The Classic History Of American Motion Pictures
- By Richard Griffith And Arthur Mayer
- with the assistance of EILEEN BOWSER
- Copyright © 1957, 1970 by Arthur Mayer and The Estate of Richard Griffith
The First Movies
The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company was Edison’s first important rival, the Mutoscope being a peep-show machine similar to the Kinetoscope, while the Biograph was a projector operating on principles nearly identical with Edison s but artfully varied to circumvent his patents. On the page opposite, the cumbrous Biograph camera photographs the Pennsylvania Limited running at sixty miles an hour,” while the equally ponderous Biograph projector throws it on the screen. Audiences of 1896 shrieked in fear when they saw the train speeding upon them. It was an experience not repeated until the advent of Cinerama and 3-D in 1953. Audiences soon grew used to snippets of faked “news” and faked adventure, wonderful as they seemed at first. By 1900, moving pictures were relegated to the closing act on the bill in the vaudeville houses where they were shown. A scientific toy in the eyes of its own inventor, a “chaser” to the variety tycoons, the film seemed headed for the limbo of outworn novelties.
Between 1909 and 1916, David Wark Griffith created the art of screen narrative almost single- handed. After Intolerance, there was no significant addition to film syntax until the advent of sound and of the wide screen, both mechanical rather than artistic innovations, although of course they affect the art. Acknowledging his influence, Cecil B. De Mille recently said that there is something of Griffith in every film made since his day. His contemporaries regarded him with awe, called him “The Master,” and predicted an unlimited future for him after what was thought of as the temporary and accidental failure of Intolerance. Yet this “enigmatic and somewhat tragic figure” never fully succeeded in delivering what he had to say through the medium of which he was the virtual creator. His dream of picturing a vast screen mosaic of the American and French revolutions and the birth of modern liberty was incompletely realized; neither Orphans of the Storm, 1922, nor America, 1924, achieved the impact of The Birth of a Nation.
Beset by financial troubles, he was forced to turn out potboilers which boiled the pot less and less frequently. His last important film, the little masterpiece Isn’t Life Wonderful?, 1924, revealed the source of his difficulties. The incisive realism of this study of the effects of economic inflation in Germany had small appeal to a nation hell-bent on pleasure. The 1920s, engrossed in a sort of witch hunt against everything “Victorian,” regarded Griffith suddenly as dated. Why did he insist on filming social problems, why was he so obsessed with “patriotic” themes at a time when patriotism was all but a dirty word? Hard pressed for money, Griffith tried to obey his critics, but his attempts at Jazz Age films seemed the fumbling efforts of an amateur compared to the work of De Mille and his disciples. Though still nominally the dean of his profession, Griffith in the later Twenties was given the sort of respect we accord the dead.
His revenge is Time’s. As fashion follows fashion with ever-accelerating speed, as the films of the Twenties and Thirties begin to look flat and superficial, Griffith’s greatness emerges. His faults— flowery language, black-and-white morality, naive cultural pretensions—we no longer judge by today’s standards. Now they belong to the past, to a period in which their romanticism is appropriate. Now we can see beyond them to the profound humanity of Griffith’s films—see also what we have meantime lost, a direct, naked, firsthand approach to character, psychology, and emotion. Griffith’s camera searched the human countenance for “the motions of the spirit” itself.
What had loomed over the bungalows of Sunset Boulevard was the palace of Belshazzar, King of Babylon, setting for the Feast of Belshazzar on the eve of Cyrus of Persia’s conquest of the city. Griffith s opulent and untutored imagination festooned this vast set with Egyptian bas-reliefs and Hindu elephant gods as well as Babylonian bearded bulls. To take it all in, he sent Bitzer and his camera aloft in a captive balloon, slowly drawn back to earth in the first equivalent of the modern crane shot. Until Douglas Fairbanks’ castle set for Robin Hood in 1922, it remained the largest backdrop for a movie scene, and neither has ever been topped.
The attacks on The Birth of a Nation had resolved Griffith to turn The Mother and the Law into an epic sermon, a mighty purge for hypocrisy through the ages, called Intolerance. The slums of today, Renaissance France, Belshazzar’s Babylon, and the Crucifixion itself should all speak of man’s inhumanity to man in the name of virtue. Hollywood was awed as Griffith flung up halls in which men looked like flies, walls on which an army could march. Extras were hired in regiments. When Griffith’s backers faltered, he bought them out with long-term notes which he did not finish paying off until the early Twenties. The picture reached a length of 400 reels, with no end in sight, but Griffith went grimly on. “If I approach success in what I am trying to do in my coming picture,” he said, “I expect an even greater persecution than that which met The Birth of a Nation.”
“THE ONLY FILM FUGUE”
The Nazarene story. Howard Gaye as Jesus, Erich von Stroheim as the shorter of the two Pharisees.
In adding three more stories to that of The Mother and the Law to make up the film Intolerance, Griffith, as Variety said, departed “from all previous forms of legitimate or film construction. . . In Pippa Passes, Judith of Bethulia, and Home Sweet Home he had made four-part films. Now the attraction he felt for this form led him to attempt something entirely new. He told all four stories simultaneously, uniting them by the constantly repeated shot of Lillian Gish rocking a cradle, an image derived from Walt Whitman’s “Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking.” In Griffith’s own words: “The stories begin like four currents looked at from a hilltop. At first the four currents 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.”
As such, Intolerance is, in Terry Ramsaye’s words, “the only film fugue,” and as such it entirely failed to win public favor. In spite of the splendor of its spectacle, in spite of its incredible cast—among those who played minor roles were Constance Talmadge, Monte Blue, Bessie Love, Alma Rubens, Carmel Myers, Colleen Moore, Carol Dempster, and Douglas Fairbanks—audiences were cold to it. Two years after its release, Griffith, realizing the inevitable, released the modem and Babylonian episodes as two separate films, but even their receipts did relatively little to relieve him of the burden of debt with which Intolerance had saddled him.
Many reasons have been advanced for the failure of this great and unique film. The commonest and most probable is that audiences found it simply too overwhelming, that they could not follow, or become emotionally involved in, these stories which wove in and out of one another with such awesome speed. It has also been suggested that the pacifism which was a leading motif of Intolerance was hardly the note to strike in a year when America was preparing to enter World War I. No one has ever imitated the formal idea on which Intolerance was based, but its spectacle has been in Cecil B. De Mille’s mind ever since, and but for it Eisenstein might never have made Potemkin, Chaplin The Gold Rush, or Von Stroheim Greed. Equivocal, inconclusive, naive, Intolerance yet marks the furthest advance of screen art.