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Intolerance (1916) is a landmark American epic that interweaves stories of prejudice and inhumanity from four historical eras, ranging from Babylon to the modern day. Many future stars, such as Lillian Gish, appear in major roles, while others, like Erich von Stroheim and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., appear as extras. Director D.W. Griffith intended Intolerance to stand as a rebuke against evil and injustice, and as a rebuttal to the severe criticism that he received after the release of his previous picture, The Birth of a Nation (1915).
The epic, three-eighths-of-a-mile-long sets that were created for the Babylonian sequence towered above the streets of Hollywood, but probably not as high as its reputation in Hollywood legend. It is hard to imagine now how the set must have appeared to the citizens of Los Angeles. In the age before skyscrapers dotted the Los Angeles horizon, the Babylon set, towering 165 feet above the Hollywood bungalows, and by far the most expensive set ever made by that time, looked like an ancient city springing up from beneath Los Angeles itself. Griffith's conception of the grandeur of the Babylon sequence was inspired by Quo Vadis (1912) and Cabiria (1914), both made in Italy. In turn, Intolerance influenced other silent epics, such as Robin Hood (1922) and The Thief of Bagdad (1924).
The undisputed hero of the construction of the Babylon set, as well as other sets in Intolerance, was Frank "Huck" Wortman, the chief carpenter, set builder, and stage mechanic. A rough, down-to-earth man who chewed tobacco and spat out of the side of his mouth, it was Wortman who saved Griffith thousands of dollars in production costs by imagining and improvising new ways of making huge sets look the part. The beautiful archways in the Jerusalem set, for example, were ingenuously created by bending thin boards and coating them in plaster. Overall, Griffith depended heavily on Wortman to raise the Babylon set to newer, more stupendous heights. Everyday the sets kept growing larger and higher than the original plans called for. There was a very real fear that they would collapse, so whenever a nighttime windstorm fell upon the city, Wortman and several other crewmen would jump into their cars and race to the set in order to reinforce the cable supports. While the publicity for Intolerance greatly exaggerated the sets as reaching 500 feet high, the truth behind the legendary sets placed the bar for future epic movies in terms of grandiosity and workmanship.
Director/Producer: D.W. Griffith
Screenplay: Tod Browning, D. W. Griffith
Cinematography: G. W. Bitzer, Karl Brown
Art director: Walter Hall
Production designer: D.W. Griffith
Set design: Frank "Huck" Wortman
New Score by Carl Davis
Principal Cast: Olga Grey (Mary Magdalene), Lillian Gish (The Eternal Mother), Robert Harron (The Boy), Joseph Henabery (Admiral Coligny), Lloyd Ingraham (Judge of the Court), Elmo Lincoln (Belshazzar's bodyguard).
BW & C-177m.
by Scott McGee