- The Clamorous Era
- 1910 – 1920
- By the Editors of TIME-LIFE BOOKS Alexandria, Virginia
“A Sun-Play of the Ages”
The Hollywood movie industry was seldom impressed by the extravagance of its members. But when D. W. Griffith, in 1915 the reigning dean of Hollywood directors, began to construct a huge and fanciful conglomeration of parapets and towers in a lot on Sunset Boulevard, the movie community was agog. Never before had such a monumental set been built, nor had so much expensive talent—a dozen top stars and 15,000 extras—been assembled. What did it mean? What was Griffith, the master, up to now?
The answer came the following year, when a three-hour, $1,900,000 extravaganza called Intolerance opened at New York City’s Liberty Theatre. The acclaim of critics was overwhelming. “Intolerance is so colossal, gorgeous and stunning to the mind that words fail,” wrote the New York Tribune, and the New York Evening Post called it “the highest achievement which the camera has recorded.”
But the general public was not so sure. For Intolerance, enigmatically subtitled “A Sun-Play of the Ages,” was so complex that almost nobody was able to understand it. Its main theme seemed to be an attack on hypocrisy and persecution, worked out in a succession of historical episodes that ranged in setting from ancient Babylonia to modern America. But as the scenes flicked on and off the screen in a weird hodgepodge of flashbacks and crosscutting, the result was massive befuddlement. One observer wrote in Photoplay Magazine, “The universally-heard comment from the highbrow or nobrow who has tried to get it all in an evening: ‘I am so tired.’ ”
At the box office, the world’s first film extravaganza turned out to be a colossal flop. Receipts never came close to balancing the film’s gigantic cost, and in 1921 the company that Griffith had formed to produce Intolerance was declared bankrupt.
Financial failure did not really bother Griffith. He had been broke before and had managed to pull himself out. The descendant of impoverished Old South aristocrats, he had wandered in and out of professions like a hobo through a train yard, stopping briefly to write plays and poetry, to sell magazine subscriptions and to act in a traveling theatrical company. In 1908 he turned to motion pictures more in sorrow than in hope, joining Biograph simply to earn money. He was so ashamed of being associated with the ignoble occupation of movie-making that he signed his first contract under an assumed name.
For all his embarrassment, Griffith brought the touch of genius to film-making. During five years at Biograph, grinding out one-reel shorts at the rate of two a week, Griffith codified the vocabulary of modern film technique. He perfected such basic devices as the close-up, the long shot, the fade-out and the fade-in. He used his camera like a hawk pursuing a rabbit, zooming in at odd angles to focus on an actor’s face, intensifying the emotional impact of a scene with a glimpse of an angry glance, a quivering lip or a falling tear. At times he would plunge parts of the screen into complete darkness, spotlighting only a single important detail, such as a murder weapon or a touching vignette of a mother and child. “The task I’m trying to achieve is above all to make you see,” he said.
As Griffith’s reputation grew, so did his ambition. In 1914 he decided to form his own film company, the Epoch Producing Corporation, in order to create the immensely successful film that led him to Intolerance. The prototype of the Hollywood blockbuster, this wasthe epic, The Birth of a Nation, that Griffith unabashedly proclaimed was to be the greatest motion picture ever made.
In many ways, it was. The Birth of a Nation was also one of the most controversial. A three-hour saga on the Civil War, it traced the devastation of the South and the humiliating aftermath of Reconstruction. Audiences whose grandfathers had fought at Gettysburg and Shiloh watched the horrors of the conflict re-created on the screen. They also watched as Griffith, whose father had been a Confederate colonel, showed with implicit approval and delight the lynching of blacks and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
An aroused public stormed movie theaters, both to see the film, which by the end of the decade grossed an estimated $10 million, and to protest its racist themes. Riots broke out in cities throughout the North, black demonstrators marched on the Boston State House and prominent black and white leaders demanded that the film be suppressed. President Charles Eliot of Harvard, who apparently felt that an actual viewing of the film was not really necessary, announced, “I have not seen this play, but I want to say that it presents an extraordinary misrepresentation of the birth of this nation.”
Griffith was hurt by the furor he had caused. He answered his attackers with a bitter pamphlet on his right to free speech and demanded “the liberty to show the dark side of wrong that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue.”
But Griffith’s major defense of himself and his art was his next big movie, which was, of course, Intolerance. And though it left him broke and led to both confusion in the audience and some outlandishly sentimental scenes on the screen, Intolerance was indeed Griffith’s artistic masterpiece. A whole generation of Hollywood directors would try to equal the film in spectacle and extravagance. Its battery of technical achievements was plagiarized and imitated by directors from Rome to Moscow, and in 1919 a copy of the film itself was officially purchased by the Soviet government as a pictorial textbook in movie art.