Dwight Macdonald on film; D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein
He really wanted to be a writer as an actor he began in the movies just to make money for his writing which was in the cheapest kind of magazine. But the part that was a respectable fashion. And then you have to make money by acting but he thought even acting with respectable and directing movies and that he was really pushed into it by some of his bosses had been for a long time he didn't even signed on with the movie. You are listening to Dr. MacDonald on film. During the past decade Mr. McDonald has been perhaps the senior critic among American film critics during this past year he was distinguished visiting professor of film history and criticism at the University of Texas. These programs were drawn from the lecture series the topic for this program is D.W. Griffith and an historical background to the Soviet cinema. And now once again here
is Dwight McDonald. Well now let me say a few words about. The impending about Griffith is that he invented the basic vocabulary of the movie the close up long shot of symbolism and so on and also that he made the actor into visual element as that of an actor. In the history of American movies by Maryland with Wright and 907. Most films are producers that I would play each scene began with the entrance of the actors and lasted on back until the players were always shown first and at a fixed distance from the camera. In fact when Griffith began to use Sometimes people from only the producers and money people exhibitors they said no you can't do this or think that. That I had been cut off or that they don't have any writings that fatha was a mutilation of the act but I just
showed you that you cannot underestimate the stupidity of people. I made it absolutely impossible to watch the penalty I mean doing things the way they have always been done thinking they thought well how do I ever discover that the earth wasn't flat I don't know out. Anyway. No one knew how to break its umbilical cord to the medium of the stage. They continued it was delivered the baby. Act when Parliament in 1916 there was another significant addition to syntax until the advent of sound and of the rides. Both mechanical rather than artistic innovations. They still haven't in my opinion discovered how to handle a bright screen even though they have. A lot about sound. Now about Griffith himself. He really wanted to be a writer. He was an actor he began in the movies just to make money for his writing which was published in the cheapest kind of magazine.
But the program I thought that was a respectable version and then you had to make money by acting. But he thought even acting was more respectable than directing movies and that he was really pushed into it by. Some of his bosses had good ideas and for a long time he didn't even sign in with a little name of the movie. Finally he did realize of course that was his field. But anyway between nineteen five when he began to make movies and 1915 when the birth of a nation of Griffith directed literally hundreds of pictures. Well now of course this is possible only because most of these pictures are running which is a roughly 10 minutes maybe 15 minutes. And in fact again the humor conservatism of people thought it was very hard for him to persuade them and bully them into Latin America pictures which lasted all of 20 minutes. Because those that are now and others will just drive people out of the court and of course the
birth of a nation which lasts two and a half hours Well this was really something. But anyway. Are you going to try it in making these hundreds and hundreds of films and in this period and the birth of a nation comes as the apprenticeship period and which fact perhaps a half dozen extremely interesting films were made back to genius began to shout almost immediately. But he had more than two or maybe three. I guess probably before the birth of a Nation was about. Now Griffith was a terrific eggless. And this was why did they were able to survive for Iraq in the early twenties anyway because they were in power themselves on the money people. Brought Hollywood pictures up to about 1925.
In the Weald and then after that they did and I was I was very simply that business became too big to be entrusted to us. And the banks moved in. This began to take place in the last part. Of the 20s. And people like to wear out and of course often rather then another to men to get this last who is right in a couple of pictures of Cain and the Ambersons and then was kicked out to Von Stroheim was the fifth. Great picture of the nation. One word of advice. On one hand it was going to take a picture of his own. Make your pictures in your own way. Put your own mark on them. Take us down to the guns. You'll make some enemies but you'll make good pictures for this kind of making pictures not what. He was also at the
showman he was not the movie I mean by the tires especially but he is just new out of that. But who knew. He was conscious of the world. I think of us as two important things about. One of them is that they are often rather limited as you might rightly outside feel and are sabotaging as they often the honest mind is kind of illogical tangents. Now here at this very delicate problem of the subject of the birth of a nation it's not only a racist attack on Negroes. But also it's an attack in the most primitive and absurd level and therefore the deepest level that is the sexual level. Than one who was actually meant to represent Thaddeus Stevens the abolitionist. He has a right he did in fact have a mule aka mistress and this is made into obviously a
disgusting thing about St.. And then the extreme virgin and I don't know how to put it right there really excessively very true right hauen Stoneman and that sister of the little and they're both threatened and really terrifying is by Negroes and the little sister of the Pat's sister is she's. Something to. Escape from. I think wanted to write it but I must say this that a comic that Mahler's read of a good man who sometimes he's a brilliant guy but he sometimes. Lacks the obvious common sense of the. Resident tempted he objected to calling this a thing of attempted rape when he said I watched the fencer years ago with James Brown when I ran.
I think that's a gripe that we agreed that there were attempted rape. Bragger that agreed anyway and who have the right to read the goodman described it in a blundering pursuit the name of the misunderstanding I love you with any because around the Right now destroys herself raga something in that I think to me that she did act rather hysterically but. That I think Something About Mary and me. Yeah but I don't think I don't think you meant that and then the other points to that question of whether the intent of the desire in the cause of the whole Iraq was a euphemism for what he had a mind for a girl has the self to death by jumping off a rock to avoid a fate worse than death for her
to learn the lesson of which would not that she found the gates of death. I think that. That's. Me. Mr. Goodman looked rather silly. And I was not one of the first put up the liberal groups tried to ban it was there I can see why they felt this way and in fact it didn't side right to guns and many could not be shown because the police didn't. Want to have race riots. Anyway I think the reason that he made this Norman on this he really did bring the whole business about the Negro in because he was a Virginian he was a Southerner and self and he was not an elective or even. And this is the thing is that he had rocks with artists and geniuses.
Traction in this theme and otherwise what could be more really dramatic than the clash of Rights as against black just the colors I'm actually across the fact was that. I think that was a reason. In fact you know what the birth of a nation means. Sally once that is probably not one in ten thousand to be able to even think of what the title means and as a matter of fact. I never thought of it either. But what the title means according the Griffith is he said to an interviewer because the birth of a nation began with the Ku Klux Klan's and we have shown that that can exist now union without sympathy and oneness of sentiment he said Now this would seem to have the Ku Klux Klan be the organ of sympathy and oneness of sentiment that is. Is that this nation can only exist in a united and sympathetic rabbi if there are only white people here and in the original
version that was a happy ending and was shipped back to Africa. Literally I would think you are going crazy here. And the subtitle to it was Lincoln's solution. Back to Iraq. Sure that Lincoln never had any such thing and he finally couldn't. But anyway this is what the birth of a nation that we got rid of the negroes and but them them now on this question of content. Which is what's involved hip. I think that one of the oddest taxes worked to a certain pitch you might say that there are two kinds of content the literal one the kind that shows on the surface and here the very nasty political and social and racial lies that Griffin has put in. But underneath this if it's not there's another kind of content which is kind of a general comment on life in which some how well fences the
Klansmen. You certainly can't keep track excited about them as a hero and yet in the dramatic structure of this they auger is a great you really want them to come and rescue these people in a common good. And I disapprove of the little Connell's refusing to shake hands with Lynch. Well he was a villain but that wasn't why the little kind of refused to fight was because he was a Negro. But tries to pass off the snob. Angry at the colonel as he lectures him about his bad manners and Stoneman the father of abolitionists politician looks comfortable. It is often very realistic the scenes fences the outdoor scenes in the town. Actuality they reminded me of Walker Evans photographs by the way being a close friend and the one who did the photographs for a major book Let Us Now place famous
men the sharecropping book. And then also I remember this scene in the South Carolina legislature. Which begins and really what daring that he had to do it this was 10 years before the Russians came along it begins with it with the chamber. You see nothing but empty desks and then suddenly the desk filled people are sitting at them by a dissolve and then the way in which the choreography of the legislative behave and from a kind of a point of view not from a political point of view is really inspiring. Friends is the thing when there are some white women up in the balcony and somebody in to do the bill to allow intermarriage between whites and negroes the next thing you know obsessed more than I'd realized. And then you see about half a dozen of these Negro legislators that into debt and then they all suddenly kind of
one and look up in the balcony how fine and mob scene from a dramatic point of view. A lot was done in the movie but it was it was drama. The right leg is flat as around the room on the right. Waving their hands and so on as a sort of stock said. Well if that's true it certainly is rather artificial and rather stagey. But if you look at it from a cinematic point of view this very nice and absolutely unforgettable dramatic and even lovely picture of the sentiment that Griffith was trying to impress at that time which was the. Fluttering right to try to escape the sinister black hat. And fact some of the close ups of have faced that if you notice really almost too realistic in fact it was the face of a Roman almost dissolved into madness to fit. From now to the birth of a nation just one point about to live
at that is unconsciousness once and I think 31 a friend of mine met with and he arranged to have with intolerance which of them never missing them for years. Showered about six or seven of us we were as new out as an intellectual and so Griffith was there in the projection room reference we had dinner with him and was in hotel room and my friends kept crawling in that plan that he was very drunk. And he kept calling up long this is the my friend and try to talk to grab a Mary Pickford and so on. Yeah so I was going back to there on the set of mine and he kept growing into the grip of jail come to the well I didn't think he wanted to press as you say the poor guy. What we admired him for I was precisely the fact that he'd been kicked out of Hollywood now that he was too good for Hollywood. He thought that he would impress us by having an early gaff is done and then when we
saw the film he kept making it impossible for us to pay attention to it by a running commentary so there was no music just the projection room. Running commentary. All through the fact that it you know you think some power repossession you would see somebody carrying a fatherly. There's Jack Barrymore at first because green screen. I did Alan they're there I'm rather Iraq very high praise throughout and it's I you know I'm I made them I made them. Well he had no conception and yet this is really in many ways a better thing than the breath of a nation he had no idea of what he had done even then and this was 15 years later and he was elderly man. Not in a same way that Griffith invented the cinema as an art form so you might say that Eisenstein so to speak invented the great Soviet cinema of the 20s single handed. In an article written in 1924 one year before up attempt was made one of me on the
Russian cinema. Some of his most extreme supporters. Have a vision of a socialist mass film similar in construction too but different in meaning from the birth of a nation in which the people themselves could take pot. Well one year later this was realized beginning with Potemkin. Which was really what the birth of a nation was to American cinema. Well now it was different a million and one wide out of the sighted Gryphus film was certainly reactionary and racist in our times today whereas 10 days or so of the world was about the October Revolution. It is what I once thought of as progressive. But don't any longer. But now they don't appear so different. That was boss of X who stormed the palace at the end of this film. Now seemed just about as much misguided heroes as the Klansman at the end of Gryphus film. Because you know that in his doco background the real Russian revolution was not the act of revolutions but the march revolution the one of the plays in March of 1917. And that
revolution that was a classical revolution in that the ruling class collapsed almost without a shot being fired. In fact overnight practically as Trotsky used to put it power was lined in the streets. Anybody could pick it up. So very loose coalition of parties all the way from the boss of it from the Mensheviks on the left to the cadets and the social revolutionaries on the right. Anyway I just gave one push and everything fell and there was no fighting there was almost nothing happened a way of violence. But I was a real revolution that was the people fed up with war fed up with the corruption and inefficiency of the system and with centuries of oppression and so that vanished so then you had a period of constitutional government government. Values PADI's which finally ended with the social revolutionaries which where I bought a left wing party led by Kamensky. You would never suspect that it will have to end from this film but anyway it was rather
left wing Liberal Party. They finally ended up with the power all by constitutional parliamentary means by October of that year. What happened then was a revolution they put as they call it by a well-organized monotony namely the boss of the body under Lenin and Trotsky who simply took over again with almost no fight in the end of this film is the storming of the Winter Palace you see by the boss of X that went to power it was the last stronghold of Qur'an that was the great thing in the middle of Petrograd whether XYZ used to hold forth. In fact it's sad that more damage was done to the Winter Palace by making the movie than in the revolution itself. Which gives some idea of how easy it was for them to type. Now they took power as a frankly centralized minority authoritarian undemocratic Paudie. In fact Reza look some book and Trotsky himself in the early part of the century had both of them
fully about the dangers of this kind of centralism in Lenin's Poddy and therefore were more than justified. Because after the boss of X took power and this is what this film was about. After I took power on a slogan of bread peace and land. Well I did my piece that's true. And this was the one honest and really I think admirable part of their policy the fatal error of all the other left parties was to try to continue fighting the war on its allies against Germany. The boss of IC saw that this was impossible that there was no hot and the people thought they made peace. Two years later at best the top spy made a very unfavorable base with Germany but still it was peace and that was one of the main reasons they were able to take power at all. But bed became scarce than ever and as for the land while the peasants didn't really get the land it was collectivized and not divided and that's quite a difference from the point of you a peasant. Also they suppress the Constituent Assembly of the palm and. That's not
shown in the film of course. Film ends with that just coming into power in Petrograd. Simply did it by force of arms I simply had a couple of regiment of loyal Marines watching with bandits guns and machine guns to take over the galleys and. The so-called legislature is out and I said this session is finished and it was finished and never assembled again. There were no ma elections ever held to this day. They also suppressed all the other parties including the most left wing ones the Mensheviks and the anarchists and ruled all by themselves and exactly what had been predicted about the dangers of democratic centralism came about because after Lenin who was a civilized and reasonable and sane man for all of his wrongheaded ideas about the organization. We had as you know a semi literate Georgian named fallen who
was. In the last. 15 years of his life probably insane but who had the machine that Lenin had made and used it. So I don't get carried away by the revolution and how it was I'm of this movie. This is the ne peep the new economic policy. Which was instituted by Lenin and Trotsky and nine hundred twenty one. After Communism you see between 1970 and 1921 the boss of X was fighting a civil war against the emigres the class and boys who had fled abroad and then tried to under Col. Chacon and several other military leaders tried to be invaded the country and take over power again backed up by British and American troops but not to mend us number them. But anyway enough so that I was given a very good talking point to the present rulers of the
Soviet Union about how lousy England America and other countries. But anyway you organized and defeated them on various fronts in a heroic titanic struggle. But this was call raw communism and I had to be very strict then. But I was so strict and there was so little freedom and liberty that there was in 1921 there was a great revolt of the sailors the plans that the vote. Which was the pride of the revolution in fact revolted in a rather mild way they drew up a list of demands mostly for more free try more free markets and especially for more political freedom and I wanted to actually have elections and more than one party. They were met with force. Their demands were not listened to they were probably willing to resign but they were mad and if I had led the brigade of Russian troops that put them down and executed a great many of them after they'd been conquered this is a black mark on the whole history of the Russian Revolution. But anyway after they put them
down in a typical bureaucratic and totalitarian matter a Lenin and Trotsky then conceded some of their demands because I could see that this was getting pretty serious and I put on this any paper which essentially I didn't give any political concessions but it did give a great many economic concessions. And to some extent capitalism began to creep back in a very small private property was respected a little bit and small traders were the peasants were allowed to sell their products in a market and so on. You have been listening to wright MacDonald on film. In this programme Mr McDonald has discussed D.W. Griffith and an historical background to the Soviet cinema. These programmes were drawn from Mr. MacDonald's lecture series during his recent tenure as distinguished visiting professor of film history and criticism at the University of Texas. This series was produced by communication center at the University of Texas for a national educational radio producer for the
series Bill Georgia. Phil Miller speaking. This is NPR National Educational Radio Network.
- Dwight Macdonald on film
- Producing Organization
- University of Texas
- KUT (Radio station : Austin, Tex.)
- Contributing Organization
- University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
- AAPB ID
- Episode Description
- D.W. Griffith, Historical Background to Sergei Eisenstein
- Series Description
- Series of lectures by Dwight Macdonald on film: its makers, its history, its future.
- Film and Television
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Announcer: Miller, Phil
Producer: Jordan, Bill
Producing Organization: University of Texas
Producing Organization: KUT (Radio station : Austin, Tex.)
Speaker: Macdonald, Dwight
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 67-16-2 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
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- Chicago: “Dwight Macdonald on film; D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein,” 1967-03-20, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed December 8, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-4m91d26c.
- MLA: “Dwight Macdonald on film; D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein.” 1967-03-20. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. December 8, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-4m91d26c>.
- APA: Dwight Macdonald on film; D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-4m91d26c