Vintage Movie Monday: Intolerance (1916)

After working with D.W. Griffith on several smaller silent film projects, Anita Loos helped write some of the title cards for Griffith’s 1916 epic, Intolerance.  She is often not credited for this work, which is a shame.

The film is considered one of the great classics of the silent era, due largely to its epic scope and unconventional plot structure:

The three-and-a-half hour epic intercuts four parallel storylines each separated by several centuries: (1) A contemporary melodrama of crime and redemption; (2) a Judean story: Christ’s mission and death; (3) a French story: the events surrounding the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572; and (4) a Babylonian story: the fall of the Babylonian Empire to Persia in 539 BC. (from Wikipedia)

The various plots have their own detailed visual styles, not only matching sets and costumes to the time period, but also utilizing color coding and themed title cards to help audiences tell them apart at a glance.  The Babylonian story, for example, has a yellowish cast and detailed title cards with historical footnotes.  The French story’s blueish title cards feature a fleur de lis motif.  The contemporary melodrama, on the other hand, has a more standard black and white look and simple title cards like the one below.

Loos worked on the titles for Intolerance, but it is impossible to know which ones she wrote.  Laura Frost hazards some educated guesses about which titles might have been Loos’s:

In most cases, we can only speculate which writer was responsible for which title, but the stylistic differences are suggestive. Loos was clear about her role. In her memoir, she recalls, “D. W. bade me put in titles even when unnecessary and add laughs wherever I found an opening. I found several” (GI, 103). Interspersed among the instructive and weighty inscriptions are lighter and more ironic captions that seem more reflective of the “Loos-style.” For example, in the scene in which The Dear One, who has jealously watched a woman’s undulating walk draw men’s attention on the street and decides to imitate her by tying her skirt into a hobble, a title dryly comments that “The new walk seems to bring results” as men flock to her ridiculous gait.

Intolerance is popping up a lot recently; the still above has appeared in both the video game L.A. Noire and this year’s big Oscar nominee, Hugo.  

It is by all counts a marvel of silent cinema, one that demands a huge attention investment from its viewers and rewards them in turn with a complicated intercut narrative structure and many gorgeous visual moments.

Loos worked Intolerance into her own later work by giving Lorelei, the protagonist of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a story about her cameo in the film.  Fittingly, Lorelei is supposed to have played one of the vampish Babylonian maidens — frankly a perfect role for her buxom chorus girl character.  And given Lorelei’s later screen life as the perfectly-cast Marilyn Monroe, it is hard not to search those maidens’ faces for her half-lidded eyes and trademark pout.

Intolerance is now in the public domain; you can watch it for free or download it from the Internet Archive.  However, that version doesn’t include the color-coding of storylines, which I found really fascinating and helpful.  Netflix’s streaming version does, if you’d like to watch it like that.

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