Poster for The Birth of a Nation
Hello, and you are very welcome to the third part of the article ‘The Birth of Era’ by the Great Silent Film actor Lillian Gish. I’m nearly a week late with it, but study called for a couple of Post-Grad Exams earlier this week and sure I’m back on top of things now. Anyway, this article has been a wonderful insight into the life of an actor, and indeed the crew, of one of the great silent film classics during the pioneering days of Hollywood. From little acorns like this grew the vast forest that is Hollywood and the film industry of the 21st century. I hope you enjoy this third part of this wonderful article. If you haven’t read the first two sections you can find them in the category ‘Friday Facts‘, which is on this WordPress website.
“The cameraman for The Birth of a Nation was Billy Bitzer, who, together with Mr. Griffith, was the inventor of the various new devices employed in the photography of the picture – devices never used before, and innovations in the art of motion-picture photography. Among us actors he was famous for his accurate eye, and he left his mark on everything his lens faced by bringing to accurate vision on the screen many things the eye itself could not discern. This was wonderful for battlefields, but most trying on faces. We used to beg for our close-ups to be taken just after dawn or before sunset, as the soft yellow glow was much easier to work in than the hard, overhead sun of midday.”
“Henry B. Walthall, or Wally, as he was affectionately called, came from Alabama, and was everything in life that his character of the Little Colonel was on the screen: patient, dear, and lovable, but with little idea of time. Consequently all during the filming of the picture there was a man hired for the sole purpose of getting him into make-up and to work on time, which in those days was around seven in the morning (that meant getting up at five and working steadily, sometimes without lunch, until sundown).”
The Birth of a Nation Scene
“Sometimes, while Griffith was making scenes we were not in, he would send us to practice walking, first with comedy, then with drama, with pathos, or with tragedy. When he was satisfied with that, we would have to learn to run in these different manners. Then we would have to do it with subtlety, for when the camera would be close to us, then broader, for when the camera would be in the distance (which would necessitate acrobatics); all this with complete body control and balance, as it might have to be done on a sea wall or on a mountain top. You had to know how to dance and handle horses, or if you didn’t, these had to be learned outside of studio hours.”
The Wind Machine on Overdrive
“It is very strange in those old pictures to watch the wind blowing through the rooms, when the property man had forgotten to tack down curtains, tablecloths, and such tell-tale properties.”
Some of The Birth of a Nation extras dressed up as Ghosts
“In The Birth of a Nation we used as many as six hundred people, and the complete cost of the picture was ninety-one thousand dollars. It was the first motion picture to run for two hours, and to be shown in a legitimate theatre twice a day at theatre prices. Its first run in New York was for forty-seven consecutive weeks at the Liberty Theatre. When it was shown in Boston it caused race riots and the firemen had to be called out in assisting the police in dispersing the mob.”
“Mr. Griffith had his reward, however, when President Wilson saw it at the White House and said: ‘It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.’ When this news flashed through the country, and it was learned that a mere motion picture had the power to stir feelings so deeply, The Birth of a Nation‘s reputation was made, and motion pictures took their place as an important part of daily life.”
And so, that’s that for another edition of Friday Facts. It’s quite a number of days late, but I’ll be back soon with another post of Friday Facts and you’ll never know what I could dig up. This has been a hugely interesting article by Lillian Gish, which was originally published back in 1937 in an old magazine called the State Magazine. I’ve learned an awful lot of what was life like on the early sets of Hollywood through this article and I hope to have some more interesting facts for you for next week. Also if you have any facts from the Silent Era you want to share with us, please drop us a line by filling out our Contact Us form, or just leave a message in the Comment field below. Bye for now … and that’s a Wrap!
Posted by Michael ‘Charlie’ McGee