Movies in America
By William Kuhns – 1972
Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, Later Years
By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, movies had established themselves as a new king of entertainment, a pleasant way to spend an evening or an afternoon. But most movies were still relatively crude, unimaginative things immensely dependent on the stage conventions that they had unwittingly inherited. Scenes were depicted in long, single shots from a single perspective; stories were simple and either mawkish in their sentimentality or obvious in their contrivances, or both. The movies were popular, but they were still only a faint glimmer of what they might one day be. Between 1910 and 1920, two men did more to reshape the medium than anyone else ever would. One gave it a grammar and a syntax: a range of techniques which lifted the use of the camera out of theatrics into film art. The other, the first and greatest star of them all, made the screen come alive with a poetry and a pathos never before known and never since recaptured. Between these two men, the movies took on a new stature and significance. A novelty became an art.
In 1924, Griffith wrote the following lines (Colliers, May 3, 1924):
The motion picture is a child that has been given life in our generation. As it grows older it will develop marvelously. We poor souls can scarcely visualize or dream of its possibilities. We ought to be kind with it in its youth, so that in its maturity it may look back upon its childhood without regrets.
Read today, the lines ring with a fine irony. Because of Griffith, the movies rose far beyond what anyone in the first decade could have believed possible. Moreover, he —more than any director of the period — made it possible to look back upon the childhood of the movies “without regrets” and better, with wonder and awe. The curious thing about this greatest of all directors and innovators of the American film is that he never really wanted to get too involved in movies. As a part-time actor and would-be writer, the young Griffith looked upon movies much as other stage actors and writers did at the time: as a crass novelty, without a future, without either substance or the possibility of sub- Stance, Indeed, Griffith used the name Lawrence Griffith throughout his early movie career He was convinced that one day he would step out of films and make a great name for himself as a writer. Only then would he begin to use his real name. Griffith was the fifth child of an impoverished Kentucky family. He grew up amid an aging but still powerful Victorian system of beliefs—Southern romanticism and a haughtiness that would affect all of his work, often marring the best of it. The young Griffith worked as a sales clerk, a newspaper reporter, and, most assiduously, as an aspiring writer.
He published an occasional story or play, but was not very successful. He also dabbled in acting. In New York City in 1907, an actor friend suggested that he work temporarily for Biograph. Griffith applied and attempted to sell a story to Edwin Porter. Porter turned down the story but offered Griffith the lead role in his next picture. Griffith took it, and, unwittingly, began one of the greatest careers in the industry.When Griffith was first offered an opportunity to direct a movie, he was reluctant. Should he fail at that, he thought, he would be out of an acting job. But, after a few pictures, it became apparent that Griffith’s metier in the movies was not acting, or even writing, but directing. Griffith improvised, invented, polished, and experimented endlessly. Between 1908 and 1912, he fashioned, single-handed, a new range of expression for the movies. He transformed editing from the stage-dominated succession of scenes to a visual dynamic that shuttled time and space to achieve dramatic impact. He made the close-up a standard technique of movie making. He developed editing principles that made it possible to jump back and forth between scenes at a quickening pace, thereby achieving a dramatic momentum never known before in the movies. He experimented with lighting, to achieve tonal qualities and mood. He lured good actors from the stage and—something hardly known in movies at the time—made them rehearse before shooting a scene, thus creating a fresh realism.
The success of The Birth of a Nation hardly stemmed Griffith’s desire to make more movies, even larger in scope and conception than what was already acclaimed as his masterpiece. At 39, he felt his future as a filmmaker was before him. He had changed his name (shortly after leaving Biograph) to D. W. Griffith and accepted film as his chosen career. In preparing his next project— a multi-episodic movie based on the theme of intolerance—he said, “If I approach what I am trying to do in my coming picture, I expect a persecution even greater than that which met The Birth of a Nation.” Intolerance was a daring film. Its structure was unique, its conception original, its cost extravagant. The film was to include four separate stories: “The Mother and the Law,” based on the then-prominent Stielow case; the fall of Babylon; the story of Christ; and the massacre of the Huguenots on the Eve of St. Bartholomew. Each story was to be separate, but interlinked in theme (and editing) with the others. As Griffith explained, 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, faster and faster, until in the end, in the last act, they mingle in one mightly river of exposed emotion.”
Production of Intolerance was so expensive that it forced Griffith to go heavily into debt. At $2,000,000, it was clearly one of the most expensive films of the silent era and, at 13 reels, one of the longest. The film opens with a statement of the theme and the image (which recurs throughout it) of a mother cradling her child—for Griffith, the symbol of people victimized by intolerance. Each story is told only in part, then abruptly followed by the proportionate aspect of another story. Through this technique, Griffith intended to use editing to show the thematic similarities between the stories—how intolerance is the same in every age. His technique is superlative: the film is full of startling juxtapositions that bring out the comparisons he wanted. As Jesus weaves his way to Calvary, the film cuts to a girl rushing to forewarn Balthazar that the priests have betrayed him. As the Huguenot battles through the streets to rescue his lover, the wife of a condemned convict rushes to the prison with a pardon.
Griffith uses tension and suspense in the film as they were never used before: to propel the action to ever spiraling heights, holding the audience captive with the images rushing across the screen. The production was opulent. The gates of Babylon stood hundreds of feet high while thousands milled below. In the banquet scene of the Balthazar story, Griffith spent a reputed $25,000 for the lavish effects. The cast was enormous, the sets magnificent. And as ever, Griffith’s cameras recorded not only the scope but the minor details that gave even greater credibility and meaning to the scene: the faces, the costumes, the finely-honed spear points. Griffith used a number of techniques which had been anticipated in earlier films.
Now, he gave them greater scope and development than ever before. He experimented throughout with various framing devices: irises to concentrate on a face or an action, wipes that moved across the screen in specific relationship to some object on the screen (one, for example, began at the monstrous Babylonian gate and moved outward, parallel to the gate). He used tracking shots often; one traveled for several hundred feet, from a distant shot of the entire Babylonian set to a medium shot of one scene.
Nonetheless, Intolerance was an uneven film: in some ways, the greatest of Griffith’s movies, in other ways the most faulted. The enormous sets, particularly in the Babylonian sequence, tended to distract from the story. As a reviewer for Photoplay remarked, “The fatal error of Intolerance was that in the great Babylonian scenes you didn’t care which side won. It was just a great show.” Moreover, of the four stories that Griffith promised, he only delivered two—the contemporary story (the best developed) and the Babylonian story—more of an epic spectacle, really, than a story. The narrative in the Christ and Huguenot episodes was weak, and audiences tended to wait out those episodes to find out what was really happening in the exciting stories. Finally, Griffith’s own sentimental bias hurt the film. He used names such as “Little Dear One” and “Brown Eyes” for characters—something that had generally vanished from filmmaking before Griffith left Biograph. Some of the violence—such as cutting off a head—was downright gory and gratuitous.
Nonetheless, one can’t help but feel that, with Intolerance, there was more at stake: that Griffith was reaching for further degrees of experimentation, struggling to find some new unifying principle to advance the art of film, much as he had in Birth of a Nation. If Griffith did fail, it was perhaps partly because of the enormous distance between what the audiences could cope with and the limits to which Griffith wanted to test the manipulation of form. The failure that crippled Griffith most brutally, though, was not the film’s artistic failure, but the fact that it flopped so badly in the commercial market. It would take him years of work on movies without total creative independence to repay the debts incurred by Intolerance. With the loss of his creative freedom, Griffith lost much of his enthusiasm for endless experimentation. Eventually, despite glimmers and sometimes brilliant moments of creative achievement, Griffith’s work sank to the level of cheap potboilers. By the mid-twenties, he was turning out cheaply produced, barely cared for movies that suggested only dimly the creative talent of the man who had made them.
The decline of Griffith is a sad epoch in film history, but one that reveals something about the precarious relationship between art and industry in filmmaking. The Griffith of the Biograph years, of Judith of Bethulia, of The Birth of a Nation, of Intolerance, was a creative, experimental spirit searching for the best ways to use the medium to communicate powerfully to audiences. The later Griffith was far more concerned with fame and wealth and recognition; he seemed to care less about what he did with a film than how boldly his name was printed on it, and with the money a film would make. There were other reasons behind Griffith’s decline. His Victorian sentimentality, which had marred earlier films, now seemed even more pronounced—and more obviously out of step with the changing tastes of audiences.
His interest in film itself declined; he spent more time writing on various themes like the future of movies, planning extravagant projects that never materialized and speaking on various subjects to whomever would listen. Griffith made two features during World War I: Hearts of the World and The Great Love, both of which were thin reflections of his talents and barely shaded forms of propaganda. After the war, he returned to the type of films he had been doing: soft, melodramatic romances, which of course had lost virtually all their appeal for postwar audiences. The industry at large was foundering, searching out new subjects for film; Griffith, too, foundered. For a time, he wandered between production companies.
Then, in 1919, he became part of the organization that formed—with Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks—United Artists Corporation. The prominent names that formed United Artists guaranteed it financial backing. But it also forced the company to aim its products straight at the box office, a quality tacitly present in the films of the other three, but dangerous for Griffith. Griffith’s first movie for United Artists was Broken Blossoms (1919).
It was also his last major movie. Broken Blossoms is a film that vacillates between a genuine poignancy and a number of novel effects and gimmicks that Griffith included largely to guarantee its commercial success. The story of a Chinaman’s affection for a badly treated girl, Broken Blossoms uses sets in a quiet, natural way both to achieve a sense of realism and to evoke mood. Lillian Gish, playing the girl, acts with a gracious naturalness and believability. The editing in some of the sequences—such as the brutal beating of Gish—belongs among the best of Griffith’s work. Broken Blossoms was received well. The New York Times called it “a masterpiece” and the New York Evening Telegram described it with the statement: “It is as if Dickens had spoken by means of the camera.” The film’s success, both critical and commercial, did a great deal to improve Griffith’s sagging reputation. But it also convinced Griffith that he was everything the critics and public said he was: “Our Greatest Poet,” the “Shakespeare of the movies.” He began announcing even greater things: a film 72 reels long; a chain of theaters bearing his name. Griffith the filmmaker had become Griffith the publicist — and a self-publicist at that. The films he made seemed to lack his imagination, and were gradually either delegated to others or made with peremptory speed and with as little imagination and innovation as possible. Yet Griffith had made film history. He had taught the movies to move, to expand beyond the limits imposed upon them by the stage, and to speak with an eloquence and a power never known before. For that Griffith cannot be forgotten.