Intolerance (1916)

Intolerance (1916) movie poster

director D.W. Griffith
viewed: 10/05/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

My first ever film class in 1986 was really quite a fine class.  We watched a number of great films, great standard film school type films, a truly good primer on cinema studies.

It was in this film class that I learned about D.W. Griffith and saw his 1916 epic Intolerance for the first time.  My teacher has alluded to The Birth of a Nation (1915), Griffith’s troublingly racist masterpiece and landmark in world cinema, but deferred from showing it.  He did later show us Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935), so he wasn’t merely eluding controversy or problematic films of significance.

Since, I have really come around to Griffith and the Silent Era of film.  I recall being very struck by Broken Blossoms (1919) in a graduate film class and have come to really have enjoyed his Sally of the Sawdust (1925) as well.  I also finally saw The Birth of a Nation.  But I hadn’t actually had a chance to see Intolerance again all these years.

So when a new print was showing at the Castro, I stepped out of an over-warm afternoon into the cooler confines on San Francisco’s best cinema to reconnect with a film I hadn’t seen in nearly 30 years.

When you’ve made a commercially successful film based on a racist story of the rise of the KKK as the protection of American values, you come under a lot of flak.  Griffith sought to meet his critics in this massive epic about religious, racist, societal intolerance, trying to show that he was not such a bad guy after all.  He focuses on four narratives, one about the fall of ancient Babylon, one the crucifixion of Christ, another about a slaughter of Protestants in Renaissance France, and a contemporary tale of would-be do-gooder Christians who are intolerant of booze, dancing, and poverty.

Notably, he doesn’t at all address more glaring racial issues.  And it’s the Jewish Pharisees that are the ones intolerant of Christ and his teachings of love.

So as far as redressing his wrongs, it’s highfalutin’ hogwash.

But as epic cinema it is something unparalleled.

The sets of the Babylonian palace are so massive that they are hard to fully fathom.  Thousands of extras populate these massive sets, dwarfed by statuary and the incredible detail therein to evoke this ancient time.

It’s little wonder that the film focuses so much on the Babylonian story.  You put that much into a set, you better spend more than a quarter of your film on it.

But the film originated with the contemporary story, expanded into the bigger visions, but still lingering on the two tales that had more going from the plot angle, the oldest and the most modern.

But as what Griffith had perfected in his early short films, his build up to a climax, including racing vehicles: trains, chariots, horses, battles, cross-cutting back and forth to drive up the drama.  This is where the film succeeds the best.

It’s an enormous film, enormously long, enormously built, cast, and enormously ambitious.  Also enormously Christian in its core and morality.  Didactic beyond a fault.  But for all of the things one could cast as aspersions in its way, its monumentality and ambition still prove it out as one of the most significant films of its time by one of the most important innovators in cinema of all time.  It’s flaws, as in Griffith’s flaws, are all part of the portrait, impossible to deny, are aspects that must be appreciated, absorbed, taken as part of its already voluminous whole and kept utterly in mind.

Sally of the Sawdust (1925)

Sally of the Sawdust (1925) movie poster

director D.W. Griffith
viewed: 05/25/2012

A couple of years back, I watched D.W. Griffith’s 1925 film Sally of the Sawdust by myself and enjoyed it immensely.  It was one of those films that I wanted to share with others, thought of many who would like it.  It was something I wanted to see again, a movie I wanted to watch with the kids.  So that’s what we did.

Considered one of Griffith’s minor films, much less considered, say that  The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919) and others, it features his less heralded leading lady, Carole Dempster (as opposed to Lillian Gish).  It’s not an epic, and while it certainly features aspects of melodrama, it’s a comedic tale of class and character and features a classic sort of car chase cross-cutting ending far more amusing than dramatic.

The story of Sally, who is orphaned young and left in the care of Professor Eustace McGargle (a young and very funny W.C. Fields), who raises her among the circus, friend of elephants and acrobats, a feisty tomboy who loves her “Pop”, not knowing her real parents.  Her real mother had been disowned by her dour father, the Judge, who hated “show people”.  Clara kept saying that he was a “terrible judge” for hating circus people prejudicially.  Too true.

When McGargle tries to bring Sally back to her “people”, he finds the judge no better for his years, only richer.  But Sally’s grandmother takes a shine to her and her wacky dancing.  And the “boy next door” also falls for her.

Dempster plays Sally as quite a character.  She’s very physical, embodied in extremity in her dance performances, which are anomalous and quirky as heck.  Her oddball charm is quite something.  She and W.C. Fields are a lot of fun together.

I’ll admit, the film has more charm perhaps than greatness, but I find it very enjoyable.  Clara and Felix both enjoyed it too.  It’s one of very few silent films that we’ve watched together that was not a classic slapstick style comedy.  It’s still a personal favorite of mine, but I’m now feeling more and more like seeing more of Griffith’s films.

Lady of the Pavements

Lady of the Pavements (1929) movie poster

(1929) dir. D.W. Griffith
viewed: 07/12/09 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The final of three features that I caught at the Silent Film Festival this time around, D.W. Griffith’s Lady of the Pavements turned out to be a much more interesting experience as part of the festival than it could have been merely on its own.  While Griffith is well-known as a father of cinematic techniques and a vastly influential early filmmaker, I came to realize that I don’t even know that much about his career arc.  Lady of the Pavements was Griffith’s first sound film of sorts, despite having tangled with sound in a much earlier film, this film was made in the transitional year of 1929, and the back-story provided by the Festival, made for a pretty rich contextualization.  Apparently, the film was shot mostly as a silent, and then, musical numbers were added, shots re-shot, and process of recording on was records actually exemplified the problems of a burgeoning tecnhology.

Additionally, Griffith and his style had fallen out of favor, and this film, unlike his major works, was one in which he was pretty much a “hired gun” of sorts, with much of the script and casting and so forth in place.  And the film itself, suffering from mixed reviews and a commercial failure, lost its soundtrack along the way.  The soundtrack was not just some fluff, but featured a theme by Irving Berlin and some other notable pieces.  For the festival, along with the piano accompaniment, a singer was brought in, to sing some of the sequences for which the music could be identified, and that experience elevated the film in many ways, not to its original state, but perhaps even better still.  What would Griffith have thought?  Who knows?

The film is a romantic comedy in which a Prussian nobleman dismisses his French noblewoman bride-to-be when he discovers her to have other lovers.  He tells her that he would rather marry a “woman of the streets” than her.  So, in her conniving, the lady sends one of her men out to find a “lady of the pavement” to disguise her as a “lady”, have him fall for her, and therefore fulfill his statement, shaming him.  The man doesn’t find a true “woman of the streets”, but rather a cabaret singer, played with great verve by Lupe Vélez.  It’s one of those stories that you can pretty much map out without having to see the rest of the film, knowing that they’ll fall in love, he’ll discover the trickery and be upset, but in the end will come to take her away.   And it does all happen that way essentially, but yet…it’s still very successful.

Vélez is terrific, fiery and energetic, almost too much character for silence.  Actually, the whole film almost “feels” more like a sound picture.  I’m not sure why I think that, but it may just be the character of the cinematography.  Vélez apparently stole the show back in the film’s initial release, reaching her brief height in fame rather close to this point.  And she is definitely the best part of the cast, though Jetta Goudal, the villainess is a top-notch ice queen in contrast.

While this film is certainly not one of Griffith’s masterpieces, it has amazing charm, enhanced no doubt by the performance of the musical score at the festival.  It is remarkable that even challenged by a pretty stereotypical narrative trope, played out against evolving cinematic technology and the marginalization of one of cinema’s original masters, that 80 years later, this film charms as it does.

Kudos to Vélez and Griffith.  And kudos to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival!


Sally of the Sawdust


Sally of the Sawdust (1925) movie poster

(1925) dir. D.W. Griffith
viewed: 12/19/08

Of my foray into silent film, I have only watched just one D.W. Griffith film, his notorious epic The Birth of a Nation (1915).  As for Sally of the Sawdust, it’s not among his better-known films, in fact, it still lacks its own Wikipedia page (for what that tells you).  I guess I liked the name.

While nothing as reaching as The Birth of a Nation or Intolerance (1916), Sally of the Sawdust is a more sort of popular tale of the times.  When Sally’s mother falls in love with a circus performer, her father disowns her.  Five years later, Sally is orphaned, left in the care of Professor Eustance McGargle, the fantastic W.C. Fields, manager of the circus, character extroirdinaire, who is not above running the classic “shell game”, which he amusingly refers to as not gambling, but an old army game of skill.

McGargle raises Sally among the sawdust, the acrobats, the elephants, lions, and other ilk, a tomboyish gal who loves the man she calls her “pop”.  Sally is played by Carol Dempster, who I thought was quite hilarious as Sally, imbuing her with spunk and whimsy, frisky and gangly, with a great physical humor, whether dancing, climbing walls, or just gesticulating with an extended finger.  She’s a great character, one who I can imagine many a friend loving and enjoying her feisty goodness.

When the circus peters out, McGargle and Sally ride the rails back to Connecticut, where McGargle intends to see what Sally’s true family is like.  McGargle has informed them of their daughter’s death, but not of Sally’s birth or existence.

Sally’s grandfather, the austere judge, still loaths “show people” and even when hosting a fair to raise money for homeless orphans, disdains those who he sees as worse than vagrants.  Well, the story turns on some typical comic melodrama, and while the story doesn’t particularly sound all that inventive, the film is actually quite a lark.  Fields and Dempster are a lot of fun, good-hearted and dedicated to one another, they make for a lot of entertainment.

I actually really enjoyed this film.  I don’t know why it’s not more well-known, frankly.  It’s a heck of a fun ride.

The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation (1915) movie poster

(1915) dir. D.W. Griffith
viewed: 02/16/08

The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s magnum opus, one of the most significant films in American film history, not merely controversial, even today, almost 100 years after its creation, is no simple film to approach.  The fact is that I’d never seen it until last night.  I’d seen Intolerance (1916) in my first film class, long, long ago, and had learned about Griffith and The Birth of a Nation at the time.  In my graduate studies in cinema, I saw Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) which floored me with its beauty.  It’s a stunning, stunning film.  It’s taken me a long time to get to his first feature film, his most controversial and influential.

The Birth of a Nation tells the story of the American Civil War and the Antebellum South from a tradtional Southern perspective, one which Griffith portrays as simple and good, before the Civil War destroyed it.  And most controversially, he portrays the birth of the Ku Klux Klan as a savior of the South, protector of morals, and righter of wrongs.  It also takes a particularly skewed and irresponsible interpretation of history, portraying great sympathy for oppressionists and terrorists and snide and grotesque racism toward African Americans and most critically and brutally on mixed race characters, mulattos.

Though there are a number of actual African Americans in the film, filling out the crowd scenes and occasionally taking the frame, many of the significant roles of African Americans are played in blackface, presumably for some specific reasons…I haven’t read up enough to fully comment on this.

Flatly, the second half of the film, the Reconstruction, is the more reprehensible of the two parts of the film.  The lead up to the Civil War and the War itself are depicted in a less problematic tone.  The content of the film, the praising of the Klan, is more than problematic: it’s offensive.  It’s revisionist history and completely irresponsible.  The truth of the Reconstruction is a dark and ugly period in American history, with most of the South completely destroyed.

It’s too much for me to comment on fully, so I won’t go into my understanding of the true history other than to say, that the view of Griffith and The Birth of a Nation is not merely a “perspective”, but a naive and misleading interpretation of history.

But the film’s notoriety is not simply its inherently problematic content, but it’s mastery and innovation in cinematic narrative.  Before this film, cinematic narratives were nowhere as complex and involved.  Griffith invented so much of what became American cinematic narrative, techniques of intercutting, using such complex narrative devices…it’s almost invisible to a modern eye to understand how much he developed and innovated right here in this film.

And it’s not merely techniques, tools, mechanical features, but his storytelling is epic and masterful.  The battle sequences are tremendously effective and grand.  His use of compound images, the burning of Atlanta hovering above the streaming evacuees, is dramatic and artistic.  His vision and ability to construct a film of great passion and drama is immense.  And one of the reasons that in my first film class we ended up seeing Intolerance is probably because you don’t confront the problematic content and can appreciate the artistry.

To praise The Birth of a Nation or to criticize it alone lacks the breadth of complexity at work in the film.  Not simply Griffith’s morals, racism, revisionism.  Not simply Griffith’s contributions to the language of cinema and the poetry of his storytelling.  It’s the complexity of American history, the complexity of a nation filled with brilliant people, horrifically ignorant people, and the broad range of intermingling of those aspects of humanity.  It’s not a simple thing.  The film is perhaps one of the greatest snapshots of the American experience.  Not what it depicts as realism, but of the vision and belief, true or false, of a particular artist, truly American, if only one of a multitude of beliefs.  It does not validate his beliefs to understand what this film says or what it tries to say.  It is, in essence, a very revealing understanding, one that would be best served in the context of understanding the history of the American Civil War and its aftermath, and the history of American cinema.

In fact, seen in the proper context, I would think, like reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, perhaps seeing The Birth of a Nation should be mandatory viewing for all Americans.  Not for the truth it tries to portray, but the truths that are revealed in its interpretation of events, the interpretation itself.