Intolerance (1916, dir. D.W. Griffith


Lillian Gish as “The Eternal Mother” & The Fates in Intolerance (1916, dir. D.W. Griffith) (via Museum of Modern Art Film & Media Collection exhibition catalog)

Her hand on the cradle of humanity—eternally rocking.

“I often heard [D.W. Griffith] say that he would rather have written one page of Leaves of Grass than to have made all the movies for which he received world acclaim.

It is said that some twelve to fifteen years before [filming Intolerance], Griffith was walking with Wilfred Lucas, when they were both working in a road show, when Lucas caught sight of a woman rocking a cradle, and reminded Griffith of Walt Whitman’s poem from Leaves of Grass: ‘Out of the cradle endlessly rocking’ & ‘Endlessly rocks the cradle/ Uniter of Here and Hereafter.’

…We went back to the studio and did some shots of Lillian Gish rocking a cradle, all to the tune of Walt Whitman’s poetry, which Griffith recited with great feeling and surprisingly good delivery, considering how outstandingly lousy he was as an actor. It must have been one of his good days.

Griffith placed the symbolic figures of the Three Fates behind Lillian Gish. Upon hearing the sound of the spinning wheel and the creak of the Fates’ shears as they cut the thread of life, Griffith exclaimed: “Gahhd! If we could only get that sound!”

-excerpted from Karl Brown’s Adventures With D. W. Griffith (1973)