D. W. Griffith

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D. W. Griffith
David Wark Griffith portrait.jpg
Griffith in 1922
Born
David Wark Griffith

(1875-01-22)January 22, 1875
DiedJuly 23, 1948(1948-07-23) (aged 73)
Burial placeMount Tabor Methodist Church Graveyard,
Centerfield, Kentucky, U.S.
OccupationDirector, writer, producer
Years active1908–1931
Spouse(s)
Linda Arvidson
(m. 1906;div. 1936)

Evelyn Baldwin
(m. 1936;div. 1947)

David Wark Griffith (January 22, 1875 – July 23, 1948) was an American film director who pioneered the feature-length movie and many enduring cinematic techniques, such as the close-up.

Close-up

A close-up or closeup in filmmaking, television production, still photography, and the comic strip medium is a type of shot that tightly frames a person or object. Close-ups are one of the standard shots used regularly with medium and long shots. Close-ups display the most detail, but they do not include the broader scene. Moving toward or away from a close-up is a common type of zooming.

Contents

His film The Birth of a Nation (1915) broke box-office records but also attracted much controversy, as it showed black people in a negative light and glorified the Ku Klux Klan. Intolerance (1916) was made as an answer to his critics. Several of Griffith's later films were also successful, including Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1921), but his high costs for production and promotion often led to commercial failure. He had made roughly 500 films by the time of his final feature, The Struggle (1931).

<i>The Birth of a Nation</i> 1915 film directed by D. W. Griffith

The Birth of a Nation is a 1915 American silent epic drama film directed and co-produced by D. W. Griffith and starring Lillian Gish. The screenplay is adapted from the novel and play The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon Jr. Griffith co-wrote the screenplay with Frank E. Woods, and co-produced the film with Harry Aitken. It was released on February 8, 1915.

African Americans are an ethnic group of Americans with total or partial ancestry from any of the black racial groups of Africa. The term typically refers to descendants of enslaved black people who are from the United States.

Ku Klux Klan American white supremacy group

The Ku Klux Klan, commonly called the KKK or the Klan, is an American white supremacist hate group. The Klan has existed in three distinct eras at different points in time during the history of the United States. Each has advocated extremist reactionary positions such as white nationalism, anti-immigration and—especially in later iterations—Nordicism and anti-Catholicism. Historically, the Klan used terrorism—both physical assault and murder—against groups or individuals whom they opposed. All three movements have called for the "purification" of American society and all are considered right-wing extremist organizations. In each era, membership was secret and estimates of the total were highly exaggerated by both friends and enemies.

Together with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, he founded United Artists, enabling them to control their own interests, rather than depending on commercial studios. Griffith was a founder member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Charlie Chaplin British comic actor and filmmaker

Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin was an English comic actor, filmmaker, and composer who rose to fame in the era of silent film. He became a worldwide icon through his screen persona, "The Tramp", and is considered one of the most important figures in the history of the film industry. His career spanned more than 75 years, from childhood in the Victorian era until a year before his death in 1977, and encompassed both adulation and controversy.

Mary Pickford Canadian-American actress

Gladys Louise Smith, known professionally as Mary Pickford, was a Canadian-born American film actress and producer. With a career spanning 50 years, she was a co-founder of both the Pickford–Fairbanks Studio and, later, the United Artists film studio, and one of the original 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who present the yearly "Oscar" award ceremony.

Douglas Fairbanks American actor, screenwriter, director, and producer

Douglas Fairbanks was an American actor, screenwriter, director, and producer. He was best known for his swashbuckling roles in silent films including The Thief of Bagdad, Robin Hood, and The Mark of Zorro but spent the early part of his career making comedies.

Early life

Griffith (c. 1907) GriffithDW.jpg
Griffith (c.1907)

Griffith was born on a farm in Oldham County, Kentucky, the son of Jacob Wark "Roaring Jake" Griffith [1] a Confederate Army colonel in the American Civil War who was elected as a Kentucky state legislator and Mary Perkins (née Oglesby). Griffith was raised a Methodist, [2] and he attended a one-room schoolhouse where he was taught by his older sister Mattie. His father died when he was ten, and the family struggled with poverty.

Oldham County, Kentucky County in the United States

Oldham County is a county located in the U.S. state and commonwealth of the Kentucky. As of the 2010 census, the population was 60,316. Its county seat is La Grange. The county is named for Colonel William Oldham. Oldham County was a prohibition or completely dry county until January 2005 as the result of a 2004 'moist' vote, permitting sales of alcohol in restaurants that seat at least 100 patrons in which 70%+ of total revenue is derived from sales of food. After a vote in late 2015; Oldham county has become a completely wet county.

Confederate States Army Army of the Confederate States

The Confederate States Army was the military land force of the Confederate States of America (Confederacy) during the American Civil War (1861–1865), fighting against the United States forces. On February 28, 1861, the Provisional Confederate Congress established a provisional volunteer army and gave control over military operations and authority for mustering state forces and volunteers to the newly chosen Confederate president, Jefferson Davis. Davis was a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, and colonel of a volunteer regiment during the Mexican–American War. He had also been a United States Senator from Mississippi and U.S. Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. On March 1, 1861, on behalf of the Confederate government, Davis assumed control of the military situation at Charleston, South Carolina, where South Carolina state militia besieged Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, held by a small U.S. Army garrison. By March 1861, the Provisional Confederate Congress expanded the provisional forces and established a more permanent Confederate States Army.

American Civil War Civil war in the United States from 1861 to 1865

The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States from 1861 to 1865, between the North (Union) and the South (Confederacy). The most studied and written about episode in U.S. history, the Civil War began primarily as a result of the long-standing controversy over the enslavement of black people. War broke out in April 1861 when secessionist forces attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina shortly after Abraham Lincoln had been inaugurated as the President of the United States. The loyalists of the Union in the North, which also included some geographically western and southern states, proclaimed support for the Constitution. They faced secessionists of the Confederate States in the South, who advocated for states' rights to uphold slavery.

When Griffith was 14, his mother abandoned the farm and moved the family to Louisville, Kentucky, where she opened a boarding house. It failed shortly after. Griffith then left high school to help support the family, taking a job in a dry goods store and later in a bookstore. He began his creative career as an actor in touring companies. Meanwhile, he was learning how to become a playwright, but had little success—only one of his plays was accepted for a performance. [3] He traveled to New York City in 1907 in an attempt to sell a script to Edison Studios producer Edwin Porter; [3] Porter rejected the script but gave him an acting part in Rescued from an Eagle's Nest instead. [3] He then decided to become an actor and appeared in many films as an extra. [4]

Louisville, Kentucky City in Kentucky

Louisville is the largest city in the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the 29th most-populous city in the United States. It is one of two cities in Kentucky designated as first-class, the other being Lexington, the state's second-largest city. Louisville is the historical seat and, since 2003, the nominal seat of Jefferson County, located in the northern region of the state, on the border with Indiana.

New York City Largest city in the United States

The City of New York, usually called either New York City (NYC) or simply New York (NY), is the most populous city in the United States. With an estimated 2018 population of 8,398,748 distributed over a land area of about 302.6 square miles (784 km2), New York is also the most densely populated major city in the United States. Located at the southern tip of the state of New York, the city is the center of the New York metropolitan area, the largest metropolitan area in the world by urban landmass and one of the world's most populous megacities, with an estimated 19,979,477 people in its 2018 Metropolitan Statistical Area and 22,679,948 residents in its Combined Statistical Area. A global power city, New York City has been described as the cultural, financial, and media capital of the world, and exerts a significant impact upon commerce, entertainment, research, technology, education, politics, tourism, art, fashion, and sports. The city's fast pace has inspired the term New York minute. Home to the headquarters of the United Nations, New York is an important center for international diplomacy.

Edison Studios

Edison Studios was an American film production organization, owned by companies controlled by inventor and entrepreneur, Thomas Edison. The studio made close to 1,200 films, as part of the Edison Manufacturing Company (1894–1911) and then Thomas A. Edison, Inc. (1911–1918), until the studio's closing in 1918. Of that number, 54 were feature length, and the remainder were shorts.

Film career

Griffith on the set of Birth of a Nation (1915) with actor Henry B. Walthall and others Walthall with DW Griiffith2.jpg
Griffith on the set of Birth of a Nation (1915) with actor Henry B. Walthall and others

In 1908, Griffith accepted a role as a stage extra in Professional Jealousy for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, where he met cameraman Billy Bitzer, and his career in the film industry changed forever. [5] In 1908, Biograph's main director Wallace McCutcheon, Sr. grew ill, and his son Wallace McCutcheon, Jr. took his place. [6] McCutcheon, Jr. did not bring the studio success; [5] Biograph co-founder Harry Marvin gave Griffith the position, [5] and he made the short The Adventures of Dollie . He directed a total of 48 shorts for the company that year.

The Biograph Company, also known as the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, was a motion picture company founded in 1895 and active until 1916. It was the first company in the United States devoted entirely to film production and exhibition, and for two decades was one of the most prolific, releasing over 3000 short films and 12 feature films. During the height of silent film as a medium, Biograph was America's most prominent film studio and one of the most respected and influential studios worldwide, only rivaled by Germany's UFA, Sweden's Svensk Filmindustri and France's Pathé. The company was home to pioneering director D. W. Griffith and such actors as Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish and Lionel Barrymore.

Billy Bitzer American cinematographer

Gottfried Wilhelm "Billy" Bitzer was a pioneering American cinematographer notable for his close association with D. W. Griffith.

<i>The Adventures of Dollie</i> 1908 film by D. W. Griffith

The Adventures of Dollie is a 1908 American silent film directed by D. W. Griffith. It was Griffith's debut film as a director. A print of the film survives in the Library of Congress film archive. The film tells the story of a young girl who, after being kidnapped by a gypsy peddler, ends up trapped in a barrel as it floats downriver toward a waterfall.

His short In Old California (1910) was the first film shot in Hollywood, California. Four years later, he produced and directed his first feature film Judith of Bethulia (1914), one of the earliest to be produced in the US. Biograph believed that longer features were not viable at that point. According to Lillian Gish, the company thought that "a movie that long would hurt [the audience's] eyes". [7]

Left to right: Griffith, cameraman Billy Bitzer (behind Pathe camera), Dorothy Gish watching from behind Bitzer, Karl Brown keeping script, and Miriam Cooper in profile, in a production still for Intolerance (1916). Intolerance production 1916.jpg
Left to right: Griffith, cameraman Billy Bitzer (behind Pathé camera), Dorothy Gish watching from behind Bitzer, Karl Brown keeping script, and Miriam Cooper in profile, in a production still for Intolerance (1916).

Griffith left Biograph because of company resistance to his goals and his cost overruns on the film. He took his company of actors with him and joined the Mutual Film Corporation. There, he co-produced The Life of General Villa, a biographical actiondrama film starring Pancho Villa as himself, shot on location in México during a civil war. He formed a studio with Majestic Studio manager Harry Aitken [8] which became known as Reliance-Majestic Studios and was later renamed Fine Arts Studio. [9] His new production company became an autonomous production unit partner in Triangle Film Corporation along with Thomas H. Ince and Keystone Studios' Mack Sennett. The Triangle Film Corporation was headed by Aitken, who was released from the Mutual Film Corporation, [8] and his brother Roy.

Birth of a Nation (1915), perhaps the most famous silent movie directed by Griffith and considered a landmark by film historians; adapted for the screen by Griffith and Frank E. Woods, based on the novel and play The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan by Thomas Dixon, Jr.

Griffith directed and produced The Clansman through Reliance-Majestic Studios in 1915, which became known as The Birth of a Nation and is considered one of the first feature length American films. [10] The film was a success, but it aroused much controversy due to its depiction of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, and race relations in the American Civil War and the reconstruction era of the United States. It was based on Thomas Dixon, Jr.'s 1905 novel The Clansman ; it depicts Southern slavery as benign, the enfranchisement of freedmen as a corrupt plot by the Republican party, and the Ku Klux Klan as a band of heroes restoring the rightful order. This view of the era was popular at the time and was endorsed for decades by historians of the Dunning School, although it met with strong criticism from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other groups. [11] [12]

The NAACP attempted to stop showings of the film. They were successful in some cities, but it was shown widely and became the most successful box office attraction of its time. It is considered among the first "blockbuster" motion pictures and broke all box office records that had been established until then. "They lost track of the money it made", Lillian Gish remarked in a Kevin Brownlow interview.[ citation needed ]

The first million dollar partners: Fairbanks, Pickford, Chaplin, and Griffith Fairbanks - Pickford - Chaplin - Griffith.jpg
The first million dollar partners: Fairbanks, Pickford, Chaplin, and Griffith
Intolerance (1916), the second most famous silent movie directed by Griffith who co-wrote the screenplay with Frank E. Woods, Hettie Grey Baker, Tod Browning, Anita Loos, and Mary H. O'Connor.

Audiences in some major northern cities rioted over the film's racial content, which was filled with action and violence. [13] Griffith's indignation at efforts to censor or ban the film motivated him to produce Intolerance the following year, in which he portrayed the effects of intolerance in four different historical periods: the Fall of Babylon; the Crucifixion of Jesus; the events surrounding the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre (during religious persecution of French Huguenots); and a modern story. Intolerance was not a financial success, although it had good box office turn-outs; it did not bring in enough profits to cover the lavish road show that accompanied it. [14] Griffith put a huge budget into the film's production which could not be recovered in its box office. [15] He mostly financed Intolerance himself, contributing to his financial ruin for the rest of his life. [16]

Griffith's Intolerance Griffith intolerance.jpg
Griffith's Intolerance

Griffith's production partnership was dissolved in 1917 and he went to Artcraft, part of Paramount Pictures, and then to First National Pictures (1919–1920). At the same time, he founded United Artists together with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks; the studio was premised on allowing actors to control their own interests, rather than being dependent upon commercial studios. [17] [18]

He continued to make films, but he never achieved box office grosses as high as either The Birth of a Nation or Intolerance. [19]

Later film career

Though United Artists survived as a company, Griffith's association with it was short-lived. While some of his later films did well at the box office, commercial success often eluded him. Griffith features from this period include Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921), Dream Street (1921), One Exciting Night (1922) and America (1924). Of these, the first three were successes at the box office. [20] Griffith was forced to leave United Artists after Isn't Life Wonderful (1924) failed at the box office.

United Artists founders, Griffith, Pickford, Chaplin, and Fairbanks sign their contract for the cameras (1919). United Artists contract signature 1919.jpg
United Artists founders, Griffith, Pickford, Chaplin, and Fairbanks sign their contract for the cameras (1919).

He made a part-talkie, Lady of the Pavements (1929), and only two full-sound films, Abraham Lincoln (1930) and The Struggle (1931). Neither was successful, and after The Struggle he never made another film.

In 1936, director Woody Van Dyke, who had worked as Griffith's apprentice on Intolerance , asked Griffith to help him shoot the famous earthquake sequence for San Francisco , but did not give him any film credit. Starring Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy, it was the top-grossing film of the year. [21]

In 1939, the producer Hal Roach hired Griffith to produce Of Mice and Men (1939) and One Million B.C. (1940). He wrote to Griffith: "I need help from the production side to select the proper writers, cast, etc. and to help me generally in the supervision of these pictures." [22]

Although Griffith eventually disagreed with Roach over the production and parted, Roach later insisted that some of the scenes in the completed film were directed by Griffith. This would make the film the final production in which Griffith was actively involved. However, cast members' accounts recall Griffith directing only the screen tests and costume tests. When Roach advertised the film in late 1939 with Griffith listed as producer, Griffith asked that his name be removed. [23]

Although mostly forgotten by movie-goers of the time, Griffith was held in awe by many in the film industry. In the mid-1930s, he was given a special Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In 1946, he made an impromptu visit to the film location of David O. Selznick's epic western Duel in the Sun , where some of his veteran actors, Lillian Gish, Lionel Barrymore and Harry Carey, were cast members. Gish and Barrymore found their old mentor's presence distracting and became self-conscious. While the two were filming their scenes, Griffith hid behind set scenery. [24]

Death

On the morning of July 23, 1948, Griffith was discovered unconscious in the lobby at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles, California, where he had been living alone. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage at 3:42 PM on the way to a Hollywood hospital. [17] A large public service was held in his honor at the Hollywood Masonic Temple, but few stars came to pay their last respects. He is buried at Mount Tabor Methodist Church Graveyard in Centerfield, Kentucky. [25] In 1950, The Directors Guild of America provided a stone and bronze monument for his gravesite. [26]

Legacy

Stamp issued by the United States Postal Service commemorating D. W. Griffith Stamp US 1975 10c Griffith.jpg
Stamp issued by the United States Postal Service commemorating D. W. Griffith

Performer and director Charlie Chaplin called Griffith "The Teacher of us All". Filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, [27] Lev Kuleshov, [28] Jean Renoir, [29] Cecil B. DeMille, [30] King Vidor, [31] Victor Fleming, [32] Raoul Walsh, [33] Carl Theodor Dreyer, [34] Sergei Eisenstein, [35] and Stanley Kubrick have praised Griffith. [36]

Griffith's Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6535 Hollywood Blvd. DW Griffith star HWF.JPG
Griffith's Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6535 Hollywood Blvd.

Griffith seems to have been the first to understand how certain film techniques could be used to create an expressive language; it gained popular recognition with the release of his The Birth of a Nation (1915). His early shorts—such as Biograph's The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), the first "gangster film"—show that Griffith's attention to camera placement and lighting heightened mood and tension. In making Intolerance, the director opened up new possibilities for the medium, creating a form that seems to owe more to music than to traditional narrative. [37] [38]

Film preservation

Griffith has five films preserved in the United States National Film Registry deemed as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". These are Lady Helen's Escapade (1909), A Corner in Wheat (1909), The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916), and Broken Blossoms (1919).

See also

Related Research Articles

<i>Broken Blossoms</i> 1919 film by D. W. Griffith

Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl, often referred to simply as Broken Blossoms, is a 1919 American silent drama film directed by D.W. Griffith. It was distributed by United Artists and premiered on May 13, 1919. It stars Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, and Donald Crisp, and tells the story of young girl, Lucy Burrows, who is abused by her alcoholic prizefighting father, Battling Burrows, and meets Cheng Huan, a kind-hearted Chinese man who falls in love with her. It was the second film released by United Artists. It is based on Thomas Burke's short story "The Chink and the Child" from the 1916 collection Limehouse Nights.

The year 1915 in film involved some significant events.

<i>Intolerance</i> (film) 1916 silent film epic by D. W. Griffith

Intolerance is a 1916 epic silent film directed by D. W. Griffith. Subtitles include Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages and A Sun-Play of the Ages.

Lillian Gish American actress

Lillian Diana Gish was an American actress of the screen and stage, as well as a director and writer. Her film acting career spanned 75 years, from 1912, in silent film shorts, to 1987. Gish was called the First Lady of American Cinema, and is credited with pioneering fundamental film performing techniques.

Dorothy Gish American actress

Dorothy Elizabeth Gish was an American actress of the screen and stage, as well as a director and writer. Dorothy and her older sister Lillian Gish were major movie stars of the silent era. Dorothy also had great success on the stage, and was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame. Dorothy Gish was noted as a fine comedian, and many of her films were comedies.

Owen Moore Irish-born actor in American films

Owen Moore was an Irish-born American actor, appearing in more than 279 movies spanning from 1908 to 1937.

Biograph Studios

Biograph Studios was an early film studio and laboratory complex, built in 1912 by the Biograph Company at 807 East 175th Street, in The Bronx, New York City, New York.

Blanche Sweet actress

Sarah Blanche Sweet was an American silent film actress who began her career in the earliest days of the Hollywood motion picture film industry.

Robert Harron actor

Robert Emmett "Bobby" Harron was an American motion picture actor of the early silent film era. Although he acted in over 200 films, he is known for his roles in the D.W. Griffith directed films The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916).

Henry B. Walthall American actor

Henry Brazeale Walthall was an American stage and film actor. He appeared as the Little Colonel in D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915).

<i>The New York Hat</i> 1912 film directed by D. W. Griffith

The New York Hat (1912) is a short silent film directed by D. W. Griffith from a screenplay by Anita Loos, and starring Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore, and Lillian Gish.

<i>An Unseen Enemy</i> 1912 film directed by D. W. Griffith

An Unseen Enemy is a 1912 Biograph Company short silent film directed by D. W. Griffith, and was the first film to be made starring the actresses Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish. A critic of the time stated that "the Gish sisters gave charming performances in this one-reel film". The film was shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey where early film studios in America's first motion picture industry were based at the beginning of the 20th century.

Mary Pickford filmography filmography

Mary Pickford (1892–1979) was a Canadian motion picture actress, producer, and writer. During the silent film era she became one of the first great celebrities of the cinema and a popular icon known to the public as "America's Sweetheart".

The One She Loved is a 1912 American silent drama film directed by D. W. Griffith. The film, by the Biograph Company, was shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey when many early film studios in America's first motion picture industry were based there at the beginning of the 20th century.

<i>The Escape</i> (1914 film) 1914 film by D. W. Griffith

The Escape was a 1914 American silent drama film written and directed by D. W. Griffith and starred Donald Crisp. The film is based on the play of the same name by Paul Armstrong who also wrote the screenplay. It is now considered lost.

<i>The Biograph Girl</i> musical

The Biograph Girl is a musical with a book by Warner Brown, lyrics by Brown and David Heneker, and music by Heneker. Its plot focuses on the silent film era and five pioneers of American cinema - actresses Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, directors D. W. Griffith and Mack Sennett, and Paramount Pictures founder Adolph Zukor.

References

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  23. Ward, p. 110.
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  26. Schickel 1996 p. 605
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Further reading