ever. He first became interested in writing for films and in 1907 brought a script to Edwin Porter, then a producer at Edison Studios. Though he turned down the script, Porter offered Griffith a role in the film Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest (1908). Griffith later took a job as an actor at the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, commonly known simply as Biograph. When the studio’s main director, Wallace McCutcheon grew ill and his son wasn’t able to fill his shoes, Biograph offered the job to the then 33 year old Griffith.

Griffith directed his first film The Adventures of Dollie (1908), a 12-minute short, and he would direct a total of 49 more before the end of the year. In 1909. he would direct nearly 150 and in 1910 about 100 more, including the first film shot in Hollywood, In Old California (1910). You could say he was the first filmmaker to see the advantages of shooting there. During his career at Biograph, Griffith would direct some very influential films, including The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), a 17-minute short that is credited not only as the first gangster film, but also for its use of follow focus.

But Griffith wanted to make longer films. He made one of the first feature films shot in the U.S., Judith of Bethulia (1914), but Biograph wasn’t really interested in long movies and their higher production costs, so Griffith left. Though the film was completed in 1913, Biograph delayed its release so they wouldn’t have to pay Griffith profit-sharing.

With his stock company of actors, which included Lillian Gish, Griffith formed Reliance-Majestic Studios with Harry Aiken, who had been the manager at Majestic. Reliance-Majestic was an autonomous unit under the Triangle Film Corporation, which included Thomas Ince and Keystone’s Mack Sennett. Triangle’s films were distributed through the Mutual Film Corporation. Griffith also took over Kinemacolor, a company with an early color-film process. Part of what he got with the Kinemacolor takeover were the rights to make a film based on Thomas Dixon, Jr.’s novels The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots and the play written by Dixon based on them, The Clansman.

The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Klu Klux Klan, published in 1905, was the second book in a trilogy Dixon wrote about the KKK, which included The Leopard’s Spot (1902) and The Traitor (1907). The trilogy was written by Dixon as a message to Northerners to maintain racial segregation and was also credited with a revival of support for the KKK.The Klan was known for their violence against African-Americans during Reconstruction, following the Civil War.

Griffith, who was a Southern by birth and whose father fought for the Confederacy, has been labelled a racist for making the film. However, Griffith never espoused a belief in segregation or support for the Klan as anything more than an historical relic. According to Bret Wood, who produced the Griffith set for Kino, the director chose stories not for their political content but for their potential to thrill audiences.1 Wood also pointed out that a few years before making Birth of Nation, Griffith made the short, The Rose of Kentucky (1911), in which the Klan is shown as evil, attacking a white plantation owner who refuses to join their ranks. [I have no insights into Griffith's political beliefs and am not trying to support what may be perceived as his personal racist views.]

The cost of buying the film rights to the book, $10,000, was more than Griffith had. He could only afford $2,500. In exchange for money, Griffith gave Dixon a 25% interest in the picture. Even though Dixon was reluctant, his share in the runaway hit made him a very rich man as he earned several million dollars as a result.

Despite the scale of the film, Griffith’s budget was surprisingly small. It started at $40,000, less than a million in today’s dollars, but ended up at $112,000, which is equivalent to $2.1 million today. As a result, Griffith had to find additional capital for his film.

To hide the size of the budget, Griffith used smoke and explosions to hide the gaps in the battlefield scenes, for the Battle of Petersburg, which were shot in the San Fernando Valley, near where the current Universal Studios now stands. He also used a relatively small number of camera set ups, which also saved on costs. I’ve also read that some costumes were actual surplus uniforms from the War itself.

As a director, Griffith, who had been an actor himself, was known for treating each actor differently, giving them as much instruction as they needed. Griffith believed in rehearsals and camera tests prior to actually filming a scene. With an actress like Lillian Gish, with whom Griffith had worked with for several years, he gave her free rein to develop her character. With someone like Mae Marsh, he supposedly fed her each gesture throughout a scene.

The Birth of a Nation is told in two parts that were originally separated by an intermission, as this film was considered long in its day.

Prior to the start of the film, there is an introductory title card calling for "A Plea for the Art of the Motion Picture." This was added to the film during it's second run by Griffith, added due to controversy and protests over the film's subject matter and political point of view. This title card does not appear on prints from the first run of the film.

                                                                                                                                
Part 1: Civil War of United States

We are introduced to two families, the Northern abolitionist, Stonemans, led by Congressman Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), based on Congressman Thaddeus Stevens. Stoneman has a daughter, Elsie (Lillian Gish), and two sons, Tod (Robert Harron) and Phil (Elmer Clifton).

Juxtaposed to them are the Camerons, who live on their Piedmont, South Carolina cotton plantation with slaves. Dr. Cameron (Spottiswoode Aitken) and Mrs. Cameron (Josephine Crowell) have two daughters, Flora (Mae Marsh) and Margaret (Miriam Cooper), and three sons, Ben (Henry B. Walthall), Wade (George Beranger) and Duke (Maxfield Stanley).

Despite their being opposites on the political spectrum, the families are old friends. The Stoneman brothers got to visit the Camerons on the verge of the War. Phil falls in love with Margaret, while Ben falls in love with a photo he finds of Elsie Stoneman. Tod and Duke are shown to be “chums”.

Northern abolitionists meet Southern slave owners when
Austin Stoneman's sons (l) visit the Cameron family (r)

While the film strives for historical recreations, or what the title cards call historical facsimilies, the war is played out largely off screen. We see President Abraham Lincoln signing a proclamation calling for 75,000 volunteers, but we don’t see much combat right away.

Following Bull Run, there is a ball held in Piedmont on the night prior to its young men joining the Confederate Army. Bonfires are lit outside as well. The Stoneman boys also join the army on the Union side.

The film then skips ahead two and a half years. By then, the tide has turned against the South. A black militia, under the leadership of a white Union officer, ransacks the Cameron house, taking or destroying anything of value they find and even setting the house on fire. The Cameron women, who are hiding in a basement, are rescued when Confederate soldiers arrive and rout the militia.

As the war continues, the younger Stoneman son and two of the Cameron brothers are killed in the war. Tod and Duke, who are reunited on the battlefield, die next to one another.

Pre-war "chums", Tod Stoneman (Robert Harron) and Duke Cameron
(Maxfield Stanley), die side by side on the battlefield.

Ben, who earns the nickname “The Little Colonel” after leading a heroic charge at the Battle of Petersburg, is wounded.

Ben (Henry B. Whathall), nicknamed "the Little Colonel", leads his men in the Battle of Petersburg.

This is the one battle that is shown in the film, as a representation of all battles. The action goes off to the horizon and is quite impressive with its scale.

The epic sweep of the Battle of Petersburg. Smoke is used to mask the number of combatants.

Meanwhile, Elsie Stoneman has started working as a nurse and Ben ends up under her care. While he’s recovering, Ben is told that he will be hanged for being a Confederate guerilla. Ben’s mother, who travels to Washington D.C. to tend to her son, is taken by Elsie to see President Lincoln, whom she persuades to pardon Ben. When Ben does return home later in the film, Piedmont is a ghost town.

Ben's mother (Josephine Crowell) pleads her son's amnesty
with President Abraham Lincoln (Joseph Hensbery).

There are a couple of other historical facsimilies in Part 1, including Lee’s surrender at the Appomattax Court House, with General Grant played by Howard Gaye and Lee by Donald Crisp.

Following this is the assassination of Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. This is the longest of the facsimiles and the most detailed. John Wilkes Booth (Raoul Walsh) waits for the opportunity and bursts into the President’s box and shoots him before leaping to the stage below. All of this is witnessed by Elsie and her brother who are attending the play, Our American Cousin.

John Wilkes Booth (Raoul Walsh) about to assassinate President Lincoln in The Birth of a Nation.

With the President, who had been willing to welcome the South back into the fold, now dead, radical congressmen, like Austin Stoneman, become determined to punish the South. Setting us up for Part 2.

One thing I noticed during Part 1 is Griffith’s use of title cards. While in many silent films they are used to fill in for the dialogue we would expect to hear, Griffith uses them almost exclusively to set up a scene or a historical fact, but the dialogue between characters is rarely spelled out, only inferred. Since no one ever addresses anyone by name, it makes it somewhat difficult to know character names.

The battle scene, which the film is known for, is spectacular, especially given the depth of field, which some combatants hundreds of yards away from the camera set up and out of ear shot of Griffith. To get around this, Griffith employed assistant directors who were down in the trenches, directing their small groups of actors, the way a commanding officer might the troops in his charge.

There is another similar shot of Sherman’s Army marching through the South. You can see the long columns of soldiers with the house they’ve set on fire to one side and the family they’ve displaced watching from high up the hill helpless on the other.

Tinted film is used, and it really depends on the state of restoration of the version you watch as to how much is seen. While I know that the tinting is used for effect, blue for night and red for fire, I think the use obfuscates the film images and doesn’t really seem necessary to the film, though I’m sure there was an effect Griffith was going for.

The film uses tinting, such as blue for night. Depending on the quality of the print, this tinting can obfuscate the visuals.

The pacing is slow, especially by modern standards. Takes are longer and without words, the actors have to be more exaggerated physically. It’s hard to judge acting from this era, as they are most likely performing what was expected at the time, but what we view now as melodramatic and overacting. But you can see a real difference in a relatively restrained performance by Lillian Gish and a more exaggerated one from Mae Marsh.

Blacks in the South are depicted as being relatively happy with their lives as slaves. When the Stoneman’s come to visit the Camerons, the slaves are shown dancing and when the Piedmont boys join the Confederate Army, the slaves are there cheering them on. While I can’t say for sure, many if not all the blacks depicted in the film are really white actors in blackface makeup.

Part 2: Reconstruction

With Lincoln dead, there is a power vacuum in Washington D.C. and Stoneman steps in. He sends his mulatto protégé Silas Lynch (George Siegmann in blackface) ahead and Lynch sets up operations in Piedmont. We’re shown how much things have changed as black occupation soldiers parading through the streets and pushing white residents, like the Camerons, aside on the sidewalks. Lynch makes a point of confronting Ben, who is momentarily prevented from leaving his own house by passing soldiers, telling him pointedly that the black soldiers have as much rights as he does. Ben will not forgive nor forget this.


Silas Lynch (George Siegmann) being introduced to Ben by Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis).
 Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) looks on as Ben refuses to shake Lynch's hand.

Health concerns send Stoneman south as well and he heads to South Carolina in 1871 to observe the implementation of Reconstruction firsthand. He makes the Cameron’s home his headquarters. With the Camerons and Stonemans reunited, the cross family love affairs can be rekindled. However, the scars of the War still cause problems. Margaret especially has trouble as she recalls how Northern soldiers killed her brother, causing her to physically and emotionally pull away from Phil Stoneman.

Margaret Cameron (Miriam Cooper) is traumatized by
the death of her brother at the hands of Northern soldiers.

In Piedmont, at the next election, white voters are disenfranchised, while blacks are shown stuffing the ballot boxes. Lynch wins election as the state’s Lieutenant Governor. Those blacks who did not vote the party line are whipped by other blacks and sympathizers shot when they interfere. The new state legislature has a majority of blacks and members are shown putting their bare feet on the desks, drinking on the floor, and eating peanuts and fried chicken during sessions.

Newly elected black legislators are shown in a negative light:
 eating chicken and putting their bare feet on the desks while in session

The newly elected legislature passes laws requiring white civilians to salute black soldiers and allowing mixed-race marriages, stoking the worst fears of white Southerners of the time. We see Ben discussing things with other whites in the Cameron home and telling stories that make it sound like blacks are going to run things into the ground.

When Ben sees some white children scaring off black children with a white sheet and pretending to be ghosts, he gets the idea of forming the Ku Klux Klan. When Elsie finds out about Ben's plans, she breaks off her relationship with Ben out of loyalty to her father.

Even though there are warnings for whites to stay inside, Flora goes off alone to fetch water. Following her is Gus (Walter Long, in blackface), a freed slave and now in the Army. He’s attracted to her and confronts her about his desire to get married. Flora flees further into the forest and Gus pursues her to a precipice. Flora warns Gus she’ll jump if he comes any closer. When he does, rather than give into him, Flora leaps.

Flora (Mae Marsh) leaps to her death to escape the sexual advances of freed slave Gus.

She doesn’t die right away and is found by her brother Ben, who has been looking for her and has seen her jump. She dies in his arms and presumably tells him why she leapt. He carries her body back to the Cameron house and then gathers the Klan to hunt down Gus. The Klan puts him on trial, finds him guilty and lynches him. They then dump his dead body on the steps of Lt. Governor Lynch’s house where it is discovered the next morning.


Gus (Walter Long) is hunted down, tried and lynched by the KKK for acts leading to Flora's death.

Lynch then orders a crackdown on the Klan and even having the costume is punishable by death. When Ben’s is discovered in Dr. Cameron’ house, the father is arrested. But Ben and their faithful black servants rescue him, and flee. However, their wagon breaks down and they’re forced to continue on foot through the woods, taking refuge in a small hut which is home to two sympathetic former Union soldiers. The former enemies agree to hide them and as the title card states, "The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright."

Congressman Stoneman leaves town to avoid being connected with Lynch's crackdown. Elsie, learning of Dr. Cameron's arrest, waits anxiously for her father to return. When he’s late, she goes to Lynch for help. Lynch, who had been lusting after Elsie since first seeing her, tells her that he wants to marry her. He is forceful and Elsie faints. Stoneman returns, causing Lynch to place Elsie in another room. At first, Stoneman is happy when Lynch tells him he wants to marry a white woman, but is then angered when Lynch tells him that it is Stoneman's own daughter.

Elsie screams for help when Lynch tries to force her to marry him.

Undercover Klansmen spies, wearing blackface naturally, discover Elsie's plight when she breaks a window and cries out for help. Elsie falls unconscious again, and revives gagged and bound. The clans gather together and, at full strength under Ben’s leadership, ride into Piedmont to regain control of the town. When news about Elsie reaches Ben, he and others rescue her and capture Lynch. The victorious Klansmen celebrate in the streets of Piedmont.

Clansmen ride into Piedmont and take control of the town.

Meanwhile, Lynch's militia surrounds and attacks the hut where the Camerons are hiding. The Klansmen, once again led by Ben, race to the scene and save the Camerons just in the nick of time.

Elsie finds out that her savior is Ben in the robes of the KKK.

On the next election day, with the Klansmen in charge, blacks are intimidated into not voting.

The film concludes with the double honeymoon of Phil Stoneman and Margaret Cameron and of Ben Cameron and Elsie Stoneman. In parallel, the masses are shown oppressed by a giant warlike figure who gradually fades away. The scene then shifts to another group finding peace under the image of Jesus Christ. The title card rhetorically asks: "Dare we dream of a golden day when the bestial War shall rule no more? But instead-the gentle Prince in the Hall of Brotherly Love in the City of Peace."

While the depiction of blacks as happy and content slaves was bad enough in Part 1, their stereotypical depiction in Part 2 is far worse. To boot, they’re shown as devious, sexually perverted and equated with evil. Easily led by Northern Carpetbaggers, like Lynch, the now freed slaves don’t seem to know what to do with their freedom.

The KKK is shown as being the great equalizer for Whites, as they literally ride to the rescue time and time again, dispensing their brand of justice. We’re led to believe that the KKK has God on their side, as they are the only ones who can bring peace to the troubled lands in the South.

While the South was being punished to a certain extent by the victorious North, the racist vigilante justice of the KKK is a black mark on U.S. History, the same as slavery was as well. In a nation that preaches equality, there is no place for racism nor bigotry and it is sad that such a monumental film would be seen to promote negative stereotypes and condone the travesties carried out by the Clan. It's hard not to watch the film and not be left with that impression. Again, Trophy Unlocked does not support the viewpoints expressed in the film.

Like Part 1, the pace of Part 2 is slow for modern aesthetics, as shots linger. Title cards are used more frequently for dialogue, but are still mostly there to set up scenes. Gish’s acting style is still relatively restrained, except when she realizes she’s in love with Ben and leaps around her room with glee.

The film was produced by David W. Griffith Corp., but distributed by Epoch Producing Co. In large cities Epoch would negotiate with individual theater owners for a percent of the ticket sales; in some cases, Epoch would sell off whole states or territories to a single distributor, known as states rights distribution. One such distributor, Louis B. Mayer, who controlled New England, would make enough that it would allow him to start making his own films and would lead eventually to the formation of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

Tickets went for about $2, which is equivalent to about $47 to $50 now. Calculating boxoffice is difficult given the distribution. Estimates are that the producer’s share was between $4.8 to $5 million. Since Epoch took about 10% of the ticket receipts and relied on theater owners, who often underreported, estimates of The Birth of a Nation’s box office for its initial run range from $50 to $60 million. The film was considered to be Hollywood’s biggest box-office champ film until Gone With the Wind (1939).

The film’s release, given the subject matter, was not without controversy. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) protested premieres in several cities. The NAACP asked for the film to be banned, but since most review boards were made up of whites, few initially blocked the film.

There were riots in cities like Boston and Philadelphia and the film was seen as causing white on black crimes, including a white man murdering a black teenager after viewing the movie in Lafayette, Indiana. The film was eventually banned in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

Dixon, the author of the source material, was a former classmate of President Woodrow Wilson and arranged for a screening at the White House, the first movie to be shown there. Dixon supposedly promoted a quote attributed to Wilson, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." When the controversy surrounding the film got too big to ignore, Wilson issued a statement that he disapproved of the “unfortunate production.”

The NAACP also used the film as a springboard for public education, pointing out many of the films inaccuracies and falsehoods about the War and Reconstruction.

[The film is still controversial to this day. A few years back, the then Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles tried to show The Birth of a Nation, but the screening was canceled due to protests.]

Griffith, who was hurt by the negative criticism, wrote letters to newspapers and published a pamphlet accusing critics of censoring unpopular opinions. He would make Intolerance (1916) as a reaction to the criticism he received. Several of the actors from The Birth of a Nation would also appear in Intolerance, including Walter Long and George Siegmann, white actors who had been made up to play black and mulatto characters. Thomas Dixon, who’s books and plays revived interest in the Klan, was not enthusiastic about the group's second era. He felt that, unlike the KKK of the Reconstruction era, the new KKK was bigoted. He also called anti-Semitism “Idiocy”. But on the other hand, he felt it was the duties of whites to "lift up and help the weaker races", so I wouldn't characterize him as a progressive thinker.

Dixon would write a sequel novel, The Fall of a Nation, in 1916 and direct the film version himself. The Fall of a Nation (1916), which is seen as an attack on the pacifism of Williams Jennings Bryan and Henry Ford, has America unprepared for an attack by the “European Confederate Army” led by Germany. The film is considered by many to be the first ever film sequel and was a commercial failure.

Lillian Gish, who played Elsie Stoneman, had a screen career that spanned 75 years from 1912 to 1987. As a child, she worked in her mother’s Majestic Candy Kitchen in East St. Louis, Illinois, where she sold candy and popcorn to patrons of the Majestic Theater next door. Even though she was living with her Aunt and Uncle in Massillion, Ohio at the time, when the theater burned down, the family moved to New York City. One of her good friends there was next door neighbor Gladys Smith. Smith was a child actress who was working with Griffith at the time. Lillian and her sister, Dorothy, would get the acting bug, get involved in the theater and tour in different plays.

Gladys, who would take the stage name Mary Pickford, introduced the sisters to Griffith in 1912 and he put them in a movie together, An Unseen Enemy (1912). After appearing in 25 shorts and features in her first two years as a film actress, Gish became a major star and was eventually known as "The First Lady of the Silent Screen". She would appear in many of Griffith’s major works including The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920) and Orphans of the Storm (1921).

Gish would later sign with Metro Pictures, which would become MGM, and starred in The White Sister (1923). She would appear in Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) as an uncredited extra and star in La Bohème (1926), The Scarlet Letter (1926), Annie Laurie (1927), The Enemy (1927) and The Wind (1928). When the latter was considered a flop, MGM dropped Gish.

She only made a few films in the 1930s before returning to the stage. She would be considered for several roles in Gone With the Wind, but not be selected. She would return and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Duel in the Sun (1946). She would also appear in Portrait of Jennie (1948), Night of the Hunter (1955) and A Wedding (1978), but would do a lot of work on television. Her last screen appearance was working with Bette Davis, Ann Sothern and Vincent Price in The Whales of August (1987).

As I wrote earlier, I find it hard to judge the acting of many silent movie stars. Their movements, especially in movies from this time period, always seem to be exaggerated as they use their whole bodies to express an idea or an emotion that would normally be communicated through words. That said, I must say I liked Lillian Gish. She’s cute and seems natural in front of the movie lens, especially in comparison with the other female lead, Mae Marsh.

Marsh also got her big break due to Mary Pickford. An actress at Biograph, Marsh appeared in small roles until Pickford, the studio’s resident star, refused to play the role of Lily-White in Man’s Genesis (1912). The role would call for Pickford to appear bare-legged and in a grass skirt. Griffith told her if she wouldn’t play Lily-White, she couldn’t star in his next film, The Sands of Dee (1912). The role of Lily-White and the subsequent lead in The Sands of Dee went to Marsh.

Working with both Mack Sennett and Griffith, Marsh appeared in nearly 60 films between 1912 and 1914. She would appear in both The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance before signing with Samuel Goldwyn, making $2500 a week. After she married Goldwyn’s publicity agent, Lee Arms, in 1918, her output decreased to about one film a year. Her last notable silent film, though, was for Griffith, The White Rose (1923). She would retire from films in 1928, but return to appear in Henry King’s Over the Hill (1931). She would also appear in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms (1932) and Little Man, What Now? (1934). Director John Ford liked Marsh and featured her in such films as The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), 3 Godfathers (1948), The Robe (1953), and The Searchers (1956).

If her performance in The Birth of a Nation is any indication, Marsh seems to be more of the stereotypical silent actress than Gish. Marsh’s Flora is hyper, kinetic and overly dramatic. Still she’s not out of line with the acting style of her time, it’s just that it wears thin after 100 years.

As a side note, three notable actors turned directors appear in The Birth of a Nation. John Ford (uncredited) appears as a Clansman in Part 2. Raoul Walsh, also uncredited, plays John Wilkes Booth in the historical recreation of Lincoln’s assassination. And finally, Jules White, who would later direct the Three Stooges in many of their Columbia Pictures shorts, also appears as a Confederate soldier.

While The Birth of a Nation tells a bigoted story, it is a very well made film for its time. Griffith was a very talented and influential film director, no matter what you may think of his political view or at least the view expressed in this film. I don’t know if this is how he really felt or has been suggested, he thought the Clansmen would simply make a good story. Technically, this is a very well made film by a director that not only understood the medium, but was also one of its pioneers and innovators. The fact that this is one of the few silent film titles most people have heard of, and is still controversial, shows the staying power of what Griffith created.

Now would I recommend this film? Honestly, if you’re really love films and more importantly, film history, you should see The Birth of a Nation at least once. Trophy Unlocked does not endorse the political viewpoint of the film, but technically, this is one of the standards by which other feature-length silent films at the time are judged. It is also a bit of a history lesson, not so much about the Civil War or Reconstruction, but more about what was considered popular entertainment 100 years ago. You can see how far we've come as a society that such overt racially insensitive messages, although they still exist, are no longer considered mainstream fare.

But like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935), in order to appreciate the technique of the director, you have to divorce the work from the subject matter. [Triumph of the Will is considered by some to be a masterpiece of film making, but also Nazi propaganda in much the same way as The Birth of a Nation is propaganda for the KKK.] If you can’t do this, then you should not watch the movie, as the politics expressed will no doubt upset you.


1 D.W. Griffith in Black and White by Bryan Curtis, Slate magazine: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/dvdextras/2003/01/dw_griffith_in_black_and_white.html