Fresh from the stunning commercial and critical triumph of his controversial film, The Birth of a Nation, director D.W. Griffith released an even more ambitious epic, Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages. Yet the new movie, though less ideologically problematic than its predecessor and hailed by film professionals for adding to the tools of cinema, was not as successful on the bottom line.
It is important to state here that, contrary to decades of conventional wisdom, Intolerance was not a flop. True, it cost $2 million in 1916 currency—not only 20 times the amount spent on Birth of a Nation, but reputedly the most expensive film to that time.
But in its initial run, it actually made a modest profit, a fact demonstrated in Richard Schickel’s definitive biography of Griffith. It wasn’t until the film was exhibited on the road, away from larger cities with state-of-the-art theaters, that the costs became prohibitive. It didn’t help that Griffith insisted that these theaters in the hinterlands be modeled with a special decoration and that a live orchestra play the score of the movie.
One has to ask why Griffith embarked on such a massive undertaking. The immediate impetus was an Italian film called Cabiria, so visually stunning that Griffith couldn’t get it out of his mind. The second factor was Birth of a Nation. As I discussed in a prior post, several elements of that blockbuster--its benign view of the Ku Klux Klan, its horror of miscegenation, and its depiction of an attempted rape of a white woman by a black man—were racially incendiary. Griffith may not have wanted to apologize or atone for the film, but he did want to show he was a social observer of good intentions.
The success of Birth of a Nation gave him a freer hand than he had previously. While he was with Biograph studios, he was continually second-guessed. In the wake of his blockbuster, he no longer had this oversight at Triangle Film Corp. When he ran into financing problems on Intolerance, he dipped into his own reserves from Birth of a Nation—and when even that wasn’t enough, he convinced actresses Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish to invest in the film.
He would need every dollar that they and he could scratch together. In contemplating the success of Birth of a Nation, he looked at the property he had in hand—a melodrama called The Mother and the Law—and realized how modest it seemed by comparison. For someone like Griffith, who felt that film did not yet approach the theater as an art—but that it should—The Mother and the Law must have seemed positively anti-climactic following Birth of a Nation.
So, instead of simply telling one story of injustice and persecution, he would tell four: not just about an Irish-Catholic youth framed for murder amid labor strife in California, but about a French Huguenot couple at the time of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre; the clash of Jesus with the Pharisees, followed by his betrayal and crucifixion; and the fall of ancient Babylon to King Cyrus the Persian.
These narratives are centuries, even millennia, apart, with no characters in common—yet Griffith hoped that audiences would see their similarities, through visual leitmotifs (e.g., the image of Gish with a baby, with an “intertitle” from Walt Whitman, “Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking”).
The most prominent of the quartet of stories, the Babylon sequence, posed the greatest challenges and required the most extraordinary ingenuity. In much the same way that Alfred Hitchcock began North by Northwest with a single image in mind (a man hanging from Abraham Lincoln’s nose from Mount Rushmore), Griffith was seized, after returning from a tour of San Quentin, by an astonishing sight: the “Tower of Jewels” overlooking the Pan-Pacific Exposition ground in San Francisco. Its Oriental-style grandeur was just the look he was striving for with his Babylon sequence, so he hired three craftsmen who worked on the tower.
Just how improvisational Griffith’s style and genius were can be seen by what followed next:
*Lacking a formal art director on the film set, Griffith had another film professional figure out how to build the Babylonian tower from pictures he provided: either boss carpenter Frank Wortman or, as one surviving crew member remembered it, the English theatrical designer Walter L. Hall.
*Griffith didn’t merely want a static tower for the Babylon story, but one that could be shot through camera movements. A balloon was tried, but proved unsuccessful. The eventual solution: an elevator built inside the tower, coupled with trucks with cast-iron wheels that allowed the tower to move forward. The stunning set offered a blueprint of how filmmakers could surmount daunting technical challenges, particularly for epics set in ancient times.
*In an article on the film in the September 12, 2016 issue of National Review, film critic Armond White pointed to “innovative cinematic techniques” that Griffith devised with his photographers Billy Bitzer and Karl Brown: “tinting scenes in varied colors for moods…and giving images extra height and panoramic breadth to accentuate dramatic moments.”
*No script existed to inform the film’s artists, craftsmen, or actors what the whole thing was about. (It didn’t help that the same title was used for all four sequences: The Mother and the Law. It was like the boxer George Foreman giving all his kids the first name George.) So Griffith simply kept shooting. His first rough cut was eight hours long, more than double what exhibitors warned that audiences could endure. He had to find a way to trim it. Even scenarist Anita Loos (who later wrote the novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) thought the whole thing “awful” and “completely bewildering,” she told film historian Kevin Brownlow five decades later. The four stories fused as one in the editing room, when Griffith employed cross-cutting not just between contemporaneous actions, as in Birth of a Nation, but in the new film’s astonishing conclusion, when all four stories rushed to their collective climax.
After Intolerance, Griffith continued to make films for another 15 years, but never with as much ambition or creative freedom. Studio accountants hounded him every time a project seemed about to run behind schedule or exceed costs.
Such a colossal production required a number of assistant directors, and Griffith employed a bench that would go on to make some of the most celebrated movies of the late silent and early talkie era, including W.S. Van Dyke (the “Thin Man” franchise), Joseph Henabery (Cobra), and Sidney Franklin (The Barretts of Wimpole Street, The Good Earth).
Griffith was a huge contradiction in terms. It was not simply because, as Orson Welles noted in this YouTube clip introducing Intolerance on public television in the 1970s, Griffith created just about every cinema technique used for the following decades, in service to a vision of life that was old-fashioned even in 1916.
No, it was because the director appealed both to the most reactionary elements of American society (Birth of a Nation became a virtual recruiting tool for the Ku Klux Klan) and to its most progressive (Intolerance championed unionism and pacifism while capital punishment at a time when these were not generally acceptable positions).
This is not to say that Intolerance always displayed enlightened attitudes. The most technologically daring filmmaker of his age could never surmount a paternalistic, Victorian attitude toward women, for instance. (One of the film’s “intertitles" can’t help but make modern audiences guffaw: “When women cease to attract men, they often turn to reform as a second option.")
Intolerance not only influenced straight dramas, but also comedies: It was parodied in Buster Keaton’s first feature-length film, Three Ages (1923), which in turn inspired Mel Brooks’ bawdy History of the World, Part 1.
Griffith wanted Intolerance to be his monument. Instead, it became his movie memorial.