“Good, or even inspired in many of its aspects, it was simply not the sort of picture everyone had come to expect of Griffith,” was the prevailing sentiment over D.W. Griffith’s drama The Mother and the Law (1919). Starring Bobby Harron and Mae Marsh, it told the tragic tale of a young couple whose lives are torn apart by circumstance and unjust authority. With its low budget and intimate storyline it had more in common with Griffith’s one- to three-reel Biograph “potboilers” than the “prestige pictures” that were now associated with his name. Originally filmed in 1914, after The Birth of a Nation‘s success it was shelved, eventually taken out again and tinkered with, used as a humble kickoff point for Griffith’s mega-epic Intolerance (1916), and finally tinkered with some more before being released in 1919 as a standalone film.
Bobby and Mae’s scenes are some of my favorite parts of Intolerance, so I was excited to finally watch The Mother and the Law recently. Most of it was familiar footage, but I found myself unprepared for some of Marsh’s scenes that didn’t make it into Intolerance (or perhaps they were added later). Lillian Gish once said of Marsh that “she was the only actress of whom I was ever jealous.” I always thought that was nice and gracious of her–Marsh was very good. But after seeing The Mother and the Law, boy oh boy, now I understand exactly what Gish meant.
This is my own post in honor of the Silent Movie Day Blogathon. Hope you enjoy!
When it comes to talking about great movies (in the Roger Ebert sense of the word), I’ve always loved making and sharing lists: top tens, top fives, your “essential threes”–they always seems to prompt interesting discussions. Face it, you’re asked to list what you think are the Top 10 Best Movies Ever Made and it’s hard to resist, isn’t it? Even the top film critics and directors in the world famously contribute to Sight & Sound‘s “Top 10 Greatest Films” lists once every decade. It’s enlightening to see how certain films will fall a bit out of favor while others remain universally praised–often for generations.
But your average carefully-compiled lists, hard as they can be to put together, are one thing. Trickiest of all is picking a single “greatest of the great” film from a given genre or era (putting aside the immense difficulty of choosing “The Greatest Film, Period”–phew!). So with that in mind, and since no one asked me, I thought I’d ponder: “What is the greatest silent film?”
In our minds, we picture Intolerance differently than most films. Say the title, and we usually don’t see the faces of the Dear One or Brown Eyes or run shots from the four storylines through our minds. We picture the photo of the massive hall of Babylon. We see the sharp-edged archways, the curves and ridges of the immense pillars, the white elephants with their peculiarly defined muscles and curving trunks. We also see the masses of tiny people on the floor of the hall, clustering around the feet of the elephants, and lining the top of the archways. There is an awed sensation when you think of this dense image. Perhaps there is also a sense of remoteness.
But recall the actual scene itself, how the camera slowly, smoothly moves forward, closer and closer until we can clearly see the people, see the details of their clothes, and can see their faces in their matte makeup.
It’s massive, it’s epic, it’s stuffed with stars and just about drips with drama. It was one of the biggest spectacles the world had ever seen, and its scale is still awe-inspiring. It fired the imaginations of directors and left audiences reeling. And it’s…somewhat liked by silent film fans today. Somewhat.
“It’s so long.“
Okay, I’ll admit that this weak enthusiasm is understandable. Intolerance is kind of the equivalent of Norma Desmond’s Isotta-Fraschini automobile–in its day it was the last word in decadence, but decades later it seemed like a cumbersome and overly-ornate relic. Intolerance demands your full attention to not only one but four storylines, often with multiple characters with different actions and motivations. It’s uneven. It tackles Serious Subjects like war and injustice toward the working man. And yes, it’s very long. Continue reading →
D.W. Griffith’s massive, dramatic, beautiful 1916 epic Intolerance, to this day one of the most ambitious film projects ever devised, is a century old today. On September 5, 1916 its world premiere was held at the Liberty Theater in New York. This is arguably one of the biggest milestones in cinematic history. It’s partyin’ time.
In 1958 Buster Keaton (who parodied the film in The Three Ages) reminisced: “Griffith’s Intolerance was] terrific…It’s a beautiful production. That was somethin’ to watch then. You weren’t used to seein’ big spectaculars like that.”
I’ll be devoting some posts to this cinematic masterpiece later this month, so until then, have a celebratory banner.
I am pleased to present this article on the life and career of the very underappreciated Bobby Harron, an actor of rare talent who left his mark on some of the greatest films of the silent era–and the film industry in general. It’s a long one, so I’ve added a list of contents for your convenience!
One of the earliest and most overlooked film stars is Robert “Bobby” Harron. The slender, unassuming young man acted in dozens of films, including the largest milestones of all time: The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916).
And yet, perhaps because of the attention given to Griffith’s actresses, Bobby is constantly, and consistently, overlooked. It’s common to see articles merely mention him as a costar to Mae Marsh or Lillian Gish before delving into the details of the women’s performances. Gish and Marsh were some of the finest actresses of the silent era, to say nothing of other talented Griffith players like Miriam Cooper or Blanche Sweet. But Bobby was a massively talented actor in his own right. Take a moment to turn your concentration from Gish or Marsh to the dark-haired Irish lad just to their side, and you’ll realize what you’ve been missing. Continue reading →