best film: Intolerance from Griffith – It’s easily the greatest example of cinema as art to date in 1916 and wouldn’t be topped throughout the rest of the decade. It is one of cinemas historically great achievements of editing as well. The crane shot of the Babylon sequence is stunning (you can’t overstate it—one of the finest 20 seconds in cinema history) and the narrative structure and parallel editing was so sophisticated it’s still being used today by the likes of Christopher Nolan and others. Its size (sets, story, narrative complexity, extras, and camera choices) is just so breathtaking. It’s big, ballsy cinema.
most underrated: Cabiria from Pastrone. It isn’t on the TSPDT consensus top 2000 and I’m baffled by that. Perhaps nobody has seen it? Perhaps- it took me forever to get to it. It is easily going to land in my top 1000 when I update it next.
- It doesn’t diminish Griffith, Birth of a Nation or Intolerance, but the brilliance and scope of Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria is more evidence to the fact that cinema, and the fiction feature, is and was a progression of technological, narrative, and stylistic innovations— and this is a big, significant, successful step in that progression
- Shot in episodes or chapters like a novel—and Pastrone’s work clearly has novelistic ambitions and characteristics (both good and bad). It is smart, heavy, dense, high-brow dialogue (and lots of it)—which is interruptive. Complex character connections, wide-ranging locations and a decently sized ensemble. Pastrone expected much from his audience- a good thing overall.
- The volcano set piece is a wow—and for effect, and artistry, Pastrone puts people running in the foreground. A very nice shot.
- The narrative is intricate. There’s fate involved as we follow the travels, trials and tribulations of a stolen girl, the rescue mission after the volcano destroys her city (strong shots of structures and set pieces collapsing). This film is action-filled and violent. Engaging.
- The temple of moloch set piece is extremely imposing and awe-inspiring.
- The décor matches the ambition on the narrative and set pieces—Pastrone infuses every scene with highly designed period detail. Religious costumes, opulence, torches in some frames—big and impressive. Luxury. It successfully transports.
- Temple of Doom-type stuff- sacrifice
- Like Intolerance there are so much shots with like 100 extras moving in the background—we’re on mountain ranges. The size of this is so impressive- from Griffith to DeMille, to Lean and Lord of the Rings and Peter Jackson
- Pastrone moves the camera effectively as well.
- Miniatures in use—like the Roman fleet burning scene
- An actual human pyramid scene with shields as they scale a wall.
- Wide-ranging again—instead of snow in the mountains later we have some great shots of the camels in long shot across the desert. Wow. Magic hour shot with a string of camels on the horizon
- A massive battle — scaling a big wall like Two Towers
- Advertised (in a time when films were all shorts) of being a film of “12,000 shots”.
most overrated: Broken Blossoms from Griffith. It’s ranked #267 on TSPDT all-time and that’s just too lofty. It’s ballyhooed by critics because of the nuanced story of lovers from difference races (it was Griffith’s “apology” for Birth of a Nation but it doesn’t pack half the cinematic style that either Birth or Intolerance do.
gem I want to spotlight: Blind Husbands by von Stroheim is woefully underrated as well. It’s an incredibly promising debut film
trends and notables: Obviously this era is dominated by epic filmmakers- mainly Griffith and DeMille (and a stunning debut by von Stroheim). Von Stroheim would become THE epic filmmaker of the 1920’s and he studied under Griffith first hand (acting in Birth of a Nation and Intolerance). These three actually share quite as bit as they’re best known for making wide-reaching (and expensive) historical epics. DeMille wasn’t half the artist Griffith was but there’s much to admire in their ambition in this early era.
best performance male: There isn’t a ton to choose from here but I’ll go with Richard Barthelmess sensitive performance in Griffith’s Broken Blossoms.
best performance female: It is Lillian Gish by a mile—and not just in one performance—but two. Her work in The Birth of a Nation and Broken Blossoms are #1 and #2, male or female, for the decade. Intolerance is more like Potemkin or Dunkirk being an ensemble so there isn’t a big performance to single out
Archives, Directors, and Grades
|The Birth Of A Nation- Griffith||MP|
|The Cheat- DeMille||HR|
|Intolerance – Griffith||MP|
|Blind Husbands- von Stroheim||HR|
|Broken Blossoms- Griffith||HR/MS|
|Male and Female- DeMille||HR|
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives