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Some Thoughts on D. W. Griffith…and His Cavalry Charges

Orphans_of_the_Storm_(1921)_-_L_Gish_&_Schildkraut

Joseph Schildkraut and Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm

I’ve been watching a lot of D.W. Griffith recently – both his short films and feature length films – and it’s been bringing me to a greater appreciation of his artistry, if also a greater appreciation of his deep-seated racism.

The curious thing is that in many ways, D.W. Griffith is a humanitarian. He preaches healing between North and South in The Birth of a Nation (1915), bemoans the senseless death of war, expresses pity for both the poor persecuted by the rich and the aristocrats executed by the mobs in Orphans of the Storm (1921) and even manages to give the Native Americans in some of his short westerns – The Massacre and The Battle of Elderbush Gulch – genuine human emotions motivations for fighting the white settlers. His movies express a deep hatred of intolerance (one of his favorite themes) and a genuine desire for peace, all the while celebrating human endurance and heroism.

The trouble is that there is a very sharp and scary drop-off to that humanitarian sensibility. It does not extend to African Americans and his portrayal of Native Americans remains extremely stereotyped. And the reason is very simple. He does not regard African Americans as fully human in the same way as white Americans, which means there is not an inconsistency in his beliefs so much as there is a gaping hole in his conception of humanity.

This made watching Birth of a Nation a challenge. I knew it was going to be racist, but it was far more racist than I was expecting. I hadn’t realized how saturated the film would be in his vision of separation between African Americans and white Americans and the dangers of mixing.

It’s hard to defend the film, even from an open-minded perspective that allows for differing times.The whole point of the film is – apart from showing the tragedy of the Civil War and how it set friend against friend and lover against lover – that there is a gap between whites and blacks that should never be bridged. People often say that Griffith’s villains are interfering white do-gooders who want to raise the black man as an equal to the white man and stir up the ignorant and child-like blacks to discontentment with their natural place in life. But that’s an incomplete picture, because Griffith’s most villainous characters are actually two people who are half black and half white, people who are in-between, so to speak. In Griffith’s world, racial mixing makes for a dangerous blend of ambition and lack of true equality of mind and morals.

Even if Griffith hadn’t used actors in blackface, it still would have been a poisonous film.

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The KKK ride to the rescue…we were supposed to cheer, but it’s all a bit sickening

What makes Birth of a Nation such a bizarre film to watch today is that Griffith knows how to manipulate emotions and emotions are not always moved in conjunction with one’s mind. It is entirely possible to be emotionally moved and intellectually revolted. This is partly because Griffith imbues his film with so much genuine conviction, but also because our emotions are trained to respond to certain cues. Heroes riding down the street to rescue the damsel in distress, accompanied by stirring music? Our emotions experience a slight thrill. Our mind revolts. But there is something particularly spine-chilling about watching the KKK charge down the street, shooting black people and accompanied by “Ride of the Valkyries.” No wonder Hitler loved this film.

That ride of the cavalry to the rescue, juxtaposed with scenes of Lillian Gish and others in peril was a quintessential moment for Griffith, one I’m beginning to realize he could pull off in his sleep. I’m sure he didn’t invent the “cavalry riding to the rescue” cliche, but nobody executed it better than Griffith.

In two short films  – The Massacre (1912) and The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913) – he also employs the charge of the cavalry to the rescue of a beleaguered band of people fending off attacks from Native Americans. You can also see Griffith working out his battle sequences, which are brilliantly in evidence in Birth of a NationThe Battle of Elderbush Gulch in particular seems like a warm up for the end of Birth of a Nation. There is even the tiny shack that is shown from a distance to be entirely surrounded by enemies (Native Americans in the short film, black Americans in Birth of a Nation). He must have liked the imagery so much that he reused it.

At least in The Battle of Elderbush Gulch and The Massacre he gives the Native Americans plausible motivations for what they are doing, rather than just having been children stirred up by evil men. In The Massacre, the army preemptively attacks a Native American village and massacres everyone, including the chief’s wife and baby. In turn, he attacks a wagon train and slaughters nearly everyone…until the cavalry arrives.

the small cabin under attack

the small cabin under attack – looking very similar to scenes in Birth of a Nation

In The Battle of Elderbush Gulch, his caricature of Native Americans is rather more stereotypical, but even they are reacting to the death of the chief’s son in what seems to have been a serious misunderstanding. For a short film, The Battle of Elderbush Gulch appears like a clear precursor to Birth of a Nation. Not only the imagery of the cabin, but also much of the cast – Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry Walthall, Robert Harron. Mae Marsh is the star of the short film and I liked her quite a bit more in this one than I did in Birth of a Nation, where she seemed flighty. In The Battle of Elderbush Gulch she is brave, pro-active and and clever. If she’d been more like that in Birth of a Nation, she wouldn’t have jumped off the cliff when pursued by a black soldier who was proposing marriage.

And then of course there is the inevitable ride of the cavalry to the rescue. Seriously, these kind of nail-biting finales – imminent danger juxtaposed with the rescue on the way – is something Griffith seems to be able to pull off effortlessly at will. It’s been surprisingly to me how often he employs this method in his short films.

Griffith even manages to get horsemen riding to the rescue in Orphans of the Storm, which I did not think he was going to be able to achieve. Orphans of the Storm was far more enjoyable than either Birth of a Nation and even Intolerance. The racism isn’t a factor in the French Revolution and he doesn’t even preach as often. His history is still a mixed-bag; he’s wonderful at recreating details and the feel and look of a time-period, but less reliable at actual events and interpretation – he twists facts to fit his own particular agenda.

The film is a tremendous tour de force for Lillian Gish. She and her sister, Dorothy Gish, play adoptive sisters who venture to Paris, but their timing is terrible. Lilian Gish gets abducted by an aristocrat, rescued by an aristocrat, arrested by an aristocrat, rescued by the revolution, arrested by a revolutionary and finally rescued by a revolutionary. She gets into all sorts of trouble – as does her sister – and all she did was go to Paris.

Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm

Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm

Lillian Gish is incredible in the film, though. She’s timid and ferocious and heartbreaking…she’s one of the few actresses I’ve seen who can faint and appear vulnerable and yet still project strength and even though I knew that there was no way she would actually lose her head to the guillotine, I still felt totally invested in the rescue and in the touching reunion with her sister. That is powerful film making.

It’s impossible not to admire the scope of D.W. Griffith’s ambitions, achievements and convictions (well, some of them), just as it is impossible not to be shocked at his racism. He can be a difficult director to appreciate now – his racism, his sentimentality, his earnestness and his evident humanitarian vision (blinkered though it is) makes him confusing to us today. One is almost embarrassed to be watching films like Birth of a Nation, which is why I used to dismiss him. But the more I see his work the more I appreciate his inescapable place in film history and his consummate artistry.

 
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Posted by on July 25, 2016 in Movies

 

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Hollywood Musicals: The 101 Greatest Song-and-Dance Movies of All Time – Ken Bloom

downloadThe title Hollywood Musicals: The 101 Greatest Song-and-Dance Movies of All Time gives the wrong impression of this book. Although author Ken Bloom says he’s writing about the best movie musicals, I’m not sure that’s entirely what he’s doing. His selection is too idiosyncratic.The Muppet MovieBeach Blanket BingoSunny Side Up (1929)?

Many of the musicals he writes about do deserve to be considered the greatest, but he’s less interested in writing about what makes these musicals work and more interested in exploring the many facets of the movie musical and seems to have chosen his films to allow him to cover as many facets as possible. Dubbing. Adapting a successful Broadway show to the screen. Why studios interpolated songs from their own songwriters into already popular musicals. Disney musicals. Musical biopics. The differences between a slick MGM musical and an anarchic Paramount musical (think Judy Garland vehicles vs. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope movies). His coverage is far reaching: rock musicals, animated musicals, country musicals, even disco (Saturday Night Fever) and stop motion animated musicals (The Nightmare before Christmas).

If you are looking for plot synopses or behind-the scenes explanations about the making of musicals, this is not really the book to read. There are little bios of actors and also – a great strength – bios that highlight overlooked directors (Charles Walters), songwriters (Mack Gordon), musical arrangers (Kay Thompson) and choreographers (Michael Kidd). He also discusses the usual suspects, like Bob Fosse, Busby Berkeley and Rodgers and Hammerstein.

With each musical, Bloom takes the opportunity to discuss one topic. For example, for Pajama Game, he talks about when Hollywood replaces the stage actor who created the role  with a movie actor and the reasons behind this. One of the most notorious examples occurred when Ethel Merman was replaced with Rosalind Russell for Gypsy.  However, because Doris Day was a huge star – and a genuinely gifted musical star – no one complained when she replaced Janis Page. It seems to depend on how well it works out. Another example is Julie Andrews being replaced by Aubrey Hepburn (I’m not sure if people will ever get over that one).

The strength of the book (apart from the mini-bios and the fun behind-the-scenes pictures, often with actors making peculiar faces) are the little nuggets of observations about musicals (and other things) and what makes them work or not. Here are some that I found most intriguing.

download (1)Fantasy is not easy to do – this observation does not only pertain to musicals, but fantasy in general. He believes that one of the secrets of a good fantasy (like The Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) is that the people within the fantasy world must take their world absolutely seriously. There can be no winking at the audience, self-referential humor. The protagonist can find the world a little odd, but the people in it must notice nothing odd at all. Bloom actually believes the same thing about many comedy (he highlights farce).

He also believes that a good children’s fantasy (think Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Wizard of Oz) needs to have genuinely frightening villains. Otherwise, there is nothing at stake (he’s not a fan of funny villains from Shrek) and there’s no genuine tension.

Broadway musicals should not necessarily be adapted to the screen too reverently – this is a big pet peeve of his. He finds My Fair Lady far too static and reverential, like a museum piece. I kind of know what he means. There’s a spark missing from the movie that evidently was present on the stage, a liveliness and sense of fun. The film feels a bit stodgy to me.

The Music Man is another example of a film that seems to him too lifeless. His problem with the film version of The Music Man is a little different, however, than that with My Fair Lady. The main trouble, he believes, was that the movie was filmed like a stage play, unimaginatively and statically, often with the camera simply facing the action. He believes that a film director like Stanley Donen (who helped direct The Pajama Game) should have been brought in to help with the camera work and making the film more cinematic.

Bloom also mentions several musicals that he believes were better on film than on the stage, such as The Sound of Music and West Side Story. Apparently in West Side Story, several songs were shifted around and one song – “America” – was changed so that instead of just the girls singing, the boys join in, too.

Academy Award for Best Original Song has seriously gone down the tubes – it used to be that the song nominated for Best Original Song came from a musical and there were plenty of musicals to choose from. In the fifties, that began to change and more and more songs were sung during the opening credits. Now, the songs that win are often sung during the closing credits! Ah well…apparently there have been thoughts that this category should be removed, though I would be mildly surprised if they did any time soon.

63e282b70406b372d51ef4f13e79ae4aPeople actually got tired of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers! – this seems incredible. How could you ever get tired of those two? Nevertheless, it seems to have happened. Not just Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but eventually of musicals. In What The Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing, Brian Seibert wonders the same thing about tap dancing. Could people have simply been over-saturated with tap dancing after the fifties? After all, it was everywhere: stage, movies, even TV. Now, as Bloom points out, even many B musicals (though certainly not all) seem like “mini masterpieces” because of the professional know-how and talent that went into them, but they seem to have eventually wearied people.

Though not my grandmother. She didn’t leave musicals in the 1950s; musicals left her. They were her favorite genre (along with Hitchcock), but gradually there were less to see.

Many racist films were not meant to be racist – Many movies that contain racist material were actually trying to be progressive. There were several all-black musicals made (Cabin in the SkyStormy Weather) and given an A musical budget, but lack of understanding prevented them from fully ridding themselves of stereotypical portrayals and even cemented some.

But for me it is a reminder not to condescend to people with “benighted” views. It’s easier today not to be racist because it is not considered socially acceptable to be racist and it’s easier to rid ourselves of stereotypes because people of different ethnicities and backgrounds are much less segregated. Through the internet and social media and even movies and shows, we are less isolated in our own respective cultures. As Bloom pointed out, in the 1930s, most black and white people did not intermix socially. Now, we are even more familiar with how people live in other countries.

It’s doesn’t mean there isn’t racism today, but that it is easier not to be racist. However, at least these people were trying, even if they didn’t fully succeed (though there are numerous examples in films were people didn’t even try).

Here is a quote from Hal Johnson, a black musician and director who was asked by Cabin in the Sky’s associate producer to review the script for possible offensive material.

At the moment, the dialect in your script is a weird but a priceless conglomeration of pre-Civil War constructions mixed with up-to-the minute Harlem slang and heavily sprinkled with a type of verb which Amos and Andy purloined from Miller and Lyles, the Negro comedians: all adding up to a lingo which has never been heard nor spoken on land or sea by any human being, and would most certainly be “more than Greek” to the ignorant Georgia Negroes in your play.

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Musicals as spectacle – I’d like to end this post with a quote by Bloom that ticked my funny bone. He wrote this while discussing the seriously psychedelic The Gang’s All Here, with bananas, almost no plot, Carmen Miranda, Busby Berkeley and floating stars. Seriously, if you have not seen this one, you really should.

The great dramatic spectacles such as Ben-Hur, El Cid, and Lawrence of Arabia were astounding in their scope but they had to be, given their plot. Movies such as the 1997 Titanic may amaze us for their sheer scale but they do not provoke that perfect mixture of awe, astonishment, glee and guilty pleasure boasted by the spectacular movie musical of the past.

 
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Posted by on May 23, 2016 in Books

 

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She: A History of Adventure – H. Rider Haggard

sheWaiting 2,000 years for your reincarnated lover to appear? “Someday my prince will come?” Narrator Horace Holly calls it constancy. I call it delusion. It’s that kind of book and I couldn’t help filling my kindle with nearly a hundred notes expressing exasperation and disbelief.

But She: A History of Adventure, written by H. Rider Haggard (author of King Solomon’s Mines) in 1887, is considered one of the earliest examples of fantasy and a significant influence on later authors, such as J.R.R. Tolkien. The influence is palpable.

The book is narrated by Horace Holly, a Cambridge professor, recounting an adventure he had with his ward, Leo Vincey. As a child, Leo Vincey was entrusted to Holly by his father, who also gave him a box containing manuscripts recounting an incredible story of two people, Kallikrates and Amenartas, falling in love in ancient Egypt and fleeing to be with each other. But the couple encounters a mysterious, powerful and beautiful woman, who falls in love with Kallikrates. But when he stays true to his wife, she murders him in a fit of anger. Amenartas then charges her son to revenge himself on the woman and his descendants have been working on it ever since, with the project often mounting to obsession.

Leo Vincey, as it turns out, is the latest descendant and although he doesn’t quite believe the story, he and Holly, and their faithful servant Job, set out to find the mysterious woman out of curiosity.

The book begins a bit slowly, setting the scene. Holly, Leo and Job are shipwrecked off the coast of Africa and encounter a tribe of people called the Amahagger. The Amahagger have a unique custom where a woman can chose her spouse by simply coming up to him and kissing him and when a young woman named Ustane embraces Leo, he returns her embrace and so in the eyes of the tribe, they are now man and wife. But Holly and Leo hear about a mysterious woman who rules over the Amahagger from within a mountain: She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, or Ayesha. She sends for the strangers, but Leo is taken ill, so Holly is the first person to meet her.

Holly Meets Ayesha - illustration from 1887, by E. K. Johnson

Holly Meets Ayesha – illustration from 1887, by E. K. Johnson

Ayesha, as it turns out, is nearly 2000 years old and has been waiting nearly that length of time for Kallikrates to return to her reincarnated. She’s absolutely convinced of this and just as convinced that this time around he will love her. Why? Because she is surpassingly beautiful. Men just look at her and start to eat their heart out. It’s almost like a disease. She makes Helen of Troy look like a hag.

It turns out to be fortunate that she’s waiting for her reincarnated lover, though. Not only is she impossibly beautiful, but impossibly powerful. She can zap you with a look, is impossible to kill (at least that is what Holly suspects) and supposedly possesses the wisdom of the ages…as well as the ambition. She definitely harbors notions of ruling the earth, which she has not yet undertaken because she wants Kallikrates on the scene.

Leo, of course, turns out to be that lover, or at least that is what she declares when she sees him, but she somehow ends up spending all her time with Holly (because Leo is ill for a good portion of the story). As soon as she meets Holly, Ayesha starts info dumping. I guess she’s been alone too long. And Holly is eager to lap it up, especially because of his interest in lost civilizations and philosophy. He’s actually more eager than Leo, who is not exactly the brightest bulb on the block. Even after she meets Leo and claims him as her love, she still does most of her talking to Holly. Leo remains more of a pretty face than an intelligent companion.

She is leading Leo and Holly through a mountain and over a chasm to the flame that brings - not immortality - but very long life and extremely good looks - E.K. Johnson

She is leading Leo and Holly through a mountain and over a chasm to the flame that brings – not immortality – but very long life and extremely good looks – E.K. Johnson

Ayesha is convinced that she is living a cosmic romance where her love must inevitably be returned through the ages, but the romance is all in her head. She sees a pretty man, kills him when he rejects her and then waits 2,000 years for him to show up again, building a narrative of romance in her head all the while. Then when she meets him, she unveils her face and he inevitably falls in “love” with her. Right after Ayesha killed his wife, Ustane. It’s like she messes with men’s hormones without actually touching their soul. They become obsessed with her and Leo becomes rather like a zombie.

When Holly and Leo first meet She, she is described as evil, a combination of snakelike Satan and Eve, but as the story progresses, the two of them increasingly make excuses for her. She did it all for love, after all. The character I ended up liking the most was Ustane, who really loved Leo and stood up to Ayesha, even though she knew she could not win. And although Haggard possessed all the racist attitudes of his era, she still manages to have more dignity and generate more human sympathy than anyone else.

She is racist, as well as anti-Semitic (there are frequent references to them as “Christ killers”). Haggard seems to endorse a theory of evolutionary and racial degradation. In the beginning of time, there used to be pure races of people. There were the “pure” Arabians. Ayesha is supposed to be one of the original Arabians (she’s as white as Snow White), who have since become racially impure. Leo looks like an ancient Greek, who have since become debased, according to Holly. The Amahagger are supposed to be a debased race of people, part African and part Arab. Even Holly, that bastion of Britishness, is frequently described as looking like a baboon.

And then there is the lost civilization of Kor, the ultimate example of a great and pure race of people. They lived where Ayesha now dwells, having come and gone long before she ever came to the ruins of their land. It is this part of the story that most makes me think of J.R.R. Tolkien; the lost civilization narrative. Now there are empty caverns in the mountain (Moria, anybody?), with remarkably lifelike mummified remains still to be found. Like Galadriel, She has a magic pool (except She says there is no such thing as magic). There is even an inscription scrawled on the wall, detailing the demise of the people of Kor (a plague did them in). The writer is the last living person in the mountain and as I read about it, I half expected him to mention drums in the deep: “they are coming.”

She is about to meet her demise by bathing a second time in the flame - apparently you can't bath twice in it

She is about to meet her demise by bathing a second time in the flame – apparently you can’t bath twice in it – illistration by E.K. Johnson

It is an interesting book and there are many striking images Haggard creates with words. But Ayesha annoyed me greatly and I had trouble caring for anybody other than Ustane, who sadly dies halfway through the book. And the racism was a bit much. I can see why the location of the story was changed when it was adapted to film. The 1935 version sets it in Antarctica, presumably so it could sidestep the racial dynamics of the book (they also probably didn’t want to portray the inter-racial relationship of Ustane and Leo).

I was planning on reading King Solomon’s Mines, too, but I’m not sure this book exactly increased my desire to pursue Haggard’s novels further. I’ll have to see.

 
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Posted by on January 25, 2016 in Books

 

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