When discussing The Birth of a Nation, one defense that sometimes crops up is that the film is significant because it was the first film screened at the White House. The main problem with this claim is that it is demonstrably false. Cabiria was screened for Woodrow Wilson the year before and the circumstances under which he saw Birth are quite shady. (I cover the details in my extensive article.)
However, I wanted to write about an even earlier screening inside the walls of the White House back when Theodore Roosevelt was president. This is the earliest reference to a White House film screening I can find so I am tentatively calling it POSSIBLY the first. Certainly earlier than either Cabiria or Birth.
The details are from the May 15, 1908 issue of The Talking Machine World:
The sweet notes of the nightingale will soon be taken on phonographic records and heard in Philadelphia if the pet aspiration of Richard Kearton, one of England’s most prominent ornithologists, develops into an achievement. Mr. Kearton appeared before Philadelphia lovers of birds a couple of days ago, exhibiting in Witherspoon Hall a series of moving pictures of English birds. President Roosevelt saw the pictures in the White House several days ago, and adjudged them genuine studies from nature.
Richard and Cherry Kearton’s nature studies and motion pictures come up quite a bit in trade publications of the time. Unfortunately, the brothers do seem to have been into the whole “big game hunting” nonsense. Cherry had an impressive ‘stache.
Roosevelt maintained a friendship with the Kearton brothers. A 1910 article in Motion Picture News (the magazine described Roosevelt as a “motion picture man”) discusses this:
Both brothers are honored by the personal friendship of Colonel Roosevelt who just before vacating the Presidential chair, invited Richard Kearton to the White House at Washington. Now, he is in friendly converse with Cherry Kearton, who at the moment is in this country on a short business visit. Colonel Roosevelt, as all the world knows, abhors the “nature fakir” and the photography of “nature fakes.” The Keartons stand for pure unfaked photographs of natural history subjects. All their work has been naturalistic, viz.: true to nature. That is why Colonel Roosevelt, good man, likes these men.
Then, Cherry Kearton was in Africa when Mr. Roosevelt was going through his memorable shooting experiences. He made many moving pictures of the Colonel and his adventures. These and others were shown in this country a few months ago.
And in 1912, an item in Motography provides more details on the 1908 White House screening, which sounded like a rather amusing affair:
It is said that Charles Wesley, the hymn maker, was wont to say that the devil should not be allowed to monopolize all of the good tunes, and the Kearton brothers reasoned that the moving picture should not be solely devoted to the depiction of melodrama, posed and staged for the purpose. To this end they sought to show the natural movements of birds, animals, and even serpents and insects, in their natural environment.
The first moving pictures of this character were shown at the White House during the last year of the administration of President Roosevelt, by Richard Kearton, and created a genuine sensation. The guests saw the movements of the hawk hovering in the air and swooping for its prey, and the family life of the nightingales, chaffinches, wrens, sparrows and blackbirds.
Griffith defenders like to nitpick about Cabiria being screened on the White House lawn (it was summer) as opposed to Birth being screened inside. (These are desperate people.) Well, I am happy to report that Kearton’s films are described as being shown “in” the White House. This would make sense since, the story states that the president viewed Kearton’s films “a few days ago” and as the story was filed May 2, 1908, this would likely mean late April.
A quick look at the historical weather in Washington D.C. shows that the temperature averaged a nippy 65 degrees Fahrenheit for May and an even chillier 56 degrees in April, which makes an outdoor screening unlikely. (You can read all about the D.C. weather in this handy PDF.)
Historical laurels have long been used as a shield to defend Birth from much-deserved criticism and so every time I can snatch one of them away from D.W. Griffith’s evil film and restore them to their rightful owners, I do.
As I often say, I am amused by the way Griffith defenders shift ground when confronted with facts. First, Birth was the first film shown at the White House. Then the first film show IN the White House. Now it’s the first fiction film shown inside the White House for the purpose of investigating charges of racism. And any diminishing of documentary filmmaking and actualities will not be tolerated. No pretending these weren’t “real” motion pictures because they were clearly considered to be so at the time of their release.
It seems that Birth has to be the first something, anything will do! Which, of course, goes to prove my point about the historical record being twisted and tortured in order to defend a film that deserves no such consideration. Straws well and truly grasped, my friends. Laurels don’t make a very good fig leaf, if I may mix my metaphors; they’re scratchy.
Excuse me if I seem to be enjoying this a little too much. I assure you that I am. After a few circular go-rounds with the Griffith defense squad, my sympathy has dried up. “We need to watch it because it’s historically important and it’s historically important because we need to watch it! Also, college students are the reason why people think it’s racist and not its actual racism!”
Disclaimer: I am not talking about people who enjoy Griffith films but nonetheless acknowledge his issues with racism and other unsavory things and do not whine about people being “too PC” to watch Birth. Problematic content comes with the territory and a reasonable conversation is always welcome. I am talking about the rather vocal minority who demand his films shown without people always bringing up things like real-life lynchings or daring to call a racist film racist.
I have seen even modern articles use the old quote “the film has not changed; what has changed is the world around it” to defend it. Honey, that quote only works if you somehow manage to avoid any writing from contemporary black critics, activists and ignore the work of black filmmakers. If you want to write about a broken leg, maybe talk to the guy with the cast. My prescription is Within Our Gates, to be administered stat. (I find it fascinating to see how Oscar Micheaux’s body of work is avoided like the plague by Griffith defenders.)
If I seem harsh or dismissive, please know that I am. I have been wrangling Griffith apologists for quite a few years now and their arguments are so repetitive and tedious that I just save time by going straight for the jugular.
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I see no comment on the real issue here, are any of the birds being kissed? Hey, somebody had to ask.
Unfortunately, I cannot find a record of the survival status of these nature films so we may never know! 😉
Interesting and excellent reading. And – you get to be harsh, dismissive and happy all at the same time. That makes me happy. You get ’em, girl!
I can imagine the guy who had to okay flammable nitrate in the White House. That’s a call I wouldn’t envy.
Yeah, it seems like it would be a bit risky considering the preponderance of long, drapey curtains.
I am so looking forward to the day when bright-eyed young things are herded into film class and sat down by their instructor who says:
‘Today we’re going to watch a film that delves into the effects of racism and Jim Crow in the post-Civil War South. Some of the images might be disturbing to modern sensibilities, but this is a remarkable film and must be preserved and taught so that we do not forget our history.’
Then the instructor turns on the projector and Within Our Gates starts to play.
From your lips to the film gods’ ears, Else.
The racism–& the unrestrained melodramatics–are worse in the second half of “Birth.” I can still enjoy the battle scenes & tender family moments in the first part.
But what then remains of Griffith’s legacy? I’ve viewed “Intolerance” many times but never warmed up to it. I can still take pleasure in “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East” (with Griffith’s suitably sentimental 1930 score), & “The Battle of the Sexes” (with the Mont Alto Orchestra)–this last is a relatively new discovery for me. And we musn’t forget “The Avenging Conscience” & “Judith of Bethulia,” both with the great Blanche Sweet, & his early short films, some of which are poetic & poignant.
But thanks for this post–I had always accepted the standard line on this matter.
The sneaky thing about the first half of BIRTH is that it looks less racist on the surface but once we drill down, we see the rot underneath. The “gallant South” that the characters are striving to defend is a Disneyland version complete with happy slaves and the notion that African-Americans needed to be “taken care of” which was and is a central belief of racists and Confederate apologists. It’s a very juicy topic to tear into and I will probably do just that when I eventually tackle BIRTH in a proper review. 😉
I tend to think of Griffith as more of a miniaturist. His best films were his more intimate ones but the financial success of BIRTH meant that he had to try to outdo himself. He returned to potboilers, of course, and proper “mellers” and some of them were even good but I think his best work was for Biograph.
I think Griffith began to go off the rails when he was shooting Judith of Bethulia in California in 1913. Biograph was expecting a two-reeler, while Griffith ignored the distant directives from New York as he went far beyond schedule and budget.
He returned to NY with a six-reel “epic”, and discovered Biograph had entered into a deal with Broadway producers to film hit stage plays (like Zukor and his “Famous Players” the year before), and that Griffith’s role would be a “general supervisor” and not “director” of the new films, which was to him a demotion.
On top of that, he was ordered to cut “Judith” to no more than four reels, and had a hissy fit. He left when his contract was up and he had completed the Judith cuts, and took out that famous advertisement that this genius with his innumerable innovations was now available for hire. and the legend began . . . 😉
I like to say that Madison Avenue lost a real gem of a marketer in Griffith and Lillian Gish. They could sell ice to penguins and did for quite a few years. A quick search on Lantern shows that exactly where you mention Griffith’s ad, the terms “Griffith” and “genius” suddenly start appearing together.
Dixon took a similar approach when marketing BIRTH, making sure everyone knew about the White House screening and the suspect “history written in lightning” quote to the point that Wilson was forced to release a statement rebutting many of Dixon’s claims.
I have to ask – what was the point of titling the 2016 film about Nat Turner ‘The Birth of a Nation’? Were they just being clueless, or playing on the name recognition factor, but if so, why use such a notorious film’s title while celebrating black history?
It was intentional reappropriation of the term:
Griffith, Birth, Intolerance and Blossoms are canonized also in Europe and by critics that have anti-Hollywood bias. The fame of “racist masterpiece” is known outside the silent fandom, too.
I believe you were right that the racism is part of the “power”. To some extent it reminds the Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson, who had witnessed a rape without interfering and then wrote a powerful revenge fantasy of a supergirl who fought back. Griffith created his revenge fantasy version of history. Both Millennium and Birth are powerful even though they have technical flaws. In some sense this fits the “auteur” theory, where director/author is expected to reveal his/her personality. The presence of “auteur” is strong in both. So Birth is Griffith’s most powerful work because he reveals so much of himself there.
Unfortunaly, the story of men from other cultures chasing “our women” has sold lots of newspapers here recently…
Yes, and I would also add that the film’s power also lies in the racist feelings of the audience, even if they might be buried. Reformed racists have stated that the feeling of superiority over another race is euphoric and addictive and Griffith was providing an incredibly pure source with the “we’re under attack” narrative serving as an excuse to indulge.
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