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When Light Burned Into the Silver

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The Clansman had been published in 1905, to success and notoriety. Dixon believed in segregation and the inferiority of blacks, and he dramatized this without mercy, often in situations where white women were sexually threatened. There had been an adaptation for the stage, as successful as the novel. Griffith and his partner Harry Aitken sought the film rights. Dixon asked for $25,000, which was far beyond the filmmakers’ means. Then he dropped his price to $2,000—but against 25 percent of the producers’ gross income (trust the future, or gamble on it). Aitken was so pressed for funds that the $2,000 check was delivered to Dixon on Friday after the banks had closed, allowing the producer two more days to secure the money.


The film was shot in California from July through November, and it required horses, uniforms, guns, and several hundred extras—all of whose numbers were exaggerated by the time the film opened amid that other innovation, “hype.” (Eighteen thousand extras were claimed.) California was winning the battle to be the center of the film business, after everything had been New York, New Jersey, or New England at first. Going west brought better light and more of it; it distanced operations from the Motion Picture Patents Company that sought to license all equipment and film stock; and it meant a new world, days away from crowding and controls. The picture business helped establish California in America, which is one reason why the giant label HOLLYWOOD still looms over Los Angeles, even if local children hardly know what it means.


So the light in The Birth of a Nation and the terrain are not southern; they are Californian. The film cost $100,000, and it worked out to be a picture of over three hours. That entails a thing called production management—deciding what to shoot when and where as economically as possible (and Aitken was desperate about the funds all the time; Griffith and his cameraman, Billy Bitzer, put some of their own money into it). Yet Griffith was honest in the claim that he never had a script. He made the film up as he went along, which was the general method in the mass of short subjects that had prevailed. Many modern screenwriters lament that this habit or confidence has never been broken.


Still called The Clansman, the film opened on January 8, 1915, at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles, under heavy criticism from the NAACP, which feared for its consequences. Without question or protest, the audience sat still for twelve reels. It is said there was a stunned silence at the film’s conclusion. (Was it over? would it go on forever?) (In December 1939, in Atlanta, there was a similar reaction to the premiere of Gone With the Wind. In both cases, some audiences felt the recent past and its tragedy had somehow been “explained.”) Then there was pandemonium, not just cheering, but that roar of elation and surprise that greets an altering event. The noise went on until Griffith appeared—it was a stage actor taking a bow at last, acclaimed by the masses as a “hero.” “He stepped out a few feet from the left, a small, almost frail figure lost in the enormousness of this great proscenium arch. He did not bow or raise his hands or do anything but just stood there and let wave after wave of cheers and applause wash over him like a great wave breaking over a rock.”


In New England, as everywhere, the picture played to unprecedented crowds, and the event attracted people who had previously regarded moving pictures as too minor or soiled. But because the business was so large and novel, no one knew how to measure it—or keep track of the measurers. Louis B. Mayer is said to have made $500,000 from his deal, though it is believed he failed to report as much as $300,000 of his box office. By 1917, Epoch, the company behind Birth of a Nation, reported authenticated receipts of $4.8 million, which meant a clear profit of $1.8 million. It is reckoned that Thomas Dixon pocketed $1 million and Griffith himself at least half that amount. Richard Schickel believes that, worldwide, the film may have taken in as much as $50 million. Fortunes were built on it that allowed others to move ahead. Louis B. Mayer would form his own production company. A few years later he was in California, too. Irene Mayer reported, “My father said people lost their heads in Hollywood, whether because of the movies or all the sunshine or all the freedom…”


Try all three! And remember the light of Los Angeles. Yes, it is reliable for about three hundred days a year, and it shines on an astonishing variety of terrains—the sea, the shore, a city, suburbia, high desert and low, mountains with snow on them, sand dunes, and forest. There are a few shots of hillsides in Wuthering Heights (in California, not Yorkshire) where cameraman Gregg Toland has gorgeous triangles of light and shadow patterning the ground that are as moving as Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. Robert Towne, who wrote the L.A. classics Chinatown and Shampoo, once said the city’s winter light was as if “someone put the sun in the freezer overnight.”


There is an essay on L.A. light by Lawrence Weschler that begins with him and his daughter watching the O. J. Simpson Bronco chase of 1994. The kid sees that Dad is moved. “Did you know that guy?” she asks, and Dad says, no, it’s the light that’s getting to him: “the late-afternoon light of Los Angeles—golden pink off the bay through the smog and onto the palm fronds.” Weschler goes on to collect all kinds of light from different witnesses. David Hockney recalls the crisp shadows in Laurel and Hardy films that his dad took him to see in overcast Yorkshire. Others say it’s the weather effect of the desert abutting the ocean. Astronomers find it’s perfect for their work. And the cinematographer John Bailey (he shot American Gigolo, a fine slice of L.A. light) testifies that a sophisticated light meter gives you readings you wouldn’t expect. Strangers to the city sometimes feel that everyone there looks beautiful.


Is the light in Los Angeles really unique and lovely, or uniquely lovely? I’m not sure it isn’t just that the culture and identity of L.A. was movie light for long enough so that people took emotional possession of it. Of course, that was in the days when films were made from photographs and light burned into the silver.


Robert Irwin tells Weschler, the light in L.A. is “so radically different from day to day and then so incredibly specific on any given day.” That’s not crystal clear to me, but it sounds enough like life to give us the best explanation: in L.A. for several decades, alert people lived on light—and surely that’s a habit acquired from the screen. The movies were always about a shift in cognition, whereby looking became more important or more valid than knowing or understanding. There’s a great deal of optimism in that shift—and a terrible price to pay when Americans tired of looking and realized the other hard work that needed to be done.


Louis B. Mayer and D.W. Griffith were alike in hoping that Birth of a Nation and its money had secured respectability. For the first time, a movie was shown in the White House, and Woodrow Wilson saw it. Thomas Dixon had wangled that break because he told the president, “A new universal language had been invented.” Wilson was a Virginian and not a moviegoer, but he was so emotional after seeing it that he supposedly said, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”


No one knows quite what he meant by that last sentence, while the first showed an unexpected potential for the president as a booster. And what’s lightning but light with a kick? One result was that the Ku Klux Klan rallied from a dormant stage. Membership increased, and there were more than seven hundred lynchings a year in the period after the release of the film. Lightning can do damage. The NAACP led the way in protests over the film, but some of its own members admitted to being swept away by its narrative and the sight of blackface actors threatening the virtue of sweet white women, even to the point of the latter’s suicide.


People were swayed. In England, aged ten, Michael Powell was so stirred that he would say later, “It was David Wark Griffith who made up my mind for me that I was going to be a movie director and would settle for nothing less.” But at the age of eight, say, it’s unlikely he would have known what a movie director was.


To take just one instance of the movie business exploded by Birth of a Nation: in 1914 Cecil B. DeMille had “picturized” The Virginian, from the Owen Wister novel, with Dustin Farnum as the hero. It was a 55-minute movie and it did nicely by existing standards. It cost $17,000 and brought in $110,000. But now, the existing standards of business were in question. The lure of the blockbuster, of striking it rich or breaking the bank, set in very early.


Today we may be less certain that three hours is a guarantee of art or business. We are accustomed to shorter entertainments: a television commercial is seldom longer than thirty seconds; the average television episode in a series is twenty-five or fifty minutes. We are used to bites and to being bitten. Moreover, we are in the habit of interrupting what we are seeing—by putting it on Pause, taking a phone call, or leaving the room. Sometimes the one-reel comedies that dominated in 1915—a very cheap form of amusement—can look very modern. Samuel Beckett was an avid filmgoer as a boy. But he mistrusted the medium whenever it turned portentous. True depth of feeling, even tragedy, he felt, could be best found in brief comedies, so he loved Chaplin, Keaton, and later Laurel and Hardy. To this day, the short films of Chaplin seem so much more agile and ambivalent than his increasingly solemn feature films.




One day, as a child in London, Chaplin was watching his mother perform on a music hall stage. She was not well (she was drinking) and her voice was failing. When some soldiers started to boo her, she fled. Whereupon a stage manager took the little boy onstage so that he could perform some song-and-dance routines he had learned. It did the trick: in a moment the delighted audience was tossing coins onto the stage. Then the kid showed his genius and authority. He said he hoped the public wouldn’t mind if he interrupted his act to collect the money: “The stage manager came on with a handkerchief and helped me to gather it up. I thought he was going to keep it. This thought was conveyed to the audience and increased their laughter, especially when he walked off with me anxiously following him. Not until he handed it to Mother did I return to continue to sing. I was quite at home.”


That pattern never altered. The more assiduously he exploited the theme of the waif, the richer Charlie became. But there’s another pattern in that passage from My Autobiography (published in 1964): it’s the flex of action and reaction—the stage manager does his business, and the kid’s look signals alarm to the audience. A laugh begins. The anecdote is made into shots—and we are still following along in that line of sense.


The incident could suggest Chaplin was money-grubbing, but he was simply very poor, and as fierce at business as with film. If he had a passion close to a failing it was his dedication to sex, especially with underage girls. Of course, in his movies Charlie was gallant (until Monsieur Verdoux, in 1947, by which time he had been in court on unfounded paternity charges). If that Charlie had been exposed earlier he could have been drummed out of the business, the way Fatty Arbuckle was ruined. Los Angeles was a company town, and just because of its impact on young people, it tried to be conservative, yet there was also an undertone of abandon in the city that relied on cover-up. The split between desire and restraint replicates the lure of fantasy that tests the crowd at the movies.


Chaplin said he was born in Walworth, in South London, in 1889. (The records don’t survive for lives so humble.) He was never quite sure who his father was. (He played with the idea that he might be Jewish.) His mother’s illness meant the child had to spend time in an orphanage and the workhouse. This was a Dickensian upbringing, with fulfilled expectations beyond a novelist’s invention.


He was a child performer with minimal education who joined the Fred Karno Company (an English vaudeville group) and traveled with Karno to America in 1910 and 1912 to work onstage. He was spotted by Mack Sennett, an impresario of short comic films at Keystone, who liked Charlie’s act as a drunken toff in A Night in an English Music Hall. In Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914), which is actually a Marie Dressler vehicle, Charlie is the cad and exploiter. But quite quickly Chaplin worked out a fresh image for himself in the movies: it took baggy pants, a battered bowler, a cane, a daub of mustache, and those accented sad-dog eyes. The Tramp was the eternal hard-up case, every bit as impoverished as the movie audience, but flattering them with his daintiness, his fine feelings, and the sturdy pluck that trusted good fortune.

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