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  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Art forms of a New Country

article number 556
article date 05-19-2016
copyright 2016 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
The Art Form of Motion Pictures Advances, ’Intolerance’ 1916
by Terry Ramsaye
   

From the 1926 book, A Million and One Nights.

* * *

WHILE the business of the motion picture was muddling through into its new alignments of 1916, D. W. Griffith dared forth with the most venturesome experiment in all the history of film technique—the picture entitled ’Intolerance.’

This production earns a place in motion picture history sheerly on that element of technique. It was the first and only film fugue.

Intolerance is of interest to the student of the motion picture in its relation to the evolution of the art of screen narration under Griffith. Intolerance was the last word in a sequence of experiments which began in Griffith’s Biograph period, in the course of which in 1910 he produced a version of ’Enoch Arden’ with cutbacks and simultaneous lines of action.

When Griffith returned to California from his presentation of ’The Birth of a Nation’ and its terrific tangle of censorship struggles, his mind was occupied with reflections and calculations which inevitably were to color his subsequent work.

It must have been even then apparent to Griffith that the Triangle concern to which his ordinary and casual product was contributed was not going to afford him a major career. The Birth of a Nation by the effulgence of its success made it necessary for Griffith to contemplate some even more impressive film undertaking.

While Griffith was casting about for something which should be his pretext and inspiration for outdoing The Birth of a Nation, he was reviewing the troubles he had had with that picture, and seeking half-consciously a solution of the problems presented.

Out of this was born the impulse to let the screen itself reveal the cruel, ridiculous and wasteful consequences of intolerance—censorships by the public will—by a presentation of social, religious and economic struggles down the aisles of history.

Griffith saw the picture in bits and splotches of action first and then cast about for some thread on which they could be strung to give cohesion, continuity and conviction to the whole preachment. Griffith found what he sought on a page of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”:

. . . endlessly rocks the cradle,
“Uniter of here and Hereafter.”

The lines of the poet supplied Griffith with the pictorial suggestion he was seeking, the thread to join his tales of intolerance.

All through that night Griffith pondered and wrote piles of notes. By dawn he had the skeleton scenario of Intolerance. It was a conception of one mood and many tenses.

The Griffith idea, which he labelled for selling purposes ’Love’s Struggle through the Ages’ was more actually a litany of human hates, to be told by the interweaving of four periods.

For his contemporary sequence Griffith had a modern melodrama suitable to his purpose. It was ’The Mother and the Law,’ with Mae Marsh and Robert Harron in the leading roles. The story was laid on a capital and labor background with tinges of plot suggestions from the Steilow case. This picture had been scheduled for release through the Mutual Film Corporation as a “Master Picture” only to be withdrawn with the secession of the New York Motion Picture Corporation and the formation of Triangle.

The three historical periods chosen were to give occasion to picture on a grandiose scale the fall of Babylon before the hordes of Cyrus, the Christ legend of Judea, and the massacre of the Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Eve in France.

These four stories were interwoven in the assembly of the picture with the time lapses covered by a mysterious, soft-focus, half-lighted picture of Lillian Gish rocking a cradle—or as Griffith’s titles said it: “A golden thread binds the four stories—a fairy girl with sunlit hair—her hand on the cradle of humanity-—eternally rocking-—-—"

   
"Cast of Thousands" type scene from the fall of Babylon portion of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance.

With zealous abandon and capital, which came readily after his triumph with The Birth of a Nation, the Griffith lot on Sunset boulevard became a maelstrom of titanic construction. There rose Babylon with walls three hundred feet high, the architectural pretensions of old France, and the streets of ancient Judea. About it all was a hush of mystery. No one knew what Griffith was doing, but everyone learned that he was doing a lot of it.

Stupendous expenditures were incurred, setting new precedents in grandiose gesture for the motion picture. The influences of the glorification of dimensions in Intolerance have been discernible in screen spectacles ever since, down to ’The Ten Commandments’ and ’Ben Hur.’

It has been given out that Griffith’s payrolls for actors and extras in Intolerance for long periods ran as high as $12,000 a day. It is alleged that the banquet hall scene for the feast of Belshazzar cost a quarter of a million dollars.

The cast included many famous screen names, among them:
Sam de Grasse,
Joseph Hennabery,
Tully Marshall,
Elmer Clifton,
Signe Auen,
Bessie Love and
Ralph Lewis.

Count Eric von Stroheim, subsequently himself famous as a director, played the role of a Pharisee. Constance Talmadge played ’The Mountain Girl,’ a role which brought her attention and opened the way to a star career under Selznick auspices later.

When the shooting and shouting were over the cost sheets totalled the reputed figure of $1,900,000 and there were 300,000 feet of negative. Intolerance in the rough was so big that it took seventy-five hours to look at it. It was edited to thirteen reels.

Let us recall in contrast that at the end of 1895, the first year of film production, the total studio costs of the industry were $1,110. ’Annabelle the Dancer,’ the master production of 1895, was thirty-five feet long.

Intolerance opened at the Liberty theatre in New York, scene of The Birth of a Nation’s triumph, on September 6, 1916. It played in legitimate theatres in all the major cities, here and abroad. It was inevitably a sensation and a topic of considerable debate.

It was mostly a debate about Griffith. Griffith who above all others had evolved a screen technique of close-up and cutback to clarify plot movement, intensify emotional content and to make attention automatic and unconscious, had betrayed the motion picture public.

The concept denoted by the word Intolerance is an abstraction of thought. A motion picture which has to be thought about is in the same status as a joke which has to be explained.

Griffith sought by concrete emotional illustrations from history to create a dramatic appreciation of an abstract principle in the minds of the screen masses. If they had ever had the deductive capacity for digesting historical experience, the conditions of intolerance which gave him his inspiration would not have continued for the two thousand four hundred and fifty-four years between the fall of Babylon and The Birth of a Nation.

The public never goes anywhere to intellectualize. It went to Intolerance in just sufficient numbers to find out that it did not know what it was about. The consumers of the great common denominator of the emotional arts found themselves confronted by a specimen of screen algebra, ornate but confusing.

To Griffith the scenes of Lillian Gish rocking a cradle did mean “a golden thread” denoting the continuity of the human race and binding his fugue of period pictures. But to the movie audience a picture of a cradle is a hieroglyph meaning: “there is going to be a baby,” “there is a baby” or “there was a baby.”

   
Lillian Gish rocking the cradle denoting continuity in D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance.

It does not mean the continuity of the race, and it does not suggest intolerance—rather the opposite. The introduction of a cradle in a motion picture is more likely to set the audience to counting back nine months on its fingers than it is to set it to reflecting on man’s inhumanity to man.

Picture-wise exhibitors looked at the cradle scenes and deduced that Griffith was trying to put something over on the Pennsylvania board of censorship.

So, Intolerance was a magnificent failure.

Griffith’s most dramatic gesture with Intolerance was never announced to the public. His backers went into the project expecting to get another Birth of a Nation. All they saw for their money was the cradle. They grumbled and after grumbling began to roar.

“Very well, I’ll buy it,” Griffith responded, and began the payment of installments on a million dollar item of experience.

The experiment was worth the price, but it is unfortunate that Griffith had to pay it. The month of the presentation of Intolerance brought an odd, faint echo of the name and fame of Griffith.

With promises of an unsupported pretension a seven part picture entitled ’Charity’ was given a showing to the states’ right market at Loew’s Roof in New York. This picture was produced by Frank Powell, who had been a member of the old Biograph organization and who had brought Theda Bara to screen fame in ’A Fool There Was.’

Charity, for a combination of reasons, was a dismal thing. The scenario idea on which it was based came from Linda Arvidson Griffith, Mrs. D. W. Griffith, who had been living apart from her husband several years while he travelled the path to “The Master’s” throne alone.

Now it may have been coincidence that Mrs. Griffith’s picture drew a cold abstract title like Charity just when Mr. Griffith’s picture attained the bald abstraction of Intolerance.

It may also have been a coincidence that the keynote of ’The Mother and the Law’ part of Intolerance was struck by the experiences of Mae Marsh in the heroine role as a victim of a corrupt orphanage, while Charity devoted itself to an alleged exposure of corrupt orphan asylums. If so, the simultaneous presentations of the far separated Mr. and Mrs. Griffith seem most astonishing.

Charity was produced with the backing of a wealthy New York brewer, who presently withdrew from the project because of pressure from religious organizations which considered the production an attack.

The public heard a great deal of Intolerance but Charity remained in obscurity. It was drab and sordid, alarmingly faithful to the portrayal of slum life. The cast included Mrs. Griffith, Creighton Hale, Sheldon Lewis, Zena Keefe and others of equal ability and fame.

Two years later the picture fell into the hands of the slowly decomposing Mutual Film Corporation. It had a Chicago premiere on Michigan avenue, opened with a profound, prayerful address by Bishop Samuel Fallows.

Even prayer was unavailing. In 1920 Charity, re-edited and re-titled as a roaring melodrama, shorn of propaganda, made a third equally insignificant sally on the states’ right market. There was a curse on it.

   
Scene from the massacre of the Huguenots portion of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance.
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