A Great Folly, and a Small One
by Pauline Kael
“She is madonna in an art as wild and young as her sweet eyes,” Vachel Lindsay wrote of Mae Marsh, who died on Tuesday of last week. She is the heroine of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, which came out in 1916 and which will soon have its annual showing at the Museum of Modem Art. Intolerance is one of the two or three most influential movies ever made, and I think it is also the greatest. Yet many of those who are interested in movies have never seen it. The Birth of a Nation, which Griffith brought out in 1915 (with Mae Marsh as the little sister who throws herself off a cliff through “the opal gates of death”), still draws audiences, because of its scandalous success. But those who see it projected at the wrong speed, so that it becomes a “flick,” and in mutilated form — cut and in black-and-white or faded color — are not likely to develop enough interest in Griffith’s art to go to see his other films. Intolerance was a commercial failure in 1916, and it has never had much popular reputation. After the reactions to The Birth of a Nation, Griffith was so shocked that people could think he was anti-Negro that he decided to expand some material he had been working on and make it an attack on bigotry throughout the ages. Intolerance was intended to be virtuous and uplifting. It turned out to be a great, desperate, innovative, ruinous film — perhaps the classic example of what later came to be known as cinéma maudit. Griffith had already, in the over four hundred movies he had made — from the one-reelers on up to The Birth of a Nation — founded the art of screen narrative; now he wanted to try something more than simply telling the story of bigotry in historical sequence. He had developed crosscutting in his earlier films, using discontinuity as Dickens did in his novels. In Intolerance, he attempted to tell four stories taking place in different historical periods, crosscutting back and forth to ancient Babylon, sixteenth-century France, the modern American slums, and Calvary. He was living in an era of experiments with time in the other arts, and although he worked in a popular medium, the old dramatic concepts of time and unity seemed too limiting; in his own way he attempted what Pound and Eliot, Proust and Virginia Woolf and Joyce were also attempting, and what he did in movies may have influenced literary form as much as they did. He certainly influenced them. The events of Intolerance were, he said, set forth “as they might flash across a mind seeking to parallel the life of the different ages.” It doesn’t work. Intolerance almost becomes a film symphony, but four stories intercut and rushing toward simultaneous climaxes is, at a basic level, too naïve a conception to be anything more than four melodramas told at once. The titles of Intolerance state the theme more than the action shows it, and the four parallel stories were probably just too much and too bewildering for audiences. Also, the idealistic attack on hypocrisy, cruelty, and persecution may have seemed uncomfortably pacifistic in 1916.
No simple framework could contain the richness of what Griffith tried to do in this movie. He tried to force his stories together, and pushed them into ridiculous patterns to illustrate his theme. But his excitement — his madness — binds together what his arbitrarily imposed theme does not. Intolerance is like an enormous, extravagantly printed collection of fairy tales. The book is too thick to handle, too richly imaginative to take in, yet a child who loves stories will know that this is the treasure of treasures. The movie is the greatest extravaganza and the greatest folly in movie history, an epic celebration of the potentialities of the new medium — lyrical, passionate, and grandiose. No one will ever again be able to make last-minute rescues so suspenseful, so beautiful, or so absurd. In movies, a masterpiece is of course a folly. Intolerance is charged with visionary excitement about the power of movies to combine music, dance, narrative, drama, painting, and photography — to do alone what all the other arts together had done. And to do what they had failed to. Griffith’s dream was not only to reach the vast audience but to express it, to make of the young movie art a true democratic art.
Griffith’s movies are great not because he developed the whole range of film techniques — the editing, the moving camera, the closeup, the flexible use of the frame so that it becomes a pinpoint of light or a CinemaScope shape at will — but because he invented or pioneered those techniques out of an expressive need for them. When Griffith is at his best, you are hardly aware of how short the shots are, how brilliantly they are edited, how varied the camera angles are. Reaching for color, he not only had the prints of his movies dyed in different hues selected to convey the mood of the sequences but had crews of girls adding extra color by hand, frame by frame. Still dissatisfied, he had the projectionists throw beams of red or blue light to intensify the effects. Reaching for sound, he had scores specially prepared and orchestras playing in the pit. In Intolerance, he overstretched. There is hardly anything that has been attempted in movies since (except for sound effects, of course) that was not tried in Intolerance. The Birth of a Nation, the longest American film up to that date, was rehearsed for six weeks, shot in nine weeks, and edited in three months; it cost a hundred thousand dollars — a record-breaking budget in those days. Intolerance cost several times as much. The huge statue-cluttered Babylonian set, which is the most famous of all movie sets, is big in the way DeMille’s sets were to be big later on — a picture-postcard set — and neither the camera nor any of the players seems to know what to do with it. The steps on this set undoubtedly inspired Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence, but the action that Griffith staged on them looks mechanical and confused. The movie had got too big, and even Griffith was crushed by the weight of it. Yet the enormous project released his imagination, and there are incomparable images — for example, the death of the young mountain girl, with the toy chariot drawn by doves at her feet — and miraculously successful sequences: the prison scenes, later imitated in the Warner Brothers social-protest films of the thirties, and almost reproduced in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang; the strike scenes, which influenced the Russians; the great night-fighting scenes, originally in red, which are imitated in practically every spectacle.
One can trace almost every major tradition and most of the genres, and even many of the metaphors, in movies to their sources in Griffith. The Ku Klux Klan riders of The Birth of a Nation became the knights of Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky; the battle scenes, derived from Mathew Brady, influenced almost all subsequent war films, and especially Gone with the Wind. A history of Russian movies could be based on the ice breaking up in Griffith’s Way Down East, taking that ice through Pudovkin’s epic Mother up to Chukhrai’s Clear Skies, where the thaw after Stalin’s death is represented literally by the breaking up of ice. One can also trace the acting styles. Mae Marsh returned to us via the young Garbo and other Scandinavian actresses, and Lillian Gish returned to us via Brigitte Helm of Metropolis, Dorothea Wieck of Mädchen in Uniform, and most of the European actresses of the twenties. Griffith’s stylized lyric tragedy Broken Blossoms (which will also be shown at the Museum of Modern Art), though smaller in scope than The Birth or Intolerance, is, I think, the third of a trio of great works. It is the source of much of the poignancy of Fellini’s La Strada. Donald Crisp’s brutal prizefighter became Anthony Quinn’s Zampano, and Lillian Gish’s childish waif must have strongly influenced the conception of Giulietta Masina’s role as well as her performance.
Griffith used Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh contrastingly. In his films, Lillian Gish is a frail, floating heroine from romantic novels and poems — a maiden. She is the least coarse of American screen actresses; her grace is pure and fluid and lilylike. She is idealized femininity, and her purity can seem rather neurotic and frightening. Mae Marsh is less ethereal, somehow less actressy, more solid and “normal,” and yet, in her own way, as exquisite and intuitive. She is our dream not of heavenly beauty, like Gish, but of earthly beauty, and sunlight makes her youth more entrancing. She looks as if she could be a happy, sensual, ordinary woman. The tragedies that befall her are accidents that could happen to any of us, for she has never wanted more than common pleasures. There is a passage in Intolerance in which Mae Marsh, as a young mother who has had her baby taken away from her, grows so distraught that she becomes a voyeur, peeping in at windows to simper and smile at other people’s babies. It’s horrible to watch, because she has always seemed such a sane sort of girl. When Lillian Gish, trapped in the closet in Broken Blossoms, spins around in terror, we feel terror for all helpless, delicate beauty, but when Mae Marsh is buffeted by fate every ordinary person is in danger. Mae Marsh died at seventy-two, but the girl who twists her hands in the courtroom scene of Intolerance is the image of youth-in-trouble forever.
It took Griffith years to pay off the disaster of Intolerance, and though he later made box-office successes, like Way Down East, he wasn’t financially strong enough to keep his independence. By 1925, he was forced to go to work for Paramount as a contract director, which meant doing the scripts they handed him, and doing them their way. By the thirties, he had sunk even further; he was called in to fix films that other directors had messed up, and he didn’t receive screen credits anymore. There was so much emphasis in Hollywood on the newest product that it was feared his name would make people think a picture old-fashioned. Eventually, alcoholic and embittered, he could get no work at all. Until his death, in 1948, Griffith lived in a hotel room in near obscurity in the Hollywood he had created — which was filled with famous directors he had trained and famous stars he had discovered. They could not really help him. Motion pictures had become too big a business for sentiment, or for art.
New Yorker, February 24, 1968