Posted by Susan Doll on May 21, 2012
I am still “reeling” from attending last month’s TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. As a film historian, I have been reflecting on the relationship between the past and present—not only the connections between classic and contemporary films but also the lingering echoes of the film industry’s mythic, glamorous past amongst today’s crass, noisy Hollywood. As I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard the first evening, I felt that nothing was left of that enchanted Hollywood of the past that exists mostly in my imagination! The traffic was worse than rush hour in Chicago, festival attendees crowded the shops and restaurants, and, tourists with children clogged the sidewalks to take photos of their little darlings posing with “actors” costumed as movie characters and superheroes. It’s next to impossible to race past a group of people dressed like Transformers.
When I looked more closely, however, I did find Old Hollywood: It was integrated, intertwined, and infused with the present day, right under everyone’s noses. Uncovering it reinforced my belief that—for better or worse—the past is always part of the present, whether people see it or not. It also made the noise, clamor, and tackiness of modern-day Hollywood more tolerable. My thoughts have inspired a two-part post on the ghosts of old Hollywood that still linger among the noise and tourism. Today and next week, I will offer a few observations on this notion in addition to a little history and a bit of reflection.
Many of the films in the TCM fest were shown at the Chinese 6 Theatres, a cineplex inside the Hollywood & Highland Center, a vertical shopping mall that also includes the Kodak Theater. In the courtyard of the three-story mall, or rather above the courtyard, are an archway and two pillars with standing-elephant sculptures inspired by the Babylonian sequence of D.W. Griffith’s landmark film Intolerance. The gateway and pillars replicate part of the courtyard set of Belshazzar’s court, which is one of the most memorable set designs in film history.
As soon as I saw the elephants, I was reminded of Griffith’s three-and-a-half-hour epic, which I first saw in film school. I remembered the film as an exhausting viewing experience, not because of the length but because of the demands on my focus and attention. The film simultaneously tells four stories taking place in different historical periods: the Modern Story of 1914; the Judean Story of 27 AD; the French Story of 1572; and the Babylonian Story of 539 BC. Griffith intercut between the stories based on thematic connections, which is different than cross-cutting between events within one story based on plot connections. Cross cutting to suggest that two or more related events are occurring at the same time is a technique unique to filmmaking, but it is one that does not disrupt unity, order, flow, or coherence—which are traditional goals for dramatic storytelling. Intercutting thematically between four separate and complex narratives disrupts the dramatic flow and unity of one story to continue another. It requires viewers to make intellectual or thematic connections between the two stories, which is a more difficult viewing experience than being entertained by one smooth, coherent storyline designed for the pleasures of entertainment. For example, in the famous chase sequence, in which Griffith intercuts between three of the stories, the brevity of the shots and scenes creates an increasingly schizophrenic narrative: The Mountain Girl in the Babylon story in a racing chariot seems to pursue a locomotive in the modern story, itself en route to sixteenth-century France, where the protagonist runs after an automobile carrying the modern story’s Dear One in seeming pursuit of Cyrus’s army in ancient Babylon. In that sequence, the separate storylines become almost indistinguishable. And, that is the point of the film: All of the stories are tales of social or religious persecution, equal in their cruelty and intolerance. In Griffith’s view, intolerance is the same in any historical era.
Griffith was obsessed with the way human lives are inextricably bound up in the larger forces of culture and history, and Intolerance is an epic example of this key theme. He would never surpass this film’s balance of the intimate with the epic on such a broad scale. But, that is not why Intolerance is such an achievement. In 1915, cinema was barely 25 years old, and Hollywood was not yet a filmmaking capital, but Griffith was already pushing the boundaries of an art form in which he had been an innovator. His experimentation with traditional storytelling devices such as narrative structure, the coherent depiction of time, and dramatic continuity were modernist in approach, much like other artists in other arenas were experimenting with traditional forms and techniques in the early 20th century.
Unfortunately, Intolerance was more or less rejected by audiences, while reviewers at the time were not equipped to discuss it in any kind of artistic or historical context. Audiences found it difficult to get a handle on the four stories, especially in sequences like the one mentioned above. Griffith’s thematic approach to the cutting stressed the formal dynamics of film at the expense of emotional response, and making an emotional connection has always been the appeal of narrative filmmaking for American audiences. Griffith was asking a lot of his audience with Intolerance.
Over the decades, Intolerance has become clouded in myth and legend, which is befitting a film with such historic and artistic significance. Much of the mythmaking surrounds the scale of the sets and the extent of the film’s failure. Writers have exaggerated the staying power of the film’s massive sets, often collapsing and confusing information about all of the sets and locations into a discussion of the massive set of Belshazzar’s court with those famous elephant sculptures on pillars. And, many sources, including text books I have used for my classes, erroneously state that the cost of Intolerance was $1.9 million and that Griffith spent the rest of his life trying to make back the money he lost on the film. The source for the exaggerated budget was a 1916 Scientific American article about the making of the movie, which used the studio’s publicity as its source.
The publicists exaggerated in order to make Intolerance seem like such a spectacular film that, of course, it would cost in the millions. In truth, the cost was $385,906, according to Griffith biographer Richard Schickel. And, the film made back its investment on its initial release, though just barely. It was the road show, in which Griffith, the cast, and members of the crew accompanied the film to key cities for special event showings, that went into debt and helped hasten the demise of the distributor, the Triangle Film Corp. Still, the budget was three times that of The Birth of a Nation and represented a staggering amount for the time. Griffith’s personal losses have also been blown out of proportion. He invested $126,750 into the film and then loaned the production another $139,000, which was indeed a financial setback. However, this did not put him in debt for the rest of his life.
Not all of the film was shot on sets; some of it was shot on location. In the modern story, which is a pro-labor tale of ruthless employers and naïve reformers, the scene of a police raid on a house of prostitution and the fight between strikers and National Guardsmen were shot in the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods of Los Angeles—an eye-opening experiences for cast and crew. When a Mexican mother with limited English carried her severely handicapped daughter on a hand-made stretcher to watch the movie-makers, Griffith took most of the silver dollars out of the “bribe bag” (used to pay for unforeseen errands, favors, etc.) and outlined the girl’s tiny, prone body with coins—a melodramatic gesture typical of Griffith but no less sincere.
The Babylon sets get the most attention in history books and Griffith bios, but they consisted of more than the setting for Belshazzar’s court. The scene involving the march of the Persian army toward Babylonia was shot near San Pedro along the seacoast. The well-paid, well-fed extras who played the soldiers were costumed and made up at the Fine Arts Studio on Sunset Boulevard in the morning, then took streetcars to the location, where they were rounded up for the shoot. What a sight it must have been to ride a streetcar crowded with Persian soldiers.
Griffith, set designer Walter Hall, and actor Joseph Henabery, who had played Lincoln in The Birth of a Nation, did extensive research for the Babylonian sets during the summer and fall of 1915. Though Henabery was a stickler for authenticity, historical accuracy was not Griffith’s main agenda. He knew that audiences had an image in their collective mind’s eye of what Babylonia should look like based on popular illustrations, plays, and paintings, and he knew it was wise to meet those expectations. Henabery compiled a scrapbook of images and details from books, journals, and magazines, and he or Griffith toted around the eight-pound scrapbook as the sets were being constructed.
The first massive set was the ramparts of Babylon (aka the Wall of Babylon), which consisted of a massive wall with ramps. The ramparts were erected near Hollywood and Sunset, not far from the Fine Arts Studio. They were anywhere from 100 to 150-feet high, depending on the source. Griffith’s legendary cinematographer Billy Bitzer pegged them at 150 feet, though feats of cinematic derring-do are often exaggerated in memory. The ramparts were wide enough to hold the chariot chase with the Mountain Girl. Though stout, the ramparts swayed in the Santa Ana winds. Hausers (heavy ropes used to moor ships) were tied along the tops of the ramparts and secured to railroad ties buried in the sand—all out of camera range, of course. Still, the ramparts shook with the weight of the horses and the chariots, making every living creature atop the structure nervous. Griffith, Bitzer, and the camera assistants supervised the shooting from a tower above the ramparts, which was even shakier. After the first take, Griffith wanted the animals and chariots to race faster. The wranglers settled down the horses, the actors sucked in their breath, Griffith and Bitzer remained in their tower, and the entire cast and crew restaged the chariot chase as the ramparts shimmied and swayed. This time, he was satisfied.
According to Schickel, the Wall of Babylon set was struck to make way for Belshazzar’s court, though a gateway that may have been part of this set still stood long after production. Hall and Griffith, who often looked at art for inspiration, based the court set on 19th century history paintings in the academic style, rather than on historical accounts. The pair was particularly inspired by John Martin’s Belshazzar’s Feast but also drawn to Fall of Babylon by Georges Rochegrosse and Babylonian Marriage Market by Edwin Long. The length of the court from entrance to back wall was about 300 feet, which some sources have confused with the height of the elephant pillars. According to publicity, the new elephant pillars at the Hollywood & Highland Center are the same size and scale as the Intolerance elephant pillars. The recreated pillars are 70 feet tall, and the elephants are 33 feet tall. This is a far cry from 300 feet, but the mall’s recreated Assyrian Gate and elephant pillars are still as jaw dropping as the originals must have been.
Arguably more impressive than the height of the pillars is the tracking shot that introduces audiences to Belshazzar’s court, especially considering that camera cranes had not yet been invented. Griffith’s camera assistant Allan Dwan used his engineering background to devise a rig to accomplish this shot, which began as an extreme long shot at the edge of the set and then tilted down and tracked forward toward dancers inside the courtyard. Dwan affixed a camera onto an open-platform elevator that was attached to a flatcar mounted on tracks that led into the set. The elevator was lowered till it reached eye level and then the flatcar was pushed forward on the tracks toward the dancers in the courtyard.
After the film was completed, the set remained intact for some time. Just how long Belshazzar’s court stood is another detail in dispute. The speculation ranges from many years to one year. By reliable accounts, sections of the massive set were officially dismantled in the fall of 1917. Actually, “looted” may be a better word, as various decorative walls, statuary, and props made their way into the backlots of other studios. The elephant pillars remained for a while, deteriorating in the sun and natural elements.
The story behind the making of Intolerance embodies that combination of myth and fact that defines Hollywood history. Perhaps even the most careful scholar enjoys the idea that the remnants of Griffith’s Babylon set—like a specter of the director himself—hung over Hollywood far longer than it actually did, and so they embrace myth rather than ferret out fact. I know I was comforted by the sight of the huge elephants standing tall over Hollywood’s most famous strip—a remnant of and testament to the city’s glorious past.
Drew, William M. Intolerance: Its Genesis and Its Vision. McFarland and Co. Inc, 1994.
Koszarski, Richard. An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of Silent Feature Picture (1915-1928). University of California Press, 1994.
Lord, Rosemary. Hollywood Then and Now. Thunder Bay Press, 2003.
Schickel, Richard. D.W. Griffith: An American Life. Limelight Editions, 2004.
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