November 24, 2009  |  An Auteurist History of Film
D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance
<i>Intolerance.</i> 1916. USA. Directed by D. W. Griffith. Acquired from the artist. Preserved with funding from the Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Fund

Intolerance. 1916. USA. Directed by D. W. Griffith. Acquired from the artist. Preserved with funding from the Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Fund

These notes accompany the screening of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance on November 25 in Theater 2 and November 27 in Theater 3.

The humdrum life of a film archivist can occasionally be ameliorated by privileged moments. One of these was related to Intolerance (1916). Joseph Henabery (1888–1976) played Abraham Lincoln in The Birth of a Nation and had a small part in the French story of Intolerance. In 1916, under D. W. Griffith’s tutelage, he began a career as a director. Unlike some Griffith protégés (John Ford, Erich von Stroheim, Raoul Walsh), he never rose above the status of journeyman, although he did get to work with Douglas Fairbanks, Dorothy Gish, and Rudolph Valentino; he wound up making training films for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Due to happy accident, Henabery’s real legacy lay elsewhere. When Griffith set out to recreate Babylon for Intolerance, he took a leaf from the book of Giovanni Pastrone, director of Cabiria (1914), doing serious research to ensure the authenticity of his recreation. Henabery was assigned to gather together photos and drawings of Babylonian buildings and art and compile them in a scrapbook for Griffith’s use. When Griffith’s papers were acquired by the museum by Iris Barry, the scrapbook was included. Henabery visited the Museum shortly before his death, and my colleagues and I had the pleasure of looking through his work of nearly sixty years earlier with him. The Babylonian set and the introductory crane shot that Griffith and cinematographer “Billy” Bitzer devised remain stunning. The movies had offered nothing like it before, and seldom had since.

Critic Stuart Klawans designated Intolerance as exhibit A of what he termed “film follies” (in his book of the same name), movies that went beyond acceptable limits, either for their producers or their intended audience. Intolerance, indeed, was a box office disaster, a fate attributed to its fugue-like structure, which interweaves four stories together—stories that seem unrelated except in Griffith’s fuzzy intellect. Even its unprecedented spectacle seems to work against the spectator’s ability to take it all in. It was surely ahead of its time. Yet, without it, we might never have had the great films of the Soviet montage directors, or Citizen Kane, with its violations of temporal unity. Or, for that matter, Cecil B. DeMille, the Fairbanks spectacles of the 1920s, Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, or the films of David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, or James Cameron.

To recoup some of his losses, Griffith broke Intolerance down into The Fall of Babylon, and the modern story became The Mother and the Law. This latter film, released in 1919, stands on its own as one of the director’s major achievements, largely through the exquisitely poignant performance of Mae Marsh (1895–1968). Her greatness in The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, and in Griffith’s 1923 The White Rose cannot be overly praised. (She remained active in small parts throughout her lifetime, and she can be found gracefully stealing scenes in several late Ford films.)

Griffith insisted that Intolerance was a direct response to progressives’ hostility toward The Birth of a Nation. He issued a pamphlet, “The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America,” arguing that the motion picture was entitled to the same protections against censorship as the printed page. While this issue remains unresolved to the current day, it takes a stretch to sympathize with Griffith’s plea for tolerance for a work so fundamentally intolerant and libelous as The Birth of a Nation. Even allowing for his artistic genius having overridden any semblance of intellectual rigor, one finds his pleas about as effectual as Leni Riefenstahl’s insistence that she was a neutral observer in making Triumph of the Will.

Although he would soon concentrate mostly on smaller films, Griffith was not through with spectacle. Hearts of the World (1918) and Orphans of the Storm (1921) are two of his best works. The latter, his take on the French Revolution, filmed at his briefly owned Mamaroneck studio, is in many ways his most satisfactory balance between sweeping epic and emotionally gratifying human drama (mostly thanks to the Gish sisters). America (1924) was something of a disappointment, to be redeemed by his first talkie, Abraham Lincoln (1930).

A quick reminder of the terrific conference taking place at Yale, December 3–5, “After the Great War: European Film in 1919.”