Babylon Is Fallen, Is Fallen
The Museum of Modern Art showed D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance after recent presentations of DJ Spooky and his Rebirth of a Nation and of The Birth of a Nation. Since its very première some have dismissed the 178-minute Intolerance as pretension, a two-and-a-half-million-1916-dollar folly that bankrupted its maker and his Triangle Corporation partners Thomas H. Ince and Max Sennett, while others saw it as the Kentuckian’s riposte to the firestorm ignited by BN. And, following Lenin’s order for importation, the film impressed young Soviet stars like Eisenstein and Pudovkin.
Mixing overheads, close-ups, medium-, long- and trolley-shots, rapid non-contemporaneous shifts, color tinting, title notes on history and film facts, gore shocking for the day, 15,000 extras and a giant price tag -- the Babylonian party alone ran twice the entire BN budget -- the spectacle would influence generations but proved box-office disappointment.
Financial failure came in part because audiences were put off, not by the spelled-out pseudo-philosophizing or melodramatics of plot and acting, but by the puzzling swinging back-and-forth among four separate though supposedly thematically related actions and epochs.
Among the eight mostly uncredited hats Griffith wore for the production was that of writer (along with Walt Whitman!). “Intolerance martyred Joan of Arc,” he fumed at detractors and, from the recent killing of nineteen mill workers by their employer’s militia, set out to exemplify that claim within his idiosyncratic vision of history. What connection the four sections have with the title, much less one another or with the implied causes of World War I, is hard to fathom. Original subtitle “A Drama of Comparisons” became “A Sun-Play of the Ages” for New York, then the more accurate “Love’s Struggle Through the Ages” in the 1933 revival and, in variant prints, “A Drama in Two Acts and a Prologue.”
The director/producer/script and title writer/editor/production, costume and makeup designer likened the structure to currents which rush faster, and join, as they near “one mighty river of emotion in the last act.” Time and again separated by bluish Lillian Gish as Eternal Mother rocking a cradle -- the Whitman connection of “death, death, death, death, death”? -- the four are disparate in length and effectiveness.
The shortest is the perfunctory episode in Judea, the brief ministry of Jesus (Howard Gaye) and the Crucifixion, notable for a rare screen portrayal of phylacteries and prayer shawls on the Pharisees. Although love-and-marriage is far from a unifying factor, the Cana of Galilee water-into-wedding-wine is among the scant miracles chosen, and all the stories mention at least a promised marriage.
The second thread, longer but still minor key, occurs in August 1572, where the St. Bartholomew’s Day banns of Protestant Brown Eyes (Margery Wilson) and Prosper Latour (Eugene Latour) are obliterated in massacre when Catherine de’ Medici (hammily malevolent Josephine Crowell) manipulates weak King Charles IX (Frank Bennett) into the slaughter of Paris Huguenots, with the lecherous Mercenary (Allan Sears) among the killers.
The two currents with pride of place, both concluding with suspenseful rides against death, are the most ancient and the newest. At much greater length, and therefore developing characters and empathy for them, the sixth century BC siege and sack of Babylon and the Modern Story (at first “The Mother and the Law”), are now ninety years old and, particularly the former, do not embarrass themselves and, indeed, were almost at once released as independent features.
Not so much concerned with labor unrest and capitalist oppression as with the injustices suffered by the unemployed forced into urban tenements (also pictured in the ancient world), the contemporary story lashes out, rather, at the Pharisee-linked do-gooders, the Uplifters who stamp out pleasures as vice. Flush with the Jenkins siblings’ (San De Grasse and Vera Lewis) donations, these women occasion the heartiest of inadvertent guffaws, the title piety that, failing to land a man, old maids “turn to Reform as a result.”
Its plot redone in later movies, this nod to social conscience turns on the Dear One (a simpery Mae Marsh), her reformed hood husband, the Boy (Robert Harron), and their newborn, enmeshed in a struggle among puritans, over-hasty forces of law, a Musketeer or slum gangster (Walter Long) and his homicidally jealous fallen woman (Miriam Cooper as the Friendless One).
This take on virtue menaced by Malvolios, crooks and misguided officials, is flawed by stagey acting and not a patch on the ancient world episode, which amazes even today in its two attack scenes flanking the sumptuous Banquet Hall festivities and in the sensual languor of the Temple of Love and Laughter.
Too feisty for prospective buyers at the marriage market, Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge, who, like some, acts in another episode, too) becomes instant devotee of Prince Belshazzar (Alfred Paget), who frees her to marry or not. Doting on the Beloved Princess Attarea (Seena Owen) for whom he plans to build a city and whose worship of Ishtar brings about the treachery of the High Priest of Bel (Tully Marshall), Belshazzar defends his city against Persian Cyrus (George Siegmann).
In actual fact, it was Darius the Median who overcame and slew this last Babylonian ruler, the son of Nebuchadnezzar who saw Daniel’s Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin on the wall. History and Griffith’s theory of it aside, the spectacle is grand, as Mountain Girl flirts the conspiracy password out of an effeminate lovelorn Rhapsode (Elmer Clifton) and gallops back to her archer’s battlement on the city’s three-hundred-foot-high wall.
A brace of white doves trailing a miniature chariot connects this heroine with her Prince, though nothing ties the disparate film stories into an Altman-esque mosaic movie. Seventy-one years later Charles Dance played Griffin in the international homage, significantly titled Good Morning Babylon/Good Morning Babylonia, involving the making of Intolerance. Even eerily viewed without MoMA’s traditional live musical accompaniment, Griffith’s “Babylonian Story” foreshadows what film could be -- spectacle reinforcing eternal themes of love and death -- and, at its best, would be. An intolerable final union of Earth and Heaven aside, it and The Birth of a Nation were confirmation that films were evolving from novelty to art form.