One hundred years ago this week, Intolerance finally opened in Los Angeles. Grace Kinsley reported on the opening night crowd, which included Douglas Fairbanks, Constance Talmadge, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mae Marsh, Thomas Meighan, Mabel Normand, Myrtle Gonzales, Mae Marsh and “scores of other stage and screen people.” Actors who were working that night on stage like Trixie Friganza, Charles Ruggles and Douglas MacLean went to matinees in the following days. It was the biggest film event of the year.
They New York reviews had been extraordinary when it premiered on September 5th (Photoplay called them “ardent typewriter rhapsodies”) and the Los Angeles reviews equaled them:
Harry Carr, L.A. Times: “With Intolerance, David Wark Griffith has made his place secure as one of the towering geniuses of the world. As a medium for expressing art, moving pictures may not stand the test of time, but Intolerance is greater than any medium. It is one of the mile posts on the long road of art, where painting and sculpture and literature and music go jostling eagerly along together.”
Guy Price, L.A. Herald: “Nobody had dreamed that Intolerance would be so stupendous, so wonderful, so inspiring, so thrilling and so vitriolic, yet so true, an indictment against the universe’ most cherished weaknesses—deceit and bigotry… It was more than the eye anticipated, more than it could understand and digest at a moment when the brain was befuddled from the joyous shock.”
Otheman Stevens, L.A. Examiner: “It is a picture of Life that Mr. Griffith has drawn from the rays of the sun and from the effulgence of his own brain.”
Maitland Davies, L.A.Tribune: “The audience was simply swept off its feet…. It is a great, big, throbbing drama bringing yesterday and today before one in a manner no other man has succeeded in doing.”
George St. George, L.A. Express: “It is worthy of a place among the classics and it stamps Mr. Griffith as an unquestioned genius. …No branch of the theater has ever brought forth anything that is comparable to Intolerance.”
The praise really helped sell tickets at first: Kingsley later reported that 500 people were turned away from the Saturday night screening. But the strong box office didn’t last and the film lost money. By November there was already a critical backlash too. For example, Film Fun ran an unsigned editorial that acknowledged Griffith’s “genius” and the film’s “remarkable spectacular production,” but pointed out “there is too much of it. It is complex rather than finished. Intolerance is bewildering—it is magnificent—but it is patchwork.” Not everyone wants to put themselves through three hours of high art, and this sort of review gave them a reason to skip it.
Karl Brown, who was the camera assistant on the film, had another theory in his autobiography about the film’s box-office failure: “Intolerance was nothing more or less than a good old-fashioned pulpit-pounding hell-fire sermon preaching peace on earth…Griffith had succeeded, not only well but brilliantly so. But he had succeeded with the wrong thing at the wrong time, for the world had changed. People who had been singing about not wanting their boy to be a soldier were now hot for war.”
There’s another measure of how seriously Intolerance was being taken: only men got to write the reviews, even thought there were many female film writers at the time, according to The Complete History of American Film Criticism. Kingsley’s opinion of the film went unrecorded.
She did get to write about the competition; this week it included The Return of Draw Egan, “an extremely brisk picture play” starring William S. Hart as a reformed bandit turned marshal; The Iron Woman, a “sincere human drama” that featured Nance O’Neil as a long-suffering mother; and The Ragged Princess, “a make-believe world, where things happen just as we should like them to,” in which June Caprice played an orphan who is almost swindled out of an inheritance. But the most unusual film Kingsley saw this week was Puppets, a two-reeler directed by Tod Browning, who “has given us something new in screenland, viz., a rare whimsy in form of a pantomime photoplay, done amid exquisite settings of the futuristic order, and with all of the characters dressed like Pantaloon, Pierrot, Pierrette, Columbine, Clown, etc.” French pantomime didn’t often turn up in American movies. It’s a lost film. Browning had been directing for only a little over a year, but he went on to direct several Lon Chaney films as well as Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932).