D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance:

The Long-Forgotten Debut

     by William M. Drew


The advent of online digitalized newspaper archives has opened the door to a vast treasure trove of long-buried information that is rewriting history, including that of the movies. One example of this is the new data I have been able to find on the first screening of D. W. Griffith’s 1916 film masterpiece, Intolerance. To be sure, this is not as dramatic as the discovery I made of Griffith’s lost years in the theatre in the early 20th century with its revelation of a highly dramatic and hitherto unknown episode in his life. My research in this resulted in a book entitled Mr. Griffith’s House with Closed Shutters: The Long-Buried Secret That Turned Lawrence Into D. W., which can be ordered from Amazon Books: http://www.amazon.com/Mr-Griffiths-House-Closed-Shutters/dp/1466215100  Nevertheless, the recovered material on the initial public showing of Intolerance gives one a fresh insight into Griffith’s methods as an artist including the manner in which he sought to introduce the film to its first audiences.

Standard sources have stated that one month prior to the world premiere of Intolerance in New York City, Griffith first screened the film in early August 1916 in Riverside, California. This information appears in what is a generally well-researched article by Russell Merritt on the evolution of the film, “D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance: Reconstructing an Unattainable Text,” published in the journal, Film History, and accessible online at: http://www.zzproductions.fr/pdf/griffith’s-intolerance-by_russel_merrith.pdf  Other sources have repeated this information, including the essay I wrote, “D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance: Evolution of a Masterpiece,” included as a bonus feature in the 2013 release of the film on Blu-ray/DVD by the Cohen Film Collection and available for purchase at: http://www.amazon.com/Intolerance-Blu-ray/dp/B00EVU3SO0/?tag=cohmedgro-20  With a pristine, beautifully tinted print, a powerful orchestral score by Carl Davis, the two spin-off features, The Mother and the Law and The Fall of Babylon, and a special interview with Kevin Brownlow, this is by far the best version of Intolerance now available to the public.

Thanks to a recent addition to the Newsbank group of vintage newspapers, it is now possible to correct my error and those of others by documenting that it was not Riverside in August 1916 where the film was first seen by the public but rather the city of San Luis Obispo on July 22 and 23, 1916. This is contrary to Russell Merritt’s statement that San Luis Obispo was the third and last city where the film was previewed following screenings in Riverside and Pomona but that, unlike the earlier showings, the one in San Luis Obispo was “unadvertised and unreviewed.” While there was to be no formal review of this first-ever public screening of Intolerance, it was fully advertised albeit, as with the succeeding previews, in a manner that involved an amusing bit of deception on the part of Griffith and his company.

My research led me to an article, “New Havens of the Movies,” published in the November 1919 issue of Photoplay Magazine. The author was Alfred A. Cohn, later the scriptwriter of such celebrated films as The Cat and the Canary and The Jazz Singer, both made in 1927. Cohn credited Griffith with being the first producer in the film industry to test his films in smaller towns before premiering in the metropolitan centers, a practice known as “trying on the dog” (for “dog town”) he had borrowed from Broadway producers staging out of town try-outs in advance of the opening on the Great White Way. According to Cohn, Griffith began this method in 1914 when he embarked on feature film production. Initially, Pasadena was the city he utilized for previewing The Escape, Home, Sweet Home and The Avenging Conscience, but due to the town’s close proximity to Hollywood, the director found it necessary to select communities at a greater distance from the film capital to avoid competition from “unscrupulous rivals” cognizant of his activities.

Prior to its premiere, Griffith had previewed his earlier spectacular production, The Birth of a Nation, twice under its original title, The Clansman, first in Riverside on January 1 and 2, 1915, and later that month in Pomona, with no attempt to conceal the nature of the story and the creative personnel involved. This time, however, Griffith had created not only an entirely original work without any direct literary or dramatic source from which it was adapted but also a far more ambitious effort utilizing a truly novel structure never attempted before in a motion picture. Griffith sensed he was taking an enormous gamble in making on such a mammoth scale a film with a narrative intercutting four stories from different eras to express a very personal view of history and society. Accordingly, he apparently felt that as many as three previews were needed to gauge public reaction and make changes in the film as deemed necessary.

In his richly detailed memoir of his experiences as an assistant cameraman on many of the director’s great productions, Adventures with D. W. Griffith, Karl Brown described Griffith’s predilection for testing his films in “out-of-the-way places.” Without specifying it was for Intolerance, he alludes to the first theatrical screening of the 1916 epic:

“Griffith took his own car, driven by his own driver, a tall, tight-lipped man known only as Mac. He took Rose and Jimmy Smith [Griffith’s cutters who assisted him in editing his pictures] and a stack of film cans containing the latest of many cut and recut versions of the film in progress with him. He might go anywhere. He once went as far afield as San Luis Obispo, far up the coast halfway to San Francisco.  These trips were closely guarded secrets, not for the sake of hiding anything but for the sake of being sure that there could be no such thing as a studio claque in the audience to distort reactions.”

Brown went on to speculate that Griffith selected more remote communities because, having been an “extremely bad actor” on the stage, he wanted to test audience reaction from among less sophisticated spectators who would respond readily to narrative devices grounded in the popular theatre of melodrama. In the context of the San Luis Obispo preview, however, this seems somewhat doubtful.  Many, including Brown, have stated that Griffith was unsuccessful in the theatre, a belief encouraged by the director himself who often dismissed his early acting on the stage as a failure. In truth, though, a large percentage of the critics reviewing his theatrical performances had had high praise for them.

The main reason for the choice of San Luis Obispo seems to have been its distance from the movie capital or indeed any large metropolis, located as it was on the boundary between Northern and Southern California. As the structure of the film was so unorthodox and it was such a risky venture, it apparently was felt desirable to try it out in a locale sufficiently removed from both Hollywood and San Francisco that a possible initial failure in reaching the audience might prove less disastrous than in a larger community. A less-than-favorable reaction in a major city could have cast a pall over the entire project, including efforts to recut or reshoot it in a manner that might have made it more acceptable to the public. As Cohn wrote: “The entire cinema world was agog over his secret activities and he did not want to show it unfinished in any nearby community. So a theatre was rented in San Luis Obispo, 220 miles north of Los Angeles, and Intolerance taken there for a tryout.”

Both to maintain this secrecy and to prime the audiences in the manner he desired, Griffith even created a fictional persona for the previews of his new film. Whereas The Birth of a Nation had been previewed with his own name front and center in the advance publicity, Intolerance was heralded in these first advertisements as the work of an Italian filmmaker alternately named as Dante Guglio, Dante Gulio and Dante Giulio, the initials derived from the trademark “DG” (for David Griffith) that appear in many of the film’s subtitles.  The picture was given a new albeit temporary name for the previews, The Downfall of All Nations, or Hatred the Oppressor, and was credited to the Itala Film Co., said to be the same company that had produced the great Italian spectacle, Cabiria (1914). This was particularly significant since it was a screening of Cabiria that had inspired Griffith to undertake his own spectacular recreation of ancient history in an effort to surpass the Italian production. The new film was advertised as having as one of its highlights a great combat between two towering gladiators over the love of a beautiful siren whose wiles and charms almost cause the destruction of an empire. In truth, though, there was no such plot motif in the film, but Griffith and his publicists apparently felt that such an enticing advertising gimmick would help lure spectators to the theatre to see something far more wondrous.

The theatre where the new film was to have its first screening was one of the showplaces of San Luis Obispo, then a bustling little city with a population of 6,500. Opened in December of 1911, the El Monterey Theatre had a seating capacity of 700 and was advertised as the best-equipped theatre between San Jose and Santa Barbara. The special screening introduced an innovation to the El Monterey since, for this occasion, two projectors would be used to show the film, thus avoiding the delays between reels that had been the practice there up to that time. The showing would also have the advantage of a small orchestra playing the score that had been arranged for the film. There were to be three screenings, the first one on Saturday evening, July 22, starting at 7:45 p.m., a matinee on Sunday, July 23, at 2 p.m., and a final presentation that night at 7:45 p.m. The newspaper advertisement announced it as a ten-reel feature but this was doubtless a rounded figure for the film that was apparently 12-13 reels in length. Although at an early stage of production Griffith seems to have considered releasing it as a much longer film requiring two nights to run it, he ultimately opted for a length comparable to that of The Birth of a Nation.

There would be no review in the San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram following the three screenings. Instead, on Monday, July 24, there was a news item reporting that the large audience in attendance had been delighted with the production and bestowed many compliments on the management for bringing such a strong film to the theatre. Griffith and his presence in the theatre during the showings were not mentioned in the paper, nor was there any reference to the little orchestra playing the score by Joseph Carl Breil. The only person connected with the film noted in the Daily Telegram following the screenings was John A. Barry, Griffith’s friend and the business manager of the Epoch Producing Co., the distributing organization of The Birth of a Nation. He had invested in both the earlier film as well as the new one and was in San Luis Obispo for the screening, as the paper pointed out. A later item appearing in the Daily Telegram in March 1918 in connection with a successful revival of Intolerance in San Luis Obispo that month recalled that a number of newspaper correspondents had also attended the preview and all the screenings had played to crowded houses.

In his Photoplay article, Alfred A. Cohn provided additional information about the San Luis Obispo showing, revealing that, despite the attempted secrecy, word did get out to some in Hollywood. He wrote that “the night of the performance two Los Angeles directors who had once been in Griffith’s employ were in the audience. They had speeded that distance by auto after someone had ‘leaked’ to see what ‘D. W.’ had up his sleeve.”

Cohn pointed out that, in addition to his cutters, James and Rose Smith, Griffith was often accompanied to his previews by his secretary, Agnes Wiener, and his cameraman, Billy Bitzer, as well as cast members and people on the exploitation staff. Inside the theatre, Griffith and staff members would pay close attention to the reactions of the audience. Although Griffith does not seem to have utilized written cards from audience members commenting on the film being previewed as would be the practice of the studios in later years, the careful study he and his associates paid to the spectators’ response could result in subsequent changes in the film. On the way back from a screening, Griffith would confer with his employees about the new film with everyone encouraged to have his or her say. Cohn noted that, more than many other prominent filmmakers, Griffith solicited the opinion of even his humblest employees and took their views fully into account.

The director next previewed the film at the Orpheum Theatre in Riverside on August 4 and 5. Riverside then had a population of 18,000, nearly three times that of San Luis Obispo. With two large newspapers servicing the community, the ambitious presentation Griffith was planning was bound to generate considerable mention in the press, particularly in light of the successful preview there of The Birth of a Nation the year before. As in San Luis Obispo, Griffith advertised the film as a production from the Itala Film Co. directed by Dante Gulio. In the announcement, he further elaborated on these fictions by claiming that eleven reels of the film had been completed when the war broke out and the director, along with a majority of the players, was called to the front. A large percentage of the film’s actors were said to have been either killed or captured, with Dante Gulio a prisoner of the Austrians in Vienna. The film’s negative was described as having been purchased in America with a final twelfth reel shot in the US to complete the picture. Besides repeating the claim that the film involved a conflict between gladiators, the announcement said it depicted the downfall of ancient Rome with battle scenes taken at night showing a cast of more than 100,000 in front of the gates of the city.

The mythical Dante Gulio soon gave way to the very real D. W. Griffith, reported by the Riverside newspapers to be staying at the Mission Inn. Also checking in at the famed hostelry, as noted in the local press, were Mae Marsh and Lillian and Dorothy Gish, along with their mothers, Constance Talmadge, Robert Harron, James and Rose Smith, and Joseph Carl Breil who was on hand to conduct the eight-piece orchestra playing the score he had specially arranged for the new film. To a reporter’s query about whether The Downfall of All Nations was the film on which he had been working for the past year, Griffith responded with an enigmatic smile that he was here to witness the picture’s premiere. Lauding the beauty of Riverside, he said that, since the preview of The Birth of a Nation, he looked on the city as a sort of mascot and hoped to screen all of his future films there first. Diplomatically ignoring the earlier showing in San Luis Obispo, he stated that Riverside was the first city in the country to see the film and there would be no other screenings until it opened in New York in the fall. He said it would be at least one year before other cities on the Pacific Coast would present the film.

The Downfall of All Nations was booked at the Orpheum Theatre for two nightly shows only on Friday the fourth and Saturday the fifth at 8 p.m. The Orpheum had formerly been the Auditorium but recently a new management had, besides renaming it, remodeled it as a state-of-the-art theatre with a seating capacity of 800. Reviews appeared in the newspapers following the first performance. Writing in the Riverside Daily Press, W. L. Leamon hailed the new film as surpassing anything that had been exhibited there. Other than expressing some objection to the most gruesome images of bloodshed in the Babylonian scenes which he suggested could be cut, he had nothing but praise for “this wonderful production” to which nothing could be compared. The Babylonian battle scenes were, he said, “stupendous” as was the equally amazing feast in the great hall of Babylon. He described the theme as showing “the iron hand of authority” oppressing the powerless throughout history. The acting of Mae Marsh with “her wonderful art of expression” and Constance Talmadge with her equally splendid ability to interpret a difficult part were stand-outs, he wrote, as was also Seena Owen in her portrayal of the prince’s wife. Curiously, though, his review did not identify Griffith as the actual director but instead noted that the picture showed that Dante Gulio was “a prototype of the great and only D. W. Griffith.”

The review in the Riverside Enterprise, on the other hand, emphasized the fact that Griffith was the director of The Downfall of All Nations. The critic noted that his films had a tendency to carry a message, that he could be called a propagandist, but for that very reason his film was “all the more interesting and all the more worthwhile, for it is no petty creed of living that Griffith advances. He is an idealist with ‘the brotherhood of man’ as his chief tenet.” The review, headlined “Film Spectacle is Artistic Triumph,” said that in scope and scenic effect, it compared very favorably with Cabiria, “but with the addition of that intangible entity which really grips the spectator—‘soul.’” He then described the film’s theme as an attack on “intolerance of all sorts and all through the ages,” including in the Modern Story depicting “the intolerance of working conditions in great industries” and the “intolerance of the misguided social worker.” The “photography is nothing short of wonderful,” he wrote, with the historically complete sets and battle scenes that were “realistic, compelling and altogether convincing.” The acting, too, was “superb without exception,” as he made special mention of Mae Marsh as the heroine in the Modern Story. While he acknowledged that there might be criticism that some of the scenes were “overdrawn and slightly melodramatic,” he felt this “slight fault is swallowed up by the terrific appeal of the whole.” The title, though, he called a mistake “as it gives no inkling of its extent or its scope” but thought this would “probably be remedied.” In conclusion, he pronounced the new film as “probably the greatest motion picture ever produced.”

The Saturday morning following the first screening, Lillian Gish was interviewed by a reporter from the Enterprise. Declining to answer more personal questions, Lillian, when asked what was her most thrilling experience, replied, “Last night.” After seeing the new film in the theatre, she said she was so excited by the experience that she was unable to sleep. She pointed out that while working in such a massive production, one couldn’t realize its true greatness until seeing it in its entirety. Her viewing of it in the theatre was something she would long remember. She said she had come down with others for the preview and was always impressed with the charm of Riverside and the Mission Inn. She added that she didn’t like to rest for any length of time, finding that more tiring than work, and concluded by saying she planned to go for a swim that afternoon.

The critic of the Enterprise wrote in his review that the second performance that night would begin at 7:30 p.m. due to the film’s running-time being slightly more than three hours. This was a change from the first night’s showing when it had started at eight. He noted in his review that the film had played to a crowded and enthusiastic house and advised spectators to arrive early that night as he expected there would be a large attendance for the second performance.

There is, however, conflicting information about the extent of the turn-out for the Riverside previews. When the film returned to Riverside for an engagement in another theatre in December of 1916, the Daily Press recalled that back in August the “attendance was not large.” This later screening also did not draw well, according to the paper which said that “attendance has not been what this picture deserves.” This sharply differs from the consistent reports in the San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram that the film’s previews had attracted crowded houses, a success which the paper said was repeated in San Luis Obispo when Intolerance played there in March of 1918. There seemed to be no consistency in the film’s box office pull. For example, when Intolerance was presented in San Bernardino, a city not far from Riverside, only one month later in January 1917, it created a sensation, luring thousands of spectators to the theatre and provoking a fierce debate over its content between those on opposite sides of the Prohibition issue.

Whatever the size of the attendance at the Riverside previews, it had clearly been a succes d’estime, as evidenced in the glowing notices, and was inadequately described by Merritt as having “drained at least two members of the audience with its soporific titles and tedious detail.” On the contrary, as the Enterprise noted a few days later, the film had made “a profound impression upon two Riverside audiences.” This item also disclosed that the film, which had been produced under the working title of The Mother and the Law and had been screened in Riverside as The Downfall of All Nations, had been given a new and fitting appellation that would suit the colossal production admirably—Intolerance. The paper reported that, under an agreement with Klaw & Erlanger, Griffith was to present the film at the Liberty Theatre beginning on August 21. The opening, however, was postponed to a later date for Griffith was to hold one more preview in California before taking the film back East.

The director had arranged a final try-out in Pomona, then a comparatively small city of 12,500 located at the far end of Los Angeles County, about halfway between Riverside and the City of the Angels. Separated from the metropolis and its burgeoning movie studios by hills and valleys and rough roads, Pomona seemed a world away in those days. Griffith, wrote Alfred A. Cohn, regarded Pomona “as equivalent to a middle western agricultural and college town. If a play ‘gets over’ in Pomona, it will ‘clean up’ in the mid-west.” Having earlier held a second preview of The Birth of a Nation in Pomona prior to its formal release, Griffith decided to repeat the experiment for his third and final preview of Intolerance.

The engagement was for Wednesday, August 16, and Thursday, August 17, with both screenings starting at 7:30 p.m. The venue selected for these special showings was the Belvedere Theatre with a seating capacity for 480 and which, like the El Monterey in San Luis Obispo, had opened its doors in 1911. In the advertisements placed in the Pomona newspapers, the title of the film was still being given as The Downfall of All Nations, or, Hatred the Oppressor, while the announcements continued to describe it as an Italian production that included a fight between two gladiators for a beautiful siren during the fall of ancient Rome.

Interviewed by Kevin Brownlow for his book, The Parade’s Gone By, Joseph Henabery, who played Admiral Coligny in the film, recalled the preview nearly a half century later. He said that he rode to Pomona in Griffith’s chauffeur-driven Fiat, along with the director, Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish, and Robert Harron. As he described it: “In those days it was a terrible thirty-mile ride to Pomona; there were no paved highways then. We plowed through to Pomona because it was an out-of-the-way place where we could be sure of an unprejudiced reaction.”

Hundreds of Pomona theatre-goers filled the Belvedere that night, reported the writer for the Pomona Bulletin the next day. Few in the audience, however, were aware of the presence among them of Griffith and the cinematic luminaries in attendance. Dressed modestly and wearing a soft shirt, Griffith took his seat in a box to view the production. The article in the Bulletin made no mention of Joseph Henabery, Lillian Gish and Robert Harron, but noted as being there Mae Marsh, her mother, her brother Oliver, later a famed cinematographer, and two of her sisters, Mildred and Frances. Mildred would act in several films while Frances subsequently became a film editor. The reporter said Frances aspired to reach the heights attained by Mae and that she had a part in the new picture. Standard sources, however, have always stated that it was Mae’s older sister, Marguerite Marsh, who appeared in the Modern Story of Intolerance as a society girl. Marguerite had a notable career of her own, and it is unclear if she was also at this preview and if the reporter might have confused her with Frances.

There were others who were listed in the article as having attended the Pomona preview. These included: Elmo Lincoln, the future Tarzan who played the Mighty Man of Valor in the Babylonian Story; Howard Gaye, the British actor cast as Christ, and “his stunningly attractive wife;” Edward Dillon, now a director who had acted with Griffith for years, including in the Modern Story, and his wife; Wilfred Lucas, another prominent actor associated with Griffith who had turned to directing; and Fay Tincher, the beautiful and popular comedienne of many films who did not appear in Intolerance but whose screen career had earlier been boosted by Griffith.

The eight-piece orchestra began playing Joseph Carl Breil’s score as what the Bulletin called a “mystery picture” unfurled before a rapt audience who sat “spellbound with wonder and amazement as each succeeding scene rivaled the preceding one for its grandeur, enormity, joy, or pathos.” The reviewer said that while it was very seldom that an audience applauded a motion picture, Griffith’s epic was imbued with such a Shakespeare-like power that “its spirit was caught by the audience and the applause was general.” He could find nothing comparable to the film, whether in scenic effects that resembled moving oil paintings or acting of great artistic and emotional power. So powerful was the work of the players, he wrote, “that their effect upon the audience was interesting to note. Many left the theater as if in a trance.”

After the screening had concluded, a reporter from the Bulletin talked with both Griffith and Mae Marsh. The actress, modestly evading a discussion of her remarkable performance, instead spoke of how deeply impressed she was by the depictions of death and destruction in the Babylonian scenes in which she did not appear. Griffith, for his part, paid a compliment to the Pomona audience and explained to the reporter that he was not making a big “splurge” over the initial performance as it was still several weeks before the picture was to go into general release. Despite the disclosure in the Riverside paper several days before, the director continued to adopt a coy, wait-and-see stance with the Bulletin representative as to what was to be the final title of the film that had just been screened in the Belvedere as The Downfall of All Nations.

Joseph Henabery recalled that on the way back to Los Angeles, everyone else in Griffith’s Fiat was raving about how wonderful the film was but that he was disconcerted by the unusual structure involving the four parallel stories. In particular, he felt the subtitles were insufficient in explaining the actions, relationships and motivations of the characters. Subsequently at the studio, he voiced his criticisms to Griffith. Henabery recalled that the director at first had a rare outburst of temper at these objections. After he had thought it over, however, Griffith saw his point and then worked with him and scenarist Frank E. Woods to make the suggested changes in the titles.

Henabery’s criticisms, as well as the review in the Pomona Progress indicating that the film had been projected at too fast a speed, led Merritt to conclude that at this stage “the production was clearly still in trouble.” However, even the Progress headed its review “Greatest of Films Here Well Received.” The Bulletin reviewer left no doubt that the film as shown at the preview was an extraordinary artistic triumph, an achievement he compared to the works of Homer and Shakespeare. He observed that “The picture is deep. It requires the constant attention and study. It is designed for an intelligent audience and may be said to pioneer another forward step in raising to a still higher level the unspoken drama.”

In general, then, the reception for Griffith’s complex masterpiece in Pomona was highly positive, as contemporary opinion documents—a far different fate than that of another landmark film there many years later. For Pomona would receive a black eye in the annals of film as the site of what is doubtless the most famous or rather infamous preview in all of cinema history—the first public screening of Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons at the Fox Theatre on the night of March 17, 1942. Accounts that are now legendary relate what witnesses from the studio described as the most disastrous preview they had ever experienced, with rowdy, mostly youthful Pomonans either laughing derisively and uproariously at dramatic scenes, talking back to the screen, or walking out long before the film had concluded. The fall-out from this preview, along with Welles’s absence from the country, has been blamed for the decision by RKO production heads to delete a large portion of Ambersons, resulting in the mutilated masterpiece that alone exists today. Hence, it is the supposedly unsophisticated tastes of Pomona filmgoers that has been continually invoked as a major factor in what is widely viewed as an artistic desecration, although the version that emerged from all the cutting and reediting without the director’s participation  is still deservedly acclaimed as one of the cinema’s greatest works .

The striking differences between the two previews a quarter of a century apart reveal, however, not so much a decline in the sensibility of Pomona’s moviegoers as a stark contrast in the methods that were used to test a new and artistically experimental film on a fresh audience. As has often been mentioned, the screening of The Magnificent Ambersons immediately followed the showing of a popular, light-hearted musical, The Fleet’s In. There was no advance word as to the nature of the second film the spectators at the Fox were about to see for the first time. The mainly youthful audience who had flocked to the theatre in hopes of a fun evening enabling them to escape from more serious issues such as the war were suddenly confronted with an intensely serious film containing deep psychological, philosophical and historical implications. And unlike with the Intolerance preview, the director was not on hand to supervise carefully the special screening. The outcome of the Ambersons preview, therefore, was to a considerable extent the fault of RKO executives, an indication of the shortcomings that were often all too evident in the seemingly smooth-running studio system where particularly difficult or demanding works of art were concerned.

Griffith’s manner of previewing, however, was an example of his acumen. The critic of the Pomona Bulletin wrote: “Theater patrons who went to the Belvedere were expecting to see something unusual but they were not prepared for anything of the magnitude which followed.” Griffith’s advance advertising in Pomona as in the other two cities, continuing with the misleading information that the film included gladiator fights in ancient Rome, had said not a word about the unusual structure linking four stories from very different historical epochs. But he had planted just enough publicity to prime spectators for a serious, large-scale spectacle such as they had come to know with Cabiria and his own The Birth of a Nation. Thus lured to the theatre, an audience far more broadly representative of the public than a primarily youthful demographic was in the proper mood for a massive epic that contained even greater wonders than anything they had ever beheld before.

As noted earlier, Alfred A. Cohn credited Griffith with introducing the preview to the film industry. Relying on the observation of the audience’s response to the film as it was being shown rather than the later Hollywood studio method of soliciting written cards from the audience, Griffith had evidently developed a practice that served him well.  Indeed, it helped him to enjoy a long, fruitful period as an independent producer-director. Quite unlike a major studio like RKO with Ambersons, Griffith did not simply dump a previewed film on an unsuspecting audience, one that had been put in a very different mood by the preceding picture. Rather, he carefully selected the community where the film was to be screened and then made changes afterwards partly on the basis of how it was received by the audience.

Following the second Pomona preview on August 17 which he presumably attended as well, Griffith implemented the suggested revisions in final preparation for the world premiere of Intolerance at the Liberty Theatre in New York on September 5, 1916. While its theme and unorthodox structure confounded some, a preponderance of critical opinion recognized the new film as the stunning masterpiece of a new art form. Its influence would soon be felt in virtually every corner of the globe where films were being produced. Over the years it would continue to serve as an inspiration to many other great filmmakers, including Orson Welles who hailed Intolerance as a supreme achievement and Griffith as the greatest of all directors.

As Merritt documented in his article, Griffith would continue to tinker with the editing of Intolerance for at least another ten years in connection with its revivals as well as bringing out in 1919 two separate features, The Mother and the Law and The Fall of Babylon, taken from, respectively, the Modern and Babylonian Stories. The film would be constantly revived by archives, college film societies, and art houses and shown many times on television. Yet much of its early history, particularly the three California previews, would disappear from the record. The theatres, too, where it was first shown would fall prey to the ravages of time. The Orpheum in Riverside closed its doors in the mid-1920s while the Belvedere in Pomona was destroyed by a fire in 1933. The theatre in San Luis Obispo, however, which had hosted the first preview would have a much longer life-span. With the advent of sound, the El Monterey was redesigned for the new technology in 1928 and renamed the Obispo Theatre. It remained a leading cinema house there for decades until it, too, fell victim to a fire in December of 1975, 64 years after opening its doors to the public. Its role as the first theatre in the world to show Intolerance had long since been forgotten.

Today, San Luis Obispo is the home of an annual major film festival. One of its features is an award named after another great director, King Vidor, a long-time resident of the area. In 1916, newly arrived in Hollywood from his native Texas and seeking to secure a foothold in the cinema, Vidor briefly found work as one of the army of extras in Intolerance. Griffith’s epic had a lasting impact on Vidor who considered it the greatest film in cinema history. Perhaps in tribute both to Griffith and all those who, like Vidor and Welles, were inspired by his film, it might be fitting for San Luis Obispo to commemorate the first-ever screening there by holding a special revival of Intolerance. In the continuity such a presentation suggests, it would be very much in consonance with the film’s view of history and life as an eternal process of “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking.”











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