American Silent Film
By William K. Everson (1978)
New York, Oxford University Press – 1978
As if aware that future chroniclers would want to deal in neatly packaged periods of time, with traceable progressions of titles and dates, the history of the motion picture conveniently managed to slice itself up into a series of ten-year dynasties. Moreover, it even had the foresight to see that its key innovations and structural changes occurred within the year prior to the beginning of a new decade—so that 1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940 could launch themselves without fumbling or hesitation, their new image already fully formed. We are perhaps too close to the fifties and sixties to extend that generalization to those years as well, but it is an uncanny coincidence that it was the ninth year of each preceding decade that produced the artistic, technological, or commercial developments that were to shape and dominate the coming ten years.
In 1909, two short films by David Wark Griffith—A Corner in Wheat (with its social criticism) and The Lonely Villa (with its advanced editing patterns)—laid the early blueprints for the full flowering of Griffith’s art with The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance a few years later.
1929 was the year of the changeover to the sound film, a year in which a whole new grammar of film had to be evolved. And in 1939, following years of increasing Hays Office pandering to “family entertainment” and rigid adherence to Production Code rules, the movies suddenly took themselves in hand again.
Griffith’s own hopes and plans for a follow-up to The Birth of a Nation were never announced. That film had so wholly consumed his time and energies—not only in production but in the constant seeking out of new capital—that thoughts of the future could only be dreams rather than planned realities. Moreover, Griffith had no conception of the incredible financial success that awaited The Birth of a Nation. The possibilities of capitalizing on success were there, but so were the equally strong probabilities of having to retrench and recoup possible losses.
When Intolerance (1916) did emerge as the next Griffith film, it was the result not so much of a desire to top the spectacle of The Birth of a Nation as to provide a weapon against the critics of the Civil War film and to justify the movie medium’s right to freedom of expression by proving that with freedom came artistic expansion. Griffith described his conception: “The purpose of the production is to trace a universal theme through various episodes of the race’s history. Ancient, sacred, medieval and modern times are considered.
Events are not set forth in their historical sequence or according to the accepted forms of dramatic construction, but as they might flash across a mind seeking to parallel the life of the different ages.”
As his base, Griffith took the already completed The Mother and the Law, a modern story with strong elements of social criticism, with Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, and Miriam Cooper in the leads. Started before The Birth of a Nation, it was—and is—one of Griffith’s most mature works, although it would not be seen separately from Intolerance until 1919. To this film, GriflBth added a story of ancient Babylon at the time of its overthrow by Cyrus the Persian; a story of France in the Middle Ages, climaxing with the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre engineered by Catherine de Medici; and a fourth story, utilized mainly for counterpoint, dealing with Christ and His crucifixion. This Biblical story was the shortest of the four, and unlike the Babylonian and French episodes, contained no fictional characters or elements interwoven with fact. All four stories were linked by the symbolic image of a woman (Lillian Gish) rocking a cradle, a visualization of Walt Whitman’s lines, “. . . out of the cradle endlessly rocking, Uniter of Here and Hereafter.”
Griffith further explained his method: “The stories will begin like four currents looked at from a hilltop. At first the four currents will flow apart, slowly and quietly. But as they flow, they grow nearer and nearer together, and faster and faster, until in the end, in the last act, they mingle in one mighty river of expressed emotion.” While this analysis clearly and accurately describes the structure of the film, it is most hkely not Griffith’s own wording, though it is always ascribed to him. His prose was often clumsy and heavy-handed (though not without a certain rough-hewn poetry), so it seems dubious that he could, or would, have described such a monumental venture in such restrained terms. Almost certainly, his own description would have been more florid. The use of the river as a symbol was to remain a favorite device of his, to be returned to frequently in such films as The Greatest Question and Way Down East (both of 1920). Intolerance has been termed the movies’ only film fugue—which it probably is-and the only film capable of being regarded as a separate, independent work of art, comparable with the works of a Rodin, a Michelangelo, or a Beethoven. This latter summarization, though understandable at the point in film history at which it was made, is hardly supportable, since it implies the same artistic perfection ascribed to the works of painting or music with which it has been equated. While Intolerance is an innovative masterpiece, and in many ways one of the formal masterpieces of all cinema, it is still very much of a flawed masterpiece—a contradiction in terms that somehow seems justifiable in the world of film if not in the other arts.
In terms of sheer size, scope, and the splendor of its sets. Intolerance has probably never been equalled. The huge Babylonian set sprawled over more than 250 acres of Hollywood at the junction of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards—a landmark later partially taken up (in the twenties) by the Charles Ray Studios, which eventually became the Monogram/ Allied Artists Studio and was finally turned into a television station. Much of the interior work was done at the old Fine Arts Studio, and stretches of studio wall and the studio gate can be seen in the industrial and strike sequences in the modem story. (The Fine Arts Studio was later absorbed into the Columbia Pictiu-es complex and eventually burned down.) Incredibly, the massive battle scenes (which include a couple of beheadings, one obviously “rigged,” the other less so ) were organized and staged without the participation of second unit directors or experienced stunt men, and despite all the carnage and the falls, no one was injured. But the physical size of the production is perhaps one of the least imposing of its many accomplishments. In terms of technique—both the innovations of Griffith and the mechanical means to implement those innovations—the film is a virtual textbook, containing forerunners of glass shots, an ingenious improvised camera crane which even foreshadowed the effects of the zoom lens in certain shots, the most sophisticated use yet of toning and tinting, coupled with mood lighting, for dramatic effect; some astonishingly “modern” performances, especially from Mae Marsh and Miriam Cooper; and, of course, a pattern of editing, or montage, which was to be of profound influence on the Soviet films of the twenties.
Certainly the most astonishing, if not the most important, aspect of these innovations is that Griffith shot and cut the entire film instinctively, without recourse to either script or notes, and did it while maintaining his responsibilities as the third arm (the others: Thomas Ince, Mack Sennett) of the Triangle Studio, the new production/ distribution complex that Griffith had just joined as a partner. In 1916, the year of the release of Intolerance, Griffith was also responsible for the production of some fifty other full-length features, including a dozen Douglas Fairbanks films. Admittedly, in many cases his responsibility was limited to suggestions and decisions rather than physical participation; on the other hand, several Triangle releases of that year clearly show signs of his personal supervision. Hoodoo Ann, a charming Robert Harron-Mae Marsh romance, was even written by Griffith under the pseudonym Granville Warwick, and contained enough authentic Griffith touches to confirm his personal involvement in production. Any distractions from the task of conceiving and controlling a project such as Intolerance would be notable; the “distraction” of running a studio and providing a solid year’s output of films (many of them of real quality ) is almost inconceivable.
The editing of Intolerance, both cumulatively and within individual sequences, remains a tour de force. Griffith seems to have learned a great deal about the successful structuring of a film just by studying his own The Birth of a Nation, which started slowly and methodically, built to its first climax, relaxed, and then built to a second, greater, and more prolonged climax. Intolerance, though of the same length, rearranges the structuring to its advantage. It starts in the same methodical way, introducing its characters and establishing its theme. It withholds the Babylonian sequence until substantially into the early portion of the film, the size of its set—introduced via an iris from the bottom left of the screen, slowly opening to reveal the exterior walls of the city—renewing audience interest in a film that seemed to be taking its time getting down to business. (However, Griffith cannily still withheld the most overpowering shots of Babylon—those overhead shots taken both from a camera-crane and a moored balloon—until the bachannal sequence in the second half of the film, thus providing new visual thrills right after the midway battle sequence, when the audience must have assumed that the film had reached its spectacular zenith and was now being wrapped up.
Moreover, while The Birth of a Nation (perhaps of necessity, because of the chronological sequence of events) placed its slowest section at the beginning of the second half, spending some three reels establishing milieu and historical background before building to the second climax, Griffith, in Intolerance, places all of the historical and other background data in the early portion of the film. Thus, the first climax, of Babylon’s initial victory over Cyrus the Persian, comes two thirds of the way through the film. Part Two very quickly picks up the threads of all four stories, and within one reel marshals them into position for the bravura climax—some three reels of sustained action in which Griffith cuts from story to story and period to period with increasing rapidity, at first continuing to use the Woman Rocking the Cradle as a linking device, and then dispensing with her entirely so that all four stories erupt and pour across the screen simultaneously—cutting from long shot to long shot, from chariot wheels to train wheels, in a display of editing that could not have been more precise had it been mathematically planned on a story board.
No matter how many times one has seen Intolerance, these climactic reels leave one spent and exhausted. Even if one is able to detach oneself from emotional involvement, the sheer pace and fury of the images themselves is enervating. The three historical stories have tragic endings, the modern story a happy ending—though it is by no means predictable, and since the traditional “happy ending” is not yet a Hollywood formula in 1916, its outcome still engenders tremendous suspense, which Griffith milks to the last frame of the last shot. (Even when the pardon is clearly about to be granted, the executioners’ hands tremble as they hold their knives a fraction above the ropes that, when cut, will send the doomed man through the gallows’ trap door!)
Griffith’s epilogue, depicting a future Utopia in which wars will be no more, and wherein “flowery fields bloom in place of prison walls,” is a valid part of the film’s structure. Griffith believed in his message sincerely, and felt that the universal language of film could help to bring about such an enviable ( if unlikely ) world state. But regardless of the validity—or naivete—of his philosophy, one needs those few minutes of placid, ambiguous epilogue to unwind and regain one’s composure after such a sustained barrage on the senses and emotions.
In the face of such a virtuoso piece of film-making—film-making that would be incredible today, if anyone had the vision and imagination to attempt it, but that was truly astounding for a period as early as 1916—and particularly in the face of its remarkable visual beauty (G. W. Bitzer again photographed, with Karl Brown as his assistant, and most of the big scenes were covered with only one camera), it is almost blasphemous to have to admit that this Bible of filmic grammar and technique has a lot of things wrong with it. Its initial problem is that, the French episode apart, it really has nothing to do with intolerance at all, and Griffith even seems subliminally aware of this by dragging the word in whenever he can to underline his theme. (The law court is referred to as “a sometimes House of Intolerance,” and the young husband sent to prison is “intolerated away for a term.”)
As in The Birth of a Nation, the treatment of history rarely admits that there could be two sides to any question. Statements from politicians and historical figures, often quite genuine, are occasionally presented out of context and their subtitles underlined, to stress their infallibility.
As in The Birth of a Nation, Griffith frequently injects his own editorializing into historical matter, giving the audience little opportunity—or time—to separate fact from opinion. Griffith’s handling of the Babylonian sequences is masterly. Remarkably little is known about that civilization, even less certainly in 1916 than today. Yet by using instinct and imagination, and by incorporating interesting, if not entirely relevant documenary data (“. . . to the Babylonians we owe the division of the hour into sixty minutes”), Griffith builds up an astonishingly convincing picture of Babylonian life.
( Showmanship was added to what little was known of Babylonian architecture and weaponry: the elephants, as a design motif on the walls, were an element added by Griffith, as was the decision to give the Babylonians a flamethrower to aid in their battle against the Persians.) We really get a sense of how Babylonian nobility and peasantry lived, loved, relaxed, and celebrated. Universalizing his fictional characters—giving his Babylonian heroine the coquettishness of a modern American girl, and having her worry about getting a new dress—made Griffith’s history warm, human, and somehow contemporary, while the tableau-like reenactments of actual events, and the frequent citing of historical authorities, gave it an underlying scholarship, too. But Griffith’s Babylon is just that, our limited knowledge of its history somewhat “revised” to support Griffith’s theme.
His nominal hero in this sequence, Belshazzar, is depicted as a democrat and a liberal thinker, unwilling to restrict his people’s liberty in any way. Yet in contemporary parlance, he would be considered something of a “swinger,” his Babylon not too far removed from Sodom and Gomorrah, and thus ripe for downfall. Conversely, Griffith’s villain, Cyrus the Persian, with his battle cry of “Kill! Kill! Kill! And to God the Glory!”, is depicted as a pure tyrant. Yet Cyrus was no more wholly evil than Belshazzar was wholly good, and in fact his conquest of Babylon brought with it many cultural advantages. Griffith’s casual use ol history for his own ends also leads to distortion in other ways: he quotes Hammurabi’s code of justice—”An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”—as though it were purely a code of vengeance, thus minimizing a remarkable early figure whose achievements included a school system, socialized medicine, a drainage system, and a sophisticated judicial procedure. While Intolerance has some brilliant performances, it also has some very bad ones. Josephine Crowell, who was so moving and restrained as Mrs. Cameron in The Birth of a Nation, is positively grotesque as Catherine de Medici—and the fault is Griffith’s as much as hers. In many ways, too, Intolerance is an untidy film, though this may be an unfair criticism since it obviously had to be edited quite ruthlessly to bring it down to its still substantial thirteen reels. Certain awkward pieces of cutting, or unexplained facial expressions, suddenly make sense when one sees The Mother and the Law or The Fall of Babylon**
in their full separate versions. For the most part, what Griffith was forced to excise teas extraneous, but its elimination nevertheless upset the editorial flow of the film. (When we first see the great gate of Imgur-Bel, we get quick flashes of the gate in operation, but each shot is too short, an upward pan obviously being cut off before its conclusion. Later, fairly lengthy discussions of religious freedom between Belshazzar and his High Priest are condensed to a quick exchange of glances, with no explanation as to why the High Priest is suddenly scowling and displeased.)
Many cuts may have been dictated by the inevitability of ultimate protest: at one time, for example, the financier was very clearly meant to be accepted as Rockefeller! And frames of the initial version of the film, deposited with the Library of Congress, indicate that some scenes were included solely for the opportunity they provided for Griffith to attack various forms of corruption and sexual depravity. Finally, well into the release of not only this but all of his films, Griffith was wont to tamper with his original editing. Even in the 1940’s, when much of his material was being revived theatrically, adverse audience reaction to a given scene would tell him that it was cut wrong—and up he would go to the projection booth to correct it! Many of the prints extant today may well have been tampered with by Griffith in just such a fashion, their “untidiness” due not to initial mistakes but to re-cutting four decades later. In many ways, however, Intolerance does represent the peak of Griffith’s editorial practices. Thereafter, vanity and lethargy combined to reduce the effectiveness of his cuts. His conception was often brilliant, but the execution frequently lazy. Apart from the overall conception of Intolerance, inevitably bound up with its editing patterns, individual sequences illustrate some of the most complex cutting seen in any film to that time. The murder sequence (Robert Harron fights with Walter Long after rescuing Mae Marsh; Miriam Cooper shoots Long from a ledge outside the window and escapes; Harron is arrested by the police) is an incredibly frenetic barrage of images, some of them of only a few frames’ duration, which must have proved as bewildering to 1916 audiences as it was to prove stimulating to Eisenstein and other Soviet directors.
The power of Griffith’s work, however, is such that one usually doesn’t notice the mistakes of the non-matching shots until one is intimately familiar with it. Historian Arthur Lennig made a minute study in 1975 of the three versions of The Mother and the Law, the modern story of Intolerance. First was the version shot in 1914; second, the partially revised version incorporated into Intolerance; third, the original but revised and partially re-shot version ultimately released on its own in 1919. Lennig was able not only to pinpoint the cunning disguise and re-use of sets within the film but also to note specific differences in sets, furniture, hair-styles, clothing, and even players. The final print constantly intercuts shots from all three versions, and even the “middle” cut, as represented by Intolerance, has some striking lapses in continuity. Yet until Lennig drew attention to them, these all passed unnoticed; and even knowing of them, the power of the film is still so great that one is unaware of them unless specifically looking for them. Not unexpectedly, Intolerance failed to duplicate the great popular success of The Birth of a Nation. Initial reviews, and box-office figures, were promising. But once away from the metropolitan centers, the film seemed to have little appeal. Not only were audiences confused by its style, but increasingly they disagreed with its pacifist message. More and more it seemed that America would be drawn into the First World War, and the gradually increasing number of “anti-Hun” melodramas excited audiences far more than this appeal for brotherly love and peace. Even the more substantial British success of the film was minimized by that country’s involvement in the war. The film’s failure consumed most of Griffith’s profits from The Birth of a Nation and caused him to re-trench and follow a policy that, alas, other directors of integrity, such as Erich von Stroheim, never had the acumen to emulate. Following Intolerance, Griffith reverted to smaller, safer pictures, regained the confidence of exhibitors, and replenished his bankroll. Then he launched himself into another purely artistic endeavor that he really did not expect would succeed (though surprisingly, Broken Blossoms did succeed), followed up with another commercial group spearheaded by Way Down East, experiment again with Dream Street, and reverted back to box-office material, all leading ultimately to his most uncompromising and least commercial film, Isn’t Life Wonderful? In 1924. Admittedly, Griffith’s “artistic” ventures were not always as successful as he hoped, nor was he always right in his commercial judgments, but such a pattern enabled him to direct prolifically for almost a full decade following The Birth of a Nation.
Intolerance was of even greater world-wide and long-term influence than The Birth of a Nation, though that influence was less obvious. The narrative structure and melodramatic content of The Birth of a Nation made it an easy prototype for ( among others ) westerns and war films. Griffith’s own Hearts of the World (1918) was virtually a remake of The Birth of a Nation transposed to World War I: the same family structure, the same separations and reunions, the same editing patterns. A brigade of French volunteers substituted for the Ku Klux Klan, and their leader again arrived in time to save Lillian Gish from rape at the hands of George Siegmann.
Intolerance on the other hand, excited the “intellectual” directors – George Pearson in England, Maurice Tourneur in America, Carl Dreyer in Denmark, Eisenstein in Russia, Raymond Bernard in France. With the war in progress, that influence was delayed in many cases for several years, and then (as in the case of Dreyer’s Leaves From Satan’s Book ) not seen by a large “popular” audience. But in America, one had a concrete example of the film’s impact on ( if not influence on ) routine commercial directors when Frank Lloyd’s A Tale of Two Cities (1917) based its attack on the Bastille very closely on Cyrus the Persian’s attack on Babylon, with many compositions and cuts duplicated completely. Apart from the influence of Intolerance on the many directors who worked on it as actors and assistant directors—W. S. Van Dyke, Elmer Clifton, Tod Browning, Lloyd Ingraham, and others—one may perhaps assume a certain input from Erich von Stroheim, who played a small role in the film and also acted as an assistant and a tenuous, nondefined kind of art director as well. The use of sexual symbolism in the modern sequence, and especially in the decor of the room occupied by the Musketeer of the Slums (Walter Long), was not typical of Griffith, though it was in a sense an offshoot of the animal symbolism he had used in The Birth of a Nation. Yet such symbolism was to remain a permanent adjunct to Stroheim’s films, both in those he directed and those in which he merely acted, but under the guidance of directors who respected him and would frequently give him leeway to write and/ or design his own material. Much of the sexual symbolism in Intolerance reappears more than twenty years later as decor in Stroheim’s military apartment in Renoir’s Le Grande Illusion, as does the motif of “The Hopeful Geranium,” used in the same poignant and symbolic way in both the Griffith and Renoir films. It’s possible that Griffith thought of these things and rejected them for later use. It’s far more likely, however, that they were devised by Stroheim, approved by Griffith (who would not instinctively re-use something not his), and re-utilized in later years by Stroheim. The actual source is unimportant. What is important is that they appeared in Intolerance, further underscoring its status as a “source” film.
Within three years, Griffith had made two of the most important and influential films of all time, establishing himself as both the foremost commercial film-maker and the foremost artistic innovator, even though the second film could not support both titles. With these two films, America had also established itself beyond question as the leading filmmaking country in the world. With much of Europe at war, and most European film production at both an artistic and economic standstill because of it, America—and Hollywood, in particular—was in a unique position to take that leadership and march ahead to a position of complete supremacy in the film-making hierarchy.
* The Fall of Babylon was released as a separate feature in 1919, with all the deleted material, including one or two complete sets, not otherwise seen in Intolerance, restored. Since the film was now essentially an entertainment’ and a “spectacular,” its unhappy ending was inappropriate, and Griffith shot additional footage to build up the romance between Constance Talmadge and Elmer Clifton, eliminate her death scene, and give them a happy future in exile “in distant Nineveh” ( which in actuality had been destroyed some 200 years earlier! ) . In the intervening years, Talmadge had become a big star, primarily in romantic comedy, and her added sophistication and grooming stressed rather clearly which scenes were old and which were new.