From Beginning to End: Birth of a Nation to Bonnie and Clyde

         Throughout this semester we have watched a lot of great films. These films have allowed me to better understand how the cinema has progressed from its early day of silent, black and white film to the wonderful pieces of history we see today. The very first movie we saw in class was D. W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation. That movie represented not only the beginning of our class but also the beginning of the film industry. The last movie we watched in class was Arthur Penn’s 1967 Bonnie and Clyde. This movie represented how films have progressed into the loud, colorful, spectacular pieces of art they are today.

         Birth of a Nation represents the infancy of the cinema. It was a time when full-length films were just beginning to become vastly popular with many groups of people. The camera shots and frames were still very jerky. The images were very gritty giving everything a slightly crackled appearance. Although fully processed color would not be available for several more years, hand tinting was used at that time. However, hand tinting produced very little color difference and in my opinion was not worth the time it took or the salary to pay people to do it.

         Another aspect of today’s cinema that had yet to develop was the sound track of the film. No film of that time had music scored specially to accompany it. Very few films back then even took the time to dub music over the movies even though that is how they are seen today. When the films or producers did decide to dub music over the film it was often not very well chosen. Mostly the music did not go well with the tone of the films. Film makers had yet to realize the importance that music can have in a film. They did not yet understand how it could be used to deepen the emotions the viewers feel as they watch the movie.

         I think in order to make up for the graininess of the images and the lack of emotions being able to be portrayed through sound, the actors and actresses in the film would overact. The time when women fainted over nothing was always alive and well in silent films and Birth of a Nation was no exception. The use of large hand gestures and contorted facial expressions was laughable at best making me wonder how anybody could be held in suspense of the next moment with characters like these. It honestly made me long for Gone with the Wind. I wanted to see an actress who could express emotion known under the sun with just her eyes, like the great Vivien Leigh.

         Skip ahead several decades in the film industry and you come to Arthur Penn’s 1967 Bonnie and Clyde . While I find the storyline to be more than slightly cheesy in places, the film leaves very little to be desired by way progressions of the film industry. Cameras had themselves become works of art, and thus the images they capture are no longer grainy and distorted unless the film’s director and producer want them to be. The invention of the fully processed color film was amazing to see. It made me deeply want Bonnie’s lovely red hat. Sound in this film is both a blessing and a curse. I loved “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” the score for the film. The bluegrass banjo music captured the excitement of the film perfectly. However, having to hear Estelle Parson’s hideous shrieking voice was enough to make me wish for deafness. I do not care if she won the Oscar for the role or not.

         If I have learned one thing from this class it is that the world of cinema has definitely progressed by leaps and bounds. It began as bland, colorless and soundless. It has progressed into a world of bight colors, rich voices and booming music. My only hope is that it continues to progress in the future.

Stephanie Utley

Table of Contents