Wednesday, November 29, 2017

NFR Project 45: Griffith's masterpiece, 'Intolerance' (1915)

The final battle in Babylon
Intolerance (AKA Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages, Intolerance: A Sun-Play of the Ages)
Dir: D.W. Griffith
Prod: D.W. Griffith
Scr: D.W. Griffith, Anita Loos, Hettie Grey Baker, Tod Browning, Mary H. O’Connor, Frank E. Woods
Phot: G.W. “Billy” Bitzer
Premiere: August 6, 1916
210 mins., original cut; 197 mins., most existing cuts

Like his other notable epic The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffiths’ Intolerance is an eroded monument, one that doesn’t really live in people’s hearts as Citizen Kane, Casablanca, or The Gold Rush do. In critical estimation, like Nation, it is cherished for its technical achievements but not much else. It’s one of the first “art” films – a label that usually means – it’s brilliant but nobody watches it.

Birth of a Nation, the Civil War saga made by Griffith two years before Intolerance, was a stupendous filmic achievement and huge financial success. However, it was also grossly racist. This sparked an immense pushback from African Americans and social progressives across the country. (It is also cited as singlehanded reviving the white-supremacist terror group, the Ku Klux Klan.) In one of the supremely ironic moments in American film history, Griffith conceived of Intolerance in response to the liberal censure of his openly racist thinking.
Christ preaches
In this project, Griffith literally outdid himself. He dreamed of going far beyond what anyone else had done with film narrative, and he succeeded. Intolerance is structured like an immense musical fugue – different passages that all relate to a central theme. There are four different narratives – a story set in ancient Babylon, the story of Christ, a story of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572 France, in which Catholics slaughtered Protestants, and a ‘modern-day’ story concerning the deadly influence of socially progressive do-gooders. The result: a film originally nearly four hours long, catnip for critics but baffling to viewers.

So what makes it so great? It’s Griffith’s idea that not only was he capable of telling stories this way, but that the viewer is capable of understanding them, to synthesize the stories and relate them to the central image, the recurring image of the Eternal Motherhood rocking a cradle, symbolizing continuity and rebirth (with the Three Fates sitting ominously in the background). It’s a faith in the audience that Hollywood would never test again.
'Out of the cradle endlessly rocking . . . '
 The modern story, “The Mother and the Law,” was in the planning stages even before The Birth of a Nation. It has the most solid storyline of the four, and the wooliest thinking behind it. In it, Griffith indicts the idle rich, the capitalist bosses, the striking workers, the criminal element, but above all the horse-faced biddies whose intolerance of the working class’ simple lives and pleasures leads them to interfere with and destroys the lives of the powerless The titles -- 'Jealous of youth and laughter,' '' We must have laws to make people good" -- lay out his message. All seem to conspire to deny The Dear One (Mae Marsh) and The Boy (Bobby Harron). happiness, their baby, and The Boy’s life. (Griffith prefers his characters as archetypes rather than as rounded personalities.) It a conventional tale, complete with a race to save The Boy from the gallows.

Racing eagerly alongside and amongst this are the other plot threads. The Babylonian sequence is by far the best realized visually, sumptuously designed and innovatively shot (the track-in shot of its mighty, elaborate setting is the best remembered part of the film). Beside these two, the French story seems perfunctory, and the Crucifixion almost an afterthought. The film’s pretentious intertitles don’t help. These, combined with the film’s visual grandiosity, make Intolerance seem hopelessly pompous and condescending.

But if you ignore the words, something happens. Every single frame is carefully and beautifully designed for maximum effect. Every scene is fully inhabited, with hundreds of actors in character and in harmonious action, even in the deep background and at the edges of the frame. The four stories are told with perfect clarity, using close-ups, dolly shots, irises, frame masking, panoramic sweeps, and more – none  used gratuitously, all subordinated to service of the narrative. (The four storylines are even given distinctive tints as a visual aid.) The film’s insane budget of $2.5 million ($47 million today) is sell-used, up there on the screen. Most astonishing is that the script was unwritten, existing only in Griffith’s head and explicated to an army of designers, technicians, crew and cast on a daily basis.
Griffith's scenic vocabulary: from panoramic vision

to excruciating closeup
The most important innovation is the film’s editing. With musical grace, Griffith cuts brilliantly not only within but between the stories, maintaining a hypnotic rhythm that imperceptibly speeds up throughout the film, until all four stories climax in a brilliant rush of imagery that leaps dizzy into the viewers’ laps. This achievement opened the eyes of directors and editors around the world. More than 100 years later, it still looks fresh. No wonder it perplexed many at the time.

Despite the critical praise and success at the box office, Intolerance was doomed never to meet its costs, and the losses dogged Griffith for the rest of his career. He tinkered with Intolerance’s editing for years afterward, even producing stand-alone versions of the modern and Babylonian stories. Today, when “director’s cuts” are all the rage, no definitive cut of Intolerance exists. He went on to make other great films such as Way Down East, Broken Blossoms, and Orphans of the Storm, but never again was he allowed to on as large a scale. Hollywood’s business model would, with rare exceptions, no longer tolerate auteurs.

The NFR Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: The Curse of Quon Gwon.


Friday, November 3, 2017

NFR Project: The first great cowboy hero in 'Hell's Hinges' (1916)

William S. Hart as "the good bad man"
Hell’s Hinges
Dir: Charles Swickard, William S. Hart (uncred.), Clifford Smith (uncred.)
Prod: Thomas H. Ince
Scr: C. Gardiner Sullivan
Phot: Joseph H. August
Premiere: March 5, 1916
64 mins.

It seems highly unlikely now that William S. Hart could ever have achieved the iconic status he possesses in cinema culture. Even during his heyday, he was viewed by some critics and moviegoers as stolid, horse-faced, with an emotional disposition of slight but disquieting constipation.

However, an aggregation of personal qualities and external circumstances propelled him to the forefront of the national consciousness. In 68 films created over a mere 11-year span (1914-1925), he crafted an authoritative and compelling archetype, and created a moral/mythic context for film Westerns that still defines the genre today.

Hell’s Hinges is his most emblematic film, one whose simple power and apposite impulses transcends its most egregious clichés. It is at once reactionary and revolutionary, a film in which deeply felt piety gives its bearer license to unleash Armageddon – an emblematic American gesture that would find its way into other genres, and even invade the historical realm.

Like many who upheld the mythos of America’s Old West, Hart was an Easterner. He was born in Newburgh, New York, in 1864. His father was an itinerant miller, and his impoverished family traveled widely during his childhood. Some of this time was spent in the West and Midwest, at the tail end of the frontier period.

Though it is likely that his contact with this rapidly vanishing culture was glancing and superficial, the shy, daydreaming youth later inflated these memories, beefing them up into a recalled childhood that teemed with intimate contacts with Indians and famous frontiersmen. Hart would parlay this sense of anointment into a weighty sense of self-importance and authenticity in his work.

Hart spent nearly 25 years on American stages, working himself up into the leading ranks of Broadway performers. Adept at Shakespeare, he eventually made his name as the original, villainous Messala in the first theatrical version of Ben-Hur. Then, in 1905, he filled his first Western role – that of the villainous Cash Hawkins in a stage production of The Squaw Man. From then on, “audiences … associated him with cowboy characters.”

Alfred Hollingsworth as villain 'Silk' Miller, with Hart as a pre-reformed 'Blaze' Tracy
In 1913, Hart was on tour in Cleveland, Ohio, when he saw his first Western film. “It was awful! … I was an actor and I knew the West … The opportunity that I had been waiting for years to come was knocking at my door.” Within a year, Hart set out for California and the movie business.

By the time Hell’s Hinges was made, Hart had appeared in 25 films and captured the audience’s imagination, becoming one of American film’s first genuine stars. In this, he was fortunate to fall in with pioneer film producer, and former fellow thespian, Thomas H. Ince, who applied the techniques of Ford’s assembly line to the nascent movie industry, cranking out a massive amount of product in an efficient manner – presaging the Hollywood system.

Given creative freedom (and grossly underpaid) by Ince, Hart brought new qualities to the Western, which previously had been known best for chases, scenes of gunplay, and the broad emotionalism of actors such as “Broncho Billy” Anderson (another New Yorker, nee Max Aronson). Although the theme of the bad man achieving redemption through sacrifice was not unknown in the Western, Hart’s restrained gravity on screen gave new weight to as-yet-uncliched figure of the domesticated outlaw.

Hart’s subdued intensity was a marked change from the over-the-top histrionics of his predecessors. His practiced skill at manipulating an audience was honed through incessant film work. Though his hamminess breaks through at times, the essential, “manly” stillness of his screen persona would be imitated by countless followers – most notably, John Wayne.

Hart’s performances were also imbued with the sentiments of the Victorian era – giving a strangely stilted, almost Puritanical bent to even his most vicious characters. In the Hart universe, women are either catspaws of evil or vessels of light, to be spurned or worshipped. Children are devices to rouse pity and inspire sacrifice. In Hell’s Hinges, the simple cowboy film becomes a vehicle for an epic confrontation between good and evil.

The actions of men, or their tragic inability to act, dominate here. Hinges opens with the depiction of an anti-hero in unique garb – that of a minister. “Bob” Henley (Jack Standing), seen preaching to an assembly of adoring women, is characterized in the film’s intertitles as a mother-dominated, “weak and selfish youth.”


His superiors see seem as unable to stand up to the harsh demands of a city parish, and decide to send him West, “where the people live simply and close to God.” This is in keeping with the common cultural assumption of the time that the West was a more “real,” elemental place, simpler yet more challenging, a place where Darwinian processes could work themselves out unhindered. (Henley, told of this decision, fantasizes briefly about ministering to some lovely, flirtatious senoritas.)

Accompanied by his not-so-subtly-named sister Faith (Clara Williams), Henley finds himself in, not Hell, but a remarkable facsimile thereof. (The brother/sister relationship eerily echoes Hart’s own life. Frequently engaged, briefly married, he spent most of his life with his sister Mary Ellen, who jealously tended him.) An introductory gunfight, taken in an overhead long shot, emphasizes the chaotic, antlike scurrying of the town’s inhabitants.

As was common in the Old West, Placer Centre – better known as Hell’s Hinges – is dominated by the pleasure palace of Silk Miller (Alfred Hollingsworth), who is characterized with casual racism as part Mexican, part snake. As the town’s Mephistopheles, he will bring all his evil talents to bear on destroying Christianity and its followers.

Hart is Miller’s confederate “Blaze” Tracy, who is indicated as wicked mainly by smoking, drinking, and grinning. (He shoots up a tin can that’s been decorated with a caricature of the new preacher – a nice metaphor for the relative flimsiness of Henley’s character.)

Tracy’s resolve to run the preacher out of town is stymied by his instant attraction to Faith. His poleaxed gaze at her is accompanied by the intertitle: “One who is evil, looking for the first time on that which is good.” At that point, the film’s double set of parallel actions kicks into gear. Henley’s fall is inevitable, as is Tracy’s rise and redemption. Later, in contrast to Henley’s salacious earlier fantasy, Tracy has a vision of the proverbial old rugged cross.

Like a war campaign, the town’s two sides invade each other’s territories. Miller’s soused and rowdy patrons swarm into the barn in which the town’s churchly folk, the “petticoat brigade,” hold their first service – until Tracy forces them out at gunpoint. Later, when Henley is seduced by Miller’s prostitute protégé Dolly (Louise Glaum), the church folk, led by Tracy, march into Miller’s saloon as a body and retrieve their fallen shepherd. (One of the strongest shots in the picture is an angled one of Tracy marching down the main street toward the camera with the unconscious Henley draped over his shoulders.)

The spiritual coterie builds its church, with Tracy’s help – his conversion process is punctuated by a simple, affecting scene of him reading the Bible, cigarette in one hand, bottle of whiskey at his side. Ironically, Henley’s turn to drink renders him a near-imbecile, and when the town rowdies shout, “To hell with the church! Let’s burn her down!”, Henley gleefully snatches up a torch and leads the way.

A pitched battle results in Henley’s death, the expulsion of the faithful, and the immolation of the church – in one of the film’s many powerful images, Faith weeps over her brother’s corpse in the foreground, while behind, smoke boils and hurtles, wind-whipped, from the isolated figure of the burning house of worship.


 “Killin’ mad, and with a gun in each hand,” Tracy, who’s been conveniently out of town during the battle, hears of its outcome from a ragged band of refugees (what happens to the expelled “petticoat brigade”? we are never informed) and returns to settle the score.

His extermination of Miller is offhand – blink and you’ll miss it. Filled with a new-found, (self) righteous vengeance, Tracy becomes a bloodthirsty, vindictive embodiment of both the “social gospel,” a popular 19th-century kind of spiritual Manifest Destiny, and its coefficient, “muscular Christianity,” which basically gave its proponents license to whip the tar out of scoffers, nonbelievers, and those of other faiths.

Rivetingly, Tracy backs the saloon’s ne’er-do-wells into a corner and shoots down the overhanging oil lamps, turning the building into an inferno (“Hell needs this town, and it’s goin’ back, and goin’ damn quick!”) Shooting down those who try to bolt, he holds the men at gunpoint until the last possible second, then allows them to flee. Remaining behind, Tracy then seems to break focus, wandering distractedly, the flames leaping up behind him. Some judicially placed flares of combustible material to the rear give Hart a hellish nimbus. It’s almost as though his descent into violence has temporarily transformed him into a demon as well, later echoed in Eastwood’s similar climax in 1992’s Unforgiven.

An avenging angel
Hart strides out of the building and into the streets, moving toward the camera robotically, a death-dealing machine, like some ur-Terminator. Cowpokes and dance-hall girls scatter amid the swirling smoke, “like vague demons in some primitive hell,” as the entire town burns to the ground. There is redemption for Hart alone, and it’s savage. In a peculiar foreshadowing of the Vietnam experience, he destroys the village in order to save it.

No wonder so many claimed the director’s credit for the film – although Charles Swickard is officially credited, it is generally acknowledged that Hart directed at least most of the film, with the help of long-time assistant Clifford Smith. Ince took credit for helming the fire scenes, but the extraordinary strength of the film’s compositions can probably credited to Colorado-born photographer Joe August, who shot over 40 of Hart’s films and went on to be an Oscar-winning cinematographer of such Hollywood classics as The Informer, Laughton’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Gunga Din. The climactic fire sequence was shot “day for night,” although prints without the colored gels that indicate day and night scenes make this difficult to remember.

At film’s end, Tracy takes up Henley’s body, and Faith’s hand, leading her into the distance. Though there is a conventional happy ending in sight, what’s gone before has tainted it, and thrown the film’s premise out of joint. Slaughter and wholesale destruction is sanctified by religion … or is it? In this wildly popular film, the audience got to have its cake and eat it too – a dangerous addiction that would crop up, for better or worse, again and again in American cinema.

This piece appeared in its original form in the July 2005 edition of Senses of Cinema. The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: Intolerance.



Thursday, November 2, 2017

NFR Project 43: '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' (1916)

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Dir: Stuart Paton
Prod: Carl Laemmle, Stuart Paton (both uncred.)
Scr: Stuart Paton
Phot: Eugene Gaudio
Premiere: December 24, 1916
105 mins.

The inclusion of this version of Jules Verne’s epic, pioneer science-fiction novel on the list is due to its technical achievement – the first successful underwater filming for a feature film.

The most famous adaptation of 20,000 leagues Under the Sea is Richard Fleischer’s 1954 Disney-produced extravaganza. And there were a couple of attempts prior to the 1916 effort, and many since. This particular cinematic reworking was financed by the budding Universal Studios, which at the time was just coming into its own and was still known as the Universal Film Manufacturing Company. Led by Carl Laemmle, it was one of the first to break with the Edison-imposed, patent-based monopoly on film production.

By 1915, Laemmle had constructed his studio, Universal City, in California, just over the Cahuenga Pass from Hollywood. The forward-thinking Laemmle immediately opened his studio to tourists, charging them five cents a head, box lunch included – a tradition that continues today, albeit at a higher price point and without the meal. However, this film was shot on location in the Bahamas, on and around New Providence Island.


The reason? The location boasted crystal-clear waters at depth. This was vital to the attempt to film narrative under the surface of the water for the first time. The technological breakthrough that led to this was initiated by sea captain Charles Williamson, who invented an accordion-like apparatus of interlocking, waterproof iron sections that could be supplied with air and lowered to the depth of 250 feet, for aid in salvage and rescue operations. His son, journalist John Ernest Williamson, imagined the possibilities for taking photographs and moving pictures using the device.

The younger Williamson designed and built a spherical viewing chamber with a built-in, five-foot diameter, 1.5-inch-thick glass port. With the addition of an underwater lighting rig, he soon found he could capture usable footage. The gimmick was the linchpin of the production. With his brother George, John “directed” the effective underwater sequences.

The film itself is a passable adaptation. It combines Verne’s novel with its sequel, The Mysterious Island, fudging plotlines and adding a romantic subplot, a lost-child subplot, a revenge subplot . . . . What was once astonishing to filmgoers’ eyes is hard to gawp at now – it’s necessary to consciously wind back our credulity to a state it might have been in 101 years ago. If you can do that, then the fancifully clad undersea figures regain a bit of their totemic power.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: Hell’s Hinges.