So. Do I have your attention?
If I do, then good. Very good. 1
Now, we go back through the ages — from 2011 and 2015 to a film a century and 2 years old — but the image up top still got your attention, didn’t it? Even now, it’s arrestingly modern: A woman’s face, silently anguished, but strong in the face of all around her. In the film, she’s known as “The Friendless One”;2; in life, she was known as the actress Miriam Cooper.3 The film, of course, is David Wark (D. W.) Griffith’s Intolerance.4 Even within the enormous scope of this picture, and the many amazing (truly amazing) setpieces contained herein, it is the human moments, often the simplest of things, which strike even the modern viewer the most.
You’re noticing already that I’m taking a slightly different tack from my predecessors in this column, but what I’m trying to do is inspire debate. Maybe something I say you might disagree with, or agree with but want to expound upon, and all that is perfectly acceptable. I just want to get a discussion going.
But first, I should regale you with some facts:
- Intolerance began its long, long production life as a short featured called “The Mother and the Law”, made in late autumn 1914-winter 1915, and consisted solely of a version of the current film’s “Modern Story”, minus the strike scenes, the ball/dance scenes, and the “Uplifters” plotline. It was not intended as a grand operatic sweeping epic of any kind, but merely a human melodrama of the type Griffith had been making before his previous feature, which was at that point awaiting release.
- However, upon the release, of that film,5 and after the stateside release of the Italian epic Cabiria,6 Griffith felt he needed to one-up both that film and himself, and so first broadly plotted out three new, incredibly-expensive stories for the film, then started to broaden the scope of the Modern Story over the summer of 1915.
- Even after he’d moved on to the far more expensive French, Judean, and Babylonian sections (in that order exactly7), Griffith still found himself unsatisfied, time and again, with aspects of his already-shot Modern Story, and so continually brought back the cast for more reshoots and more added scenes,8 running up so many costs even before the film’s absurdly expensive roadshow exhibition that it’s no wonder Griffith found himself put deep in the red after Intolerance‘s release.
- As such, Griffith, in order to recoup his losses on Intolerance, further tinkered with it more times during and after its release than George Lucas with a certain trio of science-fiction films — going so far as to take the most critically-successful of the four segments, the Modern and Babylonian Tales, and turning each into its own film — a new, expanded version of The Mother and the Law, and The Fall of Babylon (now with a happy ending!).
- He then, when overseas prints of the original Intolerance ran out, had to reconstruct a new version of Intolerance for those further overseas exhibitors from the separate features and what he could get for the French and Judean scenes (further reducing them in length).
- Finally, in the late 1920s, Griffith was allowed access to various prints of Intolerance archived by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and took these prints and harmonized them together to his satisfaction, creating his final, post-release version of the film.9
Even so, in spite of all the historical detours… it’s still an amazingly coherent film, crossing back and forth between the plotlines with more frequency as all build up to a climax… for a film made over such a long period of time, with no modern editing equipment and very little of the traditional continuity-keeping that has become so necessary to movies today, it’s practically seamless.
Now, I could probably keep you here all day discussing the merits of silent film as a medium, or of whether Griffith should be revered or ignored in this day and age10, but this film, Intolerance, is both a landmark as cinema history and as a grand and messy tale of overarching historical plotlines, and, even though there’s probably way too much to take in for such a shallow dive as this, it’s still important, and damn, I’m going to try to cover it as best I can within these humble lines.
What I Liked
As much as he demonizes older women (especially Miss Jenkins and her French counterpart, Catherine de Medici), it’s Griffith’s heroines in this film that really make it. Shorn of the racial hatred that motivated her character’s suicide in Griffith’s previous film, Mae Marsh’s performance her as “the Dear One” is such a marvel of acting craft that it should be taught today as how to express even the most delicate emotions without words.11 And her romance with “the Boy”, as it unspools through gardens and cities and soda fountains (the last I was particularly tickled by!), is one of the joys of watching this film, and of watching the Modern Story.12
Sadly, Margery Wilson as “Brown Eyes” gets much less to do (due to her segment being one of the worst-affected in editing), but even there there is such a sweetness and tenderness and courtliness that it’s even more painful when the massacre of the Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day finally occurs.13
What I Loved
Constance Talmadge. Oh, Constance Talmadge. As the “Mountain Girl”, you were a wonderfully effervescent font of warrior’s derring-do and independence — it’s no wonder Griffith liked her so much he gave her two roles in the film.14 The way she gets into the action during the siege of Babylon, you could almost imagine her in the place of a modern-day action heroine — Wonder Woman, except she loves to fight in battles! It’s therefore a shame when she (like every protagonist in the four stories save the Modern one) dies during the film’s climax.15
And, of course, who could forget Babylon — as ahistorical a depiction as it was, tell me you didn’t picture elephants on columns in Babylon after seeing this film. It’s impossible not to. I tried to find an image of that shot from the window of the palace looking down on the courtyard, just because I loved it so much, and was amazed at how they might’ve done it then, without mattes and hanging miniatures, but I couldn’t — so, here’s a rather beautiful production design sketch, instead:
What I love even more about it (and you’ll forgive my phrasing, here, I hope) was how convincing it was from the angles we saw it at — this is what it looked like from the side:
Movie magic, truly.
What Could Have Been Better
It kind of pains me to dig into historical detail again, but… as taken as I was with this film, I kept getting pulled out of it whenever I would see an actor or collaborator of Griffith’s whom I knew was a truly awful person or whose prior part I could not get out of my mind.
For instance, Eugene Pallette in the French Story, as Prosper Latour. As pleasant a character as Latour was, and as respected a character actor16 as Pallette became later in life… he was also a vicious racist. I’d go into more detail, but his Wikipedia article tells the story better than I ever could. I’ll wait.
And, as positively flawless (and yet boring) a performance as Howard Gaye gives as “the Nazarene” (and, damn, is the Crucifixion something to behold, here), I couldn’t get out of my mind that Griffith had cast Gaye in his previous film… as Robert E. Lee. The implications, there, of Griffith casting the same man as both Lee and Jesus… one doesn’t want to dwell on that long.17
And, due to the constrained (by comparison with the other two segments) editing of the Judean and French stories, we don’t really get to know the situation there as well as we do in the Modern and Babylonian ones. We pretty much know “Brown Eyes” and “the Nazarene”, and that’s it. As impressive as their respective cityscapes are there (and they are), we don’t really get to know most of the people within them as well as in the more-fleshed out segments. I would’ve liked to’ve seen them given a bit more room to breath, but… I suppose a film can only be so long.18
But even so, and putting aside the foibles and the wobbly parts (and the people who make them so), this is still a relevant film. Still a monumental one. And, fortunately, for our purposes, it’s in the public domain, on YouTube, so you can watch it for free in great quality, even if you might’ve never seen it before in your life.19
So, to discussion. And… here’s to Intolerance: 102 years young, and still a masterpiece.
As an addendum, if anyone else wants to add films to our calendar for us to watch, the sign-up sheet is right here. If you feel you want to do more than one film, take more than one slot — whatever’s open, and whichever Sunday dates you feel most comfortable doing, go right to ’em.
Next week’s Film Club discussion is on this year’s Oscar-nominated Mudbound, hosted by The Thin White Duke, Sunday March 18th, again at 3 PM ET.