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Orphans Of The Storm (1921)

After a couple of restrained films, the old D. W. Griffith is back – this time with double the Gish!


Orphans Of The Storm is an epic melodrama set at the onset of the French Revolution, with Lillian Gish and her sister Dorothy as sisters Henriette and Louise, lasses from the French country who have come to Paris in search of a cure for Louise’s blindness.  But almost immediately after their arrival, they are separated when Henriette is kidnapped by a lascivious marquis, leaving vulnerable Louise alone to fall into the clutches of a Fagin-esque family of beggars.


The film follows their separate paths.  Henriette has an overall easier time of it – she is quickly rescued from the marquis’ clutches after he drags her to a party, clearly expecting some erotic hijinks, when a young nobleman fights him for her honor and spirits her away, footing the bill for her at a boarding house so she can search for Louise. By coincidence, it’s the same boarding house where the French revolutionary Danton lives (Griffith’s title card helpfully describes Danton as “The French Abraham Lincoln” at one point).  She comes to the rescue one day after discovering the unconscious and wounded Danton in the hallway one day shortly after he has escaped an attack from Royalist soldiers; Henriette brings him to her room to tend his wounds and hide him from police.  Danton is profoundly grateful, but it’s the young chevalier who’s really captured Henriette’s heart, and she gleefully accepts his proposal of marriage – but insists she has to find her sister first.


Meanwhile Louise is being forced to beg on the streets, turning all her money over to Mother Frouchard, the matriarch of a panhandling family. She keeps Louise in a root cellar in the basement, giving all the family’s earnings to one of her two sons while the other meekly pines after Louise.

The chevalier’s mother pays Henriette a visit, hoping to dissuade her from “Marrying up”. However, the Countess then learns of Henriette’s search for Louise.  She was an orphan, Henriette says; a baby her father found abandoned on the steps of Notre Dame, with only a little locket in her possession.  And what are the chances – that baby was the Countesses’ own daughter, who had been cruelly ripped from her own arms!

And in an even bigger coincidence – at that very moment, Mother Frouchard has sent Louise to wander the streets, singing as she begs, and to Henriette’s great surprise, Louise passes right under her window!  She joyously cries out to Louise and starts running out to her – only to be stopped by a team of Royalist soldiers, come to arrest her for helping Danton.  But – by even bigger coincidence – Henriette is thrown into the Bastille, and is liberated the next day!  Only – she is captured yet again by French revolutionaries after her and the chevalier!

Lillian Gish definitely has more to do; Henriette’s story has the most twists and turns, concluding in a hair-raising rescue from the guillotine. Dorothy, meanwhile, only has to contend with the pathos of being trapped in a cellar until Mother Frouchard’s milquetoast son stands up to her and takes off, Louise in tow. He is at her side thenceforth, in the gallery at Henriette’s trial, comforting her after she tenderly bids Henriette farewell at the guillotine, and looking on joyously at the end when the newly-cured Louise meets her birth mother.  …Only to have Henriette then steal the thunder by introducing her to her beau, the Chevalier.

I realize I don’t sound very impressed.  This wasn’t terrible, but it definitely felt…formulaic, with some familiar D. W. Griffith tropes – an overly-preachy introduction, lots of soft-focus beauty shots of Lillian Gish, last-minute rescues and escapes, and a happy ending at all costs (I have just now realized that at the end, Henriette and Louise were cavorting through the Countess’ pleasure gardens – but since it was during the Revolution, why was the Countess still there?).


I was amused to see a flash of the excessive, grandiose Griffith in a scene set in Versailles; when the King makes his entrance, Griffith has the camera set high in a corner, revealing a vast room full of extra there to welcome him, and can’t resist a quick pan across the artwork at the ceiling to show off its opulence.


The sequence at the marquis’ party also has several random shots of the opulence – shots of groaning boards and banquet tables and women cavorting in fountains of wine, contrasted with shots of hungry peasants crowding around the gates smelling the food and title cards tut-tutting over the waste.


Another lengthy sequence looks like a comic relief bit at first blush; after her release from the Bastille, Henriette tries to find her way back to the boarding house, but the revolutionaries are in “riot mode”, which in this case translates to wild conga dancing and women lasciviously winking at the camera.  It’s amusing – especially when the chevalier’s valet gets caught up in things and is ridden like a horsey by one peasant – but it’s kind of out of place.  That is, until you remember that Griffith was using the whole story to preach about the dangers of Bolshevism.  The old order was corrupt, by all means – but the peasants weren’t immediately getting around to responsible democratic government yet and putting the past behind them. Naughty peasants!

This was Griffith’s last big picture, and his last one with Lillian Gish.  Reviews were mixed, with critics welcoming the old splendor back but pointing out that the plot twists were getting kind of tired.  Griffith’s films after this all seem to have been a series of flops, and he faded back into producing for a while.  In 1946, he paid a spontaneous visit to the set of the film Duel In The Sun, starring his old muse Lillian Gish; she was uneasy with him watching her work, and he hid behind scenery during a few scenes for her sake before leaving.  He died just a couple years later.


This is the last of Griffith’s films to make the list of Films To Watch Before You Die, and so we bid D. W. Griffith a lavishly-shot, controversially-scripted, be-Gished farewell.

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Way Down East (1920)


Well, hello Mr. Griffith, we meet again.  You too, Mr. Barthelmess (and nice to see you out of yellowface, unlike with your last role).

Griffith chose another play for this outing, adapting a work from the 1890s. Lillian Gish is Anna Moore, a naive country girl from New England sent to visit wealthy relatives in the city, to charm them into a loan of money for her and her mother. But instead she catches the eye of Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), a slimy playa who cons her into a mock wedding in an effort to get her into bed.


But after a short while, when Anna reveals she is pregnant, Sanderson confesses the truth and abandons her.  Heartbroken, Anna returns to the country, first back to her mother’s arms, then to a boarding house where she delivers the baby with the assistance of a sympathetic doctor; her landlady, meanwhile, is fearful of scandal from harboring an unwed mother.  When Anna’s baby dies of a fever, the landlady throws her out as well.


Anna wanders the country, bereft, knocking on doors and looking for work. She ultimately finds her way to the tiny town of Bartlett, and the farm of elderly Squire Bartlett, introduced to us as a “stern Puritan” who initially turns her away for fear that she is a “loose woman”.  Fortunately, Mrs. Bartlett is somewhat kinder and talks him into taking her in, introducing Anna to her son David (Richard Barthelmess, whom we last saw in Broken Blossoms) – oh, and she should meet their neighbor, Lennox Sanderson, who will be eating dinner with them tonight!  During their uneasy reunion, Sanderson tries to convince Anna to leave – but she refuses, agreeing only to keep silent about their history.

There’s a cozy start to the second half of the story, as we meet some of the town’s “characters” – the bumbling police chief, the town gossip, and a scatterbrained lepidopterist in Coke-bottle eyeglasses everyone calls “The Professor”.


The Professor soon turns sweet on Squire Bartlett’s niece Kate, who’s come on an extended visit; the Bartletts, though, have been encouraging her as a match for David. But Kate is more interested in Sanderson – and as for David, he soon falls for Anna, tenderly confessing his feelings during a walk around the mill pond; but Anna, ashamed of her past, refuses him.


And she refuses again that winter, when David proposes to her. But his love inspires a bit of hope in her, and she timidly asks the Squire if – hypothetically – he would have found a way to forgive her if she really had been the loose woman he thought she’d been when they first met.  Never, he thunders – “When the law’s broke, it’s broke, ain’t it? A wrong’s a wrong and nothin’ can make it right.”  And sure enough, when the town gossip discovers Anna’s secret and tells the Squire, he hurries home and orders Anna – who is at that moment settling down to serve dinner to the whole family and to Lennox Sanderson – that she is to pack her things and leave that instant.


David comes to her defense, but Anna tells him it’s true – and angrily reveals the truth about Sanderson. An incensed David attacks Sanderson, and while the rest of the family is distracted breaking up the fight, Anna slips out, fleeing into a blizzard.

But David soon notices her gone and gives chase, tracking her through the storm to where she has wandered out to the river and trapped herself on an ice floe drifting downstream…

Way Down East is comparatively simple (at least for Griffith).  But adding the ice floe rescue – something not in the play – made this his most expensive film yet.  The scene filmed on location in Vermont in the dead of winter, where the ice was so thick that they had to use dynamite to break off a floe for Gish to lie on.  Griffith also had to keep a small fire going underneath the camera because it kept freezing.


Gish was the real trooper – she had the idea to lie on the floe with her hair and one hand hanging into the icy water. She got a severe enough case of frostbite that she had a partially impaired hand for the rest of her life.


….I could actually have done without the ice scene (sorry, Lillian). David has more than proved his loyalty by that point in the film, and Anna’s forceful denouncement of Sanderson is enough to convince the Squire that he’s misjudged her.  Similarly, some of the local-color portraits of the townspeople feel unnecessary; the Constable is introduced early on to gossip about a robbery at the local post office, and then pretty much disappears for the rest of the film.  The Professor is also obviously introduced solely to be a consolation prize for Kate.  Actor Creighton Hale makes the most of it, however, especially during a “country dance” scene where his Professor is hilariously inept.

Audiences of the time ate it all up, rendering this the fourth-highest grossing film of the silent period.

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Les Vampires (1915)


At 7 hours total, the French serial Les Vampires is one of the longest films ever made; I paced myself a bit, watching only one or two of the ten sections each night. But this thriller crime story sucked me in really quickly, and I even came away so fond of a particular character that I ultimately tracked down a fan club.

It’s not about supernatural vampires; rather, in this film the “Vampires” are an organized crime syndicate, and the obsession of young cub reporter Philipe Guérande (Édouard Mathé). In the first segment, Philipe gets a tip for a story – a Parisian police officer was just murdered, and the corpse was missing its head. Suspecting a connection to the Vampires, he begs his editor for the assignment.  Only fifteen minutes later, he’s stumbling through a secret passage in the walls of his hotel, pursuing a masked intruder who tried to plant some stolen diamonds in his pocket as he slept – and who did hide the officer’s severed head in his trunk.  And that’s all just the first chapter.

The ten segments in the serial are jam-packed full of thriller plot twists. There are three poisonings, blackmailings, exploding steamships, double-crosses, dueling crime mobs, prison breaks, exilings to Algeria, dance sequences, kidnappings, jewel thefts, two completely different secret codebooks, hypnotists, Mickey Finns, and even an assassin whose weapon of choice is a cannon – and somehow it all manages to hang together long enough to defeat the bad guys and allow both of the serial’s heroes a happy ending.


There’s also a plum of a femme fatale – “Irma Vep”, played by avant-garde actress Musidora.  Philpe first discovers her at a cabaret frequented by the Vampires – at first he thinks she’s just a singer.  But he is soon to learn that the enigmatic vamp is the Vampires’ heart and soul.  Three men assume the lead of the Vampire gang over the course of the story, but Irma Vep is a constant – she was the masked thief who framed Philipe at the very beginning, she’s the one who plots out the Vampires’ most involved heists, and when she and the current Grand Vampire are imprisoned, she’s the one they try to spring from jail (as for the male counterpart, they smuggle him in a cyanide capsule so he can kill himself).  Her name is even an anagram of “vampire”, as the film helpfully shows us –


Irma Vep may be a compelling character.  But she wasn’t the character who won me over, nor was young Philipe. Instead, the character I found myself looking forward to seeing was the comic-relief sidekick, Oscar Mazamette.


Unlike most comic-relief sidekicks, Mazamette is no dumb bumbler. Initially a reluctant low-level member of the Vampires, he soon jumps ship to work with Philipe, and his assistance helps Philipe to crack several parts of the case. Mazamette also bravely comes to the rescue of Philipe’s mother and fiancee on two separate occasions, and even concocts a scheme to get himself inside one of the Grand Vampire’s apartments with a gun to take him prisoner (it doesn’t work, alas).

For all his loyalty and bravery, actor Marcel Levesque plays Mazamette as a bit of a clown; he’s something of a ladies’ man and a little pretentious, both traits that get him in trouble.  The film also cracks several jokes at the expense of his nose; in one shoot-out, a bullet meant to kill one of the Vampires instead grazes Mazamette’s protuberant proboscis.  I actually burst out laughing in the next scene when Mazamette entered wearing a comically over-sized bandage.


Even the Vampire gang has a go at his nose, which he discovers during a raid of their lair towards the end of the film and is none too pleased about.


It may have been seven hours’ worth of viewing, but it was an enormous amount of fun to watch.

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Within Our Gates (1920)


There is some debate as to whether Within Our Gates was intended to be a response to D.W. Gtiffith’s Birth Of A Nation.  It almost certainly is a response to the world wrought by the Klan, however, and the Jim Crow era.

The story follows Sylvia, a young African-American woman from the South. She is engaged to a soldier, but her cousin Alma busts up their engagement in an effort to snag the man herself; a heartbroken Sylvia lets him go, choosing to devote herself to “the betterment of my race” and joins the administration of a small school in Georgia. When the school falls short of money Sylvia ventures north to Boston on a fundraising tour, where she catches the eye of Dr. Vivian, a young African-American also “passionately engaged in social questions,” who agrees to help her in her cause. But Sylvia soon meets a wealthy Bostonian widow who agrees to pledge several thousand dollars to save the school and Sylvia rushes home, money in hand.

Dr. Vivian can’t forget her, though, and sets out to find her. He retraces her steps to find a repentant Alma, who agrees to help the pair reconnect. Before she does, though, Alma braces him with a story of Sylvia’s childhood – she was the adoptive daughter of a loving couple who strove to get her an education, but when her father was framed for the murder of a white man, both her parents were lynched.  This serves to strengthen Dr. Vivian’s devotion, though, and the very last scene features Sylvia and Dr. Vivian in their home in the South, newly married and chatting lovingly.

Speaking strictly technically, this is a flawed film. Subplots drag down the story, there are improbable melodramatic twists, and there are some inexperienced actors (I admit I was glad the film got rid of Sylvia’s initial fiance – the dude couldn’t act). The director, an author and self-taught filmmaker named Oscar Micheaux, had the habit of inserting short clips as tableaux – to show a character’s state of mind, as a flashback, or to show action happening elsewhere. But these tableaux are simply mixed into the film without any kind of clarification, which made for some difficulty following the action in a couple spots (“wait, Sylvia went south, what is she doing back talking to  – ohhhh, gotcha, Dr. Vivian is just remembering that.”).

But those subplots actually have some keen social commentary.  There is an extended sequence with a travelling preacher, “Old Ned”, who preaches subservience to white men and a clean life in anticipation of Heaven. Old Ned visits some white men in a quest for donations, and as they reach for their wallets, one asks him what he thinks of the notion that black men should get the vote.  Absolutely not, Ned says, grovellingly adding that he thinks that “White folks is mighty fine”.  But as he leaves, he chides himself – “Again, I’ve sold my birthright. All for a miserable mess of pottage. Negroes and Whites—all are equal. As for me, miserable sinner, hell is my destiny.”

The flashback to the death of Sylvia’s parents has another telling subplot. As the lynch mob is chasing her parents, one man from the mob has been tracking down Sylvia, cornering her in her family’s cabin; the scenes with their murder are intercut with scenes from a grippingly violent attempted rape. But Sylvia’s would-be rapist is stopped by the sight of a birthmark on her chest – for that is how he realizes she is his illegitimate daughter.

The scenes with the lynching are pretty grim as well. We don’t actually see Sylvia’s adoptive parents dying, but by the time they are in their nooses, they’ve been very roughly handled.


There’s an even more graphic tableau earlier. Efram, the man who frames Sylvia’s father, first offers to lead the lynch mob through the swamps where they’re hiding – but the hunt takes longer than planned, and the bloodthirsty mob turns on Efram himself.


It seems that the director was entirely self-taught, and making things on the thinnest of shoestrings compared to other film’s budgets – Micheaux didn’t have enough film stock to do more than one take for each scene, and had to borrow all the costumes and props. He may not have been skilled, but had some things he very definitely wanted to say.

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Broken Blossoms (1919)


Back, with another D.W. Griffith offering. You’ll remember Intolerance, a massively-budgeted epic, nearly bankrupted not just Griffith himself, but an entire studio. So he really had to rein things in out of necessity for this – there are only about four sets and five prominent characters. That minimalism, plus the melodramatic love story within, helped the film turn a profit and the studio turn a corner.  I also think it helped the film, in the end.

The love story takes place between Cheng Huan (actor Richard Barthelmess, in somewhat unconvincing yellowface) and Lucy, a poor and abused teenage orphan. Huan and Lucy live in London’s Chinatown, where Lucy is the ward of a cruel boxer, “Battling Burrows” (Donald Crisp). The prelude scenes introduce Huan taking his leave of China on a self-imposed mission to “spread the gentle message of Buddha to the Anglo-Saxon lands”, but by the time he meets Lucy he is a disillusioned shopkeeper with an opium habit.  Huan often sees Lucy peering longingly through his window at the selection of dolls he has on offer; his shop window is one of the few tastes of beauty available to her.

One night, after a particularly cruel beating at Burrows’ hands, she staggers out of their house in a daze and wanders to Huan’s shop, collapsing on the floor. Huan takes her in, devotedly tending to her wounds and showering her with chaste affection until Burrows learns where she is and storms to Huan’s shop, destoys everything, and drags Lucy home to beat her soundly. But love for Lucy spurs the pacifist Huan to arm himself and attempt a rescue.

This is a melodrama with a big ol’ capital M. All three principals ham things up considerably; much of Barthelmess’ performance consists of simply looking at Lucy with quiet devotion, and Crisp seems to have a permanent sneer on his face.  And there are plenty of lingering close-ups of Lillian Gish as Lucy, looking sadly into the camera with big tear-filled eyes. There’s even a running bit where Burrows repeatedly chides Lucy to “put a smile on yer face”, and because of the sheer misery of her life, all she can muster is to manually use two fingers to prod the corners of her mouth into shape.


The exception is the film’s “closet scene”, a moment towards the end where Lucy, in an effort to escape a thrashing from Burrows, barricades herself in the closet – but Burrows has a hatchet, and starts chopping his way through, to Lucy’s terror.

Reportedly, Gish really sold this scene on set during filming, to the point that neighbors were knocking on the studio door after hearing the screams and asking “is everything okay?” Even Griffith himself was rattled – immediately after the take, there was a moment of silence, broken by Griffith finally retorting, “My God, why didn’t you warn me you were going to do that?”

One other shot may not translate as well into today’s conventions.  During a scene where Huan is tending to Lucy, he is watching her sleep; there is a long closeup of his face, as he stares directly into the camera, followed by a two-shot of him turning away from her on the bed and leaving. I know that it’s probably supposed to depict Huan’s tempation and desire, but it just looks really creepy:


Alternately, it reminded me of Peter Capaldi’s very first appearance as The Doctor on Doctor Who


The smaller scale actually helps Griffith; he couldn’t afford to throw two-story sets or period costumes into the mix.  He even goes minimalist with the lectures in his title cards; save for one small scold in the film’s opening, Griffith steps back and lets the story simply unfold. There is one scene with a whiff of social commentary that made me chuckle, though; early in the film, as Huan is opening up his shop, he is visited a pair of priests. One is the local minister, and is greeted warmly by Huan; he introduces the other to Huan as his brother, proudly saying that his brother is “about to depart for China to preach the gospel to the heathen.” The scene comes no more than two minutes after shots of Huan ambitiously departing China on his own evangelical crusade; but Huan simply smiles blandly, teeth slightly grit, and says “….I wish him luck.”

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)


Full disclosure: I watched this after a completely exhausting week, after a big meal, and actually dozed off a couple times during the proceedings.  But my then-roommate was watching too, and he was awake through the whole thing.  And neither one of us really got what the hell was going on.

It opens with a pair of men on a park bench; a woman walks by them in a daze, and the younger man – named Francis – points her out, explaining to the older man that she is his fiancee and remarking that they’ve been through a lot together.  He begins his story…flashback a couple years, to the German hamlet where Francis and his best buddy were young swells both competing for the heart of the local beauty. On a lark all three visit a local carnival, and attend a side show run by the mysterious Dr. Caligari, a hypnotist who keeps another man in a permanent sleep, locked up in a coffin-size cabinet.  He wakes the man, Cesare, to tell people’s fortunes. Francis’ buddy Alan playfully asks Cesare how long he’s going to live, and Cesare tells him “not past dawn.”

Well, bummer. Especially since later that night Cesare fullfills the prophecy by killing him.

After a couple more murders affect the town, Francis starts to get suspicious of Dr. Caligari and Cesare, discovering that Dr. Caligari has been sending the zombie-like Cesare out on murderous missions. He and the police give chase, trailing the Doctor to the local insane asylum – and are astonished when he easily walks in.  Francis follows, losing Dr. Caligari in the place; he consults with the other doctors, who don’t know of any Dr. Caligari – suspect that he may actually be the asylum’s own director, who they confess has been acting a little weird lately.  They peruse the director’s journals, finding that the director has started to believe that he is the reincarnation of a famous mystic Caligari. Francis and the doctors ultimately capture “Dr. Caligari” and victoriously consign him to a padded cell, ending his reign of terror.

And then – the ending takes a turn, about which I’ll only say that things go a little St. Elsewhere….

The roommate and I stared at each other in confusion, then spent a few minutes on Wikipedia to figure out what the hell had just happened.

Without spoiling things, I’ll just say that the unreliable narrator isn’t that confusing a trope.  But the production has a lot of unrealistic elements, so it was hard to trust anything. All the sets are obvious flat painted boards in bizarre shapes – huge isocoles-triangle doors, chairs like plinths, a vase made out of crepe paper and shaped like a four-foot wedding cake. Even the title cards are done up in stylized blocky lettering.  It’s actually a perfect example of German expressionist design – but to our 21st-century eyes, it came across more like “Dr. Seuss is tripping balls”.

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Intolerance (1916)


And then a year or so after his last flick, D.W. Griffith got high-concept and epic.

Intolerance is actually four separate stories told concurrently, all meant to illustrate how “love” has done battle with “intolerance” through the ages.  There’s a sequence about the fall of Babylon, one about Jesus, a sequence about the French St. Bartholomew Day Massacre, and a contemporary story about a poor couple.  The French story and the Bible story get short shrift, however; early after its release, Griffith learned that audiences were digging the Babylon parts way more, and made some cuts to the two weaker stories so he could put in some more Babylonian footage.  I honestly didn’t miss them – instead of spinning out into a larger examination of the 1500s religious wars in France, the story focuses on just one family, with a virginal eldest daughter refusing the advances of a soldier because she’s engaged to another man; the massacre is his excuse for a revenge killing and that’s it.  And as for the Bible story, well – a Catholic childhood and 2000 years of Western European Civilization has made me familiar enough with that.

The other two stories are richer ones – for two different definitions of “richer”, as well. The contemporary story follows a pair of young people, each driven to the Big City after a strike action at the mill in their home town (coincidentally the same town). They meet, they marry, and they are plagued by the law, and by a team of moral-busybody reformers – the couple’s baby gets taken away by child services when the women discover the mother having a shot of whiskey to cure a cold, and the husband gets framed for a murder and sentenced to hang.  Griffith reserves his anger for the reformers, though – they’re depicted to be the cause of the strike in the first place, since the mill owner’s sister is among their ranks, and her demands for more money for the cause force the mill owner to cut wages.

The Babylon sequence is epic with a big ol’ capital “E”. There are enormous sets filled with platoons of extras, dance sequences, trained animals, chariot races, lavish costumes, and even some R-rated footage in the “temple of Ishtar” (any questions I may have had about whether a woman in a bath was actually naked were answered within ten seconds).  Griffith even came up with the first tracking shot just so he could show off the scope of the set, rigging up a camera platform on an elevator so the cameraman could pan up.

The Babylon story follows a small handful of people – one of whom was, hands-down, probably my favorite in the film: a tomboyish “girl from the mountains” who’s visiting the big city. We first see her sitting in a courtyard, daydreamily staring into space; a moment later, a guy sitting nearby calls to her and lasciviously pats the ground next to him, and she rolls her eyes and throws a rock at him and I fell in love.

For the first half of her story, she’s a feisty bumpkin – exploring the city, sassing back at guys who try to hit on her – but later on she goes full-on action hero, after the king of Babylon intervenes on her chaos (she’s being dragged off to a “marriage market” and is threatening to scratch people’s eyes out) and issues a decree that she is free to choose her own fate.  Out of gratitude, she devotes herself to him – turning spy when she discovers a plot to bring down the city, joining the archers defending the city and towards the end she’s even a chariot driver, desperately trying to get back from the enemy camp to warn the king of an impending attack.

Some of the cast were familiar faces from Birth of A Nation. I recognized Mae Marsh and Miriam Cooper especially, as the younger and older sisters from the southern Cameron family.  Here they respectively are the young mother doing battle with the reformers, and a desperate woman who frames the young husband for the murder she committed.  Marsh seems especially suited to ingienues; she has a giggly, fidgety energy, always biting her nails or gushingly hugging people.  The “mountain girl” from Babylon was a newcomer, Constance Talmadge, and sounds not unlike her character – there’s a story that she was at a screening of the film and overheard two women behind her discussing the chariot scene, and how “they must have gotten a double to drive the chariot”.  Apparently Talmadge turned around and asked them, “want me to show you how black and blue my knees got from that shot?”

The cast isn’t the only throwback to Birth Of A Nation. The pushback on that previous film was, in fact, the entire motivation for Intolerance.  Not that Griffith was defending Nation as such, though – it doesn’t come up, and in a lot of places Griffith comes across as pretty progressive (the freedom granted to the Babylonian girl and the sympathetic depiction of the strikers at the mill among them). Instead, Griffith’s critique is against reformers themselves, depicting them as fuddy-duddies who need to lighten up. It’s the reason why the Wedding at Cana sequence is the longest one in the life-of-Jesus story line – “look, Jesus drank and danced, so it’s okay for us to do it too.”  Unfortunately, Griffith couldn’t resist throwing a misogynist ad hominem into the contemporary sequence, suggesting that the reformers were all just ugly old maids who were jealous no one was dancing and drinking with them any more so now they were taking away everyone’s fun.


Ultimately the film was a box office flop, even with Griffith’s post-release cutting to add more Babylon footage. The sales were never enough to offset the cost of production, and since Griffith put up most of the money, he was pretty much financially ruined for the rest of his life.  He made a handful of other films (some of which are coming up on my list), but nothing quite with this scope; after three modest successes, he had another box office flop and gave up producing and directing forever after.

One final note – I also inadvertently got an illustration in the importance of the film score.  Since Intolerance is in the public domain, there are a few different DVD versions floating around, each with a slightly different print. The company who released mine selected a bunch of Generic Symphonic Music for the score – stuff by Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and such; which lead to a really odd disconnect in the scene where the King of Babylon is learning about the enemy at his gates – as he’s hearing about the impending death of his people, the scoring for the scene was the Can-Can.

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Birth Of A Nation (1915)


Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation has quite the dual reputation. Everyone talks about its technical expertise, its stellar performances, its sheer scope and spectacle. Everyone also talks about how staggeringly and blatantly racist it is – it celebrates the Ku Klux Klan, it features actors in blackface and it drew complaints from the NAACP at the time of its release.  So I knew that watching it was going to be tough.  But I made myself keep an open mind when I watched.

And I think the open mind made everything even worse.

Parts of the plot are actually quite complex (at least, compared to the twelve-minute Great Train Robbery). Our story mainly concerns two families, the northern Stonemans and the southern Camerons, who stay friends throughout the film. Phil Stoneman and his brother are buddies with the two oldest Cameron brothers, and during a visit south at the movie’s start, Phil takes a shine to the older Cameron sister Margaret – meanwhile Ben Cameron is taken with a picture of Phil’s only sister Elsie. While the kids are running around down south, the elder Stoneman, an abolitionist congressman, is coming under the sway of his mixed-race housekeeper.

The Civil War temporarily divides everyone – each set of brothers enlists with the Union and the Confederacy in turn, with the war claiming the younger brothers (who die in each others’ arms). Ben and Phil run into each other as well, when Ben leads a charge on the Union outpost defended by Phil’s squad; when Ben is wouned, Phil gets him safely to an army hospital in the North, where by chance he is tended to by Elsie and makes a bid for her affections. The feeling is apparently mutual – Elsie visits Abraham Lincoln to make a special appeal for a pardon for Ben.

So the families are friends again at war’s end, with a double romance even in the air, and the southern Camerons even applauding President Lincoln. But the elder Stoneman – wholly under the influence of his social-aspirant housekeeper, as well as a mixed-race schemer named Lynch – wants to go even further with promoting a change in race relations, and siezes his chance after Lincoln’s assassination.  And thus the next twenty minutes are an alt-right stereotype of “what Reconstruction was like”, featuring scenes of newly-freed slaves running rampant in the streets, drinking in Congress, stuffing ballot boxes and shoving white people off sidewalks. A new law permitting mixed marriages encourages a black soldier to seek out the youngest Cameron girl, Flora, and ask to marry her – and she completely freaks out at the idea, runs into the woods and jumps off a cliff.

Ben uses her death to rally the initial Ku Klux Klan, gathering them to find the soldier and “give him a trial” (read: lynch him) before dumping his corpse at the doorstep of the new state governor.  The governor – who happens to be Lynch – outlaws the Klan, arrests Ben, and makes his own bid for Elsie.  After much consternation, the Klan dares to re-form and come to the rescue, freeing Ben and fending off Lynch.  The whole thing ends with a double wedding – Cameron to Stoneman in both cases – and both couples spending their honeymoons contemplating an eventual end to war.

I’d heard about the blackface; so I was surprised to see African-American actors in several scenes. Granted, they were living out every worst stereotype about slavery and the Reconstruction South imaginable, but they were there.  Then again, they were also extras; the speaking roles were all given to people in blackface.  The speaking roles also didn’t seem like great prizes – the lot of them were either servants or soldiers, either comically buffonish or malevolently manipulative.

However, the Stoneman’s housekeeper was strangely sympathetic. Her whole motivation was a desire to be a respected lady like Elsie; she is snubbed by a visiting Congressman early in the film, and in a later scene takes great delight in forcing him to treat her with the exact forms of courtesy that he denied to her earlier in the film. It’s clear you’re supposed to think poorly of her – she is so caught up in “pretending to be a lady” that she neglects her work, and in another scene it looks uneasily like she’s trying to seduce Stoneman into doing her will – but frankly, I found myself actually siding with her, and thinking of her as a sort of Lady MacBeth, with her own ambitions coming into play to influence a man with more power.

It’s clear Griffith put a lot of work into this. The battle scenes were all carefully choreographed, with some scenes lifted directly from contemporary paintings of certain battles (Griffith helpfully points them out during the intertitles). And this film is also the birth of a lot of the conventions of film that we take for granted today – closeups, two-shots, even a score.

It’s also clear Griffith knew how some of the racial elements were coming across. In a disclaimer near the beginning, Griffith states that the film is not meant to be a depiction of any one race as a whole, and throughout he takes pains to point out noble moments from “good” African-Americans – Ben is rescued from jail with the help of the Cameron’s servants, and in a scene showing the Camerons grieving Flora’s death, Griffith includes a shot of the two servants huddled together in tears, with the caption “none grieved more than these two”.

But those are small comfort in a film that depicts all of the freed-slave voters as ignorant, greedy, motivated entirely by their ids. They drink, they smoke.  They go barefoot in Congress.  They stuff ballot boxes. They don’t outright rape, but you sense that Griffith would have shown this if censors would have let him.

Griffith also includes a pre-amble quoting President Woodrow Wilson, stating that “white men were roused by an instinct of self-preservation” in the south, and towards the end, an intertitle describes a pair Union soldiers who come to the Cameron’s aid as a case of “The former enemies of North and South united again in defense of their Aryan birthright”.  Towards the end, a scene depicting “the next year’s election” shows a line of white-robed Klansmen glaring threateningly at a mob of would-be black voters, who all turn and slink away. That was real fun to watch in these days of restricted access to ballot boxes…although watching the Klansmen dump the lynching victim on a doorstep, with a sign reading “KKK” pinned to his shirt, was far worse.

….I’ve been following the career of the actor Colman Domingo for some time now, after we did a show together early on in his career. This year, he was in a film about the Nat Turner slave rebellion – which the filmmakers titled Birth Of A Nation, in an ironic nod to how Griffith’s film both launched the movie industry and the modern Klan in one fell swoop. They were trying to “reclaim it”, they said.  I suspect that their choice may be lost on the average moviegoer, but I’m thinking I may want to watch it as a kind of palate cleanser now.

Director's Cut, film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Great Train Robbery (1903)


Wow, look at that! A recognizeable plot!

This takes a huge leap forward from A Trip To The Moon – it’s much easier to follow the action now. There are very few scenes with more than just three people in them – and when there are, it’s easy to follow what’s supposed to be happening and who to pay attention to.  I know I keep harping on that, but this is a basic element of dramaturgy and stagecraft that was getting overlooked in the last film; not because the filmmakers were ignorant, but because film was so new that people were figuring out how it worked.

Even though it’s easier to follow, the plot here is still a little thin, however – a team of train robbers hold up first the train station, and then a train itself, making off with papers from the express car and with valuables pilfered from the passengers at gunpoint. But the station master is revived by his sweet daughter and sounds the alarm, raising a posse to give chase and recover the goods from our villains. The end.  Ben Hur it ain’t, but not bad for only twelve minutes.

A few details made me chuckle.  A number of people get shot over the course of this film, and three of them “play dead” in exactly the same way – coming to a sudden stop, throwing arms straight up over their head, and then sinking to the ground while pirouetting.  It’s not clear whether they’re hamming it up to “sell the action”, or they’re just…hams.  My money’s on the former; another scene with the station master’s daughter has a similar degree of Big Acting, where she pauses in the middle of trying to wake her father to clasp her hands and raise them in prayer for a second, but the actress is a child, and I don’t see her trying to upstage anyone on purpose.

Also, this kind of acting was The Done Thing at this time, on stage especially. This was a long time before naturalistic acting; the goal wasn’t to imitate life, it was to evoke emotion. I’ve seen an actors’ instruction book from the period, which spoke of some very specific poses, gestures, and body language they were expected to assume during different scenes, depending on the circumstances; if you were trying to show fear, you had to stand one certain way, if you were pleading you stood another way. Some of the more histrionic poses may have been an offshoot of arcane acting habit that would have made perfect sense at the time – but just look ridiculous today.

The posse was silly for an entirely different reason. We meet them all at a country cabin where they’re having a lively squaredance, complete with bonnetted ladies, and at one point they yield the floor to a gentleman in a bowler hat who does a sort of tapdance while the other men all shoot at his feet. A moment later, he runs off and the others resume dancing a bit before the sheriff comes in to recruit them all for the posse.  And….scene.   I think this was just sort of an effort to add some “local color”, but that was still one out-of-nowhere shot.

Director's Cut, film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Voyage Dans La Lune (1902)

Image result for voyage dans la lune

And we begin – with a film you can watch on Youtube. One of the oldest movie fantasies in the genre is short enough for the average Youtuber to upload on their site – it’s only twelve minutes long.   I feel like that is some kind of metaphor for the rabid change in cinema technology, but I’m not sure what metaphor that is.

I do know, though, that for most of the film, I had no idea what the hell was going on.

Ostensibly, it’s about a team of astronomers vowing to take a trip to the moon.  They build a rocket and head there, take a nap upon arrival and are watched over by the Big Dipper and by Saturn, and have a couple run-ins with lunar creatures before coming back to Earth and a hero’s welcome. But to me, it looked like  –

  • Group of guys with wizard hats sit in a room gesticulating a lot
  • Wizard guys bother a bunch of workmen
  • Wizard guys cimb into a giant rocket and are seen off by a team of chorus girls
  • Moon gets rocket in eye
  • Wizard guys climb out of spaceship, gesticulate a lot and then go to sleep where they are watched over by creepy ladies peeking out from stars
  • Wizard guys run around and gesticulate more
  • People in lizard masks start chasing them
  • Wizards get back into rocket and splash down on earth
  • Wizard guys make grand re-entry into town, chased by a lizard guy whom they dispatch by hitting him on head
  • Happy people play ring-around-the-rosie around a statue of a wizard

The end.

But my confusion may simply be a function of the passage of time.  A lot of the conventions we associate with movies, especially silent movies – credits, captions, music – simply aren’t here.  I had only the onscreen action to rely on – but that wasn’t helping me much.

What I learned afterward is: Georges Méliès, who also wrote and directed, plays “Professor Barbenfouillis”, the main wizard-guy who proposes the expedition.  As for the lizards, they’re actually “Selenites”, Meilie’s term for moon-people, and are played by various acrobats on a day off from the Folies Bergère. But history has not recorded their names, nor did the film itself.

Meilies was from a theater background, which may have affected the structure somewhat.  In theater it’s common to have a single static set; people can come and go, the ranks on stage can grow and shrink, but audiences can still follow the action (or at least figure out who to pay attention to) because they can hear people talking.  But here…I couldn’t.

More than anything else, that’s what drove home for me just how new this film was for its time – the creators were theater-trained, used to the conventions and rules of theater, and trying to apply them to a wholly new art form – and only realizing after the fact that not only was this art form new, it was different, and needed different rules. 

Film gave directors a lot of freedom too, though. Melies got interested in film because of its special-affects capability – he would do all sorts of weird experiments with his camera to see what it would do to the filmed image; running it backwards, at different speeds, and such.  His experiment with “what would happen if I stopped and started filming mid-way” was his favorite, and lead to him being able to have the wizards “magically” turn poles into chairs, an umbrella “magically” turn into a mushroom, and the like.  Special effects was his forte in theater too, though, so he can probably be forgiven for overlooking the more mundane parts of dramaturgy.

Still – it’s a start.