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The Change to Features: Griffith, Chaplin, and Keaton

Film Lecture 3

Drew Hamilton

on 19 August 2016

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Transcript of The Change to Features: Griffith, Chaplin, and Keaton

The Change to Features:
Griffith, Chaplin, and Keaton
“He achieved what no other known man has achieved. To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or wheel; the emergence, coordination and first eloquence of language; the birth of art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man."

James Agee, American film critic
“Classic or not, [it} has long been one of the embarrassments of film scholarship. It can’t be ignored…and yet it was regarded as outrageously racist even at a time when racism was hardly a household word."

Andrew Sarris, American film critic
What's interesting about those 2 quotes?
They're both about the same film and the director who made it.
The movie: "Birth of a Nation" made in 1915
The director: D.W. Griffith
It was the first huge box office success: It made 10 million dollars in 1915. The box office record until "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" was made in 1937. That's 22 years!
Adjusted for inflation, it made $330,000,000...that's more than Transformers, Iron Man, and all but 1 Harry Potter movie
As the film industry grew, Hollywood started to make feature films
Features are at least 60 minutes long
Birth of a Nation was 3 hours and 10 minutes long
That was 3 times longer than most movies
Tickets are also an astronomical $2!!!!!!
D.W. Griffith
Birth of a Nation
sophisticated storylines
beautifully shot
#44 on American Film Institute's 100 Greatest American films
shot entirely without a script, except the book it was based on
very controversial
So, why all the controversy?

Because THESE were the heroes of the movie...
Told a part of U.S. history from pre-Civil War days to the “horrors” of the Reconstruction in the South.
Movie’s villains: carpetbaggers from the North and freed slaves
Movie’s heroes: The Ku Klux Klan
Based on the novel, “The Clansman”
Banned in several cities (Boston, St. Louis, Denver)
Started race riots in Boston and Philadelphia
Newly formed NAACP staged protests
So, why study this racist movie?
Birth of a Nation's innovations
First use of deep focus (everything in focus at once)
First use of flashbacks
First use of an iris (narrowing of the lens to show emphasis)
First use of night photography
Featured musical score written for the movie to be played live in the theater
Huge, epic shots with tons of action
Aftermath of Birth of a Nation
Griffith was hurt that people thought his movie was racist
KKK was no longer active by 1915, it was reformed in the 20s, thanks in part to Birth of a Nation.
Griffith's followup film was Intolerance, a movie about love, tolerance and the futility of war
Critics liked it, but it was a box office disaster
(WWI was starting and audiences did want to hear about peace and love)
Intolerance ruined Griffith financially
Movie Stars
The MPPC didn't want to list actors in film credits to save money
Early Hollywood studios saw it differently
They thought if you make actors into famous stars, people would come to see them over and over again
Early Movie Stars
Florence Lawrence: the first movie star
Mary Pickford: "America's sweetheart"
Clara Bow: "The It Girl"; first real sex symbol
Charlie Chaplin: "The Little Tramp"
Buster Keaton: "The Great Stone Face"
Charlie Chaplin
Chaplin's rise to the top
Englishman who was a vaudevillian
Vaudeville was a popular type of stage show that feature a variety of different acts (comedy, singing, dancing, juggling, etc.)
Moved to Hollywood in 1914
Signed a deal with Keystone Pictures for $150 a week
The "Look"
While working with Keystone, Chaplin came up with his signature character, the
Little Tramp
, and his outfit:
Bowler hat, baggy pants, a tie, huge shoes, bamboo cane and a tiny greasepaint moustache
The Little Tramp's Appeal
As we've seen, most actors of silent era used exaggerated gestures and extremely physical comedy to get laughs
Chaplin’s tramp character, was more sophisticated. Basically, his character was a homeless man who had the behavior and refinement of a rich gentleman
Always dumped on, always the underdog
Audiences IMMEDIATELY loved him
Depicted the plight of the poor in America
The Most Wanted Man in Hollywood
1915, signed with Essanay Studios to add more depth to his character (directing too)
1917, Mutual Film Corporation signed him for $670,000 to make 12 movies
Later in 1917, signed with First National and was given COMPLETE creative control; now making $1 million a year
In 1919, helped co-found the studio United Artists
In just 5 years, he was now producing, directing and starring in his own films...and had started a studio
Famous Chaplin films
The Gold Rush
The Tramp moves to
Alaska during a gold rush
Chaplin's favorite film

City Lights
The Little Tramp falls in love
with a blind girl
Generally considered Chaplin's best film
#11 on AFI's Top 100 American films
Silent even after sound was invented

The Great Dictator
Satire bitterly critical of Hitler and the Nazis
First Chaplin "talkie"
Most successful film
Played 2 characters: a Jewish barber and the dictator
Helped build sentiment against Hitler
Buster Keaton
"The Great Stone Face"

Widely considered the best physical comedian of all time
Did all of his own stunts, often dangerous ones
Like Chaplin, a trained vaudevillian
Never smiled; the ultimate straight man

Film and Video Content Standard 5.0 Research

TLW 5.2 Discover and explore the contributions of people in a multi-cultural society in the development of film

Peformance Indicator: compare and contrast contributions of various cultures to the development of cinema
Full transcript