Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Earliest Films Stole Storylines from the Theatre

by Kathryn Hadley

David Mayer, Emeritus Professor of Drama at the University of Manchester, has recently published the results of a 32-year project charting the contribution of theatre to the early film industry. His book, entitled Stagestruck filmmakers: DW Griffiths and the American Theatre, was published in February. Very little was previously known about how the film industry, in its early days, drew extensively on the theatre repertoire for the subject matter of their films. Mayer began his project in the 1970s whilst researching film archives at the Washington Library of Congress and has since recovered numerous early films inspired from the theatre.

Academy Award-winning American film director, David Llewelyn Wark Griffith (1875-1948), was one of the most influential early filmmakers. He used theatre to inspire the first ever feature film and his most famous work, The Birth of a Nation (1915). The Birth of a Nation was a silent film and was one of the first films to be over an hour long. The film is set during and after the American Civil War and is based on the novel and play The Clansman by Thomas Dixon, published in 1905.

Other examples include the first ever special effects film Rescued from an Eagles Nest produced by J. Searle Dawley (1877-1949) in 1908, the subject matter of which is identical to a play by Con T Murphy entitled The Ivy Leaf.

Professor Mayer described the origins if the film industry:
‘Early filmmakers often came from immigrant communities looking for work or were
inventors who used the genre of film to showcase their new technology. ‘They
weren’t particularly interested in original content so it’s not that surprising
they would pilfer ideas from the theatre – a much more respectable genre.
Indeed, when film making began, theatre looked down on the industry as inferior
and there was a lot of snobbery. People who went into film sometimes used a
false name - or were often not credited at all. But I feel it’s high time that
the roots of film was duly acknowledged: there is no such thing as

The year after The Birth of a Nation, Griffith produced Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages (1916), which is considered one of the great masterpieces of the silent era. From 1908 to the 1930s, D. W. Griffith appeared in, directed or wrote the screen plays for 570 silent films and talkies. He was allegedly later described by Charlie Chaplin as ‘The Teacher of us All’.
Professor Mayer also stressed Griffith’s contribution to the birth of the film industry:
‘Griffith’s contribution to film is remarkable: he invented the close up and
different types of camera technology and filming techniques. What is remarkable
about Griffith was that he too was inspired by the theatre. His film for example
The birth of a nation was based on Thomas Dickson’s The Clansman. Though
undeniably racist, the film is one of the most influential ever made. It’s roots
though, were in the theatre.’

To find out more about the mixture of social realism and political commentary that inspired filmmakers in the United States in the early decades of the 20th century, read our article The Unknown Hollywood
For further information about the birth of the British film industry in the East London suburb of Walthamstow, read our article 'Picture Shows': The Early British Film Industry in Walthamstow

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