Best Production Design 1916
In the silent era, production design reached monumental proportions. Before the development of advanced special effects that could allow actors to appear to be in outer space, Outer Mongolia, or anywhere a screenwriter could imagine, you pretty much had to build a space that looked like where your story was set. In the very early days, it was sufficient to paint a nice backdrop, but directors got increasingly ambitious, and money got poured into the sets. Soon, we had whole cityscapes, as in 1914’s “Cabiria,” and a number of the candidates for this year’s award.
In “Intolerance,” D.W. Griffith took a cue from “Cabiria” and even borrowed some of the style in order to reproduce the city of Babylon before its fall, and also used production design to transport actors and audiences to Biblical Judea, Early Modern France, and the factory towns of the contemporary USA. For “20,000 Leagues under the Sea” the designers built a mock-up submarine as well as the gates to an Indian city and other exotic locations. The set for “One A.M.” simply reproduces a modest apartment, but that apartment provides a complex series of traps and snares for Charlie Chaplin’s funny drunk character to run afoul of. In “Joan the Woman” director Cecil B. DeMille recreates 15th Century France, including castles, keeps, and hamlets. And in “The Captive God” star William S. Hart has an early Mesoamerican city to act in – including pyramids, altars, and complex stepped housing units.
The nominees for best production design of 1916 are:
- 20,000 Leagues under the Sea
- One A.M.
- Joan the Woman
- The Captive God
And the winner is…Intolerance!
This was pretty much a given. The sets for “Intolerance” are so huge and iconic that they continue to produce gasps from audiences. They are also a good part of the reason that Griffith was never going to make his money back on the film, no matter how well it did at the box office. Today, we can see a reproduction of a part of this set in the heart of Hollywood, at the Hollywood Highland Mall, now one of the most recognizable features of the area, almost as symbolic as the “Hollywood” sign itself. I can think of no greater tribute to what may be the most successful example of production design in history.