"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Billy the Kid (MGM, 1930)


The Billy the Kid movie that set the standard
(for errors and clichés).
Fun, though.




 
 
There was a 1911 short entitled Billy the Kid with Edith Storey as Billy (don’t ask) and a bigger silent movie in 1925 with Franklyn Farnum (no relation to William and Dustin) in the title role. But really the first significant Billy film was the 1930 talkie MGM put out, produced and directed by King Vidor.

Vidor, you probably know, was to become very famous, especially with his War and Peace in 1956, but his career was incredibly long: he made movies from Hurricane in Galveston in 1913 (he had lived through the horrific 1900 storm there) until The Metaphor in 1980. Westernwise he is best known for the 1946 potboiler Duel in the Sun. Billy the Kid was his first oater. He made the 1936 The Texas Rangers (the Fred MacMurray one, rather good), the very weak Northwest Passage with Spencer Tracy in 1940 (don’t bother) and then the famous Cotton/Peck Duel, usually known as Lust in the Dust. His last Western was Man Without a Star with Kirk Douglas (watchable but not great). This Billy came in the early days of the talkie film and tried to be a serious effort, to stand alongside Paramount’s The Virginian of the year before, for example, or Fox’s The Big Trail. Vidor was a great believer in talking movies; he thought spoken dialogue could give depth, subtlety and substance to the Western, a genre he suspected (poor deluded fellow) of vapidity.
 
King Vidor overlooks 'Lincoln, NM'
 
The 1930 Billy the Kid is seminal: it established many of the clichés and falsehoods that were to be perpetuated by later versions and thus pass into ‘fact’. Said to be based on the 1925 Walter Noble Burns book The Saga of Billy the Kid, it is historical tosh from beginning to (especially the) end. But it’s fascinating nonetheless.

Not because of the dialogue: the rather clumsy writing (Wanda Tuchock/Laurence Stallings/Charles MacArthur), slightly wooden direction by Vidor and poor acting by Mack Brown (he is clearly just saying the lines he has learned) render the ‘talkie’ element of the film rather plodding and heavy-handed. Everything stops when the characters talk to each other. There are even still title cards, a hangover from silent movies, to slow the action down and render everything more static.

Johnny Mack Brown, billed as ‘John’, was 26, quite young in fact for a film Billy (Farnum was 47, Kris Kristofferson 37) but looked older. He has a certain energy and charm about him but his hair was very silly. And as I say he was (then at least) a rotten actor. Johnny had been a football star taken up by Hollywood for baseball movies and the like but muscular good looks could only take him so far. Clark Gable was getting the romantic leads at MGM so Johnny tried a Western. Vidor actually wanted Cagney and didn’t rate Mack Brown very highly but had to make the best of it. By the mid-1930s Johnny was making cheap B-Westerns for Mascot, then even cheaper Supreme ones and serials. He was immensely popular with juveniles, though, and made a solid career of oaters. He was in 131 altogether, the last being the Leo Gordon-penned Dan Duryea/Rod Cameron B, The Bounty Killer (1965) in which he had a modest part as the sheriff.
 
John Mack Brown, 26
 
All Billy films really need an authoritative Pat Garrett, preferably a senior actor with gravitas, and this one got Wallace Beery. Beery had joined the circus in 1902 and then made a career in music halls. He married Gloria Swanson in 1916 but it was a tempestuous and short-lived affair. He became a heavy in silent movies for Paramount but he had a rich, deep voice and MGM hired him for talkies in 1930. Beery was nominated for an Oscar for his part in The Big House in that year and he won Best Actor for The Champ the year after. He was one of the most famous ever Long John Silvers in ’34 and became one of the great stars of Hollywood. He was in 21 Westerns: nine silents in the 20s, then his first talkie oater as Garrett in 1930, and of course he was a great Pancho Villa in 1934. In Billy, Beery’s Garrett has quite a secondary role and is not the ‘anti-Billy’ that later versions wrote him up as. But he does it well.
 
Beery as Garrett (that's a wooden chain he's whittling)
 
There had to be a girl, of course, and the writers invented Claire (played by Kay Johnson, well known for posh dame roles), fiancée for the English rancher figure (called Tunston). Said gal naturally falls for Billy and feels free to say so when Tunston is conveniently shot. The girl figure is, however, clearly a clumsy invention.

One of the delights of the movie is that 'Angus' (rather than Alexander) McSween is played by Russell Simpson, with a broad Scottish accent straight out of California. I do love Russell. He was ideal as the bible-reading McSween and in fact became quite typecast as preacher, elder or otherwise religious gent. His first role was uncredited in the 1914 The Virginian but he was promoted to Trampas in the 1923 remake. Billy was Russell Simpson’s seventeenth Western (though first talkie). He specialized in Wyatt Earp pictures: he was the judge in the 1932 Earp movie Law and Order, the editor in the 1934 effort Frontier Marshal and he had a part in the Errol Flynn Dodge City in 1939 (he also appeared in later Flynn oaters Virginia City and The Santa Fe Trail). He was taken up by John Ford and was a great Pa Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, also appearing in Drums Along the Mohawk, My Darling Clementine, and Wagonmaster. Watch out for him. You’ll spot that beaky nose.
 
Good old Russell, always good with a bible in hand
 
Other spottable actors include Chris-Pin Martin as Santiago, the rather stereotypical but sympathetic Mexican (for once not a barman).

There’s a lot good about the film. The scenery, for one thing. Much of it was shot around Gallup NM, and the ‘Lincoln’ looks really authentic (the real one is a great place to visit, by the way). The cinematographer was Gordon Avil, who worked with Beery on The Champ. This was his first Western and he went on to shoot 139 mostly TV oaters and the occasional movie, including Fort Yuma and the 1958 Zorro (if you class that as a Western). In Billy there are some impressive longshot New Mexican landscapes and the scene where Billy holes up in a cave is beautifully photographed.
 
Fine scenery
 
Then some of the action scenes are quite well done.  Of course it’s all nonsense. LG Murphy has become 'Colonel Donovan' (James A Marcus), a corrupt sheriff/JP and the out-and-out baddy (all Billy films follow this convention of Murphy as the bad guy). Donovan’s chief henchman is the evil ‘Ballinger’ (Warner P Richmond) who duly gets shot with his own shotgun outside the Lincoln court house. Noble ‘Tunston’ (I don’t know why they changed all these names) hires on young Billy Bonney, who is a fast gun but a good boy really. Two endings were filmed: the DVD I have has the American happy ending, where Pat lets Billy escape from Fort Sumner with the lovely Claire. But there was a version for the European market where Billy’s ending is more traditional.
 
Obligatory love interest
 
The movie begins with a statement from the then Governor of New Mexico, a RC Dillon, giving the opinion that “though it has taken liberties with the details of his life” [boy, I’ll say] the film is true to the spirit of Billy the Kid’s fight for justice. Yes, well.
 
Looks more like a Beery picture than a Billy one
 
Worth a watch, not only for Billyistas. 
 
Lincoln, very good
 
Roy Rogers and Bob Steele would be Billy later in the decade but the next big Billy movie was the 1941 Billy the Kid, with Robert Taylor (aged 30) in the title part.

More on Billy here.


Monday, May 19, 2014

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy


A hard beauty


Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses (Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1992) succeeded Blood Meridian, after a gap of seven years. It is one of the great American novels.

It has similarities with Blood Meridian in that it tells of the journey into Mexico and into adulthood of a young man but it has a softer, almost a romantic wash on the McCarthyite bleakness and it has a more contemporary setting (1949). On one level it is just a romantic tale of poor American boy meets rich Mexican girl and it goes badly. At its blandest it could even have been made into a movie with, oh, I don’t know, say Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz, someone like that.
 
 
But the romance is just an overlay. You don’t have to scratch the picture’s glaze much to see the despair and come face to face with human evil.

The cutesy title taken from the sweet lullaby is on one level misleading but on closer inspection is appropriate. In one version of the song, provided in Alan Lomax's book American Ballads and Folksongs, the words go:

Way down yonder, In de medder
There's a po' lil lambie,
De bees an' de butterflies,
Peckin' out its eyes,
De po' lil lambie cried, "Mammy!"

Another version contains the lyrics

Buzzards and flies,
Picking out its eyes,
Pore little baby crying.

There is McCarthy’s poetic eye for landscape, nature, weather and wildlife. The land the hero passes through is a significant character in the dramatis personae and there is a deep knowledge and understanding of horses. There is also stunningly authentic post-War Texan dialogue (even though I was never there then, it rings totally true) rendered in that idiosyncratic way with no inverted commas, with some apostrophes omitted yet others retained (dont, cant, aren’t), with of used as an auxiliary instead of have, with coinings of portmanteau words (ticketstubs, grainpallets) and with no capitals for english furniture. ‘Sentences’ with no finite verbs. Color, especially reds. Some paragraphs, even single sentences, read as prose poems.

They heard somewhere in the tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing.

Why Cormac McCarthy hasn’t been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature is a complete mystery.

 
The plot starts bleakly enough as John Grady Cole, 16, his grandfather just dead, his parents divorced and his ranch sold, and his pal Lacey Rawlins, 17, run away like the teenagers they are and ride across the Rio Grande. But though “circumspect” they are “jaunty”; they cannot help themselves. Freedom and the future flow through their veins. They are joined by an even younger boy, a wild tearaway on a possibly stolen horse, who calls himself by the name of a radio evangelist, and they ride south.

There are no chapters as such; it is a much more stream of consciousness affair. But the novel is broken up into sections and there are clear ‘breaks’. The first hundred pages have a positive, hopeful ring to them as the two friends (they have lost the younger boy) get work on a ranch. But then the hacendado realizes the qualities of John Grady and he is taken up, promoted and separated from Rawlins. You sense the bad looming; it’s all going to go to hell. It does. A hundred pages later the boys are free and a new section begins.

Despite the late forties setting, the tale is very 'old West'. The very first page contains half a dozen references which tell you where you are. The candleflame, the hat and boots, a calf bawling, a train and some mesquite brakes all set the context. Once in old Mexico it is even more the case. Horses, hats and Colt pistols. A long ride through open country. Sticking with a partner. A lonely man doing what a man’s gotta do. The scene where Cole repossesses his horses is pure Western movie.
 
 
Cole is a complex character. We are told on page 6 that he is “ardenthearted” and that turns out to be true. He lies “a long time listening to the others breathing in their sleep while he contemplated the wildness about him, the wildness within.” Yet he is also bottled up, hard-boiled, amazingly so for a youth, laconic, tough as nails. He suffers great loss and is cruelly mistreated and brings to both grim fatalism. He has to kill to survive. Towards the end of the story we are told that “He felt wholly alien to the world although he loved it still.”

The loneliness is key. The tale ends with the notion that Cole has no home, no roots, nowhere to be. Mexico, Texas: it is no country for young men. He is Titus Alone. "...it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they'd have no heart to start at all." I mean, how bleak do you want it?

There is rather too much Mexican history as the great aunt lectures Cole on the Maderos for a good number of pages. We forgive.

The book is mordant, resonant, haunting, hard and luminous.

All the Pretty Horses was the first volume of The Border Trilogy, which continues with The Crossing, and concludes with the third volume, Citiesof the Plain. When the books came out I eagerly snatched up The Crossing to read the further adventures of John Grady Cole, who did not appear in it. But I entered a new world of wonder and my persistence was anyway rewarded in volume 3.
 
 

 

 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

As The Crow Flies by Craig Johnson


A real saloon


Crows don’t always fly in a straight line or the most direct route from A to, well, B. They sometimes circle round C, catching thermals, fly up to nests, D, with shiny things in their beaks, get tangled in string, Z, and, if Ted Hughes is to be believed, even scorch their mother’s ears to stumps. In the ninth episode of the Longmire saga, Craig Johnson's As the Crow Flies (Viking Penguin, 2012), they do all of the above (except the last).
 
 
This novel succeeds the 2011 Hell Is Empty, the Dante one, with the e-short story Divorce Horse in between. In both short story and new novel, preparations are still ongoing for Cady’s wedding (it seems to take a lot of preparing) though she finally gets to tie the knot (or anyway ride into a Cheyenne ceremony on Wahoo Sue) at the end of the novel. Divorce Horse is fun, by the way, and tells of an Indian rodeo, a stolen horse and a love affair, as well as the inevitable wedding arrangements.
 
 
As The Crow Flies is a much more traditional whodunit than the more ambitious Hell and we have a woman who falls to her death from a cliff (the Painted Warrior site Walt and Henry are reccying - if there is such a word - as a possible wedding venue). Walt helps with the investigation into what they assume is a murder rather than a suicide or an accident.

Longmire is not only out of his jurisdiction, as he was when he worked undercover in The Dark Horse, but not even in his own state. He is up on the reservation in southern Montana and he becomes the mentor (the Virgil?) of a new and colorful character, tribal Police Chief Lolo Long. Maybe Walt is still on a semi-leave of absence recovering from his hellish ordeal and thus free to wander, leaving Durant in the hands of Rita & Co. Anyway he seems to have plenty of time to counsel the sexy Lolo and solve the odd crime. Unusually, he is not shot or even beaten up this time, though someone tries to kill him, twice.

Walt even takes a trip of another kind when he takes part in an Indian peyote ceremony and hallucinates. A county sheriff tripping on controlled substances. Daring, huh.
 
 
It’s a good story even if you will probably guess who dunit pretty early on.

Cliff Cly, FBI, is back, which is nice.
 
The best bit is probably the sleezy Jimtown Bar, as near to a proper Western saloon as you are going to get these days. In fact this is a real place. I found this article which described the original Jim and his successors, and the history of the world's largest pile of old beercans. See what Montana has to offer?   

There are a couple of serious points made, though. Mr. Johnson is evidently concerned with the post-traumatic stress syndrome affecting war veterans. Two characters suffer from it in this story, one being Lolo, who has been in Iraq, and her aggressiveness and inability to relate even to her own son are clearly manifestations of that. Walt is duly understanding and helpful. The fact remains that one wonders what kind of policing system would allow a hyper-active, in-your-face-aggressive, untrained person with clear psychological issues to hurtle about the place with a huge .44 sidearm which she draws at the drop of a hat. Kinda worrying. She calms down, though, under Walt’s tutelage, and will maybe become a good officer. Maybe.

At one point a Cheyenne character, Mrs. Small Song, sneers at Lolo and calls her a “red snake” for serving “in the white man’s army.” Ms. Small Song ws not polite but did kind of have a point, I guess.

There’s a sympathetic portrayal of Indian life and the problems of Indian society and reservation life. It is clear that Johnson is an admirer of Native American culture and history, even if he doesn’t use that term. I must say that Indians I have talked to do dislike the expression and indeed it is rather absurd – as if those of other family origins born in the USA are not ‘native Americans’. There are also some good cowboy and Indian jokes, my favorite being the Indian lying on the trail with his ear to the ground.

There’s a nice twist on the good cop/bad cop act as Walt and Bear do a good cowboy/bad Indian bit. I also liked Henry’s Red Birney Irregulars, a nod to Sherlock Holmes. Come to think of it, Walt’s powers of observation may not be exactly Sherlockian (or like those of the Mentalist) but he is pretty damn good at noticing things.

Lola (as opposed to Lolo) is back, Henry’s powder-blue T-bird, though Johnson insists on referring to it as a “vintage” car. A vintage car, dear Mr. J., is one made between 1919 and 1930. Lolo is in fact a “classic” car. Never mind. We can’t all be sad-case old-car experts like Jeff.
 
 
Anyway As The Crow Flies is another good read and was followed by a couple more short stories about which, dear e-pards, I will waffle on another day.

 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Answers to Longmire quiz


Want the answers to the Longmire quiz?
Here you are, clever clogs:




People

Places

Vehicles

Animals

Bear

Busy Bee

Bullet

Dog

Double Tough

Painted Indian

Lola

Sundance

Lolo

Red Pony

Rezdawg

Wahoo Sue




Longmire Quiz


Show off your Longmire knowledge. Impress your sad friends.


Craig Johnson fans will be able to sort the alphabetical list of twelve names below into four columns of three in less than a trice.

 
Answers here.


Bear
Bullet
Busy Bee
Dog
Double Tough
Lola
Lolo
Painted Indian
Red Pony
Rezdawg
Sundance
Wahoo Sue



People                 Places                   Vehicles              Animals





Friday, May 9, 2014

Hell Is Empty by Craig Johnson

 
Longmire, to Hell and back


Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!



In Act 1, scene 2 of The Tempest, Ariel says that the king’s son, Ferdinand, cried as he leapt from the ship to make for the island,

“Hell is empty
And all the devils are here.”

It is perhaps a little surprising that Craig Johnson should use some Shakespeare for his title rather than a quotation from Dante’s Inferno because Hell Is Empty, the seventh Walt Longmire mystery, is his most ambitious work so far and is based on the first part of the Divine Comedy (though in translation rather than 14th century Italian). You almost get the idea that Mr. Johnson deliberately invented the character of Virgil a few books back so that Walt would have an appropriately named guide through the icy inferno. Maybe he did.
 
 
In a way this is not a ‘Walt Longmire mystery’ at all; we know who dunit at the outset. In that sense it is unusual. This volume is not so much mysterious as mystical. And if, like me, you don’t care for mumbo-jumbo that much, you might not have quite so much patience with it. We did put up with Walt hearing the voices of long-dead Indians when he saved Henry before but it’s a bit overdone here. There is a great deal of Indian lore and there are ghostly apparitions galore.
 
 
Still, when it comes down to it, Walt sets off alone (the other Durant characters play very little part in this one, though rich Omar helps out again) to track a monstrous killer named Shade (geddit?) through the Bighorn Mountains in the dead of winter. Of course he receives more than his fair share of buffetings, one way and another, and nearly dies (again) but survives to tell the tale – in the first person. And if the body count was high in previous volumes, boy howdy, it’s stratospheric here. Northern Wyoming is littered with the corpses of lawmen and bad guys (those devils who had vacated Hell). Durant morgue is going to be working overtime. You thought Wyoming was the safest part of the US, with the lowest murder rate? Think again. You’d be safer moving to Detroit or New Orleans. They only have two or three hundred homicides a year there.

One of Walt’s most likeable (and most Western) features is that he knows when a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. And does it. Often he does it in the teeth of all advice. Maybe he does it from obstinacy but no, really he does it because it’s right to do it. He won’t give up, ever. He pursues those devils through the icy wastes. He makes the point that there is very little about Hell in the Bible. Most of what we “know” about the place comes from Dante Alighieri. And while Dante did have hellfire, the lowest reaches, reserved for the traitors, were not hot but freezing. There were the betrayers, Virgil pointed out to the Florentine poet, frozen in the gelid lake of Cocytus. Cain is there, immersed up to his chin. Poor old Judas Iscariot is completely submerged under the ice. Brrr.
 
 
Some mystery, some whodunitism, is provided by the fact that Walt is warned about traitors and can trust no one, not prison van drivers or FBI agents or even dead Indians. Are they traitors? He doesn’t know. Nor do we.

There is a pleasant leavening of humor. Walt continues to wisecrack his way through the story, and Johnson amuses himself (and us) by writing lines such as “Jesus, Virgil, Dante saved your life!” You see, Shade’s high-powered bullet hit the fat paperback, “like a cliché from an old pulp western” (though it was usually a watch there) and punched through the pages only up until the Canto XXXI before giving up the unequal struggle.

Cady isn’t married yet. Henry is still arranging the ceremony. But she’s going to have a baby girl. Virgil tells Walt and Walt tells Cady.

He doesn’t lose his hat this time. In fact he goes to some lengths to retain it.

These books have evolved since The Cold Dish and the character of Longmire is evolving with them; It will be interesting to see how. Next in the sequence is an eBook short story, Divorce Horse, and the next novel is As The Crow Flies. Stay tuned to this blog to find out how it all pans out…

 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Birth of a Nation (David W Griffith, 1915)


An important film that argues for evil




 
 
It is hard to watch The Birth of a Nation today. Such overtly racist propaganda makes unpalatable viewing and even as a film it is unconscionably long (twelve reels, 190 minutes at 16 fps) and the acting is to modern eyes absurdly and childishly melodramatic. You watch it as a historical document.

The film is, of course, in many ways seminal. DW Griffith was a pioneer and he, more than any other early film maker, practically invented the language of the cinema. In the restored print available today the film is certainly remarkable in its staging and fluidity. The battle scenes are extraordinary
 
 Great battle panoramas
 
and the tableaux vivants showing such events as Lincoln signing the call-up, the surrender at Appomattox or Ford’s Theater, modeled on famous paintings, have an element of greatness about them. 1915 audiences witnessed the first intercutting in a chase scene: two concurrent actions building to a joint climax. It was remarkable and no wonder it thrilled. Cinema experts list many such innovations.
 
DWG
 
But as Andrew Sarris, quoted by Roger Ebert, says, "Classic or not, 'Birth of a Nation' 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."

1915 was the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War/Great Rebellion. There were many parades and commemorations held all over the United States, often with the emphasis on reconciliation and forgiveness. There were few living survivors of the conflict and those that attended were usually very old. The war was passing into myth and legend. Many early films concerned themselves with the subject. Griffith himself directed eleven one-reelers on the theme.
 
Hard to watch
 
Griffith was a Southern sympathizer heart and soul. His father had been a Confederate colonel. His actress wife had starred in productions of The Clansman (1906), a most unpleasantly anti-Negro play by white supremacist author Thomas Dixon Jr. which represents the KKK as the savior of the nation. It was a big hit and Griffith decided to adapt it for the screen.

Ebert again:

It is a stark history lesson to realize that this film, for many years the most popular ever made, expressed widely-held and generally acceptable white views. Miss [Lillian] Gish reveals more than she realizes when she quotes Griffith's paternalistic reply to accusations that he was anti-Negro: "To say that is like saying I am against children, as they were our children, whom we loved and cared for all of our lives."

It smacks of those slave-owners who used to deny their racism by arguing that “we treat our niggers very well.”

We mustn’t forget that there were those even at the time who protested against the film. The NAACP was outraged and many people, black and white, wrote to the press or expressed their dislike of the movie in other ways. The fact remains that the film was a huge box-office success, and the première publicity stunt of white-robed Klansmen parading in LA on February 8th, 1915 was greeted with more amusement than outrage.

The majority of the movie is given over to the story of two families, the Camerons and the Stonemans, one Southern and one Northern, whose friendship is sorely tested when they find themselves on opposite sides in the war. Sons of both families die on the same battlefield. The stern Northern paterfamilias is the Hon. Austin Stoneman, Leader of the House (hammed up unmercifully by Ralph Lewis), based on Thaddeus Stevens, complete with black wig and club foot. His daughter Elsie is played by Lillian Gish. I know it is correct to praise Ms. Gish for her great acting and long career but to my mind, in this she is absolutely awful.
 
Lillian Gish overdoes it shockingly
 
She demonstrates horror at the effrontery of a black man talking to her by literally waving her arms in the air. You feel that even on the stage in the corniest of Victorian melodramas she would be laughed at as overdoing it.

On the other side, the Cameron family, Mae Marsh is more restrained (if overly sugary) as “Flora Cameron – The Pet Sister” and she takes the (limited) acting honors. Marsh was an interesting person who had appeared in several early silent Westerns, including for Griffith, and became quite a star of the silver screen in the 1920s. Later, she was a character actor in talkies and was taken up by John Ford, appearing in many of his famous Westerns.
 
Mae Marsh better but still very sugary
 
Donald Crisp was General Grant and other minor roles were taken by Monte Blue, Eric von Stroheim, John Ford as a Klansman (well, according to Ford) and Raoul Walsh as John Wilkes Booth.
 
Raoul Walsh as John Wilkes Booth
 
One of the most bizarre aspects of the film is the use of white actors in blackface. George Siegmann is Stoneman’s henchman, Silas Lynch, “Mulatto Lieut. Governor”. Stoneman’s evil, scheming “mulatto” housekeeper Lydia is Mary Alden, another who hams it up with rolling eyes and villainous gestures. And Walter Long is Gus, “A Renegade Negro”. He dares to pay court to Mae Marsh’s white character so the girl duly throws herself off a cliff, as of course who wouldn’t?
 
Mary Alden as villainous 'mulatto' in blackface
 
Lillian Gish said in explanation that "There were scarcely any Negro actors on the Coast" and "Mr. Griffith was accustomed to working with actors he had trained." Well, there was a reason why there were few black actors on the coast, Ms. Gish, and probably a more evident reason still for Mr. Griffith not using any. The blackface is so badly applied and unconvincing that we can only conclude that Griffith wanted it that way. Using black actors in scenes suggesting possible sexual intent with whites would have shocked 1915 audiences in a way we would find hard to understand now.

There are even scenes where lead actors in blackface are seen against a background of real African-American people (in an uppity mob or as cheerful dancing “darkies”) and this contrast is as bizarre as it is chilling. “Them colored folk” dance with delight when the Confederates march off to war. I prefer to think their delight that their masters were going to the battlefield was for other motives than support.
 
President Wilson denied his approval of the play/film
 
The funniest part (unintentionally) is Gish’s scene caressing a very phallic bedpost.

There is a scene of siege in a cabin which reminds one very much of Griffith’s The Battle of Elderbush Gulch of 1913, also starring Gish and Marsh, except that the besiegers are not Indians but “coloreds” and it is not the US Cavalry but the KKK that rides to the rescue at the last minute.
 
In this blog I tend not to talk about a film as being the 'property' of a director, in terms such as "DW Griffith's The Birth of a Nation" as I do not hold with auteurism and believe that a movie is the product of too many other people to be accredited to only the director. However, in this case, as Griffith produced, released, directed, cast, and wrote it and it was his film company, I think we do need to call it "DW Griffith's The Birth of a Nation" and place any credit or blame firmly at his door.

Let’s finish with Roger Ebert too:

The Birth of a Nation" is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s “The Triumph of the Will,” it is a great film that argues for evil.

It probably is a great film but as I said at the beginning, it's hard to watch now.