“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. 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.
In 1914, horror wasn’t a recognized movie genre. Yes, there were films with macabre elements (like those strange, ancient special effects excursions by de Chomon and Melies), and you had your usual dark mysteries and thrillers (often in serial form). But the idea of being an enthusiast of “horror films” wouldn’t enter the public lexicon for quite a few years.
So in order to find the ancestors of Frankenstein, (1931) and The Haunting (1963), we have to weigh our options. The 1910 Frankenstein certainly counts, yes? And something like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) does, obviously. What about the serial Les Vampires (1915), with that one famous still? Or something off the beaten track, like Charley Bowers’s surreal short There It is (1926) or Max Linder’s Au Secours! (1924)?
One film that’s an obvious candidate is The Avenging Conscience, or Thou Shalt Not Kill (1914), D.W. Griffith’s Poe-infused drama containing visions of leaping demons and fake skeletons. I know I prefer watching it around Halloween.
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.
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.
Slowly but surely, 2015 is beginning to draw to a close. It’s certainly been a year of ups and downs, and for people interested in film history, it’s been a year with a certain significance. And no, I’m not talking about the new Star Wars movie (not this time, that is). Continue reading →