Photoplay – Volume XXVII Number Two, January 1925
(“Love’s struggle through the Ages” – There was a curse upon it.)
Griffith Comes Forth with Big Ideas
His bigger idea, on the theme that he called “Love’s struggle through the Ages,” and which more actually was the villainy of hate through the ages, was now to use “The Mother and the Law” as the modern example in a composite review of historic intolerances. As the notes fell together the Griffith story moved like a Bach fugue, written in Wagnerian thunder, through Babylon of 539 B.C., through Judea in 27 A.D., and France of 1572. The transitions and interludes were to be filled with a picturization of the idea from Whitman, described by Griffith as “A golden thread, binds the four stories—a fairy girl with sun-lit hair—her hand on the cradle of humanity — eternally rocking—.” This came to the screen with Lillian Gish photographed in mysterioso half-lights. So with zealous abandon the Griffith lot in Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, became a maelstrom of costly construction. There he built Babylon with its walls three hundred feet high, the architectural pretentions of mediaeval France, and the streets of ancient Judea. The most stupendous expenditures were incurred. There were weeks on end when the daily payroll of the literal armies of actors totalled $12,000 a day. The banquet hall scene for the feast of Belshazzar cost just 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 played a Pharisee, and becoming a director since has developed a habit of shooting everything to the vast “Intolerance” scale, regardless. Constance Talmadge played “the Mountain Girl,” a role which brought her first attention and opened the way to a star career, beginning under Selznick auspices soon after. “Intolerance” Costs $1,900,000.
When the totals were cast up at the end “Intolerance” had cost $1,900,000. It was some thirteen thousand feet in length, cut from three hundred thousand feet of negative. Let us recall in contrast now that Edison spent $24,000 inventing the motion picture, and that at the end of 1895, the first year of production, the total cost of all the motion pictures in the world to that date was $ 100. “Intolerance” in thirteen thousand feet was just twenty years after “Annabelle the Dancer” in thirty five feet, the sensation of 1895. “Intolerance” opened at the Liberty theater in New York, the scene of “The Birth of a Nation” triumph, on September 6, 1916. It played in legitimate theaters in all the major cities here and abroad. It was inevitably a sensation and the topic of considerable debate. Despite a considerable patronage it was unprofitable.
The American audience of the motion picture then numbered probably some twenty millions. It would be a reasonably accurate estimate that less than half a million could know what “Intolerance” was about. Whole audiences came away from the theaters, awed and overwhelmed with the immensity of the spectacle and bewildered by the picture fugue treatment of the theme. Mostly the theme was lost. Griffith, who, above all others, had evolved a screen technique of close-up and cut-back to clarify plot movement and to make attention unconscious and automatic, had betrayed them. Here was a picture which required conscious attention, some thought and a reasonably capable memory. The public, measured in terms as represented by the average of the motion audience, does not go to the theater to intellectualize. That is no indictment of the motion picture and its following. The public never goes anywhere to intellectualize. Audiences are to be counted in thousands, students are solitaries, each in his niche, to be counted one at a time. There is no box office revenue in units of one. “Intolerance” told its real story to a few thousands, but it needed the patronage of millions to make it commercially rival “The Birth of a Nation” which it considerably surpassed as an expression of ideas. One may fancy that the Babylonian spectacles of “Intolerance” shown alone as a complete production would have done about as well at the box office as the whole potpourri composite.
Backers of “Intolerance” are clamoring for Dividends
Griffith’s most dramatic gesture concerned with “Intolerance” has never become known to the public at all. His backers and investors in “Intolerance” put their money into the picture expecting another box office miracle like “The Birth of a Nation.” When it did not materialize they grumbled and after grumbling a while began to roar. This was disturbing to Griffith on two counts. It pained his pride and it threatened, if the grumblings reached the public, to adversely affect the mystic glories summed up in the superman myth which named him “The Master.” Griffith engaged to buy the interests of his co-investors in “Intolerance,” something in the vicinity of a million dollar item for “The Master.” This single item, and others a little like it exerted a determining influence on all of Griffith’s subsequent productions, by raising the cost of capital for his later enterprises.
The month of the presentation of “Intolerance” brought an odd, faint echo of the name and fame of Griffith. With promises of an unsupported pretention a seven part picture entitled “Charity” was given a showing to the state’s 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,” a Fox picture. “Charity” for a combination of reasons was a dismal thing. The scenario idea on which it was based was 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 sheer 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, this thematic coincidence under the simultaneous presentations of the far separated Mr. and Mrs. Griffith seems 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 who 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 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 profound prayer by a bishop, and some incense. Even prayer was unavailing. In 1020 “Charity” re-edited and re-titled as a roaring and violent melodrama, shorn of propaganda, made a third equally insignificant sally on the state’s right market.
There was a curse upon it.