On this Day in Movie History, March 3, 1915: The Birth of a Nation Opens in NYC

On this day March 3, 1915, a few weeks after its West Coast premiere in Los Angeles, director D.W. Griffith’s controversial Civil War epic The Birth of a Nation opens in New York City. . A 40-piece orchestra accompanied the silent film.

Originally entitled The Clansman, based on a novel of the same name by Thomas Dixon, Griffith’s career-making film depicted the white supremacist organization the Ku Klux Klan as a welcome force of order that arose amid the chaos of the post-Civil War era in the South. .

Griffith, whose father served as a colonel in the Confederate Army, agreed to pay Thomas Dixon $10,000 (equal to $232,027 today) for the rights to his play The Clansman. Since he ran out of money and could afford only $2,500 of the original option, Griffith offered Dixon 25 percent interest in the picture. Dixon reluctantly agreed, and the unprecedented success of the film made him rich. Dixon’s proceeds were the largest sum any author had received for a motion picture story and amounted to several million dollars

Originally presented in two parts, separated by an intermission, the final cut of The Birth of a Nation ran nearly three hours and showcased cutting-edge filmmaking techniques for the time, including multiple camera angles, panoramic long shots, the iris effects, still-shots, night photography, panning camera shots, and a carefully staged battle sequence with hundreds of extras made to look like thousands.

It also contains many new artistic techniques, such as color tinting for dramatic purposes, building up the plot to an exciting climax, dramatizing history alongside fiction, and featuring its own musical score written for an orchestra.

From the moment of its release, The Birth of a Nation drew harsh criticism for honoring the Klan’s historic role as a force of opposition to the Reconstruction-era idea that blacks could be successfully integrated into white society. Many historians disputed Griffith’s view of history as a distortion that glamorized the violent actions of the Klan and demonized African Americans men, (played by white actors in blackface) as unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards white women. The film completely discounted their valuable contributions during and after the Civil War and degrading the important efforts made during Reconstruction to grant former slaves civil rights and a role in government.

The NAACP published a pamphlet denouncing the film, referring to it as “three miles of filth.” There were widespread protests against The Birth of a Nation, and it was banned in several cities. When the film was shown, riots broke out in Boston, Philadelphia and other major cities. The cities of Chicago; Denver; Kansas City, Missouri; Minneapolis; Pittsburgh; and St. Louis, Missouri refused to allow the film to open. The film’s inflammatory character was a catalyst for gangs of whites to attack blacks. In Lafayette, Indiana, after seeing the film, a white man murdered a black teenage. The outcry of racism was so great that Griffith was inspired to produce Intolerance the following year.

Despite the controversy The Birth of a Nation would become the first true Hollywood blockbuster, earning more than $10 million (the equivalent of $200 million today) as audiences lined up to pay the unprecedented rate of $2 per ticket, (equal to $45.95 today) In 1998, it was voted one of the “Top 100 American Films” (#44) by the American Film Institute.

To watch this movie in its entirety

1930 – Bert Lahr (“The Wizard of Oz”) and Kate (“God Bless America”) Smith starred in “Flying High” as it opened at the Apollo Theatre in New York City. The show had a run of 45 weeks at what is now the most famous black entertainment theatre in America.

1920 – James Doohan (actor: Star Trek TV series, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Star Trek: Generations, Loaded Weapon 1, Bug Buster; died July 20, 2005)

1921 – Diana (Blanche) Barrymore (Blythe) (actress: The Mob, Hollywood Canteen, Fired Wife, Between Us Girls, Eagle Squadron, Nightmare; died Jan 25, 1960)

1934 – Gia Scala (Giovanna Sgoglio) (actress: Don’t Go Near the Water, Tunnel of Love, The Guns of Navarone; died Apr 30, 1972)

1950 – Tim Kazurinsky (actor, comedian, writer: Saturday Night Live, Police Academy 3: Back in Training, Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol, The Cherokee Kid)

1958 – Miranda Richardson (actress: Fatherland, The Crying Game, Empire of the Sun, Dance with a Stranger)


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