White Robes, Silver Screens

By: Rice, Tom
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The Ku Klux Klan was reestablished in Atlanta in 1915, barely a week before the Atlanta premiere of The Birth of a Nation, D. W. Griffith's paean to the original Klan. While this link between Griffith's film and the Klan has been widely acknowledged, Tom Rice explores the little-known relationship between the Klan's success and its use of film and media in the interwar years when the image, function, and moral rectitude of the Klan was contested on the national stage. By examining rich archival materials including a series of films produced by the Klan and a wealth of documents, newspaper clippings, and manuals, Rice uncovers the fraught history of the Klan as a local force that manipulated the American film industry to extend its reach across the country. White Robes, Silver Screens highlights the ways in which the Klan used, produced, and protested against film in order to recruit members, generate publicity, and define its role within American society.

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1 Re-Birth: The Birth of a Nation and the Growth of the Klan

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The Ku Klux Klan has become a serious menace to American Institutions. A careful investigation has revealed that the ease with which Klan solicitors are able to sell memberships is directly attributable to the romantic color cast about the Klan name by your motion picture The Birth of a Nation. Whatever we may think of the Klan of 1865, we must agree that the Klan of 1923 is far from romantic or heroic. We feel that it is your duty to use your tremendous power to undo the damage unwittingly done [to] the country when your [film The] Birth of a Nation was shown and we call upon you to cooperate with all good American citizens to stamp out this growing evil. May we have an expression of your personal opinion of the Klan and such assurance as you feel necessary that you will take steps to tear away the mantle of heroism in which you once dressed the nightriders [?]

Telegram written by W. N. Kramer, publisher of The Spotlight, to David W. Griffith, 10 January 1923

On 10 January 1923, W. N. Kramer, the publisher of Spotlight, an anti-Klan newspaper in Minneapolis, wrote these words to D. W. Griffith, challenging him to respond to his earlier work and to “paint the Ku Klux Klan in its true light.”1 Kramer argued that Griffith’s representation of an idealized historical Klan in The Birth of a Nation was now helping Kleagles (Klan “solicitors”) to sell memberships for a new incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan, which had formed in Atlanta in 1915 and had now spread throughout the country. While Spotlight, like most historians subsequently, referred to the film’s initial release, Griffith’s film had, by 1923, become a prominent and prototypical component of the modern Klan’s publicity. The group utilized The Birth of a Nation throughout the decade, whether arranging its own screenings, making very public appearances at cinemas showing the film, or using the discussions surrounding the film to define and promote itself within American society. The Klan would closely reference and rework particular images from the film, and when it began producing, distributing, and exhibiting its own pictures in the 1920s, Birth would become a touchstone for this “Klan cinema.”

 

2 The Battle: Censorship, Reform, and the Klan’s Campaign against the Film Industry

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IN AUGUST 1937, ATTORNEYS FOR THE KU KLUX KLAN FILED suit against Warner Bros. The Klan objected to the alleged use of its insignia in the Humphrey Bogart film Black Legion and sought $113,500 in a “patent infringement” suit.1 The notion of a secret organization suing a high-profile Hollywood company may appear curious, but in the context of the Klan’s media dealings, it is indicative of both the group’s commercial opportunism and its concurrent desire to promote and publicize itself through film. By 1937 the Klan was an increasingly marginalized, spluttering, and insignificant presence within American society – far removed from its 1920s heyday – but the case marks the culmination of a fierce battle, fought between the wars, between the Klan and the modern film industry. For the Klan, this was a battle over American national identity, a battle between “tradition” and the corrosive forces of modernity, between its own ideals of Protestant Americanism and a destabilizing modern decadence, propagated by a “foreign” film industry that it regarded as predominantly Jewish. Throughout this period, the Klan imagined the film industry as a public antithesis against which it could attack and define itself. The legal case against Warner Bros. was merely the latest example of this.

 

3 Klan Cinema: The Klan as Producer and Exhibitor

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AS PART OF ITS PULITZER PRIZE–WINNING EXPOSÉ OF THE Klan in September 1921, the New York World ran a story headlined, “Klux Closes Deal for $400,000 Film to Advertise Klan,” detailing plans for an “elaborate and costly” propaganda film. Taking its title from a pamphlet by Imperial Wizard William Simmons, Yesterday, Today and Forever was to be produced by Clifford Slater Wheeler, an army veteran, a Kleagle in New York, and now the self-appointed president of Wheeler Productions, Inc. According to Wheeler, “The idea of the moving picture scheme met with the approval of [Imperial Kleagle Edward] Clarke and Imperial Wizard Simmons.” Clarke had discussed plans for the project as early as March 1921 with a King Kleagle in New Jersey, Arthur Donald Bate. At a moment when Clarke was mobilizing the Klan and encouraging Kleagles to use existing films such as The Face at Your Window for recruitment, he was also, the reports claimed, working with Wheeler on a piece of “up-to-date Ku Klux advertising.” Less than a year after joining and effectively relaunching the Klan, Clarke was already looking to branch out into film production.1

 

4 On Mainstream Screens: The Film Industry’s Response to the Klan

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IN AUGUST 1928, LAMAR TROTTI, A FORMER REPORTER FOR THE Atlanta Georgian now working in the Public Relations Department of the MPPDA as an assistant to Jason Joy, wrote to MPPDA president Will Hays expressing his concerns about Howard Hughes’s new film The Mating Call. Trotti’s concerns, which centered on the appearance of a thinly disguised version of the Klan labeled “The Order,” neatly encapsulated the film industry’s conflicted position toward the Klan in the 1920s:

I have one big thought about “The Mating Call” – that whatever we do is dangerous.

As decent people, we can’t be allied with a picture which accepts, or at least condones lawlessness as this one certainly does. As business people, we can’t, probably, afford to alienate a large group of citizens who thrive on attacks.

The Klan developed, not through its friends, but through its enemies. One Congressional investigation gave it more members than all the pamphlets, speeches and horse whippings ever launched by the order. If we did anything about this picture and it became known, probably they’d be a big increase in the sale of night shirts to guard against this “Catholic-Jew controlled industry.” If we don’t, we are like a man who while in a mob, protests he isn’t of it, and yet stays on and does nothing to prevent its display of passion. . . .

 

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