D.W. Griffith Signed Contract for The Birth ...
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DescriptionD.W. Griffith Signed Contract for The Birth of a Nation (aka "The Clansman") (D.W.Griffith Corp., 1915). For more than a century D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation has been a film as reviled as it is revered, both a technical marvel and a movie "regarded as outrageously racist even at a time when racism was hardly a household word," said revered film critic Andrew Sarris. Writing in 2003 about a film released in 1915, no less than Roger Ebert struggled to find the good amid the wretched, wringing hands while singing its praises: "Those evolved enough to understand what they are looking at find the early and wartime scenes brilliant, but cringe during the postwar and Reconstruction scenes, which are racist in the ham-handed way of an old minstrel show or a vile comic pamphlet." Its importance to cinema can't be diminished; nor its popularity; nor its hateful imagery; nor its willful inaccuracies; nor its spectacular and realistic battle scenes; nor its use as propaganda for the Ku Klux Klan, slavery, white supremacy.
The film's singular embellishments transformed cinema, absolutely; for decades film-school professors taught it only to celebrate its technique and study its scope. Perhaps Richard Brody put it best when writing of The Birth of a Nation in The New Yorker in 2013: "The worst thing about Birth of a Nation is how good it is. The merits of its grand and enduring aesthetic make it impossible to ignore and, despite its disgusting content, also make it hard not to love. And it's that very conflict that renders the film all the more despicable, the experience of the film more of a torment — together with the acknowledgment that Griffith, whose short films for Biograph were already among the treasures of world cinema, yoked his mighty talent to the cause of hatred (which, still worse, he sincerely depicted as virtuous)."
Larded with all that history comes this the document that led to the film's very creation.
Here is the original three-page typed contract on gray punched paper, top bound and bradded with blue paper back wrapper tipped to 14.75" x 19.5" foam core backing board with cut-out mat frame. This exceptionally rare document details producer agreement, investments, returns and royalties for the film, reading in part: "I hereby subscribe the sum of One Thousand ($1,000.00) Dollars to be paid to you on demand, and for which note is given this day, for the purpose of assisting in the production of a motion picture negative named ‘The Clansman," upon the following terms and conditions..." and information on estimated production budget including, "It is understood and agreed that it will require approximately Sixty Thousand ($60,000) Dollars to produce the said negative, and that H.E. Aitken of New York City, New York, will invest Forty Thousand ($40,000) Dollars of that amount, and that other investors, including the undersigned, will invest the remaining Twenty Thousand ($20,000) Dollars, estimated to be required for the above purpose..."
From so much legalese would follow a century's worth of popularity, protest and scholarship.
The contract features notes handwritten in pencil at top, and signed by two witnesses, as well as Griffith on the third page. Dated August 3rd, 1914. Exhibiting production wear, original transmittal folds, and minor edge wear. In vintage Very Good condition. COA from Heritage Auctions.
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