America The Beautiful
I wonder if we’ll ever see another Revolutionary War drama in theatres. D.W. Griffith might have speculated as much after his disappointment with America in 1924. Mel Gibson would go there many years later with The Patriot, which by all rights should have outgrossed The Perfect Storm on opening weekend, but didn’t. Is the War For Independence too long ago to care about, or is it just those costumes and men with pigtails? Producers of Revolution thought they’d overcome the jinx in 1985, but found (to considerable loss) that in some aspects, audiences do not change. Griffith’s America is assumed to have failed because everyone knows Revolutionary War subjects fail --- but certainly no one was aware when DWG tackled the subject for the first time on a large scale. The resulting stigma has lingered since, not overcome even by America’s one million in domestic rentals that bested most of Mary Pickford’s United Artists vehicles of the period, and its status as one of the five most popular attractions of 1924. The real problem was huge sums spent and a drumbeat of publicity that anticipated the second coming of Birth Of A Nation, king of silent era blockbusters and a success story every filmmaker aspired to repeat. Griffith had sufficient reason to expect as much with America. Loans he floated to complete it crawled toward three-quarters of a million. The New York Times quoted Griffith (shown here with admirer and future director Robert Florey) as having admitted a thirty-percent interest rate on notes he’d signed toward the end of production. Numbers flew as to how much America finally cost. The Times averred it was 1.3 million. Variety speculated something in the range of $950,000. Those who reap the real benefit of (Griffith’s) labors are the men with capital who have been willing to gamble on a Griffith production. The director shot America on New England locations where much of the actual Revolution took place. His own Mamaroneck, New York studio (aerial view shown here) was twenty-eight acres neighboring sites of historic incidents Griffith recreated. The US War Department supplied thousands of soldiers to enact battle sequences to the accompaniment of a thirty-three piece military band (DWG insisted on mood music even for combat!). No one before or since could stage a clash of arms like Griffith. He leased three surrounding farms so as to open up the natural space for his armies to traverse. Amazing the outdoor miracles DWG accomplished with that hand-cranked box camera.
America was one of those rare movies still in production even after opening night. Previews were held from early February 1924, despite Griffith’s awaiting snow for his essential Valley Forge sequence. On the very day audiences in South Norwalk, Connecticut were watching an initial cut of the feature, DWG was not many miles away shooting winter footage of General Washington and his troops suffering barefoot privations. The premiere of America found Griffith’s epic pared from sixteen reels down to a copyrighted fourteen, and Variety predicted much deletion may be done before the picture is fully set. What they didn’t know was that his crew was still working, and for at least a week after that opening. Whatever additional material adjudged an improvement would simply be spliced into circulating prints. Griffith took America on a roadshow tour for initial engagements. He picked up the tab for orchestras and promotion, but kept a greater share of the receipts. The director knew how to put on a grand show of his newest production (and surely understood showmanship, as witness this orgy sequence staged for the benefit of villainous Lionel Barrymore and henchmen!). Women were said to have gasped and cried when Paul Revere took his famous ride. That remains a stirring highlight today, even in diminished prints surviving. One can only imagine the impact original tinted and toned nitrate 35mm would have had on first-run audiences. People today imagine silent viewers were better satisfied with less. In fact, the opposite was true. If we could sit for presentations the equal of what they had in 1924, I’ve no doubt a lot of us would find emotions turned loose in ways unexpected. My own (admittedly limited) experience with silent films and live orchestras are among my best remembered in theatres. Ben-Hur with seventy musicians once brought tears to these jaded eyes. Could I have stood such pounding on a weekly basis in palaces seating thousands, with dynamic accompaniment a commonplace? Likely I’d have sought treatment for an excess of bliss, for that is the only word I can summon for the movie going encounters those lucky people routinely had.
Most silent films are lost now. Many that survive are here by virtue of single surviving prints. America would be quartered and diced for stock others could use. Griffith’s battle scenes turned up in cheaper shows later on, much as would footage from talkie independents like Stagecoach and One Million BC. After the nitrate dust of that cleared, we were left with British source materials representing a distinct version DWG prepared for UK audiences, wherein depiction of Redcoat perfidy was softened for the Empire. There weren’t enough showings to challenge negative myths in circulation. William K. Everson defended America’s reputation before his silent film group in 1957 and called upon star Neil Hamilton to reminisce for the benefit of printed program notes. Blackhawk sold the feature in 8mm, but black-and-white editions were a disservice where night scenes called for blue tinting. Paul Revere’s ride played badly in what appeared to be broad daylight once color enhancements were lost. Silents are fragile in so many ways. Once rescued, they can still be ruined if not properly presented. Paul Killiam made a mess of a 94-minute version for video, burdened with superfluous narration. Little wonder America suffered in the face of such truncation. Sadly, the question always comes back around to this --- who’s there to care about silent films? To narrow it further --- who cares about silents that aren’t funny? Sales figures for the DVD of America had to be dismal, especially as it came out in dawning years of the format (1999), but as of this moment, it’s still in print, and though not likely on Best-Buy shelves, can be had with minimal on-line effort. The DVD includes color tints, the feature restored closely as possible to its 1924 length, and most impressively, the original score recreated by Eric Beheim and the Mamaroneck Theater Orchestra. Anyone tempted to dip a toe into dramatic silent waters might profitably begin with America…
D.W. Griffith’s a great pictorialist and dynamic storyteller, but get ready to commit when you’re running one of these --- Birth Of A Nation (draw the shades!), Intolerance (clear your calendar for at least the day), Broken Blossoms (major bummer), and Orphans Of The Storm (Dame Fortune dealing harshly with the Gishes for a seeming eternity). America emerges most accessible of the Griffith group, at least for my time and money. Maybe I just like Revolutionary War subjects that look as though they were actually shot during the Revolutionary War. Shows like The Patriot boast expertise to remind you they’re restaging events with modern devices unknown to silent era technicians, but what does that accomplish other than putting us at greater distance from historical incidents more compatible with Griffith’s ancient tools? Here’s another occasion where the older document, admittedly yellowed and timeworn, seizes verisimilitude others would strive for, but are too late to achieve. They revived America in 35mm before a packed room in 2004. Applause at the Capital Theatre in Rome, NY rocked the house. Sequences powerful in 1924 did it again eighty years later. Some would carp over dated story conventions. Love surmounting class divisions and a family split over duty and honor were subjects dear to Griffith. Feminine lead Carol Dempster (her portrait here) revealed an uncharacteristic lapse of judgment on DWG’s part, but he was smitten with the girl offscreen as well as on, and since that can oft happen to anybody, one can’t be too harsh where her occasional gaucheries are concerned (and Dempster was better in other films she did for Griffith). Patient endurance of these is small payment for what DWG delivers on the battlefield and town squares he depicts so scrupulously (authentic pistols, drums, and other artifacts were loaned by various museums and historical societies). Griffith seemed quite the elder statesman helming America, having exhausted himself over fifteen or so years spent inventing screen narrative. Neil Hamilton confessed later of his and other young players having regarded the veteran as impossibly old. What a shock, then, to learn Griffith was only forty-seven and about to lose his independence as a filmmaker when America was released.