Scen.: David W. Griffith, Anita Loos (didascalie). F.: George William ‘Billy’ Bitzer, Karl Brown. M.: David Wark Griffith, James Smith, Rose Smith. Scgf.: Walter L. Hall, Frank ‘Huck’ Wortman. Mus.: Joseph Carl Breil, David Wark Griffith. Int.: Lillian Gish (donna della culla), Mae Marsh (piccola cara), Robert Harron (il ragazzo), Bessie Love (la sposa di Cana), Constance Talmadge (Margherita di Valois/la ragazza di Montagna), Sam De Grasse (Arthur Jenkins), Howard Gaye (il Nazareno), Lillian Langdon (Maria, la madre), Margery Wilson (Occhi Castani), Eugene Pallette (Prosper Latour), Vera Lewis (Mary T. Jenkins), Olga Grey (Maria Maddalena). Prod.: David Wark Griffith per Wark Producing Corporation. 35mm. L.: 3849 m. D.: 198’ a 17 f/s. Bn e tinted.
If we wish to find our ways through dramatic action as narratively intricate as Intolerance and grasp the frequent analogues, forced and implied comparisons, obvious parallels and sudden juxtapositions, that emerge between and within the several ‘stories’, we might do worse than consider Charles Dickens’ metaphoric description of melodrama (and what is Intolerance but a entwined amalgam of four diverse melodramas?). Dickens proclaims that, “It is the custom on the stage in all good, murderous melodramas to present the tragic and the comic scenes, in as regular alternation, as the layers of red and white in a side of streaky, well-cured bacon”. Of course, in Intolerance it is more than an alteration of the comic and the serious, although occasional comedy and near tragedy often closely follow one another. Griffith’s start-and-stop story-telling with its narrative flow frequently broken so that we start afresh in a new environment and there encounter new characters similarly oppressed or, time-travelling, return again to another unfolding disaster in a landscape already familiar, is intentionally disruptive. To this considerable extent, the metaphor of streaky bacon applies. Intolerance is a didactic moralistic drama. We are being preached at (and reprimanded for being sanctimonious in contemporary sniffy anti-racism responses to The Birth of a Nation) even as we enjoy the spectacles, the dilemmas, and some of the characters. It is one of those films we would likely turn our backs on were it not for the artistry and overpowering drama of some of the narratives. And Griffith was artistically and commercially astute when, in 1919, he severed the ‘Babylonian Story’ from his longer film, shot additional footage, contrived an ending that saved the lives of his lead roles, and released his melodrama as The Fall of Babylon.
Like film before 1928, dance was another silent language directly supported by music, both discrete forms, although there was sometimes a temptation for film and dance to imitate each other. In Babylon, there is no imitation, even though both dance and acting ‘tell the story’. The Babylonian episode in Intolerance is the moment that two new twentieth century art forms meet and are separately true to themselves. Thus the trajectories of dancers and actors only occasionally intersected on the vast set of Belshazzar’s Hall, the major set-piece dance in the Babylonian story. According to Lillian Gish, three bands, placed strategically about the quarter-mile set, played for the dancers.
What St. Denis and her dancers thus added to The Fall of Babylon’s narrative of a rich hedonistic culture obliterated by an invading semi-barbarian horde was the value of emotion, of private domestic – personal – feelings challenging Griffith’s rhetoric of historical authenticity. At the center of spectacle lie intense emotion – fear, exultation, religious frenzy and sexual ecstasy, despair and grief – emotions in their scale commensurate with Babylon’s overpowering monumentality and luxury.