The Birth of a Nation is likely the most controversial motion picture ever produced – one of the most often praised and the most thoroughly condemned – but it might never have made it to the silver screen if not for the efforts of a Waukesha farmboy-turned-movie mogul.
Harry Aitken and his younger brother, Roy, were first taken with the movie bug back on their family’s farm near Goerkes Corners in Waukesha. The family had experimented with using film strips and “magic lantern” style projection to promote the sale of farmland in the area and the brothers were taken with the new technology. After using the family barn to display their first picture shows, the brothers left the farm in 1905 with $100 borrowed from a friend to try make their way in the rapidly-expanding movie business.
Their first nickelodeons opened in Chicago and soon they were operating a small chain of five theaters. In 1906, with Milwaukee realtor John Frueler, they founded the Western Film Exchange, which distributed short films – many of which were being produced in Chicago – to movie houses across the Midwest.
The Western Exchange proved a wildly successful venture, but by 1910, a series of lawsuits brought about Thomas Edison – who claimed a patent monopoly over film production – drove Aitken to found a series of west coast-based independent film production companies to keep his exchange supplied with films to distribute. Within a year, he had several of the silent era’s biggest stars on his payroll – Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charles Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle – giving many of them their first break in the movies.
In 1912, he helped to found the Mutual Film Corporation, a conglomerate of production companies, distributors, and theaters. Over the next five years, Mutual would finance about 2,500 films, including some of the best-regarded early work of Chaplin. Mutual would eventual have offices in 45 cities, both in the US and overseas. As many as 7,000 theaters relied on Mutual exchanges for their films.
It would be the ambitious plans Aitken had for The Clansman, a novel he had purchased the rights to in 1913, that would lead the Mutual board of directors to force Aitken out of the company. Aitken wanted a $100,000 budget – unheard of at the time – to finance the picture, which he had recruited the famed D.W. Griffith to direct. Mutual balked at the price tag – as well as the proposed three-hour run time – leaving Aitken to raise the funds privately.
The story Aitken was so intent on bringing to the screen was one that made heroes of the Ku Klux Klan, slandered reconstruction, and portrayed African Americans as lazy, unintelligent, and sexually aggressive. But the film – which debuted in February 1915 after just four months of filming – resonated with the white movie-going public. Despite protests from the NAACP and other Civil Rights groups, it became the first true blockbuster and would go on to gross millions.
The success of the film made Aitken a major player in the business. With Roy, he founded the Triangle Film Corporation in 1915, which was envisioned as a “prestige” studio. Triangle released another Griffith epic in 1916 – Intolerance – but it could not match the success of Birth. At Triangle, Aitken over-extended his resources and rival studios began pirating the stars he had helped to make. By 1918, the venture collapsed, leaving the Aitkens nearly broke. “It was almost as if a tornado swooped us up and then let us down again,” he later said of his rapid rise and fall.
A piece from the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1968 caught up with Roy, who had moved back to Waukesha and made a living renting his studio’s old prints for revival showings. There wasn’t much discussion of the content of The Birth of a Nation, which by that time was acknowledged as having helped to bring about a revival of the KKK and was still being used as a recruitment tool for white supremacist groups. The article merely stated that the film, “showed some black people to their disadvantage.”
Roger Ebert once called The Birth of a Nation, “a great film that argues for evil.” The technical innovations of the film are undeniable, and Griffith and – by extension – Aitken are certainly due credit for ushering the concept of film as art form. But they must also be credited with stoking the flames of hatred and violence and setting back the cause of Civil Rights.