Silent Movie Myth: “The Birth of a Nation” was the first feature and the first film shown at the White House

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.

"The Wishing Ring" is one of many American feature films released before "The Birth of a Nation"
“The Wishing Ring” is one of many American feature films released before “The Birth of a Nation”

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.

"The Bargain" William S. Hart's first feature film was released in 1914.
“The Bargain” William S. Hart’s first feature film was released in 1914.

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)
Cinderella (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)
Hypocrites (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:

An ad for the 1913 American feature film "The Sea Wolf" Even at sound speed, the picture would run 70 minutes, a feature by anyone's standards.
An ad for the 1913 film “The Sea Wolf”
Even at sound speed, the picture would run 70 minutes, a feature by anyone’s standards.

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.

(H/T Silent Film Archive)
(H/T Silent Film Archive)

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!

This is not how you want your guests to look at a White House screening.
This is not how you want your guests to look at a White House screening.

(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 East Room in 1904.
The East Room in 1904.

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.

roosevelt-screening

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.”

Know this trick and you'll never have to pay for your own drinks again!
Know this trick and you’ll never have to pay for your own drinks again!

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?

golden-chance-ummmmmm

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.

19 Replies to “Silent Movie Myth: “The Birth of a Nation” was the first feature and the first film shown at the White House”

  1. I think it’s pure laziness that has people clinging fast to the Birth myth. It’s easier and cleaner to just say Griffith did everything and invented the feature film. Also some people claim that the discrediting of Birth comes from “political correctness.” And I’m like, “No honey– it’s called being true to the real history.”

  2. I am so glad you wrote this. I don’t know how the myth that Birth of a Nation was the first feature film got started, but it certainly isn’t by any stretch of the imagination! I’m also glad you point out that there were protests of the film even then. Anyone thinking that Birth of a Nation wasn’t considered objectionable upon its release simply hasn’t done their research.

    1. Thank you so much! Yes, the whole “we have to look at context” thing is a particular pet peeve of mine because people who say it are most definitely NOT doing that. We don’t give our forebears enough credit. Certainly, some people thought the film was splendid but a good many people (as we can see Woodrow Wilson was among them) felt that the inflammatory content made the film dangerous, which it indeed proved to be.

    1. It’s quoted directly in the article but in 1918 he described the film as an “unfortunate production” and wished it had never been made, particularly considering the racial tensions at the time.

      1. I see. My apologies, I didn’t read carefully enough. That’s very interesting. I’m glad Wilson had that to say. I had always gotten the impression that he was an unqualified admirer of the film (judging partially from the dubious “history in lightning” quote, I guess). I had wondered why Wilson might not have been troubled more by the racist content, even considering his background. It’s reassuring to see that he was.

        Wilson was a President I have always admired because of his ideals—even if he did hang around the Thanhouser studio all the time pestering poor Flo. (Kidding—kidding. That was a great debunking job, by the way. I’m actually supposed to be related to Wilson somewhere up the line, so on his behalf, I thank you. 🙂 )

      2. You had me worried there for a minute, phew! 😉 Yeah, we’re all in myth-busting mode now that Florence La Badie has had a bit of a revival.

        I agree that most silent film histories are a bit deceptive on the hows and whys of the “Birth” White House screening. The impression I got before doing further research was that Wilson heard the movie was great, asked to see it privately, said “history written in lighting” and generally loved it. But the truth (investigating inflammatory material, later saying he wished it had been never made) is much more in keeping with what was happening at the time.

        I do highly recommend A. Scott Berg’s biography Wilson. I relied on it heavily for the La Badie debunking.

  3. It was a first! It was the first film named “Birth of a Nation” that was directed by DW Griffith. And the only one…uh, that counts for something, right? 😉

      1. Yeah, I’ve known for quite some time that it wasn’t the first feature film, or even the first American feature film. I think that there has been a cult of personality surrounding Griffith ever since that movie, since it was such a huge hit and many future directors worked under Griffith’s supervision for BOAN and INTOLERANCE. I just saw part of the documentary DW GRIFFITH : FATHER OF FILM and even though it had nice footage and interviews, the tone of it was uncomfortably hagiographic and let ol’ DWG off the hook way too easily for BOAN.

      2. Yes & Father of Film was considerably more critical than the Hollywood miniseries. The Griffith cult is slowly dying (I’m doing my best!) but it’s so deeply rooted in American film studies that it’s going to take a lot of time & work to completely dislodge it. And the narrative of “Poor lil’ DWG was just skipping along when darn if he didn’t make a racist movie, whoospy-doodle!” really has got to go.

  4. I appreciate this very much, thank you for setting the record straight and doing it so well.

    There is one (ultimately minor) point I’d appreciate if you could clarify. Mostly I’m just curious about your source.

    You state that the movie “was not screened for jollies, it was being examined to see if concerns about its content were warranted.” Now, the one source I’ve read that discusses the White House screening is Dick Lehr, who I’ve caught on at least one inaccuracy, plus some historico-linguistic wonkiness in the past (see my review at https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1192282508), but he makes a rather different case. According to him, Thomas Dixon, the author of “The Clansman” (stage play) was a school friend of Wilson’s, and he cites quite a bit of their correspondence during Wilson’s presidency to demonstrate that they still had a relationship. According to Lehr, it was Dixon who set up the screening, in order to show the President “that a new, universal language had been invented” (meaning cinema). Wilson agreed, on condition that there would be NO publicity about the event, which Griffith then went back on, to the extreme annoyance of Wilson.

    If Lehr’s narrative is right (and he is studying specifically the controversy about the film), there was no public controversy about the movie yet – it had only premiered once, and no release had yet been made. That’s why I’m curious as to the source for your version – I’d like to see if a genuine historian has looked at this and found a different sequence of events, and possibly Lehr is wrong again.

    1. The source for the information is A. Scott Berg’s Wilson, cited in the article. It is worth noting that Berg states that the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP sought an injunction against the film’s further screening and that there was a month between the LA premiere and the New York premiere, during which time the film was screened at the White House. John Milton Cooper’s biography of the president describes it as a cunning trap on the part of Dixon to head off the impending protest from a righteously indignant minority population, which sounds about right for that old snake. In any case, it doesn’t really matter to the overall narrative as the idea that Wilson gave the film presidential approval is very clearly not the case. We’re dealing with shades of interpretation here & it’s very clear that Wilson did not view “Birth” in the same manner that he viewed “Cabiria” which is the main thrust of the argument against considering it the first movie “screened at the White House.” Dixon did indeed write to Wilson but I highly doubt that the mourning president would have agreed to such a screening if the film had not already proven to be controversial. Per Cooper, the last surviving guest at the screening stated later that Wilson did not seem to be into the film at all, which would support the argument that he was distracted by both his mourning and the war in Europe. In short, we have a man who clearly did not want to be there, as evidenced by his subsequent letter regarding the “unfortunate” production. Compare this reaction to that of Roosevelt, who gushed over his White House movie event five years after the fact.

      Yes, Wilson’s relationship with civil rights was rather problematic and Dixon was crowing about using “Birth” as a wedge to divide white northerners from any thought of racial equality.

      1. Thanks for the detailed response. Mostly just curious what Lehr was missing, and that takes care of it well. He also uses the term “first movie screened in the White House. The preposition-choice makes it technically correct, but still deceptive. “Cabiria” is mentioned nowhere in the book, in any context.

      2. Yes, I find the utter erasure of the “Cabiria” screening to be significant. It’s an inconvenient fact that wrests yet another ill-gotten laurel from “Birth” and when it is mentioned, much is made of the indoor/outdoor thing, which I think I have proven was based more on weather and political circumstance than any extra honor accorded to “Birth”

        Reading over Dixon’s description of the film, I am struck by how much his words are parroted by modern Griffith apologists. I have to give the man credit: he was a propagandist the likes of which would not be seen again before Goebbels. It’s pretty amazing that his excuses and defenses for “Birth” (First film at the White House! Presidential approval! Groundbreaking innovation!) are still being repeated by people who would likely be horrified if they knew the source.

      3. PS, I should add that I think the problem with most of the scholarship on this subject is that it falls into two categories:

        1. The study of Wilson the man but not much knowledge of early feature film
        or
        2. The study of early feature film but not much knowledge of Wilson the man.

        And this is where we have issues. The film historians forget that Wilson was in mourning and dealing with a war. The Wilson historians don’t realize what early feature film was actually like or that other films were shown at the White House.

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