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D.W. Griffith: Opening Act for . . . Bob Dylan?

For most of the shows on Bob Dylan’s current U.S. tour, he’s had an unusual opening act: a lengthy excerpt of D.W. Griffith’s 1916 masterpiece Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages. Approximately thirty minutes before showtime, the first twenty minutes of Intolerance has been shown, without musical accompaniment, to the apparent bewilderment of most concertgoers. While this has been a staple of all the earlier shows on Dylan’s fall tour, he regrettably opted not to show it last night before his concert at Chicago’s historic Riviera Theatre; in a simple twist of fate, it turns out that Griffith’s film already played the Riviera 91 years ago.

Although the Riviera has been a concert hall since 1986, it was originally built as a movie theater in 1917. When Intolerance initially opened in Chicago, it screened from the holidays in 1916 through March of 1917 at the Colonial Theatre, which was the old Iroquois Theatre (and where the Oriental is now). However, Intolerance was a notorious commercial flop (like Dylan’s Street-Legal album, you could say it was ahead of its time); in an effort to recoup expenses, Griffith released a re-edited version in 1919, The Mother and the Law, which focused on only one of the film’s four narrative strands. This version played the Riviera in November of that year:

Intolerance is an important film for several reasons. When it was released in 1916 it was probably the most complex and ambitious movie ever made by anyone, outdoing Griffith’s own groundbreaking The Birth of a Nation from a year earlier (and to which it was intended to act as a sort of corrective). Intolerance tells four separate, unrelated stories that take place in four different eras of history: ancient Egypt during the fall of Babylon, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ at Golgotha, the massacre of the Huguenots in 16th century France and a contemporary American story about a man wrongfully convicted of murder. The editing in the film is mind-blowing because Griffith does not present the stories consecutively. Instead, he freely intercuts back and forth between them, enticing viewers to use their imaginations to understand how the stories may be thematically linked.

Unfortunately, the commercial failure of Intolerance was one of the contributing factors to Griffith’s decline, as this 1921 notice of bankruptcy filing in the New York Times makes clear:

New York Times,
(Sat., February 19, 1921), p.15
WARK PRODUCING CORPORATION, moving pictures, at 1,476 Broadway, has filed schedules in bankruptcy, with liabilities of $298,910, unsecured claims and assets of $125,042, consisting of films, pictures, prints, &c., $65,000; accounts $13,927 and deposits in banks $47,016. Copyright on motion picture play, “Intolerance,” is given as value unknown. Among the creditors are D. W. Griffith, $84,334; D. W. Griffith, Inc. $975; D. W. G. Corp., $60,230; H. E. Aitken, $8,136, and Norman Hall, $6,610.

But the film’s posterity is ensured. It is a staple of film history classes everywhere (including mine) and its artistic influence has been incalculable; it profoundly effected everything from the Soviet Montage films of the 1920s (whose directors were inspired by Griffith to use editing as the primary basis for creating and understanding movies), to German Expressionist classics like Paul Leni’s Waxworks and Fritz Lang’s Destiny, to Scandinavian art films like Benjamin Christensen’s Witchcraft Through the Ages and Carl Dreyer’s Leaves from Satan’s Book, to Hollywood parodies like Buster Keaton’s Three Ages.

Exactly why Dylan chose to treat his audience to a little pre-show Griffith is anyone’s guess but clues may be found in some recent interviews given by the Bard. In a Rolling Stone interview from last year, Dylan, a long time fan of classic American film, professed a fondness for John Ford, using language striking in its intensity:

“I like his old films,” Dylan says. “He was a man’s man, and he thought that way. He never let his guard down. Put courage and bravery, redemption and a peculiar mix of agony and ecstasy on the screen in a brilliant dramatic manner. His movies were easy to understand. I like that period of time in American films. I think America has produced the greatest films ever. No other country has ever come close. The great movies that came out of America in the studio system, which a lot of people say is the slavery system, were heroic and visionary, and inspired people in a way that no other country has ever done. If film is the ultimate art form, then you’ll need to look no further than those films. Art has the ability to transform people’s lives, and they did just that.”

This echoes something that Dylan had said earlier on his excellent but short-lived radio show Theme Time Radio Hour about Ford being one of his “favorite directors,” a statement made after playing an audio excerpt from the film version of The Grapes of Wrath.

In an interview with Robert Hilburn in 2004, Dylan spoke with reverence about famed 19th century songwriter Stephen Foster and expounded on the importance of artists being exposed to the roots of the artists they admire: “But you can’t just copy somebody. If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to.” Ever the archaeologist, Dylan’s apparently recent “Ford phase” probably led him back to studying the films of Griffith, as Griffith, the “Father of Film,” was unquestionably the biggest single influence on Ford. (On one of the rare occasions when Ford publicly accepted an award, he turned his eyes to the heavens and simply said, “Thank you, D.W.”)

Whatever the reason, thank you, Bob, for taking Intolerance on the road with you and showing it the way it should be seen – in large-scale projected form. And even though you didn’t show Intolerance last night, the concert you gave was, in its own way, a Griffith-like “super-production”:

1. Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
2. The Man In Me
3. Things Have Changed
4. Positively 4th Street
5. Summer Days
6. The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll
7. Cold Irons Bound
8. Simple Twist Of Fate
9. High Water (For Charley Patton)
10. If You Ever Go To Houston
11. Highway 61 Revisited
12. Tangled Up In Blue
13. Thunder On The Mountain
14. Ballad Of A Thin Man
(encore)
15. Jolene
16. Like A Rolling Stone
17. Forever Young

Thanks to Adam Selzer for help with research on this post.

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

15 responses to “D.W. Griffith: Opening Act for . . . Bob Dylan?

  • oh-mercy

    Hi,
    Thanks for this post and the great information.
    I found the movie on the archives.org site and have been planning on watching it for awhile now in preparation for the November 14th Concert in NJ.
    I’m hoping he will use the footage and other new and interesting effects he has added recently. It is a smallish venue and unfortunately its a General Admission concert- (which, at this age is exhausting!- but I will endure) so I am wondering if he may not use that footage.
    It also seems like he is inserting some great older tunes here and there, Senor- Visions of Johanna- Desolation Row- any one of which would be a real treat.

    By the way I agree about the underrated and undervalued Street Legal. I recently put it on again and- as happens often with Dylan- found a lot in it both lyrically and musically that hit me differently that other times. Always loved the album but now- again as often happens with Dylan- I can’t seem to stop listening to it. Some fantastic lines in it.

    As an aside-
    Last year I went to Thanksgiving at Puerto Rican friends house. The father who didn’t really speak much English said the grace blessing and throughout he kept praising, thanking and asking God’s blessing and called God (or Jesus?) Senor. I don’t understand Spanish and despite going to Seminary am not particularly religious but the heartfelt prayer brought tears to my eyes and now when I hear Senor not only do I remember that man’s grace but also hear the song as a heart felt plea/prayer.
    Well, once again my comments have been TNI probably.
    Thanks again.
    going to revisit some John Ford too.

  • michaelgloversmith

    Thanks for the comments, especially the lovely Senor story.

    Even though the Griffith film wasn’t shown in Chicago, there were still photographs and video images projected throughout the show. I was hoping I would be able to identify some of them as belonging to one classic movie or another but the sources for each one eluded me. If you or anyone else can identify the origin of any of them, I would appreciate hearing about it here.

    Finally, revisiting Ford is always a good idea. I think Ford’s movies influenced the Tex-Mex vibe of Together Through Life in particular as a lot of Ford films take place in Mexico or, like The Searchers, in Texas near the Mexican border.

  • bill

    he turned his eyes to the heavens and simply said, “Thank you, D.W.”
    not unlike Mr. Bob when he accepted the award at the Kennedy Center in 1997 (video available online)

  • michaelgloversmith

    And not unlike when Bob accepted the Grammy in ’98: Buddy Holly was to Bob what Griffith was to Ford!

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