David Wark Griffith’s “A Romance of Happy Valley,” (Artcraft), starts with the charm of an idyll and lapses into the most insane melodramatic clap-trap. Here is the soul struggle of a little country boy who finally tears himself away from his little sweetheart and his parents to find himself in the city. Finally he returns, his pockets bulging with money. His father, now penniless and facing eviction, does not recognize him when he comes to the old homestead to stay. That night the old man tries to kill the stranger in order to get his money, but chance prevents the tragedy. It seems that the village bank has been robbed and the posse has pursued the cracksman to the homestead. The boy, attracted by the noise, goes out to investigate just as the wounded bank robber crawls into his room. So the old man chokes the thief to death instead of his son. Consequently, everything ends happily, except for the burglar.
“A Romance of Happy Valley” is Griffith briefly at his best and extendedly at his worst. He seems unable to get out of the slough of the melodramatic punch and the chase. The early portion of the picture, despite exaggeration of rural characters, has many fine moments, such as the little love scene in the corn field between the boy and his sweetheart. But, in the main, “A Romance of Happy Valley” is pretty inferior stuff.
Lillian Gish plays the country sweetheart, Griffith continuing in his efforts to make the most idyllistic girl on the silver screen into an eccentric comedienne. Robert Harron varies as the country boy and George Fawcett completely overdoes the old father. Fawcett is guilty of celluloid ranting in the moments when he fights with his conscience before attempting to kill a stranger within his gates.
Griffith! Before him, the movies were a nickelodeon novelty, after him, they were an international art form and a powerful, glamorous American industry He was the first to codify the rules and techniques of screen storytelling, the first to establish the conventions by which the unique capacities of the movies for both sweeping spectacle and profound intimacy could be employed in long, complex narratives, the first to assert the director’s claim to primary authorship of a film Above all, it was Griffith who imagined the future of his medium, and with his driving energy, his taste for the grandiose and his flair for publicity, propelled that medium toward that future—only to be crushed by the very forces he had unleashed.
His story is, in huge measure, the story of how the movies as we know them came to be. It is also a great and archetypal American story. The poor Southern farm lad, nurturing his romantic nature on the legends of The Lost Cause and drawing on them to make The Birth of a Nation, the first film masterpiece—yet also a work deeply tainted by the racism that was a tragic part of his heritage, the turn-of-the-century touring actor and failed playwright, desperate for fame, power and artistic glory, bending the movies to his dream and achieving it with such legendary works as Intolerance, Broken Blossoms and Way Down East; the would-be plutocrat risking all—and losing all—by trying to establish his own studio, the sensualist whose powerful sexual obsessions helped drive him to the heights—and hasten his downfall, the lonely and embittered old man, shunned by the industry he had been instrumental in creating, turning into the ghost of Hollywood’s banquet years. All of these are Griffith, and all of them live in the pages of this masterful biography. But “D.W. Griffith An American Life” is more than one man’s story. His life intertwined with the lives of almost every great figure in the formative years of the movies. Louis B. Mayer cheated him, Lillian Gish loved him, Erich von Stroheim, Mack Sennett and Raoul Walsh learned from him, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charles Chaplin were his business partners, Lionel and John Barrymore were his friends, W C Fields and Alfred Lunt co-starred for him, Adolph Zukor tried to rescue his career, Anita Loos and Stephen Vincent Benet wrote for him, Jean Renoir was his admirer And the crowded canvas of his life stretched from Jack London’s San Francisco to Woodrow Wilson’s White House, from the trenches of World War I to Hearst’s San Simeon, from Number 10 Downing Street to Weimar Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. In a work of scrupulous scholarship, brilliant critical insight and powerful historical narrative, Richard Schickel, Time film critic and author of The Disney Version, has captured this life in all its vivid dimensions. This long-awaited and definitive masterpiece is the first and only book worthy of its subject, which is not only Griffith himself, but the birth and rise of the art form that more than any other has shaped the way we see the world in our times.
About the Author
Richard Schickel combines three careers He has been a film critic for Time since 1973, having previously served Life in the same capacity He is the author of many books, including The Disney Version, His Picture in the Papers and a well received novel. Another I, Another You. Most recently he published Gary Grant: A Celebration, and he has just completed a study of the celebrity system and its effect on American life. Finally, for the last decade he has been producer, writer and frequently director of many television specials Among them are the acclaimed PBS series “The Men Who Made the Movies,” “Life Goes to the Movies,” “Into the Morning: Willa Gather’s America ” and, most recently, a film biography of James Gagney and a history of the Star Wars saga.
A persistent sub-flowering of shame and guilt. The phrase summarizes the most important aspect of Griffith’s feelings when they were aroused by “good” (and always very young and very innocent) women almost as perfectly as the incident involving “the Snow Angel” prefigures emotions he would obsessively explore in his films. As Tyler says, he had a very “forthright” conception of the premarital “single instance” : “rape or the marriage proposal.”Quite obviously he (or his surrogate) could bring himself to no such definitive action in this incident and so retreated to a romanticized passivity, a passivity that would be duplicated by his camera as it mooned over such Griffith favorites as Lillian Gish and Carol Dempster in later years.
His guilty sexuality however, would have more significant consequences than that. It severely limited his range when he was dealing with romantic love. He could be free, even humorous with women who did not arouse strong emotions in him. Dorothy Gish, for example, was easily turned into a hoydenish comedienne by him, and other actresses, ranging from Mae Marsh (once his infatuation with her ended) to Lupe Velez, were allowed an expressive range that his special favorites were denied (Gish, of course, often conquered his limits; Miss Dempster was incapable of so doing). These limits—frequently ascribed to, and no doubt influenced by, the Victorian sentimentality that was so much a part of Griffith’s sensibility—played a role in his fall from favor with audiences in the 1920s, when his endless preoccupation with fates worse than death came to seem to many rather laughably anachronistic. This capacity—this need, really—to despoil childish innocence, innocence of the unguarded, sleeping kind that he wrote about so vividly in his memoirs, he embodied, instead, in the bestial villains, most notably.
Lynch and Gus, the mulatto and the black who threaten, respectively, Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh in The Birth of a Nation, but also in characterizations like those by Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms and by Lionel Barrymore in America. Without wishing to seem too schematic about it, one can say that Griffith was never able to integrate the conflicting demands of the light and dark sides of his sexual nature, either in life or in his films.
As Griffith formed his professional manner, he was creating the elements of future failure as well as future success. His secretiveness would grow, and his inability’ to develop, among his coworkers, critics whom he could freely trust would result in a dangerous isolation and, in time, it would seem to even so sympathetic a friend as Lillian Gish that there was no one near him “who loved him enough to be able to say ‘no’ to him.”
In general, the quality of his work remained high; consistency at this time being one of his great virtues. But for the most part he was not reaching out, stretching his talent and the medium’s range as he previously had. His best film of the spring, for example, was The Usurer, but it was essentially a remake of A Corner in Wheat. This time, as the title implies, the central figure was a moneylender and not a grain dealer, but there was the same crosscutting between his machinations and their effect on plain people, and he came to much the same end as the earlier villain—instead of being suffocated in a grain elevator, he was suffocated in a safe in which he was accidentally locked. (Griffith must have been something of a claustrophobe, for from The Sealed Room in 1909 to Lillian Gish’s celebrated entrapment in a closet in Broken Blossoms, suffocation, as a suitably terrible end for villains and as an awful peril for heroes and heroines, recurs.
The Mothering Heart – 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913
Viola Barry as The ‘Idle Woman’ / Outside Club (as Peggy Pearce)
The Mothering Heart
Griffith had found another project that seemed to him worth more than a reel. Shot under the title “Mother Love” but released as The Mothering Heart, it was to provide the first really strong vehicle for Lillian Gish. There is some dispute as to the circumstances of her arrival in California. Her role in The Good Little Devil had required her to do a bit of flying (by means of wires and a harness) and in Baltimore the wires had come undone and she fell rather than flew off a five-foot wall. When the play reached New York, Gish settled into a rented room and, determined to save at least $10 a week to send to her mother and sister, she subsisted on an unbalanced diet and grew more than usually ethereal in appearance. Belasco began to fear for her health—or so the story goes—and also to fear that her apparent illness might be traced to the onstage fall and subject him to a lawsuit. He proposed a vacation in warmer climes and, finally, she decided to visit the rest of her family in California. This account may be true enough as far as it goes, but it would be a mistake not to enter Miss Gish’s shrewdness and ambition into the equation of this decision. Her friend Pickford had the lead in this production and she faced a lonely winter’s run in a part that afforded her few opportunities. In the meantime, on the Coast, Griffith was operating without his greatest star, Mary Pickford, with Dorothy Gish, Mae Marsh and Blanche Sweet not quite able to fill certain sorts of romantic roles. In short, convenience and opportunity- coincided.
And The Mothering Heart proved to be, as Gish says, “a milestone in my career, primarily because, with two reels to work with, Mr. Griffith could concentrate more on the effects that he wanted and exercise more subtlety in his direction.” Initially Griffith thought her too youthful for the role and rejected her at the first rehearsal. Miss Gish, however, was determined to try to “play old” and she showed up at a second rehearsal wearing falsies to give her a more matronly figure and won the part, that of a wife rejected during pregnant” by her husband, who favors a cabaret dancer. She bears her child alone, it dies, and in a famous bit of business, she wanders into a garden, picks up a stick and, in her grief, beats all the blossoms off a rose bush—the kind of pantomime only Griffith was capable of creating at this time.
Miss Gish, alone of the Biograph players, took an intense interest in those aspects of filmmaking which did not involve acting. It was her habit to look at the rushes every day, even to go into Jimmie Smith’s cutting room to see, from his point of view, what worked and what did not in a performance. In the course of this activity – during The Mothering Heart, she concluded that she was overacting and asked Griffith about it.
“The camera opens and shuts, opens and shuts with equal time,” he said. ”So half of everything you do isn’t seen. Then take away the sound, and you lose another quarter. What’s left on the screen is a quarter of what you felt or did—therefore, your expression must be four times as deep and true as it would be normal to come over with full effect to your audience.”
The Battle of the Sexes
Griffith quickly turned to another work, a novel, The Single Standard, which was retitled The Battle of the Sexes and went before the cameras starring Lillian Gish, Owen Moore, Mary Alden, Fay Tincher, Donald Crisp and Bobby Harron. “This is a potboiler,” Griffith told his cast at their first rehearsal and he shot it as such in five hectic days and nights, the long hours finally taking their toll on Miss Gish; Bitzer found he could not bring his camera in for close-ups because her eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep. A few hours’ rest cured that condition and the film turned out to be commercially quite successful when it was released the following April, so successful, indeed, that in 1928, his career in decline, searching for something that looked like a sure box-office bet, Griffith returned—unfortunately—to this story of a philandering middle-aged, middle-class husband and the effect his transgressions have on his family with Jean Hersholt in the lead.
This, however, was the only movie Griffith was personally able to complete in New York. Since his name was already worth something, especially in light of the publicity campaign about him that Aitken was beginning to orchestrate, he agreed to act as ”supervisor” on productions actually directed by such contract workers—and Griffith disciples—as Christy Cabanne, Marshall Neilen and James Kirkwood, among others.
Lillian Gish has recalled that Griffith drew her aside one afternoon during a break in shooting one of his program pictures, requesting that she stay on after work. It was not an unusual request; Griffith often held after-hour rehearsals for a forthcoming project while another work was in progress and a sizable percentage of those who would eventually have featured roles in the finished film assembled with Miss Gish to hear him announce his plans for The Clansman. She remembers only two unusual facts about this small beginning to a mighty project. The first was that she had observed for some days that Griffith’s pockets were overflowing with notes as well as scraps of printed material. She therefore correctly assumed that he was brooding about a work of unusual scale, since he carried no aide-memoire when working on films of routine length. The other was that on that first night he swore his actors to secrecy about his intentions. He might control rights to Thomas Dixon’s novel, but he owned no patent either on the Civil War or Reconstruction, and it would have been a simple matter for a competitor to cobble something together and beat him to market with a picture taking up the themes he regarded as his by birthright.
According to Miss Gish, Griffith did not make his final casting decisions until rehearsals were well along and he had seen more than one player essay most of the larger roles. The center of this nocturnal activity was the extras’ makeup room on the Griffith lot, ”a make-shift building of cheap, rough pine,” where everyone sat on hard kitchen chairs, because Griffith felt that if anything more easeful were provided, ”You were apt to get too comfortable and lean back, instead of keeping busy.” The rehearsals went well. And despite the director’s determination to keep his options open, there seems to have been no doubt as to who would play the central role in this drama, that of Ben Cameron, the ‘Tittle Colonel.” From the start it appears that Henry Walthall had the part, despite the fact that he was somewhere between 36 and 38 years old (the year of his birth is in dispute) and thus a trifle old for the part, and more than a little intemperate in his drinking habits. His age could be de-emphasized, Griffith thought, by having him wear wide-brimmed hats whenever possible, thus softening the light on his face. Since “Wally” was a well-liked member of the company, there would be no dearth of volunteers to see to it that he arrived on time, and in a reasonably sober state, for each day’s shooting. Slight of build, with long, curly hair and sometimes a romantic mustache, he carried something of the air of a poet about him, this actor who could, as his friend director Raoul Walsh said, “speak volumes with his eyes.”His seeming fragility and his natural gentleness of spirit would render his heroics on the battlefield and as the Klan leader more exciting and, of course, they would also enhance his many tender moments in the film. Indeed, so right was he for the part that after the actor’s death in 1936, Griffith told a reporter that his demise should effectively quell all talk of a remake. “I can never imagine any actor taking his place,'” the director said.
It is impossible to say what the story of The Mother and the Law was, in detail, when Griffith first went to work on it, for after he conceived the notion of integrating it into Intolerance, he did a great deal of reshooting. But in final form it tells the story of the Boy (Robert Harron) and the Dear One (Mae Marsh) who meet and marry in the slum they are forced to live in after his father has been killed and her father has lost his job, as the result of a strike at the nearby Jenkins mill.
Prior to his marriage the Boy has engaged in a life of petty crime as the lieutenant of a gang leader known as the Musketeer of the Slums (Walter Long), who in turn is jealously loved by a mysterious young woman known as the Friendless One (Miriam Cooper). Married, the youth attempts to go straight, but the Musketeer, angry at his desertion, plants stolen goods on him and he is sent to jail. At this point, social workers employed by a foundation established by Jenkins, the mill owner—a nice irony there—take the young couple’s child away. The ground is that the wife of a convict must, per se, be an unfit mother. Despite an extraordinarily moving courtroom scene, in which the Dear One pleads to retain her child, the deed is done. With her husband in prison the Musketeer begins to insinuate himself with the Dear One, promising that he can help her regain her child. His intentions are anything but honorable, and the jealous Cooper character, seeing him enter the Dear One’s apartment, informs the Boy, now released from prison.
He arrives in time to join in the defense of his wife’s honor, but the Friendless One has, in the meantime, stolen the Boy’s gun and in the struggle fires through a window, killing the Musketeer. She then throws the revolver into the room and this evidence is enough to convict the Boy of murder. He is on his way to the gallows when his wife, aided by a sympathetic policeman, confronts the Friendless One and wrings a confession from her. There is then a wild—and enthrallingly shot—chase as the Dear One and the police officer commandeer a high-speed car and pursue a train on which the Governor is riding, in order to place this new evidence before him and secure a stay of execution. Then it is on to the prison to deliver the stay before the Boy is executed. He is on the scaffold, the black cloth already covering his face, when his rescuers arrive. In the finished film this story is not the most spectacular visually, but of the four stories Griffith wove together in what he was to subtitle, “A Sun Play of the Ages,” it remains the most affecting emotionally-and the most suspenseful. The climactic chase is a summary of all the rides to the rescue Griffith had shot for Biograph and Mutual, a brilliant example of superbly executed, basic moviemaking. The realism of his strike sequences and the slum background, the sensitive performance of Mae Marsh and the scarcely less fine work of Bobby Harron—all of these represent Griffith at the top of his form, working with material to which he brought firsthand knowledge both of milieu and of emotion. Pauline Kael has correctly remembered, for example, a sequence in which Marsh, deprived of her child, becomes a kind of voyeur of other people’s familial happiness, spying on other mothers at loving play with their children.
Edward Wagenknecht has cited Marsh’s unbearably poignant courtroom scene—which Griffith shot four times at widely separate intervals as he kept reconsidering it—and the scene where she and her husband are reunited after the last-minute rescue from the gallows as among the most privileged moments in film history, and it is a sound judgment. How much of the quality of The Mother and the Law was visible in the early version of it, which was ready for release sometime in spring or early summer of 1915, is problematical. Lillian Gish recalls a screening of it for studio employees and notes “we all agreed with him that the film was too small in theme and execution to follow The Birth. Karl Brown recalls that studio gossip at the time held that the picture was unreleasable and therefore likely to be shelved, though, of course, that possibility was remote, given the precarious condition, at the time, of its producer of record, The Majestic Film Corporation. About his plans for the picture, Griffith kept his own counsel and, indeed, for a time, in the months to come, studio workers at Brown’s level were under the impression that the stories that were eventually melded with it in Intolerance were separate projects; indeed, they were given separate production numbers (The Mother was F-1, the F standing for feature, and the others were, naturally, F-2, F-3 and F-4).
In short, Griffith literally did not know what to do next. Thus Intolerance was a mighty improvisation, an attempt to salvage what would have been, pre-Birth, a more-than-acceptable little picture, turning it eventually into the sort of spectacle he—and the public—expected of America’s premier director. Yet there were distractions beyond those involved with the release of, and the continuing controversy over Birth with which to contend. He could not fully turn his attention to the business of recasting The Mother and the Law in grander form until the fall of 1915.
The end …
Sometime in the morning of July 23, 1948, Griffith was seized by an agonizing pain. He staggered from his rooms to the lobby of his hotel, where he asked for help and then collapsed. He had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He was taken to the Temple Hospital in Hollywood, and his nearest kin, his nephew, Willard, and his niece, Ruth, were summoned to his bedside. He did not regain consciousness and he was pronounced dead at eight twenty-four the next morning.
Only a few people called at the funeral parlor where he lay in state, and the only famous one to do so was Cecil B. DeMille. The rest of the industry would wait for the formal services on the twenty-seventh. These were held at the Hollywood Masonic Temple. The friends were there, and many who owed the beginnings of their careers to him. Some, like Searle Dawley and Lionel Barrymore, Mack Sennett and Dell Henderson, went back to the Biograph and before with him; some, like Richard Barthelmess and Walter Huston, entered his chronicle later; some, like Raoul Walsh and von Stroheim, had been at his side when he was defining the nature of the director’s art on the job, on the set. Some, like Walter Wanger and Jesse Lasky, might not have been entirely welcome on this occasion had Griffith had anything to say about it. Some, like Herb Sterne, avoided the company of such other honorary pallbearers as Louis B. Mayer and Sam Goldwyn because they could have given Griffith something to do with his final years and did not. But if any were needed, the proof that the history of his life was the history of the movies in America up to then was gathered here.
The floral tributes were heaped high around the casket. Members of the Robert Mitchell Boys Choir were observed by early comers to be giggling as they rehearsed their hymns. As the time for the service drew near, only about half the seats in the auditorium were filled, so the crowd that had gathered outside to watch the celebrities come and go—as if this were a premiere and not an ending—was invited in to fill the empty places. The occasion struck Gerrit Lloyd as cold, perhaps in part because one of the two eulogists, Charles Brackett, the screenwriter who was serving a term as president of the Motion Picture Academy, had never known Griffith. He found it difficult to achieve the right tone, veering from the emptily melodramatic (his last years were characterized as “a frenzied beating on the barred doors”) to the banal (“Griffith gave the public what it wanted”) to the “self-congratulator” (for Griffith’s honorary’ Academy Award ) . Overall, Jay Leyda, the film historian who was present, thought Brackett achieved, at best, “a polite note of regret.”
Donald Crisp did better, daring at least to chastize the film people for their neglect of Griffith. “It was the tragedy of his later years that this active, brilliant mind was given no chance to participate in the advancement of the industry. Difficult as it might be for him to have played a subordinate role, I do not believe that the fault was entirely his own. I cannot help feeling that there should always have been a place for him and his talents in motion pictures. . . .”
And then, as Leyda was to recall it, someone sobbed loudly, inarticulately. But it sounded as if he or she had cried out, Yes, yes—why not!” “This one note of genuine emotion overturned the passive insincerity of the occasion,” he wrote. When Crisp tried to go on, his voice broke, and as he struggled to regain control and proceed, “the emotions of the speaker and the audience were loosed and real”—until “the efficiency of the memorial service took over again, and the boys’ choir singing ‘Abide with Me’ drowned out the sobs.”
And then it was over. Griffith’s remains were flown home to Kentucky, where he was buried in the graveyard beside the Mount Tabor Methodist Church, where his family had worshiped when he was a boy. A rail fence, said to have been created from wood taken from the Griffith farm, surrounds the gravesite, which has been marked, since 1950, by a stone contributed by the Directors Guild of America, and bearing its insignia. The fence is rough-hewn; the stone is sleek. The congruence of the nostalgic and the modeme is curious but somehow correct. They are like the elements in a simple montage, resonating to each other, suggesting by their juxtaposition fleeting metaphors, hints of meanings, greater than the sum of those elements. We have new ways of seeing and thinking and perhaps even being which literally did not exist until the man who lies buried here began his work. And began that chain of artistic invention which has enabled us to see the world through fresh eyes, in a new light.
Admin note: Given the number of pages (680), only some fragments were placed in this web presentation. The titles used as separators, are not part of Mr. Richard Shickel’s original work. Thus, the web article is altered. Thank you for your understanding.
D.W. Griffith, American Film Master – by Iris Barry (MoMa 1965)
Griffith’s Cameraman, Billy Bitzer
An Interview by Beaumont Newhall
When Griffith joined Biograph he was fortunate to find in the studio G. W. Bitzer, who had been with the company since 1896, first as electrician, but soon as a jack-of-all-trades —cameraman, property man, scenic designer and director. The two at once became companions, and for sixteen years Bitzer almost single-handedly realized on film the action that Griffith directed. They worked together so closely that it is virtually impossible to separate their technical contributions.
Bitzer, when interviewed in 1940, vividly recalled this remarkable teamwork. His mechanical ingenuity enabled him to realize some of Griffith’s revolutionary ideas. But Bitzer remembered with humor that some of the devices Griffith used so effectively were stumbled upon by accident.
The Mutograph camera used by Biograph in the early 1900’s was a clumsy instrument. One of its great drawbacks was that film could not be re-rolled for a double exposure. This meant that the company could not make trick films, which were then very popular. Perhaps this purely mechanical deficiency of equipment made Griffith’s ideas particularly attractive to the Biograph financiers, for it offered them a way to meet competition through novelty. Bitzer recollects that this camera was used for a long time in the Biograph studio. It could be driven by hand or by a motor. Raw film, without the familiar marginal perforations of today, was put into the camera; during the shooting two holes per frame were punched out, and the celluloid disks fell through the bottom of the camera case onto the ground in a steady stream.
Bitzer could easily duplicate a camera set-up by putting his tripod over the little pile of celluloid disks. Static electricity, generated by the friction feed of the film, caused trouble; to overcome it the interior of the camera was heated with a shielded bicycle lamp which burned alcohol. But in cold weather, when static was most severe, the heat brought fur ther trouble—condensation on the lens. The film scratched easily, and these scratches showed up so prominently in sky areas that it was necessary to exclude as much sky as possible in the composition of the shots. Yet out of this crude equip ment came some of the finest photography seen on the screen, and the catalog of innovations is staggering. Many of these innovations began as accidents which Bitzer turned into practical techniques. A less imaginative and courageous director than Griffith would have hesitated to recognize their esthetic and dramatic value. This is not the place to discuss priority; the importance of these devices lies in their functional, almost automatic, origin and in their brilliant exploitation.
Slow film which is “unbacked” —which has not been coated with an opaque light-absorbing substance on its re verse side—is prone to exaggerate highlights in a most distressing way. Points of light seem to spread and to eat up adjacent darker details. This halation can be partially pre vented by shading the lens with a tubular hood. Photographing one day by electric light in his basement, Bitzer improvised such a lens hood from an old glue pot. The results were fine, so fine that he took his home-made gadget on location. But when the film was processed the corners of each frame appeared rounded olf in darkness. Bitzer had forgotten an elementary optical fact—that the iris diaphragm in the lens which controls the amount of light falling on the film also affects the focus. Like the human eye, the iris of the camera eye is wide open in dim light and constricted in bright light. Objects near and far are sharp when the camera iris is small. Inadvertently, by closing the camera iris to the small diameter demanded by brilliant sunlight, Bitzer had brought the end of his lens hood into focus. When Griffith saw the projected film he was far from disappointed. “He got very excited,” Bitzer told the writer, “and asked me how I’d got ten the new effect. I said that I’d been working on it quietly for the last six months !”
The logical step was to contrive a lens hood which could be adjusted to give more pronounced effects. A large iris diaphragm from a still camera was added to the hood. To adjust it more easily a handle was fastened to the flimsy setting. This led to another accident. During the shooting the weight of the handle closed the iris gradually; the dark corners of the frame grew until the image was entirely blotted out. Again technical failure resulted in recognition by Griffith of a new device, the fade-out. “This was just what we needed,” pointed out Bitzer. “The climax of all these films was the kiss. We couldn’t linger over the embrace, for then yokels in the audience would make cat-calls. We couldn’t cut abruptly—that would be crude. The fade-out gave a really dignified touch; we didn’t have a five-cent movie any more.”
But the vignette mask was not always satisfactory; it cut out part of the scene. To subdue the corners of the frame and direct the eye towards the principal action the gauze mask was developed —simply a couple of layers of black chiffon fastened over the hood with a rubber band. Holes were burned in the gauze with the end of a cigarette where the image detail should be distinct. Further experiments were made with iris diaphragms made of translucent celluloid, with graduated filters and with “barn doors” —a box with four sliding members which could be pushed in at will to change the rectangular proportions of the frame. The front of Bitzer’s camera became notorious, and rival cameramen would bribe actors to give them detailed reports on his latest gadget.
Bitzer claims that the birth of a nation was shot with just one camera. It seems incredible, but the program credit bears him out. “It was a $300 Pathe machine,” he reminisced, “with a 3.3 two-inch lens interchangeable with a wide-angle lens— that is, you had to screw one out and screw the other into its place. None of your turrets like they have today, where the cameraman presses a button and the six-inch lens pops into place! It was a light camera, and it was easy to pick it up and come forward for a close-up, back for a long shot, around for a side angle. But there were times when I wished that Mr. Griffith wouldn’t depend on me so much, especially in battle scenes. After all, a fellow doesn’t want to spend all his time in dusty California adobe trenches. The fireworks man shooting smoke bombs over the camera—most of them exploding outside the camera range and D. W. shouting ‘Lower, lower, can’t you shoot those damn bombs lower?’ ‘We’ll hit the cameraman if we do,’ answered the fireworks brigade, and bang!, one of them whizzed past my ear. The next one may have gone between my legs for all I knew. But the bombs were coming into the camera field so it was O.K.
“All we had was orthochromatic film. Perhaps this old stock with its limited range of tones really helped the Birth of a Nation photography —it sort of dated the period not only in the battle scenes but in the historical events like Lee’s surrender.”
This realistic quality has often been remarked. Individual shots have been compared to Brady’s Civil War photographs. The similarity is not accidental, for Bitzer, bribing a librarian with a box of chocolates, got hold of some photographic copies of the famous Civil War series for Griffith’s use. Be sides the quality of the slow orthochromatic film, light played a very important part in the picture. Daylight was used exclusively in the Birth of a Nation, except in the night shots lighted by flares. Throughout his career Bitzer has used daring lighting, even to the extreme of allowing light to fall directly on the lens. Reflectors were used to soften shadows, bringing out their detail, but always in a subdued way so that their presence is unnoticed in the film. These reflectors were soft —they were of cloth, not casting the harsh light of a polished metal, tin-foil or other “hard” reflector. Bitzer likes to tell about how he stumbled on back, or reverse, lighting. During a lunch hour on Fort Lee location he playfully turned his lens on Mary Pickford and Owen Moore as they were eating sandwiches, and ground out a few feet of film without their knowledge. The two were between the camera and the sun, but Bitzer went ahead—after all, the sequence was intended only as a joke, to liven up the projection room audience. Enough light happened to be reflected into their faces to hold the detail, and when it was screened Griffith was more than amused—since it indicated a new approach to lighting.
Fate had not dealt kindly with Billy Bitzer when we inter viewed him at the request of Iris Barry eight years before his death. He was no longer a working cinematographer and his contribution to our film heritage was then hardly known. We shall ever remember his pride of craftsmanship and his affection for ‘D.W.” His pioneer achievements rank among the most significant and remarkable in film history. (Beaumont Newhall)
The Twenties began with D. W. Griffith apparently firmly in command of his position as both master innovator and master showman. Broken Blossoms and Way Down East had both been highly profitable, and he had moved from Hollywood to the East Coast, where in his new Mamaroneck Studios he was presumed to have both artistic and economic freedom.
Mamaroneck – Sets for Orphans of the Storm
Unfortunately, Griffith made his move—an expensive one—at a time when the film industry was undergoing radical changes and when audience demands were making a great shift because of the new sophistication of the post-war years. Griffith had no sympathy with this change. He doubtless felt that it was of a transient nature, and that audiences would swing back again to the kinds of films he had always made and intended to go on making. It was a major error in gauging audience taste—which made it an equally major business error. Griffith had never been a good businessman, nor had he any real interest in amassing profits—except to pour them back into making more films. Moreover, with some justification, he had a certain amount of vanity in his make-up. He knew what he had done for the movies; his name was always used in the advertisements as the major guarantee of quality and prestige. His optimism, based on faith in his own ability and the power of his name, caused him to continue operations and to pay for his new studio with a series of bank loans. By the early twenties, he was so heavily in debt to the banks that only an unbroken string of successes could have rescued him. The amount of indebtedness was so great that total ownership and control of his films virtually slipped through his fingers. If he defaulted on payments or failed to finish a film by a given time, the banks had the right to take over, and to change or finish the film in any way they saw fit in order to salvage their investments. The only positive aspect of all of these complicated financial dealings was that the negatives of the Griffith films became tangible physical assets and were protected far more carefully than they might have been had Griffith been in better financial health or working as a contract director for a major studio. Through the care given them for purely financial reasons, all but four of the Griffith films did survive.
It was against this background, and needing a solid commercial hit to sustain the success of Way Down East, that Griffith in 1921 launched Orphans of the Storm. Like Way Down East, it was based on an old barnstormer of a play The Two Orphans. Griffith liked the basic theme but thought it was too mild to stand unsupported. So he plunged it wholesale into a story of the French Revolution, weaving its fictional characters into actual events and bringing them into contact with Danton, Robespierre, and other historical figures. When the film opened with a grand-scale premiere at the Apollo Theatre in New York, Arthur James, editor-in-chief of The Moving Picture World, wrote an unprecedented full-page editorial rave (quite separate from the publication’s equally enthusiastic regular review), which was headed “Mr. Griffith Rises to a Dizzy Height” and said, in part:
It is a triumph for D. W. Griffith to eclipse his own great productions which led the screen into new and finer realms, but with this picture he has succeeded in doing it. No more gorgeous thing has ever been offered on the screen. It has motion within motion, action upon action, and it builds up to crashing climaxes with all that superb definition which makes Mr. Griffith first and always the showman. No man of the stage or screen understands so well the art of exquisite torture for his spectators. He takes their heartstrings, one by one, then stretches them out until they are about to snap, ties little bowknots in them, and finally seizes them by handfuls and twists them until they quiver in agony. Then he applies myrrh and aloes and sweet inguents and sends the spectators away happy in the memory of attractive sufferings that they can never forget. His detail is perfection, and its grandeur is the sum total of many perfections. Its massed scenes surpass the greater of the European spectacles thus far of record. The rest of the press responded with like enthusiasm. The Motion Picture News stated: “The standard bearer of the celluloid drama has again demonstrated that he has no superior as a painter of rich and panoramic canvasses,” while the Exhibitors Trade Review remarked, “A great work of art. It has the sweep of The Birth of a Nation, the remarkable tragic drive of Broken Blossoms, the terrific melodramatic appeal of Way Down East, and a warning written in fire and spoken in thunder for all Americans to heed.”
Orphans of the Storm – Henriette and Chevalier de Vaudrey
Orphans of the Storm – Henriette and Chevalier de Vaudrey
Orphans of the Storm – Henriette and Chevalier de Vaudrey
Orphans of the Storm – Henriette and Chevalier de Vaudrey
Henrietta (Lillian Gish as Henriette Girard in Orphans of The Storm)
While time and perspective must convince us that Orphans of the Storm is a lesser film than The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, the reviews at the time were quite genuine in feeling that it was Griffith’s finest work. The lay press was equally enthusiastic, and the above reviews from the trade press are cited only because they definitely represent trade opinion. Exhibitors looked to Griffith for certain profits; producers regarded him as a prestigious figure-head for their industry; directors either learned from him or stole from him. Within just a few years, however, the trade would reverse these accolades, and their criticism of Griffith would be equally unrestrained. Griffith appeared at the premiere and spoke at some length to the audience. Stars Lillian and Dorothy Gish, seated in a proscenium box, also greeted the audience, and Lillian made a speech following the screening. It was a gala affair, but a good deal of its thunder was stolen by Universal’s ballyhoo for Von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives. This film had received so much exploitation during the preceding months, and had already earned a great deal of word-of-mouth notoriety even before the preview, so that it was very much the film event of January 1922. Its premiere, attended by scores of notables, was set for a week after that of Orphans of the Storm, and it stole most of the limelight. Coincident with Griffith’s premiere. First National suddenly released an Italian version of The Two Orphans. With brazen effrontery, they pointed out to exhibitors that audiences were clamoring for this kind of film, and they even billed it as “The production with a million dollars’ worth of publicity behind it.”
While it did well, Orphans of the Storm was not the box-office blockbuster that Griffith expected, and needed badly. Because it was neither a financial landmark nor an aesthetic advance over his previous films, it is usually dismissed far too casually by most historians ( even the few responsible ones) as representing “Griffith in decline”—a most unfair and inaccurate generalization. The “decline” of Griffith has been dated from any number of periods, depending on the “historian,” his knowledge of film, and most influential of all, his dislike of Griffith. Some historians would even have us believe that the decline began with A Corner in Wheat ( 1909). Decline inevitably occurred, but much later, and not necessarily for the reasons usually cited. Of course, all film-makers tend to decline in their later years. Even Charles Chaplin and Carl Dreyer, who were never forced to surrender their freedom and adapt to studio contractual requirements (as Griffith was), were unable to keep their later films from representing a decline from their creative peaks. At worst, Orphans of the Storm can be said to represent Griffith the artist-showman rather than Griffith the artist-innovator. Here the old maestro was out primarily to make a good picture that was also a “money” picture. To this end, he studied audience reaction carefully in its initial New York run and made several changes—deleting some of the more physically harrowing scenes (close-ups of rats crawling over Dorothy Gish, detail shots in the execution scenes), reviving Frank Puglia from an apparent death scene to take part in an happy ending tableau, and, more ill-advisedly, building up the comedy footage of Creighton Hale.
However, such commercial considerations in Orphans of the Storm were backed by all the technical mastery that Griffith had achieved in the preceding years. If there were no new innovations, the old ones were re-employed, polished, and developed. The detail shots in the battle scenes (troops moving into formation, close-ups of pistols being loaded and fired ) gave them a documentary quality which made them explicable as well as exciting. The notable lack of such shots (or even of many close-ups ) in the similar battle scenes in Rex Ingram’s Scaramouche a year later was one of the major factors contributing to the surprising dullness of those otherwise spectacular scenes. Griffith’s frequent habit of “pulling back” from the action—to view a battle as framed through the draperies of a window—literally made the audience a spectator through a window on history. The fast, rhythmic editing in the bacchanal sequence, as the prisoners were released from the Bastille, smoothly intercutting brief and increasingly large shots with moving camera shots that always cut oflf just before one had time to absorb them fully, was one of the finest episodes ever created by Griffith.
It was a tremendously exciting sequence, quite superior to the more famous machine-gun sequence in Eisenstein’s much-later October—a dazzling sequence certainly, but a mechanical and contrived one. Its fast cutting was functionally creative in that it intensified the emotions of the spectator, but it was dramatically far less honest than the cutting of Griffith’s bachannal. And if the climatic mob scenes and the race of Danton’s troops through the streets seem to be a repetition of the climax of The Birth of a Nation, what wonderful repetition it is—especially since it had to be shot entirely in the studio at Mamaroneck, with a greater stress on low-angled shots and a tighter cutting pattern to create the illusion of a mad dash through all of Paris instead of past the relatively few street sets that Griffith had constructed. Next to Intolerance, Orphans of the Storm is Griffith’s biggest spectacle, though its large sets are not always generously served by the fickle sunshine.
Some of the biggest scenes of the film’s climax were shot on a weekend, the only time when Griffith could enlist all the locals as extras. On those occasions the sun resolutely refused to shine, resulting in a downcast atmosphere from which it was impossible to extract the brightly-lit clarity that Griffith wanted. An MGM unit would merely have scrapped the day’s work and reassembled the unit when the sun was shining. Griffith, however, without outside backing and faced with the enormous upkeep of his studio, could not afford such a luxury. In any case, the excitement of these climactic episodes is such that nature’s uncooperative attitude was probably not even that apparent.
Having made the decision to fuse the old Italian stage (and screen) perennial with the new blood of the French Revolution, Griffith as usual went whole hog, re-creating many actual events and characters, and utilizing his beloved “historical facsimilies” based on old paintings or engravings. Authorities in both this country and France were called upon for advice, and the works of such noted historians as Paine, Guizot, and Abbott were consulted. Thomas Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution was, however, the Bible of the whole venture. Lillian Gish has remarked that every leading member of the cast had a copy of it and read it from cover to cover until they were thoroughly imbued with the proper sense of period. Another book that Griffith turned to often was Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Several reviews of the time added an erroneous credit by listing the film as being “based on the novel by Dickens.” Dickens was a great personal friend of Carlyle and drew most of his research material from him, including the incident of the Marquis’ carriage killing the child and his inquiry after the welfare of the horses. This incident, used both by Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities and by Griffith in his film, was later picked up by MGM in their sound version of A Tale of Two Cities and was obviously modeled on Griffith’s staging of it. Dickens’ peculiarly cinematic style, with parallel plots and a form of cross-cutting, and a rich bravura that excused the excesses of coincidence, had always fascinated Griffith, who admitted Dickens’ influence quite openly. This influence affected not only the dramatic structure of Griffith’s films but also the content. It may have been the strong flavor of Dickens in so many of the Griffith films that caused him to be widely dismissed as Victorian and old fashioned.
orphans of the storm – lillian gish is henriette girard
It may, admittedly, make moments of Orphans of the Storm seem a little quaint. For example, Griffith seems less worried about Lillian Gish’s being unjustly thrown into prison on a trumped-up charge by the aristocrats than he is by “the greater injustice” that has her sent to the prison for fallen women. There is a delightful moment later in the film when Robespierre reminds her of this prison sentence; as Sartov catches her in a lovely and innocent close-up, Lillian admits it and says, in title, “Yes, monsieur—but I was not guilty.” However, there is a major difference between injecting a Victorian flavor (which Griffith did well ) and propagating Victorian morality ( which he decidedly did not). It’s odd that Orphans of the Storm should often be called “old-fashioned,” while such accusations were never leveled against Wallace Worsley’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Henry King’s Romola. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a good if stilted and over-measured film, while Romola was visually superb but dramatically mediocre. Both had Dickensian plots, and structures that would have delighted Griffith—parallel plots, class conflicts, dramatic separations, and personal stories set against turbulent historical backgrounds. What both films lacked, in addition to keeping these diverse elements closely woven, was sweep, passion, the surge of history, and (Chaney’s performance excepted in the Hunchback) life-size emotion. Griffith could have worked wonders with both films; Romola, especially, needed him badly.
Griffith’s detractors who assail Orphans of the Storm for being out of date are baffled when confronted with the film’s political content and usually choose to ignore it completely. Griffith had never made any secret of his opposition to “kingly tyrannies,” and Orphans of the Storm not only afforded him the luxury of dramatizing his views but also gave him the chance to attack something he felt even more strongly about—Bolshevism. His original synopsis for the film read, in part:
. . . scenes are shown of the exaggerated luxury of those last days of the tottering omnipotence of the monarchy. The orgies and tyrannies of a section of the old French aristocracy is shown as it affects the common people. . . . Then comes the rolling of the ‘Ca Ira,’ the crashing of the Marseillaise, and the madness which we now call Bolshevism. Orphans of the Storm shows more vividly than any book of history can tell that the tyranny of kings and nobles is hard to bear, but that the tyranny of the mob under blood-lusting rulers is intolerable. The opening titles of Orphans of the Storm were climaxed by this still very timely line: “We in the United States with a democratic government should beware lest we mistake traitors and fanatics for patriots, and replace law and order with anarchy and bolshevism.” Later in 1922, Griffith, referring to Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, stated: “Robespierre uses it as a weapon for destroying all who do not think as he does. This condition was not unlike that in Russia today. Some may see in it a lesson for our own people. . . .
As with all of Griffith’s historical epics, in Orphan of the Storm, every effort was made to document the facts and episodes presented. Thus, any errors were usually deliberate errors of omission, committed in the name of showmanship or dramatic license. For instance, one gets the impression at the end of the film that the French Revolution is all but over, and since Danton is one of the heroes of the film, no mention is made of his own subsequent execution. When Lillian Gish is rescued from the guillotine, the scores of other poor aristocrats denied a last minute rescue are conveniently irised-out, and the fact that the Reign of Terror is still very much in progress is somehow lost. But for the most part, the film remains remarkably factual, even to details. During the carmagnole orgy scene, the original musical score for the film featured “Ca Ira,” the frenzied tune sung by the Paris hoodlums of the time. ( The score was arranged by Albert Pesce. ) Griffith also made a point of stressing Robespierre’s effeminate, mincing walk. (Griffith’s titles term him “the original pussy-footer!” ) Like all of the big Griffith films, Orphans of the Storm was shot without any scenario, but was rehearsed carefully in advance. Lillian Gish has mentioned that most of the rehearsals took place in the New York theater still housing the successful run of Way Down East—and that the only written word referred to was Carlyle’s history. Much of the dialogue that was improvised in the course of these rehearsals was remembered, and later incorporated into the titles of the film.
Way Down East, made in 1920, had been a fife-saver for Griffith—and still was. The overhead of the new Mamaroneck studios was enormous, especially for an individual producer-director making as few films as Griffith. The popular Richard Barthelmess had been on salary for a long time after his last completed film for Griffith, and finally left to form his own company. Dream Street, a very pretentious pseudo-Broken Blossoms, was doing poorly, and receipts were negligible.
( Strangely, despite its “arty” flavor, it was well-liked by exhibitors—but not by audiences. ) The receipts from Way Down East had to support Griffith, maintain his studio, pay his salaries, and help pay for Orphans of the Storm too. Because of this, and because it was such a popular film, Griffith raised the rental rates on Way Down East, thereby losing good will among exhibitors, which, in turn, at least, partially accounted for the disappointing returns on Orphans of the Storm.
Other factors were involved, too. Audiences of the early 1920’s were turning cynical and jaded; they were getting caught up in the jazzy and increasingly superficial tempo of the times. And they wanted films that reflected those times. Films like Orphans of the Storm, which dramatized what are loosely termed “the old values,” were considered far more out-of-date then than they would be even today. By 1922 this attitude was only beginning to develop. But by 1924 it was in full bloom, and thus audiences had no time for Griffith’s sincere patriotism in America, which dealt with the Revolutionary War. They turned instead to the slick, jazz-oriented films of the day—the kinds of films that Griffith himself had no interest in, but was finally compelled to make, merely to keep active—but not before one last grand, disastrous, and wonderful essay in real film-making: Isn’t Life Wonderful?
Another factor contributing to the disappointing performance of Orphans of the Storm was probably its lack of a strong, popular male star. Initially Griffith had planned to use Barthelmess, who, though unsuited to the role of the aristocratic Chevalier, would certainly have been valuable box-offce insurance. While Joseph Schildkraut was fine in his first American film role, he lacked the virility and sincerity that Barthelmess would have provided. Dorothy Gish, a shrewd and witty observer, pointed out that, especially with the French period make-up, Schildkraut bore an uncanny resemblance to Priscilla Dean throughout the film, “and in the love scenes with Lillian, looked prettier than she did!” However, if there is one serious criticism that can be leveled against the film, it is the obtrusive comedy of Creighton Hale. Griffith, who never regarded one of his films as finished, and continued to tamper with them for revival showings years thereafter, added much of the Hale foolishness after the film was premiered, in the belief that it was needed to lighten the tension. Unfortunately, it became more than a device to pause and relieve tension. It was comedy relief for its own sake, foolish and unfunny, and injected right where it was least needed—in the middle of the escape from the Bastille!
Orphans of the Storm had a pronounced influence on the European spectacles that followed it, notably the French and German, but also, to a lesser degree, the Russian cinema. The famous use of what Seymour Stern has termed “symbolic space” when Griffith, to show omnipotent power, shows the Committee of Public Safety (photographed from above) in the center of a huge, cold, otherwise empty room, was copied intact by Eisenstein in October to show Kerensky installing himself in the Winter Palace. ( This symbolic shot was actually first devised by Griffith for use in a similar context in Intolerance. ) Pudovkin, too, appears to have borrowed from Orphans of the Storm just as he had earlier borrowed from Way Down East.
It is a matter of some interest (and surprise) that Orphans of the Storm was the only Griffith historical spectacle without a villain. Robespierre, and the peasant-turned-judge, Jacques Forget-Not, fulfill all the functions of villainy, but because their transgressions have political and emotional rather than personal roots, Griffith tends to play down their melodramatics and lets them go unpunished at the end—save for a title referring to Robespierre’s own eventual execution. The lecherous Marquis, who, “inflamed by Henriette’s virginal beauty,” kidnaps her and thus separates her from the blind Louise, is a good heavy in the grand manner, but he acts mainly as a plot motivator and vanishes after the first third of the film. The same is true of Sheldon Lewis and the wonderful Lucille LaVerne, who give a couple of grand barnstorming performances, but whose unspeakable evil is unproductive of any real tragedy; they, too, escape without harm. If most of these comments have focused on the film rather than on its stars, it is because Orphans of the Storm is more notable as a Griffith than as a Gish film. This is not to minimize the lovely and sensitive performances of Lillian and Dorothy Gish, or the incredible compositions and lightings of cameraman Sartov, whose close-ups of Lillian have a radiance and beauty unsurpassed in any of her other films. As opposed to Way Down East and even Hearts of the World, acting opportunities in Orphans of the Storm are somewhat subordinated to the surge of melodrama.
Sheer “trouping,” the maintenance of astonishing physical stamina, and the ability to look both fragile and lovely at all times are the main requirement of the roles of the orphans. When a chance arises for sensitivity, or for high-powered acting, it is seized avidly by both sisters. Especially memorable are the gracefully played scenes of the orphans’ departure for Paris, a charming little episode with touching pantomime and some especially lovely close-ups; and the still-poignant scenes in the climactic episodes, when the girls meet again at Henriette’s trial and are separated on the way to the guillotine.
One bravura sequence is the mid-picture reunion that doesn’t come off, with Lillian—hearing her blind sister singing in the street below and being led away—and being arrested, despite her protestations of innocence, before she has a chance to effect a rescue. Griffith never milked a non-action sequence for suspense quite as much as he did this one; indeed, both of the Gishes were of the opinion that it was much overdone. In normal context, it certainly would have been. Since it came immediately before the intermission, however, it must have provided an overpoweringly effective climax to the first half of the film.
Considering the enthusiastic reviews that it had garnered, the disappointing box-office performance of Orphans of the Storm must have been especially galling to Griffith. Even though not the box-office blockbuster he’d hoped for – it was not a failure, however. Thus it became somewhat of a landmark: it was the last Griffith film to be successful both artistically and commercially.
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.
Intolerance Babylonian Set
Intolerance – shooting A Ride To The Rescue (Modern Story)
* 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.
Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia, made in 1913, is usually designated as the climax of his Biograph period. In fact, it is more properly a tentative beginning of his transference to the feature-length film. Because of Griffith’s eminence, film history has tended to magnify the importance of Judith of Bethulia. It has often been called the first American feature; it was neither that nor the longest American film to date. At four reels, it was still a transition film in terms of length, though admittedly, the silent speed of projection gave it a running time of about an hour.
(This was still too long for the conservative Biograph Company, which, despite ample audience proof to the contrary, refused to believe it was commercially viable and held off its release for a year. Later, out-takes and additional titles were inserted to pad the length, and the film was reissued under the non-Biblical title The Unpardonable Sin, to cash in on the enhanced reputation of Griffith and its stars.)
As a climax to the Biograph films, Judith of Bethulia inevitably disappoints. The increasing subtleties and clarity of story-telling that had been apparent in Griffith’s last one- and two-reelers for Biograph appear to have been sacrificed almost entirely to a length that the film does not really need.
Placed side by side with another 1913 Griffith Biograph, the two-reel The Battle of Elderhush Gulch, its inadequacies are especially apparent. Both films are in a way related, since they deal with one specific “military” engagement and its solution. But even allowing for Griffith’s greater affinity for the western, the two are miles apart in technique. The western is lean, clean-cut, and builds steadily to a climactic crescendo of excitement. The Biblical feature is confused and protracted, and since the climax is essentially a dramatic/ emotional one, the action scenes that follow it—no different from those that precede it—are merely anti-climactic. Admittedly, there are extenuating circumstances. The movie was not conceived as a feature, and Griffith’s decision to film it that way not only meant reshuffling and expanding a fairly tight continuity but working with an inadequate budget. Too, all of the exteriors were shot on drab Chatsworth locations, which gave Griffith no opportunities for dramatic use of landscape, let alone symbolic or lyrical treatment. Chatsworth has always been a convenience for Hollywood rather than an asset. Its close proximity to the studios has meant that production units could commute back and forth every day; its terrain may be dull, but it does encompass open plains, rocks, hills, trails, and a small lake. Quickie producers could shoot an entire film on its acreage without any problems. The nondescript quality of the scenery has allowed it to be used for the Old West and Old England, desolate terrain in some post-atomic age, the moon and various planets, Africa, Iron Curtain countries, and, of course, both prehistoric and Biblical terrain. From the 1950’s on, an increasing use of color spruced up the drabness somewhat, but it has always remained an uninteresting location which eventually found its true level as a background for half-hour television series. Its function, if any, was to enable good directors to film odd inserts or pickup shots that had been neglected on expensive location jaunts to more picturesque locales. It fulfilled this function for John Ford in many films, notably Stagecoach and Fort Apache.
Griffith, however, had neither color, other than toned stock, nor panchromatic film, so that to the drabness of rocky scrubland was added the gray, washed-out look of sky and horizon. The garb of the opposing armies was virtually indistinguishable, and the action scenes became Direction-less skirmishes in which identical extras were absorbed into a background of dust, rocks, and sun-dried grass and foliage. The Chatsworth location wasn’t all that was wrong with Judith of Bethulia, but it is signfficant that Griffith had rarely used it before ( and then for his prehistoric duo. Mans Genesis and Brute Force, where he obviously wanted a non-recognizably California locale) and never used it again on a major film. And just as the perfectly constructed The Battle of Elderbush Gulch might well have been spoiled had its length been doubled, so might Judith of Bethulia have been improved had its length been halved. However, it is not entirely without merit or interest. Griffith’s genius for using space and suggesting size is evident from the way a few very economical sets form a convincing walled city. Best of all is the acting—the dignified underplaying of Henry B. Walthall as Holofernes and the rich, often subtle, always passionate performance of Blanche Sweet, a performance which is valid today and deserves a better showcase but which must have seemed outstanding in its day. Judith of Bethulia certainly shows far less control and instinctive understanding of the medium than the best of Griffith’s Biograph films, but it was a useful transitional step, enabling Griffith to encounter the problems of feature length before he segued into fullscale feature production.
With his Biograph ties severed, Griffith took G. W. Bitzer and the best of his Biograph acting troupe and moved to Hollywood, to join Reliance-Majestic. Without his leadership, the talent he attracted, and, of course, the quality of the Griffith-directed films, Biograph floundered.
They held on for a year or two by making imitation Sennett comedies and imitation Griffith melodramas—the latter often looking more like parodies—and by making a handful of films of genuine (if not particularly cinematic) interest that starred such Broadway personalities as Bert Williams. But Biograph, still refusing to explore beyond the boundaries of proven formulas, could not hope to survive indefinitely on a continuation of their one- and two-reelers. Within a year or so, the company that had once been considered the leader of the film industry became first obsolete and then extinct. Griffith’s arrival at Reliance-Majestic did not at once produce startling results.
His immediate aim was to keep the studio going and to meet the payrolls, and to do this he turned out a quartet of very presentable features utilizing Henry B. Walthall, Mae Marsh, Blanche Sweet, Robert Harron, and Lillian Gish. All of them were better than Judith of Bethulia, and the best of them. The Avenging Conscience, a film that Seymour Stern once appropriately described as “an Edgar Allan Poe mosaic,” was quite remarkable in many ways. However, none of the four could be said to equal the best feature production of the day. Still, Griffith knew that he was marking time, and as features designed purely for commercial needs and to make an immediate profit. they were well above average standards. Perhaps of more interestnow, in retrospect, if not then—were the one- and two-reelers being produced by Griffith’s protege directors. So well did these men understand Griffith’s methods, and know what would meet with his approval, that the one-reelers seemed almost like polished extensions of the Biograph shorts, while some of the two-reelers even seemed a blueprint of elements in Griffith features yet to come. Today, it is difficult to know for sure exactly how much personal supervision on Griffith’s part was involved. If one can accept the similar period of Triangle in 1916 as a criterion, however, it is highly possible that, despite his busy schedule, Griffith did in fact find time not only to approve stories but also to involve himself in shooting and editing. It is also possible, however, that his directors were by now so skilled at making films in his image that Griffith had enough confidence in them to afford them relative autonomy, and even at times to benefit from their initiative and incorporate some of their ideas into his own work.
A good example of work by a Griffith protege is The Doll House Mystery, an unusually expert little melodrama co-directed by Chester and Sidney Franklin. On the surface, it was almost a definitive Griffith two-reeler, building suspense steadily, opening up the chase in the final sequences to include a locomotive and an automobile, and climaxing with a shoot-out in a deserted cabin, its location allowing for extensive overhead panoramic shots. Yet, unlike similar Griffith shorts, the story was not just an excuse for an exercise in excitement and editing skill. It is important in its own right, and more time than usual is spent in establishing the story and its characters before the plot gets underway. The characters, particularly a socialite wife (played by Marguerite Marsh, Mae’s sister) and the son of an ex-convict, well played by the child actor George Stone, are far more rounded than the average protagonists of the earlier Griffith Biographs. The final chase scenes even involve some locations and specific camera placements that Griffith copied precisely in the climax to the modern segment of Intolerance. Not many of the Reliance-Majestic shorts from this period survive, but those that do are indicative of a rapidly advancing sophistication. Even the comedies, despite the proven popular appeal of Mack Sennett’s frenzied slapstick, are relatively gentle, human, and even satiric. Cupid Versus Cigarettes is not only a pleasing little comedy on its own terms but also remarkably up-to-date on two counts—as a hard-hitting if genially presented attack on the physical harm of cigarette smoking and as a staunch advocate of equal rights for women. It would be quite fair to suggest that the short films made under Griffith’s supervision at Reliance, and directed by men like the Franklins, represent some of the most sophisticated technique on view in 1914, whereas the features directed by Griffith personally in that year must be considered less advanced than those of Maurice Tourneur or Cecil B. DeMille. On the other hand, Tourneur selectively and DeMille prolifically (he directed seven full features in 1914 and was to accelerate his pace to twelve in 1915) were working at the peak of their artistic capabilities for that time. Griffith, on the other hand, worked hurriedly, efficiently, but without marked artistic inspiration in the first half of 1914, so that he could devote his full energies to The Birth of a Nation.
The Battle of the Sexes was followed by The Escape, for many years now an apparently lost film. Even if Griffith used this film to mark time, it is perhaps indicative of his faith in the medium and of his over-generous estimation of audience intelligence and taste that he would have selected this story—from a Paul Armstrong play—as having commercial potential. For The Escape, despite an ultimately happy ending for two of its protagonists, is an almost unrelievedly sordid procession of brutality, madness, sex, disease, and death—the last including both a baby ( crushed to death by its drunken father ) and a kitten. If nothing else. The Escape might well qualify as the first feature-length film noir, just as Griffith’s 1909 one-reeler In the Watches of the Night might be considered the very first foray into what is generally regarded as a filmic style of the forties.
Home Sweet Home, which followed The Escape, was an all-star film—Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Robert Harron, Miriam Cooper, Owen Moore, Blanche Sweet, and most of the other Griffith players. It was a naively symbolic tale, too consciously striving for “meaning” and artistic pretension, a weakness that was to mar such later Griffith films as Dream Street ( 1921 ) . However, audiences liked the film far more than The Escape, and critics were kindly disposed toward its somewhat over-wrought filmic poetry. In at least three ways, the film resembled elements of the later Intolerance. It was an episodic film, its separate stories linked by a none-too-sturdy device—a much exaggerated and even falsified account of the life of John Howard Payne, writer of the lyrics of the title song.
( In Intolerance, the titular theme was the linking device, even though the film was only partially about intolerance.) And as in Intolerance, the Mae Marsh-Robert Harron-Miriam Cooper sequence was actually planned (and even released) as a separate entity, then recalled, reshaped, and inserted into the body of a more ambitious film. The last of Griffith’s 1914 quartet. The Avenging Conscience, is one of the most fascinating and bewildering of films, by turns innovative and mature, naive and listless. Some of the usage of Poe material is justified, other material pointlessly dragged in. The film does substitute psychological tension for physical action; the ghostly apparition that accompanies the killer’s guilt pangs is smoothly done; cross-cutting for emotional suspense rather than thrill is often quite creative ( especially in a Raskolnikov /Porfiri-like encounter between a detective and the man he is sure is a murderer ) ; and at times, the film has much of the doom-laden power of the celebrated German films of the twenties. Its dream ending is quite modern, too, and much in the manner of Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944); the nightmarish story is brought to a conclusion, with all the loose ends wrapped up. The revelation that it was all a dream—a less common device in 1914—provided an appropriate sense of relief but was in no way merely a convenient resolution of an otherwise insoluble plot dilemma (as was frequently the case in melodramas in the forties). The main problem with The Avenging Conscience is its lack of cohesion and general untidiness. One would like to think that the film’s strongest element, its brooding power, is there by design. But if so, then the shortcomings of the rest of the film are inexcusable. In any event, if it is not quite the milestone film that Griffith’s admirers would like it to be, its flaws at least throw into stark relief the enormous advances made by Griffith during the latter part of 1914.
When The Avenging Conscience premiered in New York on August 2, 1914, Griffith, Bitzer, Lillian Gish, and Mae Marsh were already at work on The Birth of a Nation. It is virtually impossible today to appreciate fully the impact that The Birth of a Nation made on audiences, on film-makers, and on both the art and industry of movies when it premiered in February 1915. So controversial has it always been because of its racial content—a controversy often artificially created and sustained—that its artistic and innovative qualities have frequently been acknowledged almost grudgingly, as a lesser asset that did not compensate for the film’s inflammatory qualities. Yet no other single film in movie history has ever done what The Birth of a Nation did : established movies as an international art and an international industry almost overnight, and influenced the manner of narrative story-telling in American films for at least the next six years. Griffith’s methods were not new, but prior to The Birth of a Nation they were neither understood nor considered important enough to be worth copying. The incredible financial success of the film “justified” Griffith’s techniques, and at least through the end of 1920 the film was copied (lazily) by the lesser directors and instinctively—and out of a sense of homage—by the newer and more talented directors (John Ford, Henry King).
Probably more acting and directorial talent was nurtured among the film’s cast and crew than that of any other film, with the possible exception of Griffith’s own subsequent Intolerance. The film established and justified the practice of raised admission prices, taking the motion picture forever out of the ten-cent category. It has almost certainly become the industry’s top-grossing box-office champion. While this claim is not necessarily a criterion of artistic achievement—many of the industry’s top grossers are of singularly negligible value artistically—it is an incredible achievement for a film that was made in 1915 and has been in constant exhibition, including commercial exhibition, ever since. Admittedly, it might be a hard claim to support in terms of dollars and cents. Existing financial records can only prove a minimum income from the film, since Griffith did not have national distribution in 1915 and sold the film on a state’s rights basis. This means that records exist only on the flat or percentage payments made to Griffith for distribution rights to given territories, not on the gross income from those territories. Nevertheless, existing figures do indicate a minimum return over the years of 50 million dollars. If it were no more than that, it would be an incredible profit for a film that was estimated to cost between $65,000 and $112,000. These two figures represent production cost and the final cost up to presentation, including a substantial sum for advertising and such added niceties as a full, live orchestral score.
Grosses in terms of dollars mean very little anymore, when contemporary grosses are invariably inflated by the casual use of the $5 admission charge. The only fair estimate of a film’s success, in the long run, should be the number of paid admissions, an unchanging guide to a film’s popularity. On that score, there can be no question of the leadership of The Birth of a Nation. In the first six months of its release, it was seen by more people than had attended all the plays presented in the United States in the previous few years! It was this obvious competition and commercial threat that caused the theatre to hit back by coining the phrase “the legitimate stage” as a deliberate insult to the medium of film. At twelve reels, or a running time of three hours, The Birth of a Nation was at least twice as long as that of the average American feature of the day. It represented the tremendous faith of GrifiBth, who was forced to subsidize the film by raising completion money himself, when the estimated budget was depleted. Part One ( slightly more than a third of the total film ) dramatizes the events leading up to the Civil War of 1861-65 and the war itself, including the surrender of Lee and the assassination of Lincoln.
Also included in this section is a prologue depicting the introduction of slavery into America in the 17th century and the rise of the Abolitionist movement 150 years later. Despite the brilHant crescendo of cross-cutting in the climax of the second half, the first half is certainly better. It is here that Griffith’s ability to humanize history is seen at its best. His story is told through the interaction between two families, one Northern and one Southern, showing the heartbreak of the Civil War in personal as well as ideological terms. The head of the Northern family, Austin Stoneman ( played by Ralph Lewis ) , is actually a thinly disguised portrait of Thaddeus Stevens, a prominent Radical Republican Congressman proponent of harsh approach to Southern Reconstruction, while such key figures as Lincoln, Lee, Grant, John Wilkes Booth and Senator Charles Sumner naturally appear under their own names. So adept is the interweaving of factual and fictional characters that it would be quite possible to edit out most of the romantic and fictional elements of the film and still be left with a virtual documentary.
Many of the most striking images occur in the first half: the tragedy of war is as poignantly portrayed by a single shot of a dead soldier, half curled up as if in sleep, and preceded by the subtitle “War’s Peace,” as it was to be later by that bravura crane-shot pullback of the entire Atlanta square filled with the dead and dying in Gone With the Wind. One of the first outstanding examples of “painting with light” in film can be seen in the brief sequence of Sherman’s march to the sea. A small group of refugees ( probably a family whose home has been burned) huddle at the left of the screen in a stylized and partially painted set suggesting the wreckage of a house. The camera moves across to a panoramic overhead long shot of Sherman’s troops marching away from the camera, past a burning building. There is an insert to a closer view, then a cut back to the end position of the previous pan, and the camera retraces its move back to the pathetic refugees. Within a few seconds, apart from the narrative point made by the poignant scene, one sees the welding of stylized and harshly documentarian styles, close-shot and extreme long shot separated by two kinds of lighting and composition, yet linked emotionally by a cause-and-effect motif and physically by a camera movement.
Henry B Walthall – Reunion – Birth of a Nation
Miriam Cooper, Josephine Crowell, Mae Marsh – Renunion – Birth of a Nation
Henry B Walthall – Reunion – Birth of a Nation
Henry B Walthall and Mae Marsh – Reunion – Birth of a Nation
Henry B Walthall and Mae Marsh – Reunion – Birth of a Nation
Another superb moment in Part One is the homecoming of Colonel Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) to his mother (Josephine Crowell) and sister (Mae Marsh) after capture, imprisonment, and a sojourn in a military hospital. In the scenes immediately prior to the reunion, Griffith creates a mood that is first joyful (the happy preparations for his return) and then sad (the realization of the poverty thrust on them by the South’s defeat).
The reunion itself, starting with a long shot of the tattered soldier entering the frame at the end of the street and climaxing with his embrace of his sister at the door, and then being drawn into the house by the arms of his mother ( who is otherwise not shown) is a beautifully tender and underplayed scene. Further, it indicates a great respect for the audience’s ability to inject its own emotions into a scene, to accept suggestion rather than outright statement, and to imagine actions ( and the conclusion of the scene ) taking place off screen. Although this scene has been imitated (knowingly and otherwise) many times, perhaps most effectively by John Ford in a 1933 talkie, Pilgrimage, the original has somehow never been surpassed; even out of context, as a film “clip,” it still has the power to be intensely moving. Incredibly, the superb underplaying and meticulous timing of this sequence were achieved through careful rehearsals designed not so much to perfect the actors’ performances as to get the scene completed within a specific time. This occurred partly because, even while shooting, Griffith could envision the rhythm of the completed film, and partly because of economics; he could not afford the luxury of reshooting.
Towering over all else in Part One of The Birth of a Nation were the monumental battle scenes (shot in the area now totally covered by Universal Studios ) , which may since have been surpassed in terms of sheer size but have certainly never been equalled in terms of realism or excitement. Deliberately patterned after Matthew Brady photographs, subdirected by a group of unit directors who were able to turn the “huge” armies into masses of individuals rather than tableau-like mobs, these battle scenes, staged with extreme camera mobility and the usual Griffith juxtaposition of close detail shots with panoramic long shots, have vitality, savagery, and an incredible sense of spontaneity. No matter how many times one has seen these sequences, one tends to jump along with the extra, who is clearly surprised when a mortar bomb explodes behind his back, or to be moved by the destruction of a tree hit by a shell. (Griffith had an astonishing ability to crystallise the awful, massive destruction of war into shots of simple symbolism or metaphor. Despite the grimness of the often authentic war scenes in his World War I film Hearts of the World, its most moving single shot is of a brace of swans, with their cygnets, swimming away from the ripples in their pond caused by falling dirt from a bomb explosion.)
Part Two of The Birth of a Nation traces the exploitation of the newly emancipated Southern Negroes by Northern bankers and industrialists (carpetbaggers) and by political fanatics of both North and South ( scalawags ) . It dramatizes the struggle against, and ultimate defeat of, a vengeful movement by these elements to “crush the White South under the heel of the Black South” (quoting from Woodrow Wilson) and to rule the defeated South through a Northern-controlled economic, political, and racial dictatorship. It was this second portion of the film, with its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan of that period, that has caused most of the film’s problems. Not only does this section of the film draw heavily on the writings of Thomas Dixon but because of the elimination of most of the authentic historical characters, and the involvement of the Thaddeus Stevens parallel in much of the fictional melodrama, it is more open to questions of historical distortion.
It was, of course, the dynamic quality of The Birth of a Nation that caused—and still causes—the film problems on racial grounds. No movie with such imagination and persuasive power had ever been seen before. With no disrespect to the remarkable early films of Tourneur and others, it was as if an audience familiar only with comic strips had suddenly been introduced to the works of Tolstoy, and in a way that they could understand. Yet audiences were, understandably, not yet sophisticated enough to understand film technique, or how it was manipulating them. It is extremely unlikely that even Griffith fully understood the awesome power of the film medium. In Griffith’s eyes, The Birth of a Nation did tell the truth; however, it was only one side of a truth. The assertive style of the film left no option for another side.
Audiences, confronted with an overpowering flow of images, often connected by fully documented and undeniably accurate titles, had no way of knowing how the linkage and arrangement of shots could lead the spectator to the film-maker’s point of view. Thus, Griffith introduces a sequence, backed up by historical references, showing the passage of a bill permitting the inter-marriage of blacks and whites. But he follows it with a quick shot of a young black looking up lecherously, and then a shot of a white girl and her companions ( presumably parents ) shuddering and drawing back as they watch the proceedings from a balcony. There is nothing in the film to prove that the black man is looking at the white girl, yet from the arrangement of shots, the implication is obvious. Here, historical reconstruction slides unobtrusively into pure editorializing.
At another point in the film, the mulatto villain Silas Lynch (played by George Siegmann ) confronts Colonel Cameron on the street and tells him, “The sidewalk belongs to us as much as to you, ‘Colonel’ Cameron.” There is nothing unreasonable in his statement or even in his manner, but the insertion of the quotes around the word “Colonel” in the title immediately injects a note of insulting derision. Ironically, the use of the same filmic method that Griffith evolved to tell his story has been in part responsible for the effectiveness of the campaign against the film ever since. A David Wolper television documentary of the 1960’s, Hollywood, The Golden Years, told the history of the silent period in superficial but generally acceptable terms, considering the non-scholastic mass audience it was aimed at. However, it sustained and enlarged on the myth of the riots that were supposed to have greeted The Birth of a Nation on its initial showing in Boston.
(There were protests and demonstrations, but of a small-scale and well controlled nature.) After the narrator set up the “massive” nature of the protests, the screen was filled with montages of newspaper headlines, some of which may even have been authentic, but superimposed over unidentifiable shots of huge rioting mobs sweeping through city streets which definitely had no connection whatsoever with the opening of the film in Boston. Yet, quite logically, audiences assumed it to be a bit of “truthful” reportage. Through the years, The Birth of a Nation has constantly been harassed by the NAACP, which has bombarded announced showings of the film with masses of “protest” letters, evenly divided into three different and always word-for-word styles, indicating that the writers had never seen the film they were protesting so vehemently.
While The Birth of a Nations immense power as entertainment was grasped immediately by the critics, not all of them were as enthusiastic over its innovations: a veritable textbook of cinematic grammar, style, and devices that would remain intact until the coming of sound, and even thereafter be of continuing influence. Some critics felt it absurd that the use of the moving camera in the battle and chase scenes placed the audience in the “confusing” position of being absorbed into the action, resolutely holding to the theory that the audience should remain firmly separated, as a spectator only, in the tradition of the theatre.
The shaping of the screen into iris, vignette, and other forms—even the use of horizontal panels, anticipating the CinemaScope image—likewise confused those critics who still regarded the film as an alternative to the stage. But the basic construction of the film—a methodical beginning; the establishment of time, place, and characters; the building up to an initial climax; the relaxing of tempo to repeat the process and build up to a second, longer, greater climax; the mathematical precision of editing within that climax, even to throwing in a brief, seemingly unintended “joke” so that audiences could relax, release their pent-up tensions, and draw greater excitement from the remainder of the film’s climax—all of this became a model on which the structure of American film was to be based for the next half-decade. It was to reach its purely academic peak in Intolerance, a commercial failure. But so great and long-lasting was the commercial success of The Birth of a Nation that even the failure of Intolerance, considered an artistic indulgence, was over-ridden by the phenomenal box-office success and artistic influence of what is still one of cinema’s peaks: The Birth of a Nation.
In terms of assembling all of the editing and other techniques necessary for the chase, A Girl and Her Trust almost represents the zenith of Griffith’s experiments at Biograph. All that remained was to adapt it to an expanded and more sophisticated usage, which Griffith did in some of his last and most elaborate two-reelers at Biograph: Massacre (1912), a loose reworking of the story of Custer’s Last Stand, and The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913), a large-scale, complex western with Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, and Mae Marsh that was virtually a blueprint for the climax of The Birth of a Nation.
The Battle at Elderbrush Gush Lillian Gish Robert Harron Mae Marsh 1913
The Battle at Elderbrush Gush Lillian Gish 1913 (siege)
D. W. Griffith’s The Battle at Elderbush Gulch and John Ford’s Straight Shooting
The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913)
Griffith’s methods were also being studied and used, though not always instinctively understood, by his subdirectors. The Telephone Girl and the Lady (1913), another variation on the The Lonely Villa/A Girl and Her Trust chase theme, was prepared by Griffith but actually shot by an assistant, Tony O’Sullivan, while Griffith was on the West Coast. All of the ingredients are there—the cross-cutting, the use of the moving camera in some extremely good running inserts of mounted policeman-hero Alfred Paget riding to the rescue, and a well-done fight between Paget and villain Harry Carey at the climax—but somehow, it does not flow as it should. Certain cuts are awkward, and devices to prolong suspense are held too long.
As we see more of Griffith’s Biographs and understand his methods, more of the apparently uninteresting aspects of some of the films fall into place. For years, one of the most consistently available Griffith Biographs was The New York Hat, a simple romantic story given distinction by its cast (Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore, and in minor roles, Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish, and others) and by the fact that it was written by Anita Loos. Although a pleasing subject with some nice human touches, it inevitably disappointed with its lack of obvious technique, and its apparent lethargy at times, especially when relatively few other Biographs were available for comparison.
In all of the shots of Mary Pickford’s home, for example, the camera was always placed in exactly the same position in the street outside the garden, and players always made their entrances and exits in the same way. At first, it looked at though Griffith merely shot, in one session, all the scenes involving that location without once bothering to move his camera. Such economy in time shouldn’t necessarily be discounted as the reason for those scenes. On the other hand, as one gets more and more into Griffith’s rural films, such as the lovely and only recently rediscovered The Country Doctor, one finds out how important the home is as a symbol to Griffith, and how he frequently shoots it deliberately and rigidly from one angle to impress the audience with its stability and consistency. (This certainly applies to the way Griffith shoots the two basic exterior and interior views of the home in The Birth of a Nation.) Establishing roots and permanence was apparently very important to Griffith. The Country Doctor, for example, begins with a pan across the countryside in which his story takes place. That story ( a partially tragic one ) told, Griffith concludes by going back to the beginning, and reversing that pan over the countryside.
Musketeers from Pig Alley 1912
The Musketeers of Pig Alley 1912
The Musketeers from Pig Alley 1912
The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) The Musketeers of Pig Alley 1912 — with Lillian Gish.
The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)
The best Griffiths of 1912-13 are not merely milestones of technique on the way to a final development but outstanding little films that need no apology for age. The Musketeers of Pig Alley ( 1912 ) has compositions that Eisenstein and Tisse could have been proud of a decade later. The remarkable An Unseen Enemy, also made in 1912 and used to introduce Lillian and Dorothy Gish, has a surreal, nightmare quahty to its melodrama that almost certainly influenced the images in the French serials of Feuillade. And best of all, the mature, often almost Freudian The Mothering Heart ( 1913), with a superb performance by Lillian Gish as a mature wife and mother, is a totally modern and valid film today, with erotic symbolism in its last scene so advanced for its day that one would almost think it accidental, if not for the lingering close-up that Griffith utilizes to underline the point and assure us otherwise.
The Mothering Heart – 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913
The Mothering Heart (1913)
One can appreciate exactly how far in advance of his time Griffith really was, and how almost singlehandedly he had created a language and grammar of film, by comparing a Griffith-Biograph genre film (western, Civil War, crime) with a similar genre film by another contemporary, or even later, film-maker. A particularly apt comparison can be made between Fighting Blood, one of the best of Griffith’s westerns, made in 1911, and Edison’s The Corporals Daughter, very similar in theme and structure, yet made in 1915. The Edison film gives no information or background about its characters, but merely throws them on screen. Titles telegraph the solution to suspense sequences even before they are under way. Moreover, the images frequently do not reflect the information conveyed by the titles. At one point, we are told that the cavalry is “gallantly fighting back against overwhelming odds,” and are then shown a well-equipped body of men, strategically placed atop a hill, with plenty of rocks for cover, shooting down at an e