Starring Miriam Cooper, Mae Marsh, Margery Wilson, Constance Talmadge, Robert Harron, Elmer Clifton, Tully Marshall, Lillian Gish.
The Dalenberg Library of Antique Popular Literature Sunday Film Series, Week #3:
Fresh from the success of The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith threw himself into the creation of Intolerance, which proved to be one of the most gargantuan epic undertakings of the silent era. The myth of Intolerance is that it was made as an answer to the racism of Griffith’s previous film, that it baffled audiences that didn’t understand it, that it flopped at the box audience, that it cost millions, and that D.W. Griffith spent the rest of his life paying off the debt. However, none of those pieces of the myth are actually true, the myth having been cobbled together from misleading financial information in major publications, and the fact that the film just didn’t hang around that long after its initial success, unlike The Birth of a Nation which went through re-releases and re-re-releases and polarized its audience like no film before or since. In modern times, however, Intolerance is regarded as one of the great achievements of the first decade of feature length films in the USA. It boasts a 97% score on rottentomatoes.com, which puts it among the top critical darlings of all time.
To put the myths to rest:
- Griffith never actually justified the racism of The Birth of a Nation. He kind of tried to make up for it with making the Chinese guy the hero of Broken Blossoms in 1919, but even that does not quite make amends today because Richard Barthelmess is a white dude trying to play a Chinese character as a broadly drawn racially stereotyped caricature. Griffith mentioned numerous times that Intolerance was partially a response to how victimized he felt by the unjust criticism of The Birth of a Nation, that in fact he, Griffith, was a victim of intolerance. None of that is a point worth arguing 100 years later—the film need to be evaluated on their own merits, not through the lens of what we assume to be the motivations of the director. Intolerance is much greater than this one aspect of the film. Suffice it to say that posterity will never forgive Griffith for his Victorian racism—but knowledge of his racism cannot detract from the fact that for about 5-10 years during the infancy of the cinema, definitely from 1912 to 1919, Griffith was the most important film-maker on the planet.
- The audiences of 1916 did understand the cinematic language of They had become accustomed to the intercutting between different plot-lines and settings that film innovators, like Griffith, had worked to establish over the previous decade. The film was not “baffling” to audiences, as some later commentators have suggested. Granted, Intolerance is an extreme example, with a plot stretching out over 2,500 years and over 4 separate story-lines. But it was not imponderable, not even in 1916. Still, movie critic and film historian Richard Schickel points out that the intercutting between stories does disengage the audience from emotion involvement with these characters, especially in the Modern story. It is this lack of emotion connectedness that may have somewhat sapped the energy of this film and helped to make it a critical darling, but not a film that was embraced as a beloved classic by the public.
- As for the production budget, Intolerance did not cost “millions.” According to Richard Schickel, there are very precise production cost records, and the price of the negative (before distribution and promotional costs) was $385, 906.77. In those days, it was not necessary to make 2-3 times the production costs to have a hit. To be sure, Intolerance was not a runaway hit, but it made about 1 million dollars, and that gave the investors a reasonable return on the investment.
- As for Griffith’s personal financial stake, Griffith did sink money into Intolerance, but he also made a lot of money in those days. He had more trouble with income taxes and the fact that his star faded (to where he was out of movies altogether after 1931) than he did with losses over this film.
Intolerance tells four inter-leafed stories: 1) the fall of the Babylonian Empire to Persia; 2) the Passion of the Christ; 3) The plight of the Protestant Hugenots as they fall victim to the Catholics in Paris during the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572; and 4) a modern tale about, among other things, a man wrongly accused of murder. The stories are linked by a Mother (played by Lillian Gish) rocking a cradle, depicting the passing generations, as if to say that we all start out as innocents, yet time after time humankind falls prey to the same prejudices and intolerances that recur in different guises across the ages.
This ambitious design yields a great, but far from perfect, film. Among others, great film thinkers like Sergei Eisenstein have point out the flaws. Griffith’s finest actress (Lillian Gish) is wasted rocking that cradle. The Babylonian sets get most of the film’s budget. But the Modern story is the sort of story that Griffith tells best, and yet it suffers from being all chopped up as the scene shifts constantly back to the other stories. All the while, Jesus and the Hugenots get short-changed by the emphasis on Babylon and the Modern era. Griffith is at his best when he is building up to the fever pitch of his inevitable final chase scenes, and while he was the master of inserting clever cuts and emotional close-ups, the intercutting between the four stories in this film saps the energy of each one of them.
But there was never a more sumptuous silent film than this. And it does sport some great performances, particularly in the actresses. My personal favorite is the Mountain Girl in the Babylonian story, played by Constance Talmadge. She is spunky and tomboy-beautiful, eating onions on the auction block at the marriage market, suiting up for battle as a man, going down fighting shot full of arrows. It is a performance that would not need to altered a bit if it were filmed today, 102 years later.
–Dale D. Dalenberg MD
Proprietor, The Dalenberg Library of Antique Popular Literature.