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Intolerance (1916).

February 23, 2007

The Scoop:
It’s been a non-stop B-movie cheesefest here the past couple weeks, so let’s take a break from that and get back to the classics.

One of the landmarks of cinema, and D.W. Griffith’s second masterpiece, “Intolerance” was made in response to the public outcry over the rampant racism in his previous film, “The Birth of a Nation.” In this film, Griffith’s artistic ambition tackles the huge subject of religious and social intolerance throughout history, with interwoven stories set in four different eras — ancient Babylon (in which in an innocent girl gets caught up in a rivalry that destroys the civilization), biblical Jerusalem (featuring scenes from the life of Jesus Christ), 15th century France (in which a young couple’s love is torn apart by the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre) and modern America (in which a young couple’s love is tested by turn-of-the-century labor unrest).

The American and Babylonian stories take center stage in lavish style — Griffith’s work here pretty much created the term “a cast of thousands.” At the time, and for many years afterwards, it was the longest (at anywhere from 160 to 200 minutes, depending on which print you see) and most expensive (with a budget of nearly $400,000) movie ever made. It was also a hit with the critics and stands up today much better than “The Birth of a Nation.” Griffith’s ornate visual style relied on intertitles much less than his contemporaries, and many of the Babylon sequences have a sensuality (even some surreptitious nudity) that would not seem out of place in the music videos of today.

Among the wild extravagances of the production was the full-size palace set for the Babylonian segments. It was constructed in the middle of Hollywood and remained standing for several years afterward. The distinctive set design has been incorporated into the design of the Kodak Theatre, the permanent home of the Academy Awards.

The less cinema-savvy viewers at that time, though, had a much harder time with Griffith’s groundbreaking style. The four tales are intercut at a deliberate pace that accelerates to the parallel chase scenes at the end. To an audience just getting used to basic linear storytelling, this was a real eye-opener. It was spoofed and parodied in a number of places, most notably by Buster Keaton in “The Three Ages” (1923).

Best (and Most Wildly Inappropriate) Intertitle:
“When women cease to attract men, they often turn to reform as a second option.” (Ouch!)

Side Note:
Griffith’s cowriters were a pair of newcomers to moviemaking — Tod Browning, best known for going on to direct a series of moody horror films, including “Dracula” (1931) and “Freaks” (1932); and Anita Loos, who was one of the pioneering women in Hollywood and whose later writing credits include “The Women” (1939) and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953).

Companion Viewing:
“The Birth of a Nation” (1915) and “The Ten Commandments” (1923).


Take a Look:
For a sample, here’s a fan edit (with new music and sound effects) of the seige of Babylon:

Or, if you’ve got an afternoon to kill, you can see the entire film at MovieFlix.

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