The Clamorous era, 1910-1920 “A Sun-Play of the Ages”
The Clamorous era, 1910-1920 “A Sun-Play of the Ages”
The Clamorous Era
1910 – 1920
By the Editors of TIME-LIFE BOOKS Alexandria, Virginia
“A Sun-Play of the Ages”
The Hollywood movie industry was seldom impressed by the extravagance of its members. But when D. W. Griffith, in 1915 the reigning dean of Hollywood directors, began to construct a huge and fanciful conglomeration of parapets and towers in a lot on Sunset Boulevard, the movie community was agog. Never before had such a monumental set been built, nor had so much expensive talent—a dozen top stars and 15,000 extras—been assembled. What did it mean? What was Griffith, the master, up to now?
The answer came the following year, when a three-hour, $1,900,000 extravaganza called Intolerance opened at New York City’s Liberty Theatre. The acclaim of critics was overwhelming. “Intolerance is so colossal, gorgeous and stunning to the mind that words fail,” wrote the New York Tribune, and the New York Evening Post called it “the highest achievement which the camera has recorded.”
But the general public was not so sure. For Intolerance, enigmatically subtitled “A Sun-Play of the Ages,” was so complex that almost nobody was able to understand it. Its main theme seemed to be an attack on hypocrisy and persecution, worked out in a succession of historical episodes that ranged in setting from ancient Babylonia to modern America. But as the scenes flicked on and off the screen in a weird hodgepodge of flashbacks and crosscutting, the result was massive befuddlement. One observer wrote in Photoplay Magazine, “The universally-heard comment from the highbrow or nobrow who has tried to get it all in an evening: ‘I am so tired.’ ”
At the box office, the world’s first film extravaganza turned out to be a colossal flop. Receipts never came close to balancing the film’s gigantic cost, and in 1921 the company that Griffith had formed to produce Intolerance was declared bankrupt.
Financial failure did not really bother Griffith. He had been broke before and had managed to pull himself out. The descendant of impoverished Old South aristocrats, he had wandered in and out of professions like a hobo through a train yard, stopping briefly to write plays and poetry, to sell magazine subscriptions and to act in a traveling theatrical company. In 1908 he turned to motion pictures more in sorrow than in hope, joining Biograph simply to earn money. He was so ashamed of being associated with the ignoble occupation of movie-making that he signed his first contract under an assumed name.
For all his embarrassment, Griffith brought the touch of genius to film-making. During five years at Biograph, grinding out one-reel shorts at the rate of two a week, Griffith codified the vocabulary of modern film technique. He perfected such basic devices as the close-up, the long shot, the fade-out and the fade-in. He used his camera like a hawk pursuing a rabbit, zooming in at odd angles to focus on an actor’s face, intensifying the emotional impact of a scene with a glimpse of an angry glance, a quivering lip or a falling tear. At times he would plunge parts of the screen into complete darkness, spotlighting only a single important detail, such as a murder weapon or a touching vignette of a mother and child. “The task I’m trying to achieve is above all to make you see,” he said.
As Griffith’s reputation grew, so did his ambition. In 1914 he decided to form his own film company, the Epoch Producing Corporation, in order to create the immensely successful film that led him to Intolerance. The prototype of the Hollywood blockbuster, this wasthe epic, The Birth of a Nation, that Griffith unabashedly proclaimed was to be the greatest motion picture ever made.
In many ways, it was. The Birth of a Nation was also one of the most controversial. A three-hour saga on the Civil War, it traced the devastation of the South and the humiliating aftermath of Reconstruction. Audiences whose grandfathers had fought at Gettysburg and Shiloh watched the horrors of the conflict re-created on the screen. They also watched as Griffith, whose father had been a Confederate colonel, showed with implicit approval and delight the lynching of blacks and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
An aroused public stormed movie theaters, both to see the film, which by the end of the decade grossed an estimated $10 million, and to protest its racist themes. Riots broke out in cities throughout the North, black demonstrators marched on the Boston State House and prominent black and white leaders demanded that the film be suppressed. President Charles Eliot of Harvard, who apparently felt that an actual viewing of the film was not really necessary, announced, “I have not seen this play, but I want to say that it presents an extraordinary misrepresentation of the birth of this nation.”
Griffith was hurt by the furor he had caused. He answered his attackers with a bitter pamphlet on his right to free speech and demanded “the liberty to show the dark side of wrong that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue.”
But Griffith’s major defense of himself and his art was his next big movie, which was, of course, Intolerance. And though it left him broke and led to both confusion in the audience and some outlandishly sentimental scenes on the screen, Intolerance was indeed Griffith’s artistic masterpiece. A whole generation of Hollywood directors would try to equal the film in spectacle and extravagance. Its battery of technical achievements was plagiarized and imitated by directors from Rome to Moscow, and in 1919 a copy of the film itself was officially purchased by the Soviet government as a pictorial textbook in movie art.
Gish and Davis: Could the Two Work Together? – By Mike Kaplan (The New York Times – 1993) FILM; Gish and Davis: Could the Two Work Together? By Mike Kaplan The New York Times – April 18, 1993 When “The Whales of August” was filmed in 1986, the story of the relationship between two elderly sisters brought together two of the screen’s most enduring stars, Lillian Gish and Bette Davis. Miss Gish, who died Feb. 27 at the age of 99, will be remembered on Thursday at the Museum of Modern Art with a program called “In Memoriam.” It will include “The Whales of August,” her final film, directed by Lindsay Anderson, as well as her first, D. W. Griffith’s “Unseen Enemy” (1912). Here, Mike Kaplan, who co-produced “The Whales of August,” reflects on the interaction of its two stars. Bette Davis and Lillian Gish – The Whales of August, 1987 In the tributes to Lillian Gish that followed her death, references to her final starring role in “The Whales of August” were always glowing. B
The Movie Magazines and Lillian Gish … The moving Picture World 1914 detail The moving Picture World 1914 The moving Picture World 1914 detail Moving Picture World, November 21, 1914 Her Awakening – Lillian Gish The Angel of Contention Poster The moving Picture World – Mutual Program – A Question of Courage names wrong Lillian Gish And Dorothy The moving Picture World – Mutual Program – The Sisters The Birth of a Nation (David W. Griffith Corp., 1915). Herald2 Sold for Marriage Triangle Plays Program 1916 lillian_gish_photoplay_1917 08 ID Photo Back to Lillian Gish Home page Photoplay, August, 1918 – Dorothy and Lillian Gish in their dressing room Lillian Gish Photoplay August 1918 Lillian Gish Photoplay February 1919 Lillian Gish Photoplay, July, 1919 Back to Lillian Gish Home page Lillian Gish Photoplay October 1920 Orphans of The Storm Prog Herald 1921 Lillian Gish 1921 – The Girl Back Home Motion Picture Classic Magazine (Brewster, 1921) The Lily Maid from Ohio Ph
When Mamaroneck Upstaged Hollywood – By Bruce Berman (The New York Times – June 19, 1977) When Mamaroneck Upstaged Hollywood By Bruce Berman The New York Times – June 19, 1977 BACK in the early 1920’s when Mamaroneck was a center of movie‐making, Joseph Rigano was an employee of D.W. Grif fith’s studio at Orienta. “I was atone mason and mechanic,” the energetic 80year‐old said as we toured on foot Edgewater Point, at the top of the Orienta Peninsula. Griffith Studios, Orienta Point, Mamaroneck NY 1921 “After the studio was finally built, Mr. Griffith asked me to stay on as a set builder. Stone fireplaces were my specialty, but I worked on everything from Gothic walls to painted desert backdrops. The actors were almost always friendly, and I was getting $55 a week and drove a $1,200 Buick. What more could a young man desire?” DW Griffith filming team – Mamaroneck NY – Way Down East In those days the area was less the “East Coast Hollywood” than Hollywood was “the West Co