- Stagestruck Filmmaker: D. W. Griffith and the American Theatre
This book's colorful dust jacket illustrates a dramatic moment and entices the customer as surely as the original poster it depicts must once have lured entertainment-seekers. The poster, reproduced twice in black and white inside the book (viii, 132), advertises a motion picture released by Unicorn Film Service in 1915 under the title Kentucky Brothers. Yet it is, in some respects, a theatre poster too. David Mayer's worth-the-price-of-admission book spotlights the close relationship between stage and screen at the turn of the twentieth century, as he demonstrates persuasively that a theatrical foundation under-girded the innovative silent-film aesthetic of director D. W. Griffith.
How can a silent-film poster also be read as a theatre poster? Not only does this poster label Kentucky Brothers a "Puritan Drama," it clumps together seven characters in a patently stagey composition. Foregrounded and framing all of the others (except the marginalized white-haired black retainer) are a young man in a spiffy blue uniform and another young man in tattered grey, holding the Stars and Stripes between them. The illustration complements one of Mayer's most interesting chapters, "Dramas of Civil War, Ethnicity, and Race," in which he examines the conventions of Civil War drama as a genre that had emerged by 1862 and that still held the stage when Griffith was trying to make a career as an actor. Interestingly, Kentucky Brothers was actually a re-titled re-release of one of Griffith's 400 or so one- and two-reel Biograph films, In Old Kentucky (1909)—not to be confused with C. T. Dazey's perennially popular 1893 play of the same title. Mayer's ability to detect and elaborate fascinating contextual details from turn-of-the-century theatrical practice enlivens the first half of the book, even as it sets up his probing of Griffith's mature work.
The first four chapters especially prepare the way for Mayer's sensitive treatment of Griffith's controversial feature-length (twelve-reel) film The Birth of a Nation (1915). The passages of the film that are most problematic in their depiction of African Americans are those that adhere most closely to Thomas Dixon's 1905 novel The Clansman, upon which The Birth of a Nation was based. What is surprising is that the most original sections from a filmic perspective are those that Griffith added to the story by drawing directly upon the conventions of the hoary Civil War melodrama.
Griffith's response to the hostility aroused by The Birth of a Nation was to push the frontiers of film-making even further, with his sweeping, epic depiction of intolerance at four phases in the evolution of human history. And yet, paradoxically, Intolerance (1916) also marks his reaffirmation of theatre: Griffith made a feature of modern-dance sequences that he skillfully integrated into the narrative; he introduced live-action prologues and between-reel appearances by actors onstage. Griffith's continuing preference for melodrama as a source of filmic material over the Ibsenesque psychological drama that was finding its place on the American stage is plausibly explained in terms of its forward-driving action. He understood that silent film was ill-equipped to handle the exposition of past events on which well-made plays depend.
Mayer's zeal to prove the grip of theatrical convention on Griffith's film innovations might seem excessive in his chapter on Way Down East (1920), which he regards as Griffith's "strongest" (186), "most nuanced" (188), and "most emotionally compelling" (217) film, whereas the intense and artistically superb Broken Blossoms (1919) gets only scattered mentions throughout the book. Mayer also takes some pains to justify "the quality and power of the original stage [End Page 704] drama" (188), Lottie Blair Parker's Way Down East (1898), elaborated by Joseph Grismer, with additional doctoring by producer William Brady. These claims are embedded in a wonderful tapestry of...