The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress Vol. 37 1980 – INTOLERANCE

  • The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress Summer-Fall 1980: Vol 37 Iss 3-4
  • Intolerance

Intolerance is a long motion picture—on fourteen reels of film, it lasts over two hours. Audiences tend to find it bewildering and exhausting and are confused by the constant intercutting of the four stories representing four different time periods, each with its own set of characters: “The Modern Story” (or The Mother and the Law), “The Babylonian Story,” “The Medieval French Story (or the St. Bartholomew Massacre),” and “The Judean (or Crucifixion) Story.” Intercuts of a woman rocking a cradle are used to tie the stories together. The film grew out of a five-reel melodrama entitled The Mother and the Law that Griffith had almost completed before the release of The Birth of a Nation. After the financial success and critical acclaim of The Birth of a Nation, Griffith feared that audiences would consider The Mother and the Law disappointing. Anxious to live up to his reputation as the greatest genius of the cinema, he iook The Mother and the Law and intercut it with three other stories to create the epic Intolerance.* The Mother and the Law, set in a modern time period, deals mainly with social intolerance, the miscarriage of justice, and class hatred, bleakly revealing the wrongs inflicted by a pious factory owner on his employees and the events that ensue. The Babylonian episode illustrates the intolerance of one people for another and the intolerance of a priest for the beliefs of a different religion. The medieval French story deals with the massacre of French Protestants by Catholics in 1572.


The Judean story uses incidents from the life of Christ—Christ and the Pharisees, the marriage of Cana, and the Crucifixion. In each of the stories intolerance is the initial theme but the topic is not expanded or reinforced by the action. As a result, the film turns into a melodrama. Despite its length and complexity, Griffith created the entire film without a written script. It was all in his head.*? The film took almost two years to make and cost two million dollars to produce.* G. W. “Billy” Bitzer, the principal cameraman, was assisted by Karl Brown in shooting the film. Many of the scenes were tinted red, green, blue, and yellow. Unless fading has changed the originals, Griffith used varying intensities and combinations for these tints, which differ on various frames of the film. His use of color was unrealistic and contributes immeasurably to the emotional intensity of the film.° Music for full orchestra accompaniment was arranged by Joseph Carl Breil under Griffith’s supervision. The cast included sixty credits and hundreds of uncredited extras. Crowd and battle scenes used thousands of actors and actresses.


Some fifteen thousand persons and two hundred and fifty chariots were used for the filming of the “Fall of Babylon” sequence. Griffith drew on the talents of the regular members of the stock company as well as many relative newcomers who went on to become important actors, actresses, and directors.® The giant sets for the film were built without architectural plans on the corner lot of Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards. The structures rose to towering heights, growing from day to day as Griffith had new ideas and told his carpenters what he wanted.’ It was perhaps the greatest set ever constructed. Gigantic walls, painted to simulate stone, were built under the supervision of Huck Wortman. The walls rose to a height of one hundred feet and were adorned with reliefs of winged creatures and elephants. Towers reached much higher.*® The waiis were wide and strong enough to hold the weight of racing horses, chariots, and the throngs of soldiers used in battle scenes. Huge heavy gates, built like those of ancient Babylon, were opened by actors portraying slaves pushing big iron wheels on either side of the gates. Sets were also constructed to resemble ancient Judea and the Paris of Louis IX.


Thousands of pieces of furniture, decorative items, swords, guns, and other objects were built or collected. Although the Los Angeles fire department ordered the sets dismantled in 1916, Griffith managed to delay the destruction until 1917. They were so solidly built that parts of them survived on back lots for many years. Previewed in a theater in Riverside, California, on August 6, 1916, Intolerance opened at the Liberty Theatre in New York City on September 4, 1916. As was his custom, Griffith accompanied the film on its first showing in major cities, Cutting the prints at the theaters in an effort to improve it. In 1919 he cut into the original negative—somewhere between 13,500 and 13,700 feet in length—without making a duplicate in order to make new films from two of the stories in Intolerance: The Fall of Babylon and The Mother and the Law. Consequently, it has never been possible to restore the Intolerance negative to its original state. The master print in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art is missing two reels and measures only 11,811 feet.!° Some critical reviews after the New York opening acclaimed Griffith’s genius and declared the film a spectacle. Other reviews were generally favorable to Griffith but expressed some reservations about the film itself, which was a box office failure. Although attempts have been made from time to time to revive the film, especially in Europe, Intolerance has never been a popular success. But the film has had a lasting impact on the art of filmmaking and holds an important place in film history.

IntoleranceIntolerance – set

The Intolerance Theme

Intolerance cannot be discussed without reference to its predecessor, The Birth of a Nation, released the previous year. Some silent film scholars feel Intolerance was Griffith’s apologia for the racial bigotry portrayed in The Birth of a Nation and demonstrated his penitence for the violence the first film engendered wherever it was shown. Others believe that Intolerance was strictly a commercial enterprise and in no way reflected any change in Griffith’s attitude. Although Lillian Gish, Karl Brown, Miriam Cooper, Joseph Henabery, and Anita Loos all have differing views on Griffith’s purpose and accomplishments in both films, they seem to agree that Griffith fought all of his life for the right of freedom of speech and creative expression.

The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915, was a tremendous success for Griffith and established a place for him in film history. The film has been considered by some to be the single most important motion picture ever made. Iris Barry has stated that the picture established the film genre as the “most persuasive of entertainments and compelled the acceptance of the film as art.””

First shown as The Clansman in Los Angeles on February 8, 1915, and as The Birth of a Nation at the Liberty Theatre in New York on March 3, 1915, the film was twelve reels long. It was based on The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots, both written by the Reverend Thomas Dixon, Jr. Public response to it was overwhelming, but from the beginning the film was met with extraordinary protests and demands for censorship. Even today it stirs up controversy. Although portions of the film are deemed racist and inflammatory, few have considered Griffith himself as being a racist. Iris Barry states that the film was “a Southerner’s honest effort to portray events still very close to the experience of the community in which he grew up.”!? She goes on to say that Much of the film’s early success can be attributed to the controversy it aroused. Demonstrations and violence flared when the film was sl.own in Boston, Philadelphia, and other cities across the country. The protests and demands for censure may have angered Griffith, but they also created profits—the more protests, the more publicity, the bigger the crowds, and the larger the take at the box office.

Griffith’s public response to the bigotry charges leveled at him was couched in terms of censorship and guaranteed freedoms. The protests and demands to censure The Birth of a Nation seemed outrageous to him. He consistently defended the right of the motion picture to share with literature the privilege of free speech. In 1916, he published a pamphlet, The Rise and Fail of Free Speech in America, in which he condemned all censorship and defended the extension of the First Amendment to film. The word “intolerance” appears frequently throughout this declaration and lends credence to the notion that the title of Griffith’s next film was no coincidence. One paragraph in particular points to a defense of his integrity and challenges his detractors to criticize his second answer to their intolerance—his film Intolerance:

The reason for the slapstick and the worst that is in pictures is censorship. Let those who tell us to uplift our art, invest money in the production of an historic play of the time of Christ. They will find this cannot be staged without incurring the wrath of a certain part of our people. The Massacre of St. Bartholomew, if produced, will tread upon the toes of another part of our people.”

Opinions of the interviewees vary as to how they thought public response to The Birth of a Nation affected Griffith’s decisions on the production of Intolerance. Lillian Gish disclaims that Intolerance was a response to reactions to The Birth of a Nation. Miriam Cooper, on the other hand, claims that it was. Anita Loos states that there was nothing original in Intolerance as a theme. Karl Brown and Joseph Henabery both look on the film as a business enterprise and as Griffith’s attempt to capitalize on an opportunity.


In her autobiography Lillian Gish tries to dispel the theory that Griffith produced Intolerance as an apology for The Birth of a Nation. She suggests that Griffith in The Birth of a Nation showed on film what he had heard as a boy and believed to be true about the Civil War. Believing that Griffith had no reason to apologize for his film, Gish contends that Intolerance “was his way of answering those who, in his view, were the bigots.””*

Miriam Cooper states that Intolerance was a part of Griffith’s crusade against intolerance.

“He wanted to show intolerance throughout the world through the ages through thousands of years of intolerance.” She believes Griffith produced Intolerance because of the riots connected with the showing of The Birth of a Nation and because “people were so incensed at other people.”?®

In her interview, Anita Loos’s reaction to intolerance as a theme for the film is somewhat negative. She does not see anything particularly creative or new about Griffith’s idea that intolerance was the cause of everyone’s troubles.’”

Karl Brown agrees with Lillian Gish that Griffith portrayed the Civil War and Reconstruction in The Birth of a Nation as he thought the events had taken place. Moreover, he feels that Griffith, a showman and a businessman, produced his pictures to sell. Brown considers the reaction to the film and the riots around the country as “very good business. … Every riot meant another million dollars.” He says that Griffith gave no indication at the time of filming Intolerance that it was in any way a reaction to The Birth of a Nation. Rather, Griffith was “just making another film.” Although it was a bigger film than Griffith was used to making, Griffith himself, Brown believes, did not have the “faintest conception of what it was going to be like or what the reaction was going to be.” Brown further states that Griffith did not care particularly about intolerance as such but had the impression that “everybody else did” and chose the theme because he thought it was popular.’®

Tha famous baloon from where Griffith tried to shoot – thus inventing the crane concept

Joseph Henabery states that Griffith created Intolerance out of necessity. His impression is that Griffith found himself in an extremely awkward situation after the great popularity of The Birth of a Nation because nothing equal to it was ready for release. According to Henabery, Griffith felt the public would expect an even more spectacular film from him. Henabery has difficulty accepting the idea that intolerance is the overall theme of the film. He comments on his feeling in the interview:

Naturally, people were looking forward to the next work of this great artist who had made The Birth of a Nation. What did he have to show? A lousy, old, stinking “quickie.” I suppose like most directors he didn’t want to show a bum picture. He began to look for ways that he could improve Intolerance or The Mother and the Law, as it was called. That’s where he thought he was being treated unfairly. Intolerably, he said. So he got the idea of making a bigger picture by embellishing it with a few added scenes for the modern period but adding the St. Bartholomew episode, the Crucifixion, and the Babylonian episodes. I would say that first of all the kind of intolerance suffered in The Mother and the Law was not religious. But two of the things that he picked were religious intolerance—St. Bartholomew and the Crucifixion. He showed priests who were traitors but the major part of the picture was not devoted to that. Now, what was intolerance? God knows.’®

One may conclude that after the tremendous reception of The Birth of a Nation, Griffith must have had second thoughts about releasing The Mother and the Law and decided to enlarge upon it and to expand the intolerance theme with three additional stories.

The Production of Intolerance Griffith rarely discussed his scripts, production plans, or financial affairs with anyone except Frank Woods, his business manager. The production plans for Intolerance were no exception.

Intolerance – Babylon

They remained one of Griffith’s better kept secrets. Anita Loos calls Intolerance the studio mystery. She indicates that no one knew what the film was about except Griffith and Frank Woods. It was a complete mystery to the actors playing in it. The filming went on for month after month, and the constant shifting of sequences from modern to ancient was confusing. The sets became enormous.

She says, “We used to say, ‘What is D. W. doing?’ We never had the nerve to ask him.”?°

When Miriam Cooper was asked if she had any idea while the film was being made what Griffith had in mind, she responded, “He never told us. He never told my anything. [We did] what we were told. He wouldn’t describe anything.”

Karl Brown concurs:

No [we didn’t know what the film was about], and to compound the felony, we didn’t care. That’s what he wanted. That’s what we gave him. He was happy. So were we. We were all being paid.”

Brown recalls that Griffith had no plan or shooting schedule and that Griffith filmed “whatever came next. Whatever was ready next.”

No, there was no straight plan. The only time he was ever stuck with a plan was during the biblical sequences when he had to. He had no choice there. He could put his own interpretation on it, but he had to follow the letter of the Book. That’s the one place where he was really tied down.”

Lillian Gish believes that even though her role in Intolerance took less than an hour to film, she was closer to Intolerance than anyone else except Billy Bitzer and Jimmy Smith, the cutter. She feels there was more of her in the picture than any other in which she had ever played. She describes her feelings in her autobiography:

Perhaps because I wasn’t acting a long role, Mr. Griffith took me into his confidence as never before, talking over scenes before he filmed them, having me watch all the rushes, even accepting some of my ideas with the cutting. At night, as I watched the day’s rushes, I saw the film take shape and marveled at what Mr. Griffith was creating.”

Joseph Henabery describes himself as equally close to Griffith. Besides doing research and assisting in production, he acted in two roles in the film. He says he “very definitely” knew what Griffith had in mind:

I did ninety-five percent or more of the research work in the picture. I assisted him for over a year. I ran around at his heels or at his side for over a year and I believe I’m safe in saying that nobody is alive today that was as close to him as | was. But there are lots of things that I don’t know—that I don’t claim to know. I don’t know what his business arrangements were or a lot of interesting things. It wasn’t part of my job.

Henabery haunted local bookstores and spent hours pouring over materials in researching the film. He particularly liked one bookstore where the owner allowed him to come in on Sunday mornings and “systematically go underneath the counters, pull out … and look through everything.”


He found and purchased many items. For instance, the marriage market scene in Jntolerance was a replication of a picture he discovered. He found a photograph of a painting which served as a reference source for parts of the Belshazzar episode. He also picked up “bits of fiction about Old Babylon.” One he remembered as the Fall of Ishtar by a woman author named Porter. Another was called Semiramas, he believed. Henabery looked at many Bibles in researching the “Jewish period.” He settled on the Tissot Bible as a reference because he believed “Tissot gave the detail of the costumes and the phylactery and all the rituals and all that sort of stuff. Most of the [other] Bibles were illustrated like Doré, which are wonderful drawings, but not authentic.”®

In his autobiography Brown corroborates Henabery’s statement. Henabery, he writes,

“became our one-man research department,” collecting books, cutting out significant pictures and mounting them in scrapbooks for ready reference. In further support of Henabery, Brown states that Tissot’s illustrated Bible was set aside as a standard reference because the illustrations appeared to be more realistic, whereas the Old Masters’ paintings presented too many discrepancies to be of much help.?”

Henabery describes his relationship with Griffith in the day-to-day production of the film:

I was with him all the time. At the end of the day he would tell me about what he wanted to shoot and I’d get some rough idea of what he wanted. If it was to be a very big day I’d stop my work at noon the preceding day and start in on the logistics. [I would] see that everything that was needed was available. But I had to use my memory more than anything. Nowadays they have production departments where they have it all broken down and everybody takes his whack at it. [The director] knows how many people are needed, what horses are needed, how many chariots are needed, and so on. Well, I didn’t, you see.”*


Lillian Gish, however, presents another story of how research was done for the film in her autobiography, stating that “once again everyone became absorbed in history….Rabbi Meyers helped with the biblical research. Mr. Griffith knew the Bible well but it was his habit to use people as a sounding board. He talked to all of us, and we often came up with sound ideas.” She implies that she too had a part in the research when she continues, “research was no chore for me.”*®

Karl Brown’s autobiographical account supports Lillian Gish’s statement that Rabbi Meyers participated in the research for the biblical wedding scene. He adds that “the equally highly respected Father Dodd, Episcopalian, stood by to make sure no Christian beliefs would be shaken by this purely Jewish ceremony.”*°

Lillian Gish states in an interview with Anthony Slide that Griffith had all of Intolerance in his mind. She says that Griffith wrote every bit of it and designed every set and every costume.

He did not go on the set not knowing what to do. He did not improvise.*! Nevertheless, in the more than one and onehalf years that it took to film Intolerance, Joseph Henabery says “miles of film” were shot and many episodes were not used. He describes one of the scenes: [Griffith] had one episode that wasn’t shown about the courts of Hammurabi—the law courts—and he used to laugh himself to death. He had me playing this part and I’d improvise and build it up, you know. I was telling the story. I was a Babylonian soldier. I was walking along and I heard somebody whistle and there was a gal up there. So I went upstairs and I told this. I’m in a law court. I’ve been arrested. Just a poor dumb fool. I used to tell this story in pantomime and he’d laugh and laugh and laugh. And, I’d say to myself, “Well, what in the world? Why is he so interested in this bit? There’s no room for it in the story.” Well, that was true of so many things. I don’t think many others realized where we were going because they didn’t attend all of the rehearsals. When asked about her involvement in the editing of Griffith’s films, particularly The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, Lillian Gish replies: Oh, I always sat in on all of the pictures because Griffith would make me. He would say, “You go in there and pick your takes, my eyes get tired. Don’t discard what you’ve taken out, but you pick the best ones.” So that if I hadn’t he would have run the others. No, I helped. I knew cutting. At the time of the filming of Intolerance, Karl Brown had been promoted to second-unit camera. He shot many of the scenes that did not involve principals.

Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith – Intolerance

He assisted Billy Bitzer on the major scenes. He contends that the big shots—the crowd and battle scenes—were easy to film compared to the close-ups of the Christ character protrayed by Howard Gaye: The hardest thing were the close-ups of the Christ—to make him to look at all Christian, not like Howard Gaye with a lot of whiskers sticking on his face. The rest of it—those big shots—was easy. There’s absolutely no question about that. I shot with fifteen hundred, two thousand people in a good crosslight somewhere. You just set up your scenes. That’s all there is to it. There are no reflectors to handle. Nothing. You just take a picture of it. It’s the only way you can get into a close-up that big and it calls for some skill.* The Babylonian scene was one of the more extravagant in Intolerance. Griffith first tried to film it from a balloon suspended over the action, but the basket rocked too badly. Griffith then constructed a huge dolly with an elevator, which Billy Bitzer describes as being fifteen feet high, about six feet square at the top, and sixty feet wide at the bottom. It was mounted on six sets of four-wheel railroad car trucks and had an elevator in the center. Men pushed the dolly backward and forward on tracks while other workers operated the elevator, which had to descend at a regular rhythm as the railroad car moved. The entire scene was filmed in one continuous shot, in focus at every level, with a single hand-cranked Pathe camera. Bitzer did the tilt and pan cranks while focusing. Karl Brown, seated underneath the camera, did the cranking through a flexible shaft.** Anita Loos was an established writer for Griffith by the time Intolerance was released. It was logical that he called on her to assist with its titles. She relates that when Intolerance was almost complete Griffith sent for her and asked her to stay late to view a rough cut of the film with him alone in the projection room.


She thought the film was “terrible” and that Griffith “had gone out of his mind” with all of “these scrambled sequences.” And, then, he told me what he wanted to do and I realized that the titles he wanted would more or less pull it together and so I went to work and wrote a full set of titles. He told me where they were needed for time lapses and to connect for bridges between episodes. But he said, “If you see any places where you can put in a laugh, don’t hold back.” Griffith himself contributed to the writing of titles, also, and the stylized prose of Intolerance titles is typical of his films. The caption “A love blossoms from the prince stricken by her beauty as though struck by white lightning” Loos quickly acknowledges as Griffith’s. She says, “That is Griffith. That is D. W. himself. He fancied himself as a poet and his poetry was like his stage writing. It’s pretty banal.” Another specific title, “The loom of fate weaves death for the young boy’s father,” she also attributes to Griffith, saying,“ Oh, those are pure Griffith.”*” Loos liked to quote from Voltaire and recalls that her paraphrase of Voltaire, “When women cease to attract men, they often turn to reform as a second choice,” particularly pleased Griffith. She explains that she did not do research for titles: No, I never did any research for anything. I’m deadly against research. I think it bogs you down. I mean if you’re a humorist. I don’t think you should know the facts too well [because you can’t be funny if you do.]** Joseph Henabery also contributed to the titles. He relates to Kevin Brownlow that at the preview ofJ ntolerance he particularly objected to the titles and told Griffith the next day that the worst feature of the film was that it had so many titles that meant absolutely nothing to the audience. That afternoon Griffith asked Henabery to view the film with him and for about three hours they discussed the titles and reworked a number of them: I sat in there for about three hours. I hit the titles I particularly objected to. I made suggestions and they worked my ideas over and revamped the titles. In a way, this was very flattering to me. I’m human and I’m susceptible to flattery.*

Intolerance – set

Success or Failure?

At the grand openings Intolerance was acclaimed by the critics as wonderful, gigantic in spectacle, and novel in presentation. Audiences applauded the brilliant images but found the four concurrent stories confusing and difficult to follow. Theaters were filled for about five months and then attendance fell off to nothing. The film was withdrawn. Intolerance was one of the few pictures never to have a second run in neighborhood theaters. The timing of ihe film’s release was poor. In 1916 the American public was emotionally stirred up for war, but the film was a sermon on peace. As the country became more war conscious the film was censored and barred in many cities. It therefore had little chance for sustained success. The film had a similar reception in Great Britain. It was enthusiastically received in London by the critics and the public but ran only eight weeks before closing. During the filming of Intolerance, none of the interviewees fully comprehended the total scope of the picture or the full significance of the techniques Griffith employed in the production. All were incredulous at their first viewing, but in later years they realized the magnitude of what they had helped create. They attribute part of the ultimate box office failure to the unfortunate timing of the release of the film when the country was preparing to go to war. They all feel the film was too advanced technically for the average moviegoer to appreciate. Griffith typically previewed his films at towns in the Los Angeles area. Henabery went with Griffith and several others to the preview of Intolerance at Pomona.

INTOLERANCE Alfred Paget – Belshazzar

Henabery was “terribly disappointed—more so than I thought I would be.” He thought the picture was “Griffith’s biggest flop” and “failed in so many respects.” He criticized the film as “too confused for an ordinary audience.” They didn’t know what it was about. They were stunned.  They didn’t know what to make of these flashes that were that long [indicating a short distance]. They’d just about get their eyes open and [it was] gone.*” Henabery also criticizes the idea that the stories in the film run parallel: A parallel means that a similar thing happened at these different times. They were not similar things. They were usually quite different things. They talk about the wonderful parallel in the action at the end, but the train ride, the automobile race with the train, and the chariot race in Babylon, and all this. What similarity is there between a run to the rescue and a traitorous opening of the gates to let the invaders in? [And the Crucifixion]. Where is the parallelism? None. To begin with the whole Crucifixion period lacked movement. To me, it was, as I said, his biggest flop.” Brown did not share Henabery’s deep disappointment. He describes the reception of the Los Angeles opening as “tremendous because they were looking for something big and they got it.”** He saw the “picture more than once, mostly to try to find out what all these various critics were talking about.”**

During the shooting of the film he had not been able to make out the stories, “but once assembled and once its theme had been clearly stated in tones of brass from Breil’s great orchestra, everything fit together. Griffith had succeeded brilliantly.”** He disagrees with Henabery’s statement that the film does not use parallelism: Because [Griffith] had been doing it so long. He had been doing it over and over and over again. In his earlier pictures he’d have three or four stories running parallel or closely related, so finally when he came to this one he decided he’d go all the way—the same story in four different parallels—in four different settings.*® Brown believes that Intolerance was a big picture in every possible respect. It was designed to be shown as a great theatrical spectacle in fullsized theaters at advanced prices. It required a full orchestra of symphonic proportions and a backstage crew of sound effects men to build up the hullabaloo and clamor of battle. But it did not attract the crowds necessary to pay the cost of its screening. Brown admits that the film was a failure at the box office. “It was,” he said, “in short, a flop.”*” Griffith had succeeded “with the wrong thing at the wrong time for the world had changed.”** Griffith could not foresee the war. “I think it was badly timed.” Brown states that a little understood fact about Intolerance is that compared to The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance made more money during the first several months after being released.

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