Jan 17, 2011

D.W. GRIFFITH (b. 1875 - d. 1948)-Director

Movie producer,  director, writer, and actor,  D.W. Griffith, played a major part in the development of film making. He was a daring visionary who’s influence towards the art form and technique of film making, is greatly significant.

David Wark Griffith was born on January 22, 1875, in Crestwood, Kentucky.  At ten years old David’s father died, leaving the family in poverty. His life became unstable and would remain so (he lived mostly in and out of hotels until his death) throughout most of his life. Typically, he had difficulty in making his mind up about things. He could not follow a script and regularly improvised.   

 By the time he was a teenager, his family moved to Louisville, Kentucky. His mother operated a boarding house which failed to bring enough income placing the family further into debt. Griffith was forced to leave school to find work. He eventually found employment at a bookstore and spent all his spare time reading all that he could. After work, a small group of people would gather at the bookstore and have discussion on various topics. Griffith would often stand in the background and listen and  learned about poetry, history, and literature. His real education was in the bookstore. As he matured his desire to become a great playwright grew deeper. By the time he was a young man he gained experience working as an actor in various theatrical plays. He continued his acting career for a few years and wrote stories.
 In 1906 he married a young actress he had met in one of the plays he was involved with. In the first year of marriage, Griffith would often travel from town to town acting and writing plays in attempts of earning an income. In the meanwhile, his wife had gotten work as an extra in movies. It is plausible that his wife encouraged him to try his luck working for the movie studios.   In 1907, Biograph Studios hired him a bit player and agreed to purchase and use  some of his scripts.
Soon after,  when a director working for the studio suddenly  became ill before completing a film, Biograph allowed Griffith to finish directing it. Impressed by his intelligence and theatrical experience, Griffith was offered to direct one film. It was a successful venture and soon after Griffith became the studio’s sole director for a few  years.  He quickly learned how to handle a moving camera and continued to experiment with new methods for a better quality product. In 1908 Griffith began his collaboration with cameraman, Billy Bitzer.  Over the years  with Bitzer technical knowledge and Griffith’s artistic talents, they developed and ultimately set the standards of camera techniques and artform of film  for future generations of filmmakers.
Griffith was quite occupied producing  3 to 5 films a week, but, after a while, he began to be dissatisfied working with short films and was anxious to explore the possibilities for making  better movies, however, for his vision to come about, he felt an increase of film length would be required.  By 1915 his dream became a reality when he created an epic film that enthralled spectators throughout the country. 

In the meantime  and before that would occur, Griffith was working many hours producing short films. Eventually, he  travelled to California  to shoot some scenes and the landscape and climate ideal for film production and  relocated permanentaly  in Hollywood, California.  He formed a company with a quantity of  actors and actresses   some of which were, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, and Mary Pickford. His extensive group of performers portrayed various characters   which depicted Griffith’s views for the horrible consequences of war, unjust conduct towards the Native American Indians, and  for the prejudiced attitudes directed at the poverty stricken community. Adamant in his quest to awake the public to these issues, Griffith worked relentless on his innovative project.  It was to be a huge financial success and also would cause  an enormous amount of controversy throughout the country.

The movie was “Birth of a Nation”. The film portrayed the events of the Civil War and  included  the consequences to the  civilians and combatants  who during that period in time. The actors played their parts inspiringly, the sceneries were astounding, and the storyline was dramatic. The movie glorified the   clansman for  establishing   order and stability to the region during the aftermath of the civil war. It also represented colored people as untrustworthy, thieves, and rapists. The movie displayed the atrocious treatment that  the clansman committed towards the colored people and  justified their actions. This caused  an uproar amongst the black community and  the NAACP( National Association for the Advancement of Colored People)  voiced their outrage and tried to ban the movie. Riots and protests were organized all over the country. Regardless of the numerous demonstrations against the film, the movie continued to be shown throughout the country. It became the highest grossing film in the silent movie industry earning over 10 million dollars. The fact that most of the white community welcomed the movie as what they thought to be  an accurate and great film, helped its’ popularity. Its’ success   encouraged the white racists to revise and update, the Ku Klux Klan chapter and within 5 years they had  over 4 million members.

Griffith’s intention was to produce an artistic historical account of the Civil War. From the artistic standpoint, the film was magnificent; however, from the racial perspective, it was truly appalling and ultimately spoiled Griffith’s reputation. Griffith was shocked by the negative criticism and resolved to fix the problem by producing  yet another epic, one that would illustrate the social prejudices of certain world history events.


Griffith's next endeavor " Intolerance" was a film made up of four stories, three of which were based on real poignant moments in history. These included  themes of   persecution, racism, hatred, bigotry, and more. The film's message was that man’s inhumanity and intolerances had been in existence for thousands of years and the injustices inflicted to others were being repeated throughout the ages, thus the  human race failed to recognize life’s lessons and overtime not much  had changed.   
 The film was visually impressive as were the actors’ touching performance. Griffith had created this masterpiece with great dedication. However, in spite of the elaborate sets, moving portrayals, and storyline's  philosophy, the film’s initial popularity rapidly declined and ultimately became a failure.  The disappointing outcome was most likely  due to timing. The film was released in 1916   just before the country prepared for war with Germany. Preoccupied with the war, audience’s attendances dropped. The movie was funded mainly by a company Griffith was associated with, “Triangle Film Corporation”. Financially  ruined , the corporation declared bankruptcy.
Although the movie  was an economic disappointment in the United States, it was a triumph in parts of Europe and Asia. In addition, the  American film industry and critics acknowledged the great achievement  of  the cinematography and praised the movie for its’ superb style and technique. Today the film is considered to be a work of genius and is regarded as one of the most significant movies ever made.

Griffith continued to create exceptional movies some of which conveyed his ideology of  repression, racism, and  unfairness’s of life. Yet, instead of the bold and harsh styles generally   used there seemed to be a softer more romantic  edge which captivated the audiences. Broken Blossoms, Orphans of the Storm, and Way Down East are some that come to mind. These were all filmed at  a new studio, United Artist Corporation(UA) he owned in  a joint venture with leading figures ,Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and a lawyer, William Gibbs McAdoo. Each member of the group held a 20%  share of the studio. The movies Griffith produced there in the years, 1919 to 1924,  were mostly successful, but after a few years, having no business sense and regularly going over budget, Griffith became a liability. The last straw was when he produced, “Isn’t Life Wonderful” which bombed.   It is interesting to note that today, the film is recognized as an influential and important picture. Before long, Griffith left United Artist and joined Paramount Pictures.

He directed some memorable movies and some forgettable ones, but, managed to hold on to his job. By the end of the 1920’s, sound was introduced to film which paved the way for a whole new generation of filmmakers. This became a challenge for many of the producers, directors, and actors, but, for Griffith, the transition was simple.


For his first sound film, he chose to make a biopic on the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. Unlike the Birth of a Nation where Griffith shows the Black people as  being the  pests of  society, here he sympathizes to their cause for freedom. The great actor, Walter Huston’s, portrayal of President Lincoln was nothing less than superb. The film received great artistc reviews, but, unfortunately did not achieve its' potential at the box office and was considered a loss for Paramount studios.
 By 1931 Griffith was struggling with his own personal demons. His excessive years of drinking increased. His choice of alcohol was normally bourbon which he drank by the bottles. He somehow managed to continue making films and his next picture ironically called “The Struggle” was about a regular working man’s struggle with alcoholism during the prohibition days. In order to present the storyline as realistic as possible, Griffith filmed the movie in what was deemed as a terrible environment. He filmed the indoor scenes in a broken down studio in New York and shot the outdoor scenes in the slummy streets of the Bronx. Regrettably, the film was released during the depression era and audiences rejected the dark and dreary film. The movie was a disaster and virtually ended Griffith’s career.


His later years were filled with disappointments.  His attempts of resurrecting his literary and directorial professions were never realized. He could not find regular work again in the film industry. His personal life was not much better. Separated from his first wife for 25 years, he finally ended the marriage permanently and married some young actress. That marriage lasted only a few years and ended in divorce. He never had children.
In 1936, Griffith received an Oscar acknowledging his contributions to the art of film. In 1940 the Museum of Modern Art announced they were preserving his films as an honor of his work throughout the years.

On July, 23, 1948, after being discovered unconscious in a hotel room in Los Angeles, David Griffith was placed in an ambulance where he died on the way to the hospital. He was 73 years of age.  At his funeral, actor, Donald Crisp, who worked on many of his films, stated, ‘I cannot help feeling that there should always have been a place for him and his talent in the motion picture field. It is hard to believe that the industry could not have found a use for his great gift.

D.W. Griffith was the pioneer of  the art of film and  the most innovative and creative director of his time. To mention a few of his accomplishment amongst others; he developed  new techniques in the use of camera angles and movements, was known for parallel editing where you have two things going on at the same time, introduced the short, medium, and long shots combining them in scenes, and invented the “last minute rescues”. Even though some of the controversial movies caused  much disapproval which  forever tainted his reputation, his artistic talents and contribution  towards production and direction of quality films should not be ignored.  Over 500 films were made under his direction and many of them are viewed as masterworks. Griffith’s influence has stretched through several generations of filmmakers. His worth as a storyteller and technical skills cannot be denied.   He will forever be considered as one of the most important significant figures of early cinema.


THOSE AWFUL HATS – 1909 – short comedy
- Flora Finch, Mack Sennett, Robert Harron

A CORNER IN WHEAT – 1909-– short drama 
- Frank Powell, Grace Henderson, James Kirkwood, Linda Arvidson

THE RED MAN’S VIEW -1909 – short western
 – Owen Moore, James Kirkwood, Kate Bruce

AS IN THE LOOKING GLASS – 1911 – short drama
 – Wilfred Lucas, Claire McDowell, Edna Foster

THE NARROW ROAD – 1912 –short drama
 – Mary Pickford, Elmer Booth, Charles Hills Mailes

THE PAINTED LADY – 1912 – short drama
– Blanche Sweet, Madge Kirby, Charles Hill Mailes

THE MUSKETEERS OF PIG ALLEY – 1912 – short drama
– Lillian Gish, Elmer Booth, Clara T. Bracy

FRIENDS – 1912 –short romance
– Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore, Henry B. Walthall

THE HOUSE OF DARKNESS – 1913 – short drama
 –Lionel Barrymore, Claire McDowell, Charles Hill Mailes

THE MASSACRE – 1914 – short western
– Blanche Sweet, Wilfred Lucas, Charles West

JUDITH AND BETHULIA – 1914 – drama
– Blanche Sweet, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall

THE BIRTH OF A NATION – 1915 – drama
– Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall

INTOLERANCE – 1916 – drama
– Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Robert Harron

HEARTS OF THE WORLD – 1918 – drama
- D.W. Griffith, David Lloyd George, Edward Grey

BROKEN BLOSSOMS – 1919 – drama
– Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Donald Crisp

TRUE HEART SUSIE – 1919 – drama
– Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Wilbur Higby

SCARLET DAYS – 1919 –western
– Richard Barthelmess, Carol Dempster, Eugenie Besserer

WAY DOWN EAST – 1920 – drama
– Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Lowell Sherman

ORPHANS OF THE STORM – 1921 – drama
– Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Joseph Schildkraut

AMERICA – 1924 – drama
– Neil Hamilton, Carol Dempster, Erville Alderson

ISN’T LIFE WONDERFUL – 1924 – drama
 – Carol Dempster, Helen Lowell, Neil Hamilton, Erville Alderson

D.W.Griffith at his second wedding 1936

Griffith with second wife,Evelyn Baldwin

Griffith 1925

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