Photoplay Magazine – November 1916 Vol. X No. 6
The Real Story of “Intolerance”
AN EXCLUSIV ACCOUNT OF THE INCEPTION.
CREATION AND PHILOSOPHY OF THE GREATEST
SPPECTACLE EVER SHOWN IN ANY PLAYHOUSE
By Henry Stephen Gordon
Photographs by Raymond Stagg, and scenes from the play
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the spectacular, factful conclusion of Mr. Gordon’s story on the career and achievements of David Wark Griffith. “Intolerance” has already been produced in the metropolis, and the cool New York critics have spun far more ardent typewriter rhapsodies about it than Mr. Gordon has here woven. Photoplay feels tint even as “Intolerance” itself is the most sensational artistic achievement of the year, so this story —an authoritative, unduplicated narrative by the man who knows Griffith better than anyone else—is the greatest magazine story of the month, anywhere. Do not mistake this for Photoplay’s critical review of the work. Next month Julian Johnson will give it an elaborate analysis and description as a feature of “The Shadow Stage.”
OFTEN in my atrabiliar moods when I read of pompous ceremonials.” writes Herr Diogenes Teufelsdrockh, . . . “and how the ushers, macers, and pursuivants are all in waiting; how Duke this is presented by Arch Duke that, and Colonel A by General B, and innumerable Bishops, Admirals, and miscellaneous Functionaries are advancing gallantly to the Anointed Presence : and I strive in my remote privacy to form a clear picture of that solemnity,—on a sudden as by some enchanter’s wand the,—shall I speak it? the Clothes fly off the whole dramatic corps; and Dukes, Grandees, Bishops, Generals, Anointed Presence itself, every mother’s son of them, stand straddling there, not a shirt on them : and I know not whether to weep or laugh.”
That quality of seeing mankind stripped of its concealments which Herr Teufelsdrockh had in company with Rabelais, is the fearless theme of D. W. Griffith’s latest, and he says his last, photodrama,—'”Intolerance.”
“The Birth of a Nation” made him a rich man; money, gold, at once began to flow toward him, over his shoulders,—would it submerge him?
Would it drown the poetry which he had coined into tremendous dividends?
Could he write a second camera epic?
There is no provision that can determine the event of an effort which depends on the mood and perception of the vast many; “Intolerance” when this is printed will have made itself, or will have unmade Griffith, judged by the peerless jury of dollars in the box-office. Judged by the tables of Verity and of Art, it stands as a terrific arraignment of fustian humanity, under the indictment brought by implacable Fact.
Those seventy-five millions of people out of the hundred millions of our population who are writing at scenarios, will be interested in knowing where and how this theme was written.
It never was written.
It was created by suffering.
I have told you of Griffith’s combat with hypocrisy and imperious traditional Boetianism from the day he stepped forth from that impoverished manse of the Kentucky plantation, to and through his struggle for the survival of “The Birth of a Nation” ; of how in one community the creations of the negro vote, and in others where the negro was not maintained in his odor of martyrdom, the decayed prejudices of the Civil War were venomously injected into the controversy for artistic survival.
“The Truth? What is Truth?” asked Pontius Pilate.
And all through the centuries since, you and I and the other fellow have been shouting.
“Truth is what I believe.”
After he had won the scrap and “The Birth of a Nation” pictured the registering of gold, Griffith determined to do one more photodrama.—and he said then, and says now. only one more.—and in that he would give some manner of response to Mr. Pilate.
He did not look over the card indices of scenarios which Frank Woods had listed, though he did think of the Bible and of the temperamental incident that happened between Cain and Abel because of jealousy and thereby hatred.
But a report of a Federal Industrial Commission fell into his hands and therein he found a large part of his never written scenario. In that report was a mention of a certain combination of chemical factories,—a business combination under the control a man who was fervid in charity, acrobatically zealous in ecclesiastical activity.
He did not wear a halo in public, but he was invested with one by all the financial secretaries of Societies for the Propagation of Piety Among the Humble Poor, or for the gratuitous distribution of Tracts to the Hungry.
This official report went on in the coldly mechanical style of an adding machine to tell the profits of this Chemical Trust ; the public had previously had described to it how generously the head of the concern used his share for promulgation of Beneficence accompanied by brass tablets bearing the name of the Founder of the particular Beneficence.
With no particular emphasis the report said among other minutia that the laborers in the plants of the company were paid $ 1.60 a day; that living conditions had altered may or may not have been indicated, but the workmen wickedly refused to be comforted because their overlord gave hundreds of thousands of the dollars they had aided in the making, to an Evangelical Society for Enlightening Natives of Boroboolaa Gha with Warming Pans. Those workmen had no objections to the Overlord spending his pocket money for Tracts or Warming Pans or Brass Tablets, but they wanted $2.00 for slowly stifling their souls in the vats of his works.
The Overlord said them nay, and they struck, and the Overlord employed Goths and ostrogoths in the guise of deputy sheriffs and constables as is the custom of Overlords since the trade in Hessians and Swiss mercenaries has gone into desuetude; and the wage scale of $1.60 a day was maintained, and the men all came back to work in submission,—all except nineteen.
These nineteen could not testify to their humble change of view because the Overlord’s little army of private grenadiers had exercised the military basic principle of Frightfulness ; the missing nineteen had had their heads shot off and had thus escaped the righteous punishment of being sent to jail for ingratitude.
George W. “Billy” Bitzer, and the remarkable camera which ground in the gigantic scenes of “Intolerance,” “Static” is the peculiar electric manifestation which causes flashing white spots in the film; it is a bane of the business. Static is caused by cold, and the gentle heat from the attached bicycle lamp has obviated it in this great picture. Under Mr. Bitzer’s left hand is his original “diaphragm fade-out” appliance, directly attached to the lens. Everyone who knows anything about camera operation is of course well aware that Mr. Bitzer is the Griffith of camera men, even as Mr. Griffith is the Bitzer of directors!
On that feeble incident of ignorance of man’s kinship, of hatred of gentleness and right, Griffith built the theme of “Intolerance;” he cast back five thousand years into the supreme civilization of Babylon and there planted one of his incidents ; he walked down the aisles of Time to that St. Bartholomew’s Day when hatred and fear cut the throat of the best thought and patriotism of France, and there he planted another romantic incident ; with the living Christ in Nazareth he finds a living theme; and then to yesterday, or today or tomorrow as you like, he came and rooted there another, making the quadripartete of romance, of truth, and ingenuous fearlessness of the evil that is in all hearts ; the substance of his unanswerable charge is that all the evil, cruelty and wrong of the world comes from man’s implacable belief that what each man believes to be true, is true, and all else is false, wicked, and should be destroyed.
In making his first big picture Griffith while using no scenario, did have the memory of reading the Thomas Dixon novel to guide his progress, though, as you will remember, the picture is far from following the details of the story. In this “Intolerance” he had little more than his own idea of the incident in the Industrial Commission’s report on the Christian charity of its Overlord, and the intolerable audacity of those nineteen laborers, who were blinded by their intolerance of believing they were entitled to more of Life than $1.60 a day would buy.
At the first “runoff” of this picture in the little projecting room of his studio, Griffith had as audience one of the foremost war correspondents of this era.—a man with not a shred of emotion left to him ; a night editor of thirty years dealing with the dramatic of life, and to whom the dramatic had become a puerile everyday incident ; a city editor who was on intimate terms with all the grinning skeletons of a big city, and a writer of a long life spent in chronicling most of the tragedies and comedies of a huge country, with the machinery of the stage direction of them at his fingers tips.
Filming the most stupendous festival ever recorded. Beside Griffith, with the megaphone, stands George Bitzer and his vision-embalming camera. The subject is that Feast of Belshazzar described in Scriptures and history – it was the premier orgy of the ancients.
When the last foot of film had passed these sat silent, the fibre of their natures torn and ravelled ; they could say nothing : one rose and without phrase grasped Griffith’s hand.
Those four world-worn men had been shown not only the futile hypocrisy of the rest of the world, but their own as well.
And then from the darkness of the little room came the sound of the voice of Griffith; possibly he felt from the silence of his audience that the picture had failed to impress ; possibly he was moved himself : he is as facile in betraying his emotions as the Sphynx.
He told of his last visit to his Kentucky homestead : of an admirable, gentle-hearted, Christian-spirited, high-bred woman of near relationship, of deep orthodox belief ; of how this woman whenever she saw a well-known Christian Scientist of the place approaching, would cross the street ; of how a Catholic priest had installed a chapel of his faith there and of how all of all the other creeds combatted his work.
It was an epitome of the story of Babylon we had just seen; the glorious city of a glorious civilization where one of the first and one of the best Bibles had originated,—and all of it made the victim of hate and jealousy and greed.
Remembering that this later picture attacks with the precision of mathematics all intolerance, the result of its effect in the “tryouts” in neighboring places to where it was produced might give the Devil a richer idea than ever of the comedy of human seriousness.
So far none of the creeds, theories, or sociological ideas which the picture eviscerates has had its followers respond with a single protest ; each sees the picture and goes away thoroughly satisfied that it is not his pet belief which is assailed, but that of the fellow who believes differently ; in the secret now, of the photoplay’s success or failure.
When it is plain as a pike staff that intolerance of prohibition is a feature of the drama, what are we to think of prohibition leaders in prohibition Riverside praising the picture?
When it is equally an assault on money bending thought and creed to its devices, what deduction follows when a millionaire who has endowed colleges of sectarian type found the picture when shown at Pomona altogether admirable?
When in one appalling scene Protestants are shown savagely slaying Catholics and in another the murders of St. Bartholomew’s Day are depicted in ghastly reality and Protestants and Catholics both have found the picture to their taste, what can you think?
Nothing can be thought save that the great drama shown has undisturbed our universal capacity of seeing only that side of the shield which reflects ourselves.
“Is this truly to be your last picture:” Griffith was asked.
“It is,” he replied; “intolerance that I have met with and fought with in my other picture makes it impossible to ask investment of the tremendous sums of money required for a real feature film with the result dependent on the whim or the lack of brains of a captain of police.”
At that “runoff” showing, after the four spectators of fishy capacity for emotion had found their feet again firmly fastened in the clay of the commonplace, one said, “You’ve made a wonderful picture but you did have to pull the ‘old stuff’ to send ’em away with a good taste in their mouth.
“You’re plucky but you didn’t dare finish the picture true to life, and have The Boy executed, as he would have been in real life ; Carlyle might well have written your scenario up that finale ; but there you allowed the Despot of the stage to rule and you saved The Boy simply to satisfy the lust for comfort which audiences demand.”
“You’re one of the fellows who would have stood up and answered Pilate’s question, ‘What is Truth?'” said Griffith.
“That finale is Truth, and because it is a comfortable truth you thought it false.
“If you had read the newspapers as much as you’ve written for them, you would know about the Stielow case in New York; Stielow was convicted of a murder and sentenced to die; four times he was prepared for the chair, four times he and his family suffered every agony save the final swish of the current.
“What saved him was exactly what saved ‘The Boy’ in my picture ; the murderer confessed,
the final reprieve arrived just as the man was ready to be placed in the chair, his trousers’ leg already slit for the electrode.”
And picking up the copy of the New York paper containing the account, Griffith read former president Taft’s sentence of the criminal law, “The administration of criminal law in this country is a disgrace to civilization.”
The man who objected to the conventionally happy finale did it because he fancied himself just a bit more cultured than most, and believed that Art was only true in being disagreeable.
There are no great actors in “Intolerance,” none whom you will recognize ; though Sir Herbert Tree, I am told, in one scene played an extra man’s part, just to be in the picture.
De Wolf Hopper for the same purpose in another scene was one of the hundreds in a mob.
Tully Marshall donned the robes of a priest for one brief scene.
But of the players in general, few names will be recognized.
One of them is the woman who rock the cradle in that mournfully magnificent recurring interlude.
That is Miss Lillian Gish.
Nabonidus the King was done by an extra man.
Out of the sixty-odd thousand people who appear these are probably the ones who will be more or less known to the public.
Here, just as Herodotus and other historians describe them, are the rawhide towers of the attacking Persians, just before the assault upon Babylon. In the foreground, a net for falling wall-scalers; though it worked continuously and well, sixty men went to the hospital as a result of this encounter. Note the intrepid Ford, right at home in the domain so soon to be won by Kaiser Cyrus.
In the modern story:
- Mae Marsh as The Girl.
- Robert Harron as The Boy.
- Fred Turner as The Father.
- Sam de Grasse as Jenkins, the mill owner.
- Vera Lewis, Jenkins’ sister, who creates the “Foundation.”
- Walter Long, the Musketeer of the slums.
- Miriam Cooper. The Friendless Woman.
- Tom Wilson, The Kindly Heart.
- Ralph Lewis, The Governor.
- Lloyd Ingram, The Judge.
The French period:
- Frank Bennett, as Charles IX.
- Mrs. Crowell as Catherine de Medici
- Joseph Henaberry as Admiral Coligny.
- Margery Wilson as Brown Eyes.
- Spottiswoode Aitken as Her Father.
- A. D. Sears as The Mercenary.
- Eugene Pallette as La Tour.
- W. E. Lawrence as Henry of Navarre.
Babylonic period :
- Alfred Paget as Belshazsar.
- Seena Owen as Princess Atteraia.
- George Seigmann (Griffith’s chief director) as Cyrus.
- Constance Talmadge as The Mountain Girl.
- Elmer Clifton as The Rhapsode.
- E Lincoln as The Faithful Guard
- Howard Gaye as Christ
- Olga Gray as Mary Magdalene.
- Lillian Langdon as Mary.
- Bessie Love as The Bride.
- George Walsh as The Bridegroom
- William Brown as the Bride’s Father
If you have seen the picture when this appears, or when you do see it, those are about all the characters you will recognise as played by known people, if you are the most erudite “fan.” And you will see thousands on thousands of others, all apparently expert artists, all trained to the thousandth fraction of right “registering.” Griffith does not believe that an actor can make a producer a success, but he has proved that a producer can make an extra-man an actor.
Those fighting scenes of the picture were made by men trained to the same degree of ferocity that has made the killers in the Somme region turn the fields of France into human abattoirs. During the progress of the making of the picture they became known as “Griffith’s Man-Killers.”
The story is told that later Cecil de Mille of Lasky’s wanted some foot soldiers in a fight scene he had to make, and requisitioned the Man-Killers. They were to be entrenched, and a column of cavalry was to sweep down and annihilate them. They were carefully rehearsed and all went well until the camera was placed and the action began. Then the cavalry caracoled out and spurred their horses at them. Some fellow in the trench yelled “Here they come, fellers, now show the dash-blanks what Griffith’s Killers can do!”
They did ; all the rehearsal directions vanished, they couched their lances and unhorsed every trooper, and then ran them off the field,—and spoiled the scene.
I can well believe the story, for I was a witness of one of the assaults by Cyrus on the walls of Babylon. The barbarians swept over our spear-proof safety coign, and we had to dodge arrows and javelins while scudding for the clear.
George Seigmann, a man as big as two Huns, strove to subdue their onslaught as they were driving the Babylonians too swiftly for the camera, and meanwhile the Babylonians took advantage of the relief expedition by Seigmann and retreated within the city,
Did those barbarians care ?
Only so much as to fall on each others neck and crop until there was a riot of directors.
There were only sixty calls for the ambulance that day, but the injuries when examined at the studio hospital did not exceed those pleasing black eves, bent noses and gallant contusions, which are the croix de guerre of any well-designed scrap.
There was no fatality at all in the taking of the picture, though many times several thousands of warriors had to contend with life-like verity of death.
One man was killed when it was all over.
This by a sardonic freak of late was a steeplejack employed because of his surety of foot on heights. When a small set was being dismantled after the taking of the picture this juggler with altitude was employed as one of the wrecking crew of carpenters. He was at work on a scaffold eighteen feet from the ground when he made a misstep, fell, and never knew what had happened. For weeks before he had been stationed on the perilous points hundreds of feet high and had gayly coquetted with death from a station which would make a blue-water sailor dizzy.
I believe that of all the impressiveness of this picture the recurrent scene of Rocking The Cradle will be found most enduring in its elusive poetry of symbolism.
How this came to be created illustrates a Griffith trait.
Years ago when he was in a road company with Wilfred Lucas the two were walking one day when Lucas saw a woman rocking a cradle. He called the scene to Griffith’s attention and quoted the Walt Whitman lines:
” …. endlessly rocks the cradle,
“Uniter of Here and Hereafter.”
Who wrote that?” asked Griffith.
“That’s from Walt Whitman,” said Lucas, “you’ll find it somewhere in his ‘Leaves of Grass.'”
Griffith said nothing but darted away and found a book store, bought a copy of Whitman, and it happened as he opened the book the leaves parted at that very passage.
That was twelve or fifteen years ago.
But when the idea of “Intolerance” came to his mind (Griffith recalled those lines, imagined the picture of the eternal cradle, and there you have Walt Whitman’s thought photographed. This chronicler is far from being a hero worshiper ; I have been on much too intimate terms with far too many heroes to fondle any illusions about them ; they often wear patent Leather shoes with spats, and sometimes they bandoline their hair, and often they are careless about marriage vows and going to church, and paying debts, and occasionally I’ve met the best of them who can adroitly eat peas with his knife, and a lot of them wear wrist watches, and some use perfumery, but when a man can make a camera fasten to a negative film Walt Whitman’s intellect he is none of these types but a man hero, and I kow-tow to him as being no less a poet than Whitman himself.
Beyond argument the measure of achievement today is that of money.
How much did it cost? will be the prime question about this work of beauty.
I know exactly and I will tell you exactly.
This picture of ‘Intolerance” cost five times as much as “The Birth of a Nation.”
But what the latter cost no one but those who paid the cost know. The press agents concerned, claimed all manner of figures from $250,000 up to half a million. An estimate from a number of those expert in judging, places the expenditure for “The Birth of a Nation” close to $100,000, some going as high as $200,000, none going much below the first figure. This last picture has been two years in the actual making, and work on the preparatory stages was begun over three years ago ; considerably more than sixty thousand people were engaged at one time and another in the acting, and more in the various forms of effort outside of the acting.
I do happen to know authoritatively that much over 300.000 feet of film was used in the making and that this was cut in the “assembling” to the present limit of the picture of between 12.000 and 13,000 feet.
As for carefulness, it is a fact that the captions have been set and changed close to two thousand times.
As for Griffith himself, he has put his heart’s substance into the labor. I saw him the day before he left for New York ; he was brave, even gay mentally, jesting and debonair : but he was gaunt and excited though in thorough self command.
I asked him. “Now that your work is over what is your idea of your future? What is your next ambition?”
He looked frankly at me and said un-smilingly, ”My idea of life now is a tremendously large bed, in some place where no telephone, no messenger boy, no newspaper, no telegram, no voice, can reach me, and to sleep for a solid week, only waking very occasionally long enough to eat a good dinner, and then roll over and again sleep.”
“What will you do if ‘Intolerance’ fails?” I asked.
Blandly smiling, he said. “I’ll seek the Jersey coast and try to find one of those man-eating sharks.”
“And what if it wins?”
“I have told you before that this will be my last picture.
“That is as true as anything can be which the future holds.”
“The speaking stage, producing drama?”
“I have told you before that such was my desire ; if the picture succeeds it will not. It cannot, make the money that in fabulous fashion pictures are credited with making ; theatres cannot hold as much money as some newspapers say some pictures make.
“The matter of the money to be made is very like the fellow blowing the bassoon in the orchestra who was told to blow louder ; ‘That’s all very well.’ he replied, ‘but where is the wind to come from?’ ”
He says he intends to take up the stage next as a means of finding expression unhampered, but when asked what he would do, and how, he side-stepped.
“There will never be any combination of the speaking and the photo drama,” he added with a tang at satire, “not if audiences can help it.
“The stage is perfect now, to my mind, because it enables us to make moving pictures so much easier than it might.
“I’m sorry that Mansfield, that Daly, that Irving, are dead, but as a moving picture man I am glad, for the movies’ sake, that they are gone. If those men were now alive, we of the movies would have to work harder than we do, and I don’t know how that could be done, for I figure that now we work fourteen and fifteen hours a day, but if the stage were different we would have to work thirty-six hours in the twenty four ; so we are glad that competition with the stage is not fiercer than it is.”
“Don’t you regard the modern part of your picture as an attack on the courts, on judges?”
“I certainly do not, because it is not.
“That Stielow case in New York is exactly like the murder case in the story ; only reality goes the picture three better in the way of reprieves. Stielow and his family faced death-suffering four times, and three times the reprieve came at the very last minute.
“If I had shown scenes like that on the screen it would have made the public laugh as impossible, but the people should not laugh at the courts ; judges do not make the laws, you, I, everyone, are responsible for the laws.
“I have met several judges and have always found them very nice and often very wonderful men. Real gentlemen, in fact.
What has seemed peculiar to me about the law is that after so prolonged an experiment with the principles oi Christianity we still find as was found through all the ages that justice demands if a man kills another he in turn should be murdered.
“No, I am far from attacking the courts or judges, tor the only thing that has stood between the pictures and the censors and thereby prevented the pictures from utter extinction, has been the courts.”
Here are his reasons as dictated by himself, for making no more feature pictures:
“It appears that henceforth there will be no middle ground in the pictures ; there will be the ten, twenty and thirty cent pictures, and the big two dollar ones.
“The first classification does not attract me, and the second offers too many stupid, cruel, costly and apparently ineradicable offensives.
“Of necessity the stage must tell the truth more freely than any other method of expression. It is the only means existing today of even attempting to portray the truth.
“I do not mean the drama as it is known to Broadway, but the drama as it is known to dramatists.
“I have tried to tell the truth in my new picture.
“But I find that what we call the Movies are less free now than ever, and are more and more dependent on the censor, and on that account I feel inclined to stop.
“There are but a few means of conveying what we believe to be truth; the college is seriously handicapped, as too many of the universities are endowed by a few rich men whose brain power has been used only to acquire wealth ; these have little or no knowledge beyond their immediate needs ; they have never taken the time to gain knowledge of human nature in the little nor in the mass ; they have their own ideas of life and deride everything foreign to their own little circles ; they know little of the present and less of the past.
“There is very little doubt that most college professors’ opinions on morals, politics, and even of history, are very different in their private and their public capacities.
“Who can believe that a man dependent on a university will have an opinion for the public which is not more or less sicklied with the pale cast of thought about the men who put up the money for the institution?
“The world can hope for no boldness of verity from the colleges.
“The preacher of today is as always, swayed to some extent by the majority of the sect to which he belongs ; he can seldom speak as an individual, and of necessity he cannot launch what may seem a new truth that infringes on what was an old truth, and remain in his denomination.
“I wondered recently at the daring of a certain professor of Assyriology who said in a little-read magazine that the average normal being of today would find himself with more decent associates and in happier surroundings in Babylon, or ancient Egypt, than in any intervening period of the world’s history, up to the Eighteenth Century.
“The newspaper and magazine appeal to a certain clientele which they must please, and are forced to listen as a rule to the hydra-headed monster called Public Clamor, more than to her gentler sister, Public Opinion.
“But the producer of a feature picture depends on a much larger audience than any of these means ; he does not have to defer to what Mrs. Smith thinks, or what Mr. Jones believes, for he has a million Mrs. Smiths and a million of Mr. Jones, and he is far more certain to get a fair hearing, or he would be if it were not for the censor.
“Isn’t the folly of it all palpable? Because a new idea is expressed people are not forced to accept it. But certainly in this country there should be no objection to the discussion of all subjects.
“What kind of people, what sort of race, can continue to exist that is afraid of discussion?
“The politics of the world is founded on so much hypocrisy that everything is done, not for what is right, nor even against what is wrong, but for the effect on a majority of the people.
“That is why all Europe is slaughtering.
“That is why ‘Christian’ nations will murder Turks and crucify pagans and slay with zest ‘foreigners.’
“A ‘foreigner’ is always a man with a head so dense that he will not think as we think.
“The story for Truth as we see it has become barred from the pictures, so that anyone who has a real idea to express should not look to the moving picture as a means, but if he has enough money, to the stage.
“We of the moving picture craft admit our defeat ; it is impossible for us to take any big subject of interest without the fear of the autocrats above us taking away our property.
“I now contemplate turning to the stage in making an attempt to find freedom of expression.”
This ends what I have to tell about David W. Griffith.