Friday Facts

The Birth of a NationThe Birth of a Nation Title

Hello and welcome back to Friday Facts. I’m currently looking through an article that was written by Lillian Gish in 1937, so here are some more extracts from the article The Birth of a Era by Lillian Gish from the State Magazine. The focus of this article was, if you remember based around the production of The Birth of a Nation and the experiences Lillian Gish had on the set with D. W. Griffith, amongst others.

Margaret Cameron in The Birth of a NaationMargaret Cameron in The Birth of a Nation

There was a standard call for rehearsal whenever there was rain or the sun disappeared, as at such times all cameras stopped, since it was before the days of artificial lights. During the rainy season there would be weeks of rehearsals, with Mr. Griffith outlining stories to be filmed far into the future. Some of them, including Faust and Joan of Arc, never reached the screen. We were rarely assigned parts, and the younger members of the company always rehearsed for the older members when the story was being developed, as all the ‘writing’ was done by Griffith as he moved groups of characters around a room.”

The Birth of a Nation Scene 1The Birth of a Nation Scene 1

When the story was ready to go before the camera, the older players who were to play the parts on the screen came forward and acted the parts they had been watching us rehearse for them. This method gave them the advantage of not being over-rehearsed, and also of watching the story quietly unfold before their eyes, giving them ideas that might have escaped had they not been kept fresh for the actual creation. It also taught the more inexperienced members what eventually would be expected of them.”

The Birth of a Nation Scene 2The Birth of a Nation Scene 2

At first I was not cast to play in The Clansman. My sister and I had been the last to join the company, and we naturally supposed, this being a big picture, that the main assignments would go to the older members. But one day while we were rehearsing the scene where the colored man picks up the northern girl gorilla-fashion, my hair, which was very blond, fell far below my waist, and Griffith, seeing the contrast in the two figures, assigned me to play Elsie Stoneman (who was to have been Mae Marsh). My sister, a child at the time, was to have played the girl of twelve, little sister to the Colonel.”

The Birth of a Nation Scene 3The Birth of a Nation Scene 3

Very often we would play episodes without knowing the complete story, or in which film Griffith was going to use them, as he shrouded his ideas in great secrecy for fear another studio would hear of them and get them on the screen first. Only Griffith knew the continuity of The Birth of a Nation in its final form. There was much anxiety, and many tears shed, over the assignment of parts, as we all wanted to prove our worth before it was too late, and with photography in its undeveloped state we knew we would be paseé by the time we reached eighteen.”

The Birth of a Nation Scene 4The Birth of a Nation Scene 4

And that’s all for this week’s Friday Facts. Thank you for reading and don’t forget to check in next week for the concluding part of the article The Birth of an Era by Lillian Gish. But also, please, if you have any facts from the silent-era you want to pass onto us, let us know by contacting us on our Contacts page. Good-luck for now then!

Friday Facts

Gillian GishLillian Gish

In 1937, Lillian Gish wrote an account in the Stage Magazine about her experiences when filming The Birth of a Nation, and her time under D. W. Griffith. These are some of the extracts from that article:

Birth of a NationScene from The Birth of a Nation

As I look back upon the making of the picture, the chief difficulty seems to have been finding the money to go with the ideas Mr. Griffith had in his head – or perhaps I should say in his heart, as he was from Kentucky, the son of Roaring Jake Griffith, a colonel in the Confederate Army. He firmly believed that the truth of the Civil War had never been told, and he was quite willing to dip into his heart’s blood to tell, through this new medium of the silent screen (in many ways his own invention), the story he believed in above all else in the world. I am sure it seemed more real to him than the World War, which was then taking place.”

The Birth of a Nation 2Ku Klux Klan Racist Scene from The Birth of a Nation

As nothing like a twelve-reel film had ever been attempted before, he naturally met with opposition on all sides. When the so-called business men of the picture industry, believing him to be an impractical dreamer, refused him financial aid, he went begging to the merchants of Los Angeles for a thousand dollars here, five thousand dollars there, another two thousand from someone else.”

The Birth of a Nation 3Abe Lincoln Scene in The Birth of a Nation

I remember my mother, having saved three hundred dollars, implored Mr. Griffith to use the money for the picture, but as it was all we had in the world he refused to take it. As we had been working without salaries for weeks, he couldn’t say when pay-checks would start coming in again. The picture actually took nine weeks to make, but there were many days during this time when work stopped and Mr. Griffith would be out trying to raise the money to continue.

The Birth of a Nation 4Battle Scene from The Birth of a Nation

At first we were told that we were going to do a moving-picture version of the play and novel by Thomas Dixon called The Clansman, but anyone who has ever read either of these and has seen the picture, The Birth of a Nation, will know how far afield from the originals we went.

The Birth of a Nation 5 The Birth of a Nation Scene

As actors, our picture schooling had been similar to that which Mr. Stanislavsky so graphically describes in Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood’s fine translation of An Actor Prepares. There was never anything written for us and no scenario (any more than there were designs for sets; Mr. Griffith would explain to the head carpenter what he wanted and he would build them).

 Lillian Gish with another extraLillian Gish with an Unknown Extra

That’s all for this weeks version of Friday Facts, but if you enjoyed today’s post, please tune in next week where, I’ll re-produce more extracts from the article The Birth of a Nation by Lillian Gish from the Stage Magazine.

Posted by Michael ‘Charlie’ McGee