In which people are wrong on the internet, or, “Is it too much to ask for you to check a few dates?”

I know this will come as a complete shock but it seems that people are actually wrong about things on the internet. And in print. And then they’re wrong when the internet quotes the in-print errors. Sigh.

How to not make a fool of yourself when writing about silent films:

Check the release date of a picture (year AND day) before proclaiming that one inspired the other or that something was invented by a particular director.

Case Study: Ivan Mosjoukine is the European Valentino

son-of-the-sheik-strange-flower

I have heard it again and again that Ivan Mosjoukine was imported to Hollywood because everyone was looking for the next Valentino. Wikipedia certainly buys that story.

mosjoukine-valentinoThe problem? No one actually bothered to look at actual documents from the period. (Oh, and the Valentino copycat craze had been in the early twenties and his staying power was in doubt by the mid-twenties. For example, MGM made a point of not casting Ramon Novarro is Valentino-esque roles so as not to tie their new star to a short-lived fad.)

Rudolph Valentino died suddenly on August 23, 1926. Ivan Mosjoukine’s first Hollywood film was released almost exactly a year later. It would seem to be a safe assumption that one event inspired the other, especially considering that Mosjoukine’s Casanova had been such a hit.

Hold your horses! Casanova was released in France in September of 1927. Surrender, Mosjoukine’s lone Hollywood film, was released in October of the same year. Further, I have this little clipping:

carl-laemmle-2This is from Motion Picture News, a trade publication, announcing that Mosjoukine had been hired by Universal. Note that the magazine is dated August 14, 1926. Recall that Valentino died suddenly on August 23. Now remember that deals of this sort take time to negotiate and the magazine was likely informed only when the ink on the contract had dried.

I’m dropping my mic now.

gypsy-blood-nap

Check your dates, my darlings, check your dates.

Case Study: Birth of a Nation invented the modern feature film as we know it

This one gets parroted as an excuse to just wuv D.W. Griffith’s cute little KKK recruitment film. The problem is that the first known fiction feature film was released in Australia in 1906, Italians were making epics already and, more to the point, Americans were making feature films too.

For your convenience, here is a list of American feature films released before Birth AND available on DVD. Considering that up to 90% of all silent films are missing and presumed lost and only a small selection of the surviving films are available on home media, we can safely assume this is just a fraction of the American film industry’s feature output. (And some of these titles were directed by Griffith. Just sayin’.)

dvd-list-before-birthI made a special section in my aStore for the DVD and Blu-ray releases. Please note that some films are bundled together.

(There’s a point when one has to wonder why some people are SO determined to make Birth the first… anything.)

In conclusion…

Look, we all make mistakes and accidentally repeat incorrect information but it would be a pity to fall victim to such a basic blunder. Check those dates and I wish you happy researching!

22 Replies to “In which people are wrong on the internet, or, “Is it too much to ask for you to check a few dates?””

  1. Having seen many of those listed films, I would say the statement “Birth of a Nation invented the modern feature film as we know it” is true, while the more frequent “Birth of a Nation is the first American feature film” is obviously wrong. There really is a far more direct line from BoaN to the modern American feature film than anything else that came before it. I have to admit, I thought Home Sweet Home was later.

    1. Um, no. American feature films were doing just fine before Birth and they would have come into existence with or without it. Those films demonstrate that all the ingredients were in place and that features were doing just fine pre-1915. Birth DID give other directors leverage in asking for larger budgets but that’s not the same thing.

      1. Can’t argue with that, and maybe it’s just me, but watching A Fool There Was recently, I was struck by how the editing and especially the pacing was so different from what we saw even in 1917. I got Wild and Wooly and was struck by how the editing really reflected what Griffith & co. in Birth. I will certainly agree all the ingredients were in place, but Birth coalesced them into a single package. I’ve got no love for Birth, KKK recruitment film is the best description I’ve ever read for it, but I see it as an incredibly important step in film making.

      2. A Fool There Was is pretty shoddy. I recommend seeing The Wishing Ring because Tourneur wallops Giffith in cinematography any day of the week. (His approach was quite the opposite. Lyrical beauty instead of a race to the rescue.) Also, given the sheer volume of lost silent films, I think it’s a little premature to say that Birth accomplished much of anything.

    2. “Birth of a Nation invented the modern feature”….how? That’s my question. Was it the first to have a long run time? No. Did it invent any film or editing techniques? As far as I know, no. Was it the first Hollywood film? No. Was it the first Hollywood feature film? No. Does Birth of a Nation resemble “Modern” films? No.

      Look at the 1912 Cleopatra film. It’s an American Hollywood feature film with nice production values for it’s time. How is that fundamentally different from Birth of a Nation?

      1. The usual argument is that it created the “grammar” of film but you are absolutely right. And it’s not just the racism that makes me dislike the film. It’s the florid title cards, infantilized heroines, cliched plot AND the racism.

  2. During one of my graduate classes, my professor claimed Birth of a Nation “invented” so many cinematic techniques. I raised my hand and said, “Not really. A lot of those were already invented by then.” And he just said, “Well, we’re not here to debate that…” And then moved on. I love my professor, but jeezum! I feel a lot of professors are just lazy and want to skip over early cinema as quickly as possible.

  3. And the absolute LENGTH and weight of the film. It’s an exhausting watch, and not in a fun, Thief of Baghdad sort of way. The racism over-whelms the film nearly the whole way, and the only way I’ve ever made it all the way through in a single sitting is by looking into specific aspects. I really wish I had talked to Forry about seeing it in the 1920s (or anyone who had seen it in its initial release) and just figure out what they felt when they saw it in the time. The reviews I’ve read give one view, but I’m always more interested in what someone off the street watching it would have thought.

    1. The thing to remember is that it was just as controversial in 1915 as it is today. That notoriety is part and parcel to its success– “We have to see the movie everyone is talking about”– and must be acknowledged. The famous White House screening was arranged because of fear that NAACP protests in LA would gain traction elsewhere and Wilson (whose racial views were hardly progressive) was used to run interference. People didn’t watch Birth despite its racism, they watched it because of it.

  4. It has always gotten me that the idea that Birth of a Nation was the first feature film is so widespread. I mean, it is easily fact checked. Anyone who knows how to use Google (or any other search engine) will soon learn that not only do a large number of European features pre-date it, but, as you point out, a number of American ones as well! Birth of a Nation isn’t even a very good film.

    1. Precisely so! Birth is tedious and shows all of Griffith’s flaws as a director. Is it too much to ask that ONE young woman sit still for two seconds?

  5. I think that not only Birth, but the feature-length format in general exposed Griffith’s shortcomings as a filmmaker. Not in technical matters, but rather in his choice of subjects and/or the manner in which he explored them. Feature film gave Griffith an over-sized canvass on which to draw crudely such subjects as race, gender, sexuality and religion.

    Griffith was at his best depicting slices of ordinary life — in both rural and urban settings — in a format well suited for it, the single reel short film. The Biograph shorts from mid-1908 to the end of 1912, amply demonstrate this. The short drama — the early film equivalent of the literary short story — was, in my opinion, his ideal medium. No time to over-indulge in racial, political, religious or sexual polemics.

      1. There is great irony regarding the early days of “feature” films in the story of Griffith’s departure from Biograph in 1913.

        The company had resisted Griffith’s desire to make multi-reel films, causing friction with the director. After shooting a six reel version of “Judith of Bethulia” in California without the explicit authorization of Biograph executives in New York, he learned that Biograph had contracted with a theatrical producer, Klaw and Erlanger, to film two features a week based upon stage plays.

        The catch was that he, Griffith, was only to “supervise” these new feature productions, and not to “personally” direct them. Naturally his ego would not permit this — he was, after all, being called “the Genius of Film” in the trade press by mid-1913. After being ordered to whittle down “Judith” from six to four reels, he departed Biograph. “Judith of Bethulia” was not released until early 1914.

        Another irony is that Griffith’s prize player, Mary Pickford, joined Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players in 1913, and began making features at the same time Griffith was filming “Judith.” By the time “Judith” was released, Pickford had already completed four features for Famous Players.

        If anyone is inclined to look for “firsts” (and I am not), then one could more easily credit Zukor, Pickford and many of the early participants in the Famous Players company, including DeMille, their “General Director,” as being true pioneers of feature films in the U.S., rather than the director of “Birth of a Nation.”

      2. Precisely so! There was no question of Lasky’s debut film being a short. Lasky, DeMille and Goldwyn all understood the way the wind was blowing and attacked features with gusto. Zukor did much to class up the joint with his aggressive wooing of stage stars, which was also a tactic of Lasky. I should also draw attention to Gene Gauntier and Sidney Olcott with their ambitious location filming of From the Manger to the Cross. Moviemakers were dreaming big in the early 1910s and it’s a pity to erase them.

        PS, I also found an interesting snippet of kvetching from 1917. A Photoplay reader was vexed about features being too darn long and wished to return to the good old days of two-reelers.

  6. Yes. If you look at the trade papers from the early 1910s, you’ll find more than a few critics, fans AND exhibitors complaining that in the rush to make feature films, the resulting product was being “padded” with extraneous footage to fill up the extra reels and extract more money from the exhibitors and consumers as well.

    Even a noted producer, Carl Laemmle, predicted the imminent demise of the feature film — in 1914! Unfortunately, most of those early features are lost, so we can’t judge their quality, but I think that even in the surviving films, we can see examples where those extra reels seem like so much “padding.” So the pining for the “good old days” may have been understandable, up to a point.

    1. Yes and even films that were not intentionally padded showed a basic lack of understanding of a longer form of storytelling. Brute Island, for example, is a confused and jumbled mess of a narrative that probably sounded better for two reels. (Or no reels, it really is awful.) On the other hand, The Bargain is lean and snappy without an ounce of fat on its frame. Just goes to show the wide range of features available in 1914.

      It’s really funny how some people are so fixated on talkies when the short-to-feature transition was just as disruptive.

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