Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: Early Cinema’s Grandest Spectacle

By Justin DeFreitas
Tuesday December 30, 2008 - 09:23:00 PM

Though he is often credited with more than he contributed, D.W. Griffith is undoubtedly the first of the great cinematic artists. He did not create the tools of the trade, nor invent its techniques, but he imbued them with meaning, gave significance and weight to them, and thus established the grammar of motion pictures. 

He did not invent the close-up, but he was the first to exploit its dramatic and emotional potential; he did not invent cross-cutting between different lines of action, but he further developed the technique and used it to devastating effect. In short, he took the technological novelty of the moving picture and transformed it into an art form; he elevated what was considered the lowliest of entertainments into the most powerful artistic medium of the 20th century. 

Griffith, after honing his skills with hundreds of one- and two-reel films for the Biograph company, electrified the world with The Birth of a Nation (1915), and followed it with what is still one of the most grandiose cinematic undertakings of all time, Intolerance (1916). This three-hour epic, told in four interwoven but separate episodes, gets a rare theatrical screening at the Castro Theater at 2 p.m. Saturday as part of the San Francisco Silent Festival’s annual winter program, along with a series of early Vitaphone sound films of vaudeville acts, and Flesh and the Devil (1926), the first pairing of silent-era superstars Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. Scores for the two feature films will be provided by Wurlitzer maestro Dennis James, one of the foremost practitioners of silent film accompaniment. 

Griffith sustained his grasp on motion picture dominance with a few more large-scale classics: Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921), and a string of smaller, more intimate tales such as the often overlooked True Heart Susie (1919). But though he led the charge, his brigades soon overtook him. His influence waned as his innovations unleashed a tide of experimentation and artistry that quickly subsumed him, leaving his work appearing quaint and outdated long before his productivity subsided. 

In the 1920s, this still young medium was just beginning to reach its peak. The ‘20s would become the first Golden Age of the movies before silent pictures were abruptly killed off by the advent of synchronized sound technology. Cinema was getting more and more sophisticated. The camera was beginning to move with increasing grace and fluidity; editing was fast becoming an art form unto itself; acting styles were growing more restrained and naturalistic; and the avant-garde was rapidly expanding the boundaries of the medium. 

Griffith, meanwhile, was a product of the Reconstruction-era South. His attitudes and world view had been shaped by the myths and legends of the Confederacy. In Griffith’s films, the ante-bellum South is the apotheosis of civilization, women are saintly madonna figures or conniving vamps, and African Americans are wayward children at best, devilish defilers of white womanhood at worst. His most effective work pits pastoral elegance against the dark tide of “progress”: bucolic village life threatened by the moral degradation of the city; old social orders undermined by the rise of an underclass. He may never have filmed a woman tied to the railroad tracks, but that sort of melodrama was his forte: the virtuous damsel in distress, rescued at the last minute from the heaving iron monster of industrial progress. 

It’s no wonder then that this artist of 19th century values should quickly find himself lost amid the moral ambiguity, metropolitan glamor and sexual liberation of Jazz Age America. For how could Griffith's pastoral romances compete with the bold gothic horror of Nosferatu? With the stonefaced absurdity of the universe of Buster Keaton? With the mechanized terror of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis? This was a brave new world of motion picture artistry so confident in its talent and so optimistic about its future that it simply hadn’t the time or inclination to honor its past. And Griffith had quickly come to represent the past.  

But for a few bright years, Griffith was not just at the center of the industry, he was the industry. And his artistic powers and immense popularity granted him the clout to dictate his own terms, to abandon the sure-fire box-office draw of the short-form melodrama and embark on grandiose projects with commensurate budgets.  

While racking up unprecedented box office receipts, The Birth of a Nation elicited storms of protests for its racist portrayal of African Americans. Griffith, stung by these criticisms, decided to fight back by decrying the cruelty of calls for censorship of his film. As Richard Schickel states in D.W. Griffith: An American Life, “Griffith never once...saw any reason to recant anything he had said in Birth... . No, far from being an apology, a direct and bold assault on his critics and their ‘intolerance’ of his right to say what he wanted to say.”  

The film originated even before Birth of a Nation, as a simpler film called The Mother and the Law. But after the phenomenal success of Birth, Griffith knew he couldn’t return to small-scale filmmaking, that he had to uphold his reputation for spectacle. After seeing Cabiria, a feature-length Italian film with huge sets and dynamic camerawork, Griffith began to expand his tale, adding other episodes. And while visiting San Francisco to research prison conditions at the city jail and at San Quentin for his film’s modern story line, Griffith found inspiration for the Babylonian sequence in the architectural wonders of the San Francisco Exhibition of 1915. He had not only found a project to combat his critics, he had discovered a way to compete with the Italian epics. He hired the San Francisco workers to construct monumental sets on a size and scale previously unseen in the village of Hollywood.  

It is these sets from the Babylonian sequence that would provide the film with its iconic image. Griffith and cameraman G.W. Bitzer mounted the camera on an elevator that dollied forth along tracks, the platform lowering as it pushed forward, producing a slow, sweeping zoom that captures the vastness of the set while gracefully pulling in tighter on the spectacle and human drama contained within. 

Yet what he was up to was still a mystery to his colleagues. There was no script; it was all in his head. The project was growing ever larger as he worked. The final film contains four episodes: the death of Christ; the fall of Babylon; the massacre of the Huguenots, and a contemporary drama that questions the morality of the death penalty. The four stories are told concurrently, melding together in the end for a dizzying 30-minute sequence in which Griffith crosscuts rapidly between them. And it is here that the Southern gentleman brings his passion for melodrama together with the cutting-edge sensibilities of the avant-garde in the creation of his boldest achievement. 



Showing at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Castro Theater as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s winter program. Vitaphone sound shorts (1926-1930) screen at 11 a.m. Flesh and the Devil (1926) screens at 8 p.m. 429 Castro Street, San Francisco. (415) 621-6120. 


Image: The signature shot of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, in which the camera slowly angles down and toward the vast Babylonian set.