Gabriel San Roman
Slingshot: How OC Rolled Out the Red Carpet for 'The Birth of a Nation'
Never before in American cinematic history did a silent film speak so loudly--and Orange County joined the chorus.
Directed by D.W. Griffith, The Clansman first premiered in Los Angeles on February 8, 1915 before making its way down to OC three months later. An adaptation of Thomas Dixon Jr.'s novel The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, the film came drenched in anti-Reconstruction racism, complete with a veneration of the namesake Hooded Order as heroic fifty years after the end of the Civil War.
Better known as The Birth of a Nation, its alternate and enduring title, the social impact of Griffith's cruel classic is still being assessed more than a century later. Last week, The Economist published a story on Harvard University professor Desmond Ang's working paper tracking the propagandistic prowess of the film.
As The Birth of a Nation screened in 606 counties across the country, Ang charted a fivefold uptick in local lynchings in the month that followed its arrivals. Counties where the film was shown were also much more likely to have had active klaverns by 1930 than those that didn't.
The revealing research prompted a question: where did OC, the home of two klaverns that sprouted in the early 1920s, fit in this history? Since many Confederate veterans settled its lands, including county founder Henry W. Head, a former Grand Cyclops in Nashville, the film received the warmest of welcomes, a red carpet rollout of racism!
In May 1915, the Santa Ana Daily Evening Register heralded the coming of The Birth of a Nation to Clune's Theater on Spurgeon Street in Santa Ana (where the Yost currently resides). "No American can thoroughly comprehend the history, the development of his country, and his fellows, until he has seen this drama, and understands by the direct realism of its action those immortal events," the Register opined, "which lose their best import when only understood from cold printed words."
An advertisement in the paper deemed The Birth of a Nation as "The Most Striking Film Ever Shown in Santa Ana." It debuted at Clune's on May 24, 1915. Ticket prices ranged from 25 cents to a dollar as the feature screened twice daily, including a 2 p.m. matinee.
The day after its local debut, the Register praised The Birth of a Nation as a "masterpiece." Reporter Herman Reuter crowned Griffith as a "Napoleon of filmdom" in his review and noted the Civil War battle scenes as ones so expertly crafted that they left audiences gasping. An oil painting artist who'd later become a city editor and art critic for the Hollywood Citizen-News, Reuter didn't bother spilling ink on the racist blackface portrayals of African Americans as buffoons in the South during Reconstruction.
During one infamous sequence, Black legislators put their bare feet up on desks while drinking booze and feasting on fried chicken. This denigration allowed the Klan to be positioned as crusading heroes, an ideological coup for neo-Confederates that helped propel America's Race Relations Nadir.
That Reuter paid no mind to racism in favor of fawning over the film's cinematic innovations comes as no surprise. Another telltale sign of how normalized white supremacy was in OC a century ago is evidenced by the social columns of the day. After The Birth of a Nation debuted at Clune's, newsletters dedicated to the happenings of prominent residents around OC routinely mentioned outings to see the film.
A junior high school teacher from Westminster took seventh and eighth grade students to Santa Ana for a June picnic at Birch Park followed by an afternoon screening of Griffith's epic. Another social column mentioned, unsurprisingly, that "several Villa Park people have attended and enjoyed 'The Clansman'" at Clune's.
Soon, The Birth of a Nation had competition in OC. An ad in the Register announced June matinee screenings of Edgar Lewis' The Nigger at the Colonial Theatre in Orange, a "sundown town." The film's boosters claimed the story of a white Southern governor who is threatened with being outed as the kin of an enslaved grandmother before resigning to help the Black community was just as good as and shorter than The Clansman. But, despite being backed by "the best orchestra in Orange County," the film didn't make its case convincingly enough.
By popular demand, The Birth of a Nation returned to Santa Ana for bargain-priced screenings at Clune's in 1916 and the Ku Klux Klan rode again and again onscreen in the county well through 1923.
But The Birth of a Nation, and the klaverns it inspired, didn't solely find a home in Santa Ana, where the Klan first organized in 1922 before being busted by OC district attorney Alexander P. Nelson. Griffith's malicious "masterpiece" also played to an enthusiastic audience in the sundown town of Brea five years after its Santa Ana debut. The La Habra Star dedicated a small column for the "Big Feature Picture" screening at the Brea Grammar School on July 9, 1920.
"Those who have not seen this film can not afford to miss this opportunity," read the Star. "A twelve reel feature and with the prices changed at the P.T.A. shows place it within the means of all."
The school site screening also enticed community members with raffle prizes to round out the Friday night festivities. The supervising-principal at that time? William E. Fanning. Of course, Fanning, himself, joined the Hooded Order by 1924, as evidenced by his name appearing on a membership list of the second, larger OC klavern housed at the Anaheim Heritage Center.
More than 300,000 Americans had already seen The Birth of a Nation by 1923 but that didn't stop moviegoers from packing Clune's Auditorium in Los Angeles and in other big cities as the film returned to prominence that year. In May, The Birth of a Nation began its run at Charles Walker's Princess Theatre in Santa Ana on Main Street where the marquee now welcomes worshipers to the Temple Zion.
In Anaheim, the hub of the second klavern, the film served as a recruitment tool. The May 9, 1923 issue of the Orange County Plain Dealer dedicated a half-page to boosting upcoming screenings of the film. An advertisement for the United Theatre in Anaheim deemed it "The Most Wonderful Picture Ever Produced." An accompanying article extolled the value of the film in explaining the motives of the Klan and its depiction of "2,000 of these white-hooded riders in their raid on the negros."
Rolla Ward Ernest, the Plain Dealer's editor, sympathized with the Invisible Empire as four of its members won election to city council the following year, transforming Anaheim into the Klan "model city" in America. His newspaper battled with anti-Klan rivals the Anaheim Bulletin and the Anaheim Gazette only to see the Klan councilmen recalled in February 1925.
Griffith proved no stranger to OC or Santa Ana before and after his most controversial film helped mold the racist attitudes of its residents. In 1910, he shot The Two Brothers, a greaser flick where whites played Mexicans, at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Five years later, he obtained permits to film scenes for Double Trouble on Fourth Street in Santa Ana; the city's historic courthouse also served as backdrop that same year for The Flying Torpedo.
And the director returned triumphantly to Clune's in 1918 for the screening of his World War I propaganda film Hearts of the World. He enjoyed a private balcony for the occasion.
But no film endured in the popular imagination quite like The Birth of a Nation, which continued screening in OC as the county's last klavern swelled by the hundreds.
By the time the curtains fell, the film undeniably left its mark on American cinema as well as deepened the stain of racism on OC's history for decades to come.
- Gabriel San Román
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Your Mouse Muckraker / Photo by Federico Medina
Maybe Song of the South isn't the most racist film in Walt's vault. after all. In 1933, Walt Disney Productions released "Mickey's Mellerdrammer," a gag-filled animated staging of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Oh dear. In the short, folks file into the auditorium as the cast preps in their dressing rooms. Clarabelle Cow, playing the role of Eliza, takes the soot from her oil lamp to blacken her face. Clarabelle, how could you! (After watching that scene, I betcha won't eat ice cream from Clarabelle's on Main Street the same way ever again!). Next up is Mickey Mouse. Prepping to take the stage as Topsy, he lights a firecracker in his mouth and covers his famous ears. The explosion leaves Mickey in blackface.
A tribute to minstrels, the curtains rise as Goofy (then known as Dippy Dawg) works Dixie-singing cardboard cutouts of slaves on a plantation, complete with exaggerated lips. In a key scene, a whip brandishing Horace Horsecollar, playing the role of slave owner Simon Legree, confronts Uncle Tom, played by Mickey.
The audience's sympathies are clearly with Uncle Tom. Legree elicits boos--and then a pelting of produce. The staging then unravels into an all out gag-fest, the last of which shows Goofy getting hit in the face with a chocolate pie, leaving him in blackface.
"Mickey's Mellerdrammer" just might be the most telling animated short in the Disney canon. Why? In Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation, author Nicholas Sammond positions early animation as firmly rooted in and being a continuation of racist vaudeville entertainment.
Or in Sammond's words, "Mickey Mouse isn’t like a minstrel; he is a minstrel."
Right down to his white gloves!
The D23 website gives "Mickey's Mellerdrammer" the whitewash treatment, focusing on its technical achievements, just like the Register of old with The Birth of a Nation. Just don't expect the animated short to appear on Disney+ anytime soon, with or without a disclaimer!
By the Bylines
Some news: if all goes well, LibroMobile in SanTana may reopen in June! Its downtown location has remained closed since last year, but patrons have supported the indie business through buying books online.
And as the ides of March are all but behind us, that means it will soon be time for my next Off the Page column. Look for it on LibroMobile's website in the Arts & Culture section this Friday!
Onward towards April!
Lead photo: The Birth of a Nation ends a run at Clune's / Film ad in the Santa Ana Daily Register, public domain