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There will come a day when the value of Ira Gallen’s work in publishing Seymour Stern’s writings on D. W. Griffith and THE BIRTH OF A NATION will be recognized.

That day is not now. It may be a long time coming but that day will come.

I first read  THE FILM CULTURE edition of Seymour Stern’s THE BIRTH OF A NATION in the 1980s. It was invaluable in helping me to come to terms not only with the importance of this landmark picture but also with the importance of presenting it in a manner that compels viewers to sit on the edge of their seats.

Stern, a Marxist, correctly pointed out that the issues of THE BIRTH are not that of race but of class.

As a member of a long despised class of people (the working class) I not only can appreciate that I have also experienced it.

My interest in Stern’s writing on THE BIRTH primarily had to do with creating a musical score to accompany the presentations of my 16mm color tinted version of the film. It was a superb print taken from the best available sources.

Stern dealt with D. W. Griffith’s use of music in depth. I was able to augment what I learned from his writings by actually speaking with and learning from a man who had played first violin in the orchestra which had accompanied the picture through the 365 performances of its premiere run at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles, California in 1915.

That man’s name was Bernard B. Brown.

Mr. Brown, who received 11 Academy Award nominations and two Oscars for his work with Film and Film Sound he also directed the sound recording on THE JAZZ SINGER (1927) with Al Jolson (making him present in an important way at the two most important moments in the birth and development of motion pictures as an art form ans an industry) he also served for most of his career at head of sound at Universal Pictures. Upon his retirement he taught film and film sound at UCLA.

He was in Toronto for three days. I learned more from him in those three days than could be gleaned in a lifetime in the sterile fields academia.

During the years between 1915 and 1927 I learned from THE CINEMA YEAR BY YEAR (1894–2002) over 65% of the population went to the movies on a regular basis. What most of us today do not know is that starting with THE BIRTH the ticket price for a “A” movie was $2 a seat. That would be about $50 a seat today.

Contrast that with now when less than 10% of the population goes to the movies on a regular basis.

The movies have lost their audience.

There was a time when writers wrote about D. W. Griffith and THE BIRTH OF A NATION honestly.

James Agee wrote “HE ACHIEVED what no other known man has ever achieved. To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination, and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man.

We will never realize how good he really was until we have the chance to see his work as often as it deserves to be seen, to examine and enjoy it in detail as exact as his achievement. But even relying, as we mainly have to, on years-old memories, a good deal becomes clear.

One crude but unquestionable indication of his greatness was his power to create permanent images. All through his work there are images which are as impossible to forget, once you have seen them, as some of the grandest and simplest passages in music or poetry.

The most beautiful single shot I have seen in any movie is the battle charge in The Birth of a Nation. I have heard it praised for its realism, and that is deserved; but it is also far beyond realism. It seems to me to be a perfect realization of a collective dream of what the Civil War was like, as veterans might remember it fifty years later, or as children, fifty years later, might imagine it. I have had several clear mental images of that war, from almost as early as I can remember, and I didn’t have the luck to see The Birth of a Nation until I was in my early twenties; but when I saw that charge, it was merely the clarification, and corroboration, of one of those visions, and took its place among them immediately without seeming to be of a different kind or order. It is the perfection that I know of, of the tragic glory that is possible, or used to be possible, in war; or in war as the best in the spirit imagines or remembers it…

“(Today, The Birth of a Nation is boycotted or shown piecemeal; too many more or less well-meaning people still accuse Griffith of having made it an anti-Negro movie. At best, this is nonsense, and at worst, it is vicious nonsense. Even if it were an anti-Negro movie, a work of such quality should be shown, and shown whole. But the accusation is unjust. Griffith went to almost preposterous lengths to be fair to the Negroes as he understood them, and he understood them as a good type of Southerner does. I don’t entirely agree with him; nor can I be sure that the film wouldn’t cause trouble and misunderstanding, especially as advertised and exacerbated by contemporary abolitionists; but Griffith’s absolute desire to be fair, and understandable, is written all over the picture; so are degrees of understanding, honesty, and compassion far beyond the capacity of his accusers. So, of course, are the salient facts of the so-called Reconstruction years.).”

Nor was he alone.

That time is long gone.

For myself, locally, the new perspective on Griffith reached its nadir (I thought) in a piece by Toronto film guru Geoff Pevere that had more holes in it than Swiss Cheese.

Pevere’s errors are pretty much par for the course in this era of popcorn writing. I took him to task. Eminent Griffith scholar William M. Drew took him to task. The one good thing that came out of it was that Geoff put me in touch with Drew which was the birth of a terrific friendship. I now have most of Drew’s books.

Lillian Gish has spoken in her writings of Griffith’s commanding vision of the cinema. “Mr. Griffith said that the audience would take what we put up on the screen to be the truth and that he had to do our best to ensure that it was the truth or we would lose them.”

Truth got tossed out of the movies long ago. “It’s just a movie,” too many film makers say.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION puts on the screen the truth of the American Civil War and the Aftermath of Reconstruction from the point of view of the white American south. That is the film’s virtue and its value.

Thanks to Seymour Stern and to Bernard B. Brown I was able to create a sound collage for THE BIRTH OF A NATION that when I was invited to present it for THE TORONTO FILM SOCIETY had the audience on its feet cheering and stomping exactly as audiences had in 1915. The then director of the film society’s silent series stormed up to shouting, “That score was brilliant!” The brilliance was Griffith’s. I had just done my homework.

Thanks to Ira Gallen others can do their homework as well. This book has naturally garnered a lot of negative press.

That just goes to show how important it is in these days when political correctness is running amok.–Reg Hartt 2018–01–01.

Ira Gallen:

Ira Gallen also recorded an interview with the great animation artist, director and producer Shamus Culhane. It can be seen here: .

In 1986 I brought Shamus to Toronto. We visited SICK KIDS HOSPITAL. They recorded it: .


Silent films, starting with THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) were shown in 5,000 seat theaters at $2 a seat (over $50 a seat today) with orchestras of up to 200 pieces plus chorus, solo voice and sound effects. Once the movies began to speak they began to lose their audience. In the silent period over 65% of the population went to the movies on a regular basis. Today that figure is less than 15%.

Bernard B. Brown played first violin in the orchestra which accompanied THE BIRTH OF A NATION during its premiere run in Los Angeles in 1915. On retiring he taught film and film sound at UCLA. For three days in 1980 he taught me.

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