Recently, for a work project, I watched parts of Intolerance: Love's Struggle Through the Ages, DW Griffith's silent colossal spectacle of 1916. I'm not too clear on the whole hoo-hah surrounding the film but suffice to say it was conceived as four intertwined stories set in Babylon, Judea, French Renaissance, modern America; it cost close to $2M to make; it had 3000 extras, and it bankrupted his company.
I'd been familiar only with the fantastically extravagant and justifiably celebrated scenes of Babylon. But as astounding as that was to watch, I became fascinated with the Modern story. "Modern" is, of course, relative to the film and that would make it 1915. Therein lay my fascination.
Our story takes us from the top-tier social stratum, to the milieu of confidence men and women of questionable repute, to the working class slums. It is like watching living social history. The women attending a fancy dress ball are a parade of historical fashion plates in motion. The slum scenes are a Lewis Hine portfolio come to life. Are there cultural historians out there studying (very) old films for the details they reveal?
• The working class girls (at top) going into a dance with their loose skirts and slight slouch reflect the latest changes in silhouette. You can see the transformation happening and the 1920s look beginning to blossom.
• The matrons in the next three scenes are "Reformers." Harsh-looking and corseted, they're treated somewhat like caricatures in the film and their uniform-like suits are backward-looking hold-overs from another era.
• The poor girl in her tenement room wears an ill-fitting second hand jacket of very outdated mutton sleeve style.
• Dresses at the ball are exquisite. The many tunics and draped designs appear to be influenced by Leon Bakst's and Paul Poiret's languid, uncorseted vision–the Young Ingenue especially.
• Best of all is the Girl of Questionable Reputation in her (Poiret-inspired) scandalously fashion-forward harem pants with lace skirt overlay– a total Orientalist fantasy.
I was just so utterly and completely taken with this actress, Miriam Cooper, that I am including some of her classic silent "remorse" as well.