The Birth of a Nation and Greed
The progress of the film industry was remarkably fast in the first quarter of this century. I have chosen two films namely The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Greed (1924) for comparison and contrast to show how much the industry had evolved within the short span of nine years. These two films are chosen for the short time span between them. This short time span will enable us to evaluate the development of the film industry in terms of the psychological build-up of the plot and the characters, cinematic qualities and the gradual acceptance of ironies in the films on the part of the American audience.
D.W Griffith's The Birth of a Nation and Erich Von Stroheim's Greed are both films adapted from novels written by Thomas Dixon and Frank Norris respectively. However one of the differences between these two films lies in the human characters portrayed. In The Birth of a Nation, the characters are portrayed as either wholly good or evil. One could easily distinguish between the heroes and villains in the film. For example, the hero in the film, Ben Stoneman is portrayed as courageous, loving and righteous as opposed to the villains Lynch (the false reformer) and Gus (the black soldier), who are portrayed as scheming and lustful. This lopsided depiction of human nature is not realistic, as humans cannot be either wholly good or wholly evil. This is an example of idealism with clear influences from Pollyanna stories, which was well accepted by the audience then. Thus a realistic depiction of humans should be that of portraying their strengths and weaknesses.
The characters in Von Stroheim's Greed, on the other hand, possess this practical depiction of humans. In this film the characters are a real portrayal of real human beings with imperfections and weaknesses. McTeague for instance, is portrayed as kind and gentle towards animals yet violent by nature. Marcus, McTeague's friend and later his foe, is portrayed as a humorous, witty but at the same time scheming and harbors grudges against McTeague. Comparing these characters to the ones in The Birth of a Nation, clearly the characters in Greed are much more realistic, painting a true picture of the complexity of human nature. It is also a break from the then prevailing norm in Hollywood's films of showing only one-sided nature of the characters, which is either wholly good or wholly bad.
In addition to that, Von Stroheim also showed the psychological development of his characters. The character Trina (Zasu Pitts) is a lovely and harmless girl. However blinded by greed and obsession for more money, she became a miser and was always looking for ways to save her money by making her husband pay for everything. McTeague, on the other hand, loved Trina but later came to hate her for being demanding and misery and eventually murdered her for her wealth. The sophistication of this kind of complex psychological development of the human characters in Greed is nowhere to be found in The Birth of a Nation.
Moving on to cinematic qualities, both films use real environments for shooting. In The Birth of a Nation, Griffith took to the main street in the town of Piedmont, filling it with people and carriages. Von Stroheim however went the extra mile by making sure that the settings in the film would be the same as the ones described in the novel. He used a building in San Francisco, which is the setting in the novel, for shooting and he furnished it to the exact details as described in the novel. Wanting his actors to get used to their working environment, he made them lived in the house. In order to have a realistic visual impact on the audiences, he and his crew traveled to the Sahara desert, under terrible climatic conditions to shoot the famous scene- the Death Valley. Von Stroheim's effort to reach realism can be compared to that of James Cameron's rebuilding the ship Titanic (1997), both making their films at the highest cost during their time.
Von Stroheim's usage of German Expression, as well as low to high shot, gives the film a sophisticated sense compared to the