Posts Tagged ‘D.W. Griffith’

D.W. Griffith’s Two Very Different Epics

Posted in General on February 19th, 2011 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

The Birth of a Nation and the Death of the Nickelodeon

In 1915, D.W. Griffith  raised both the quality of the American film and the price for it.  His epic “The Birth of a Nation” was a cinematic masterpiece; President Wilson had described the ‘moving picture’ as “history written in lighting.”  The film, a depiction of the Civil War and Reconstruction from a very Southern perspective, was a sweeping spectacle with brilliant cinematography.  However repellent its bias and racism, the film was remarkable.  It had to be seen, the public was eager, and the theater owners knew that they could double the ticket prices.

Now it would cost a dime to watch Mary Pickford charm her way out of mishap and adversity.

And Griffith really could have made a fortune if he had thought of a licensing arrangment with the Klu Klux Klan.  The film’s heroic depiction of those Knights of the White Race revived and glamourized the Cross Burners.   What redneck wouldn’t want an authentic white sheet autographed by Griffith and Lillian Gish!

Ironically, Griffith could have used the money.  The profits from “Birth” could not meet the growing debts from his next film “Intolerance.”  Griffith’s intention was to make an even greater epic, a spectacle that covered 2500 years of history.  “Intolerance” would  tell four different stories:  the fall of  Babylon, the massacre of the Huguenots, the Passion of Christ, and the soul-deadening nature of modern society.  Griffith expected this to be the greatest film ever made, and he was not going to shortchange his masterpiece.  As guests at orgies or victims of massacre, Griffith employed three thousand extras.  The sets for Babylon covered one mile in area; Belshazzar’s Palace had no cheap canvas backdrops, so neither would “Intolerance.”  This was the most expensive film that Hollywood had yet made.  It cost two million dollars, and Griffith was personally financing the film.  (By contrast, the production of “Birth of a Nation”  cost $112,000.)

To make a profit on  “Intolerance”, Griffith asked that the theaters charge a dollar a ticket.  In 1916, the average worker only earned about $2 dollars a day.  Ticket prices remained a dime.  Worse for Griffith, the critics and the public did not like “Intolerance.”  They would have called the three-hour muddle “Inexplicable.”  People were bewildered by the cross-cutting of the four plots.  Was Cyrus the Persian riding to the rescue of the Parisian Huguenots?  The film was a financial disaster, and Griffith would be paying its debts for the rest of his life.

So, in 1915 D.W. Griffith created the American movie epic, and the next year he pioneered the box office flop.