There are some silent movie myths that are so common that they are printed without question by major publications and repeated on national radio and television shows. With the 100 year anniversary of The Birth of a Nation‘s 1915 premiere back in February, silent movie fans received more than our share of this nonsense.
Did you know that The Birth of a Nation the first feature film? And the first film shown at the White House?
Well, too bad because neither “fact” is actually true.
Please note that this post is not about the content or reception of the film. It is merely my attempt to clear away some of the misconceptions and give credit where credit is due. Discussing the content of Birth is for another day when my meat cleaver is sharper.
(The first person who wails that “We have to look at context!” gets a rubber band shot at their nose. If you believe that people just didn’t know any better back then, do read The Birth of a Nation and Black Protest and A Public Menace: How the fight to ban The Birth of a Nation shaped the nascent civil rights movement.)
False: “The Birth of a Nation” was the first feature film
In a rather bizarre anniversary article, the entertainment website Vulture claimed that The Birth of a Nation was “the first-ever feature-length film, directed by D. W. Griffith.” Well, at least they got the director right, let’s look on the bright side.
The Birth of a Nation wasn’t the first feature film. It wasn’t even director D.W. Griffith’s first feature film. The answer is one search engine query away but it seems that even some “journalists” need a little extra help.
The current record holder for earliest feature film (narrative, not documentary) is actually the 1906 Australian production The Story of the Kelly Gang. It ran for six reels, which would put it at about 70-80 minutes at silent film projection speeds. (Some sources list its runtime at 60 minutes but this would be at sound speed.)
Here’s a clip from the surviving portion of the film, which was posted online by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. Alas, even this brief section shows considerable decay.
By 1909-1912, most of the major filmmaking nations in Europe had jumped into the feature game. The Italians in particular went wild for longer lengths and epic scope. More on that in a bit.
False: “The Birth of a Nation” was the first American feature film
The United States was not about to be left behind by its European rivals. There is some debate as to which feature film can be considered the first but I’m not trying to prove that a certain movie was the first, I’m trying to prove that one wasn’t. I think my point can be made by simply listing American features made before The Birth of a Nation and limiting myself to pictures that survive and are available for purchase by the general public.
Plus, this list gives me a chance to shine the spotlight some early feature films, a subject that needs more coverage in general and one that I will make a point of tackling in the near future. Reviewing my way through this list wouldn’t be a bad idea, eh? Many of these films are remarkable in their visual and narrative sophistication and some of them are among my favorite films of all time, any era.
Home Video List: American feature films released before “The Birth of a Nation”
Films are listed by release year and then in alphabetical order. I will mark the films directed by D.W. Griffith for easy reference. If I have reviewed the film on this site, I will provide a link.
This list is not complete by any means. If you know of another American silent feature-length film on DVD or Blu-ray that was originally released before February of 1915, please let me know so I can add it. I would prefer a complete film rather than fragments.
From the Manger to the Cross (1912)
Richard III (1912)
Traffic in Souls (1913)
What 80 Million Women Want (1913)
The Avenging Conscience (1914)*
The Bargain (1914)
Brute Island (1914)
A Florida Enchantment (1914)
His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz (1914)
Home Sweet Home (1914)*
Judith of Bethulia (1914)*
The Magic Cloak of Oz (1914)
The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)
The Squaw Man (1914)
Tess of the Storm Country (1914)
Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914)
The Virginian (1914)
The Wishing Ring (1914)
The Wrath of the Gods (1914)
A Fool There Was (1915)
The Italian (1915)
Young Romance (1915)
*Directed by D.W. Griffith
I made a special section in my aStore for the DVD and Blu-ray releases. Please note that some films are bundled together.
Even with the rather strict limitations I put in place, the list of available films is impressively lengthy, don’t you think? And remember, I’m not even beginning to count the American feature films that are held in archives or private collections. And those films are vastly outnumbered by the pre-1915 features that are missing and presumed lost, like this one:
False: “The Birth of a Nation” was the first film shown at the White House
Such respected news sources as NPR (“It even became the first movie ever to be screened at the White House.”) and the Washington Post (“on Feb. 18 it became the first feature film to be screened at the White House.”) parrot the usual narrative.
Well, then, what is this, pray tell?
Cabiria was an Italian epic that became an international smash hit. On June 26, 1914, it was shown on the White House lawn before President Woodrow Wilson and others. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s over half a year before The Birth of a Nation‘s February 1915 screening.
And this is where the smartypants and the wiseacre come into play.
Ah, but “Birth” was the first movie shown inside the White House! “Cabiria” was shown on the lawn.
Okay, first of all, both sources listed above use the phrase “at the White House” without specifying whether it was on the lawn or indoors but I’ll be a sport.
Yeah, Cabiria was screened on the White House lawn in June of 1914. Birth was screened indoors in February of 1915. Take a look at those months, remember that central air conditioning was not yet a thing and tell me where you think you would like to view these films. If Cabiria had been screened in February, I have no doubt the big event would have been indoors as well. But Washington D.C. in June? Heck yeah the lawn!
(In June of 1914, the average temperature in Washington D.C. was a pleasant 73.8 degrees Fahrenheit, ideal for outdoor diversions if the humidity was not too bad. February of 1915 averaged a nippy 38.8 degrees, which we can safely describe as sweater weather. For you Celsius people, that’s 23.2 degrees and 3.7 degrees respectively, if Google’s conversion calculator does not lead me astray.)
To add to that, Cabiria was a monster hit and so an outdoor screening would cause no controversy. The Birth of a Nation (still entitled The Clansmen at this point) was already creating a stir due to its incendiary content. Woodrow Wilson’s East Room screening of the film in the presence of his daughters and Cabinet likely would have been necessary even if the weather permitted an outdoor exhibition. The picture was not screened for jollies, it was being examined to see if concerns about its content were warranted.
(Irony alert! The East Room is also where Abraham Lincoln’s body lay in state after his assassination.)
The point of all this? We’re reading entirely too much into the screening locations and too little into the reasons for them. Cabiria was shown because it was popular and people liked it. Birth was screened ahead of its New York premiere as a matter of state business. This distinction only strengthens Cabiria‘s claim as the first feature film to receive a White House screening.
(Oh, and the “history written in lighting” quote so often attributed to President Woodrow Wilson? Almost certainly not his words and not credited to him during his lifetime. In his excellent biography of Wilson, A. Scott Berg brings out that the only firsthand reaction to the film is found in a letter dated three years after the screening. In it Wilson writes “I have always felt that this was a very unfortunate production and I wish most sincerely that its production might have been avoided, particularly in communities where there are so many colored people.”)
In any case, honey lambs, I have a little present for you. It’s from Motography and dated March of 1912. The pertinent section is in the third paragraph.
Yay, Teddy! It just figures that nature programs would be screened under his watch. To recap, Roosevelt personally invited Richard Kearton to the White House to screen nature films and deliver a lecture in 1908, neatly predating the screenings of both Cabiria and Birth. Surely, the Kearton nature films can make a strong case for being the first films to receive presidential praise. In fact, Roosevelt was still talking enthusiastically about the successful event years later.
Of course, now people can argue about actualities vs. fictional film but the basic point is that Birth‘s screening was the not really the first anything unless we get incredibly nitpicky. And if that’s the case…
I am the first woman to cross the Pacific by airplane while watching Judex on her Android tablet and eating baklava! Where’s my ticker tape parade?
See? Looks silly. You can go around saying that The Birth of a Nation was the first American-made feature-length fiction film to be screened inside the White House (as opposed to just being screened on the grounds) but by the time you get to the end of that sentence, everyone has forgotten the beginning.
What to do with your newfound knowledge
As Scott Beggs put it in his Film School Rejects article on the Birth myth: “The truth is out there for anyone who cares to look for it, and it’s not like an earthquake happens every time the lie is repeated, but history matters, and maybe you can make twenty bucks off someone in a bar blindly parroting what his film studies professor said.”
My wish is that readers will be interested in early feature films from America and the rest of the world. I would love for my readers to seek these films out, enjoy them and spread the word. After all, no one is going to believe that a movie from 1915 is the “first feature” if they just enjoyed a feature film from, say, 1912 the night before. Hey, a girl can dream, can’t she?
Wait a minute, wasn’t “The Birth of a Nation” the first blockbuster?
Let me get this straight. Movies had existed in the modern sense (projected onto a screen before an audience) for two decades and some people actually believe there had not yet been any major hits by 1915? Why was anyone even in the movie business?
(This one is hard to prove so I’ll give the record to A Trip to the Moon, a genuine international phenomenon, until I find word of something older. If you want a feature, take your pick from the Italian epics or the Danish dramas. If you want an American feature, From the Manger to the Cross was a monster hit. The actual titles don’t matter for the purpose of this article. What does matter is that there were plenty of big, famous and profitable films before The Birth of a Nation.)
At this point I have to wonder why the people asking these questions are so invested in proving that Birth was the first something, anything. It really says more about them than it does about the film. I think I’ll just make them a big gold star with FIRST!!!!! printed on it in ginormous sparkly letters. They can pin it to their Birth Blu-ray or something. In return, I ask that they cancel their broadband service and consider a career in a Trappist order.
But the film was the birth of a new art!
Funny, that’s exactly what Rev. Thomas Dixon said. You sure you want to die on that hill, son?
Do yourself a favor before you dig yourself into this hole: go and watch some of those 1912-1915 feature films listed above. Then rewatch The Birth of a Nation. I promise you it will be a lot less impressive. Is it technically well-made? Yes, though it is stuffed with D.W. Griffith’s weird little quirks and fetishes. Were other films before it well-made? Yes and quite sophisticated to boot.
The film studies curriculum of A Trip to the Moon to The Great Train Robbery to The Birth of a Nation has created a false narrative. Watch the films that were made between (preferably by different directors) and you will see a gradual evolution with flashes of brilliance in the motion picture art. No one film made the movies and no one man can claim to be the Father of Film. And that’s okay. What’s not okay is stealing laurels from other films, directors and nations. It’s dishonest and it spoils the historical record. It needs to stop.