Born January 22, 1875 in Oldham County, Kentucky, David Wark Griffith would become one of the world’s greatest film directors by 1915. After only seven years directing films, Griffith had expanded and established filmmaking styles that attracted millions of filmgoers and influenced countless other directors, many originally his assistants or acolytes. His 1915 film, “The Birth of a Nation,” drew large crowds both cheering its artistic creation and jeering its deplorable politics.
“The Birth of a Nation,” the most expensive film of its day, costing over $100,000 upon completion, featured a cast of thousands telling the story of two families, one from the North and one from the South, torn apart by the Civil War, but reunited by matrimony at the conclusion. Unfortunately the film depicted the creation and rise of the Ku Klux Klan as savior, drawing protests from the nascent NAACP and white activists alike. While the film drew huge box office profits, it also remained a political hot potato around the country, as it does to this day.
Griffith hoped to top himself after this film, but remained confused as to how to build on this momentum. Production had begun on a small picture entitled “The Mother and the Law” early in 1915, a film which dealt with a young couple who meet and marry in a slum where they meet after a strike at a nearby mill killed his father and threw her father out of work. The Boy’s past life in petty crime catches up with him and he ends up doing time. While in prison, a former colleague pursues his wife, and upon release, the Boy confronts him. Set up for murder, the Boy is saved at the last moment by a confession.
As Moving Picture World related in January 1915, the Majestic Company had constructed a Chinatown set for the film on its lot in East Hollywood. They also reported that Griffith and company shot a long scene at San Quentin Prison with a gallows built under the supervision of the old warden, and that an actual priest played the priest in the film. A February edition claimed that “the theme deals with the career of an impoverished married couple of the slums…” and starred many of Griffith’s repertory cast of actors. It was intended as another $2 feature to follow the success of “Birth of a Nation.”
Viewing of “The Mother and the Law” near completion in spring 1915 by studio employees drew mixed reactions. Richard Schickel in his book “D. W. Griffith – An American Life” states that Karl Brown recounted gossip that some found it unreleasable, while Lillian Gish noted that after a screening “we all agreed with him that the film was too small in theme and execution to follow “The Birth.”
Possibly in response to these reactions, Griffith began rewriting and developing the film into one dealing with the grand issue of intolerance through the annals of history. A simple story about United States’ slums grew into one dealing with four separate but parallel stories confronting acts of intolerance and hatred through the centuries, in ancient Babylon, the time of Christ, France at the time of the Huguenots’ massacre, and the present day. Elaborate spectacle and gigantic sets of Babylon echoed the lavishness of “Birth of a Nation,” dragging production into late fall 1915 and then into 1916.
The January 14, 1916 weekly Variety reported that Griffith’s twelve-reeler called “The Mother and the Law” was almost completed, but wouldn’t be released until April. A week later, however, a giant fire almost destroyed the film. Moving Picture World revealed that on January 20, “A fire broke out in the printing room of the Fine Arts Studios at Hollywood. The building was totally damaged. Several thousand feet of positive film was destroyed, and a small amount of negative film was lost…Every member of the studio force fought the blaze. D. W. Griffith and other prominent persons entered the burning frame building and rescued reels and cans of negative, valuable film which had just been finished.” Luckily, no one was injured but the entire interior of the lab was damaged and would eventually be entirely rebuilt.
The March 24, 1916 weekly Variety stated that critics who have viewed rough cuts of the production declare it will surpass “The Birth of a Nation” as an artistic masterpiece. That didn’t prevent the Anti-Defamation League from protesting during filming of the production.
Griffith began negotiating with New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in April 1916 about showing his film, though that eventually fell through as filming continued. The director first previewed it for the public August 6, 1916 in Riverside, California, before the film premiered at the Liberty Theatre in New York September 5, 1916. The press reported that “Intolerance” would open at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles October 16, with a forty piece orchestra and admission ranging from twenty five cents to $2.
Many critics and social reformers loved the film, and it garnered great reviews. The Reverend W. H. Jackson and Professor Hardin Lucas found the film “a lesson in the classroom, a sermon in the church, and a revelation in the social order, commanding the attention of a world which has suffered… ” in an ad they purchased in the October 14, 1916 Moving Picture World.
Ashton Stevens in the December 3, 1916 Chicago Examiner proclaimed, “This genius Griffith, I have just discovered, has a second secret, and as simple as the first. Instead of imitating my theatre, my drama, he invented one of his own. So did Wagner. But all the sacred funk of Bayreuth is not the price of a gallery seat for “Intolerance.” O. L. Hall of the Chicago Journal said, “His “Intolerance” is a colossal achievement; the spectacular wonders are blinding in their magnificence.”
In October, on his trip returning to Los Angeles, Griffith himself was interviewed by Louella Parsons, film critic of the Chicago Herald newspaper about the film, and he replied, “I haven’t seen a Triangle picture in four months. I have never produced a Fine Arts production, and the words “supervised by David W. Griffith” were put on the screen without my knowledge. My time has been spent making “Intolerance,” which has occupied all my waking hours.” The director praised and pushed the film, hoping to top the box office success of “Birth.” He spoke to the press upon his return to Los Angeles, saying, “I want to see what Los Angeles will say about my picture. New York thought it was wonderful. At least I judge so. Los Angeles, the home of motion pictures, will give me the final word.”
As Moving Picture World stated, “Somehow he gives you the impression that he knew it all along, that he was assured that the people would like it.” Griffith noted that both critics and the press thought it a greater picture than “Birth of a Nation.” While he was greatly proud, the director announced that he was looking forward to finding a quiet spot to think and rest.
In December, Cook County commissioners seemed to play politics with the film when they decided to censor it for demeaning groups that wanted to impose their views on others. Variety noted on December 27, 1916 that Commissioner Ragan “introduced a resolution that was passed unanimously directing the county board to see the picture exhibited and if there is any criticism directed toward reformers who wanted to impose their ideas upon the mass of the people, it will be banned immediately.”
Certain Hollywood neighborhood groups in late fall detested film production, avowing they would stop night shoots, loud noises, shooting guns and ringing sirens when making films, and wanted Griffith to pull down the “Intolerance” sets, which they claimed “looks like the World’s Fair.” Local businessmen told Moving Picture World that without filming, “Hollywood would be dead.”
The film broke box office records as it played continuously for weeks and months at theatres around the country, and even in places like London, Australia, and Buenos Aires into the spring of 1917, as the company pointed out in ads they purchased in the trades. Unfortunately the extravagant costs of around $400,000 were too much to overcome, and the film never made a profit.