David Wark Griffith


D. W. Griffith
DW Griffith 2
Born David Wark Griffith
January 22, 1875
Oldham County, Kentucky, U.S.
Died July 23, 1948 (aged 73)
Hollywood, California, U.S.
Cause of death Cerebral hemorrhage
Resting place Mount Tabor Methodist Church Graveyard,
Centerfield, Kentucky, U.S.
Occupation Director, writer, producer
Years active 1908–1931
Spouse(s) Linda Arvidson (m. 1906; div. 1936)
Evelyn Baldwin (m. 1936; div. 1947)

David WarkD. W.Griffith (January 22, 1875 – July 23, 1948)[1] was an American director, writer, and producer who pioneered modern filmmaking techniques.

Griffith is best remembered for The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916).[2]The Birth of a Nation made use of advanced camera and narrative techniques, and its popularity set the stage for the dominance of the feature-length film in the United States. Since its release, the film has sparked significant controversy surrounding race in the United States,[3][4] focusing on its negative depiction of African Americans and its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. Today, it is both noted for its radical technique and condemned for its inherently racist philosophy.[1] The film was subject to boycotts by the NAACP and, after screenings of the film had caused riots at several theaters, the film was censored in many cities, including New York City. Intolerance, his next film, was, in part, an answer to his critics.[1]

Several of Griffith’s later films, including Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1921), were also successful, but his high production, promotional, and roadshow costs often made his ventures commercial failures. By the time of his final feature, The Struggle (1931), he had made roughly 500 films.[2]

Griffith is one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and widely considered among the most important figures in the history of cinema. He is credited with popularizing the use of the close-up shot.[5]

Early life

DW Griffith 4

Griffith (c. 1907)

Griffith was born on a farm in Oldham County, Kentucky, the son of Mary Perkins (néeOglseby) and Jacob Wark “Roaring Jake” Griffith.[7] Jacob was a Confederate Army colonel in the American Civil War and was elected as a Kentucky state legislator. Griffith was raised a Methodist.[8] He attended a one-room schoolhouse where he was taught by his older sister, Mattie. After his father died when he was ten, the family struggled with poverty.

When Griffith was 14, his mother abandoned the farm and moved the family to Louisville, 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. Griffith 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.[9] Griffith then decided to become an actor, and appeared in many films as an extra.[10]

Griffith began making short films in 1908, and released his first feature film, Judith of Bethulia, in 1914. A few years earlier, in 1907, Griffith, still struggling as a playwright, traveled to New York in an attempt to sell a script to Edison Studios producer Edwin Porter.[9] Porter rejected Griffith’s script, but gave him an acting part in Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest instead.[9]

Finding this attractive, Griffith began to explore a career as an actor in the motion picture business.

Film career

DW Griffith 6

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

In 1908, Griffith accepted a role as a stage extra in Professional Jealousy for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, commonly known as Biograph, where he would meet his future, favorite cameraman, G. W. “Billy” Bitzer. At Biograph, Griffith’s career in the film industry would change forever.[11] In 1908, Biograph’s main director Wallace McCutcheon grew ill, and his son, Wallace McCutcheon, Jr., took his place.[12] McCutcheon, Jr., however, was not able to bring the studio any success.[11] As a result, Biograph co-founder, Henry “Harry” Marvin, decided to give Griffith the position;[11] and the young man made his first short movie for the company, The Adventures of Dollie. Griffith would end up directing forty-eight shorts for the company that year.

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 United States. At the time, Biograph believed that longer features were not viable. According to actress Lillian Gish, the company thought that “a movie that long would hurt [the audience’s] eyes”.[13]

Because of company resistance to his goals, and his cost overruns on the film (it cost $30,000 to produce), Griffith left Biograph. He took his stock company of actors with him and joined the Mutual Film Corporation. He formed a studio with the Majestic Studio manager Harry Aitken;[14] it became known as Reliance-Majestic Studios (and was later renamed Fine Arts Studio).[15] His new production company became an autonomous production unit partner in Triangle Film Corporation along with Thomas Ince and Keystone StudiosMack Sennett; the Triangle Film Corporation was headed by Griffith’s partner Harry Aitken, who was released from the Mutual Film Corporation,[14] and his brother Roy.

DW Griffith 11
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: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan by Thomas Dixon, Jr.. Collection National Film Registry.

Through Reliance-Majestic Studios, Griffith directed and produced The Clansman (1915), which would later be known as The Birth of a Nation. Historically, The Birth of a Nation is considered important by film historians as one of the first feature length American films (most previous films had been less than one hour long), and it changed the industry’s standard in a way still influential today.[16]Although the film was a success it also aroused much controversy due to its depiction of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, and race relations in both the Civil War and the Reconstruction era.

Like its source material, Thomas Dixon, Jr.‘s 1905 novel The Clansman, it depicts Southern pre-Civil War slavery as benign, the enfranchisement of freedmen as a corrupt Republican plot, and the Klan as a band of heroes restoring the rightful order. This view of the era was popular at the time, and was endorsed by historians of the Dunning School for decades, although it met with strong criticism from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other groups.

The NAACP attempted to stop showings of the film; while they were successful in some cities, it was shown widely and became the most successful box office attraction of its time. Considered among the first “blockbuster” motion pictures, it broke virtually all box office records that had been set up to that point. “They lost track of the money it made”, Lillian Gish once remarked in a Kevin Brownlow interview.[citation needed] Some[who?] have speculated that an adjustment of box office earnings for inflation would confirm it as the most profitable movie of all time.

DW Griffith 15

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. Collection National Film Registry.

Among the people who profited by the film was Louis B. Mayer, who bought the rights to distribute The Birth of a Nation in New England. With the money he made, he was able to begin his career as a producer that culminated in the creation of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios.

DW Griffith 10

After seeing the film, which was filled with action and violence, audiences in some major northern cities rioted over the film’s racial content.[17] In his next film, Intolerance, Griffith believed he was responding to critics. 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. During its release Intolerance was not a financial success; although it had good box office turn-outs, the film did not bring in enough profits to cover the lavish road show that accompanied it.[18] Griffith put a huge budget into the film’s production, which could not be recovered in its box office.[19] He mostly financed Intolerence, contributing to his financial ruin for the rest of his life.[20]

DW Griffith 16

Griffith’s Intolerance

When his production partnership was dissolved in 1917, Griffith went to Artcraft (part of Paramount), then to First National (1919–1920). At the same time he founded United Artists, together with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. At United Artists, Griffith continued to make films, but never could achieve box office grosses as high as either The Birth of a Nation or Intolerance.[21] He was also a producer on the 1915 film Martyrs of the Alamo.

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.[22] Griffith was forced to leave United Artists after Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924) failed at the box office.

DW Griffith 14

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.[citation needed]

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.”[23]

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. But, 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.[24]

DW Griffith 13

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.[25]

Death

DW Griffith 7

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.[2] 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.[26] In 1950, The Directors Guild of America provided a stone and bronze monument for his gravesite.[27]

Legacy 

DW Griffith 17

Performer Charlie Chaplin called Griffith “The Teacher of us All”. Filmmakers such as John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock[28]Orson Welles, Lev Kuleshov,[29]Jean Renoir,[30]Cecil B. DeMille,[31]King Vidor,[32]Victor Fleming,[33]Raoul Walsh,[34]Carl Theodor Dreyer,[35]Sergei Eisenstein,[36] and Stanley Kubrick have spoken of their respect for the director of Intolerance. Welles said “I have never really hated Hollywood except for its treatment of D. W. Griffith. No town, no industry, no profession, no art form owes so much to a single
man.”[37    
Stamp issued by the United States Postal Service commemorating D. W. Griffith

DW Griffith 18

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.

DW Griffith 19

  • In the 1951 Philco Television Playhouse episode “The Birth of the Movies”, events from Griffith’s film career were depicted. Griffith was played by John Newland.
  • In 1953, the Directors Guild of America (DGA) instituted the D. W. Griffith Award, its highest honor. On December 15, 1999, DGA President Jack Shea and the DGA National Board announced that the award would be renamed as the “DGA Lifetime Achievement Award”. They stated that, although Griffith was extremely talented, they felt his film The Birth of a Nation had “helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes”, and that it was thus better not to have the top award in his name.
  • In 1975, Griffith was honored on a ten-cent postage stamp by the United States.
  • D.W. Griffith Middle School in Los Angeles is named after Griffith.[38] Because of the association of Griffith and the racist nature of The Birth of a Nation, attempts have been made to rename the 100% minority-enrolled school.[39]
  • In 2008 the Hollywood Heritage Museum hosted a screening of Griffith’s earliest films, to commemorate the centennial of his start in film.[40]
  • On January 22, 2009 the Oldham History Center in La Grange, Kentucky opened a 15-seat theatre in Griffith’s honor. The theatre features a library of available Griffith films.

Film preservation

DW Griffith 21

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).

DW Griffith 22

See also

DW Griffith 23

References

  1. ^ Jump up to:a b c “D.W. Griffith”. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved March 30, 2015.
  2. ^ Jump up to:a b c “David W. Griffith, Film Pioneer, Dies; Producer Of ‘Birth Of Nation,’ ‘Intolerance’ And ‘America’ Made Nearly 500 Pictures Set, Screen Standards Co-Founder Of United Artists Gave Mary Pickford And Fairbanks Their Starts.”. The New York Times. July 24, 1948.
  3. Jump up^ “‘The Birth of a Nation’: When Hollywood Glorified the KKK | HistoryNet”. HistoryNet. Retrieved February 27, 2016.
  4. Jump up^ Brooks, Xan (July 29, 2013). “The Birth of a Nation: a gripping masterpiece … and a stain on history”. The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved February 27, 2016.
  5. Jump up^ “D.W. Griffith”. Senses of Cinema. Retrieved February 27, 2016.
  6. Jump up^ “History of the Close Up in film”.
  7. Jump up^ “D. W. Griffith (1875-1948)”. Retrieved December 3, 2016.
  8. Jump up^ Blizek, William L. (2009). The Continuum Companion to Religion and Film. A&C Black. p. 126. ISBN 0-826-49991-0.
  9. ^ Jump up to:a b c “D. W. Griffith”. Spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk. Archived from the originalon June 5, 2011. Retrieved June 5, 2011.
  10. Jump up^ “American Experience | Mary Pickford”. PBS. Retrieved June 5, 2011.
  11. ^ Jump up to:a b c “D.W. Griffith Biography”. Starpulse.com. July 23, 1948. Retrieved June 5, 2011.
  12. Jump up^ “Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema”. Victorian-cinema.net. Retrieved June 5, 2011.
  13. Jump up^ Kirsner, Scott (2008). Inventing the movies : Hollywood’s epic battle between innovation and the status quo, from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs (1st ed.). [s.l.]: CinemaTech Books. p. 13. ISBN 1438209991.
  14. ^ Jump up to:a b “D. W. Griffith: Hollywood Independent”. Cobbles.com. June 26, 1917. Retrieved June 5, 2011.
  15. Jump up^ “Fine Arts Studio”. Employees.oxy.edu. June 9, 1917. Archived from the original on May 14, 2011. Retrieved June 5, 2011.
  16. Jump up^ MJ Movie Reviews – Birth of a Nation, The (1915) by Dan DeVore ArchivedJuly 7, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
  17. Jump up^ “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow . Jim Crow Stories . The Birth of a Nation”. PBS. March 21, 1915. Retrieved June 5, 2011.
  18. Jump up^ “”Griffith’s 20 Year Record”, ”Variety” (September 25, 1928), as edited by David Pierce for ”The Silent Film Bookshelf,” on line”. Cinemaweb.com. September 5, 1928. Archived from the original on July 12, 2011. Retrieved June 5, 2011.
  19. Jump up^ “Intolerance Movie Review”. Contactmusic.com. May 29, 2011. Retrieved June 5, 2011.
  20. Jump up^ Georges Sadoul (1972 [1965]). Dictionary of Films, P. Morris, ed. & trans., p. 158. University of California Press.
  21. Jump up^ “American Masters . D.W. Griffith”. PBS. December 29, 1998. Retrieved June 5, 2011.
  22. Jump up^ “Last Dissolve”. Time Magazine. August 2, 1948. Retrieved August 14, 2008.
  23. Jump up^ Richard Lewis Ward, A History of the Hal Roach Studios, p. 109-110. Southern Illinois University, 2005. ISBN 0-8093-2637-X. In his Biograph days, Griffith had directed two films with prehistoric settings: Man’s Genesis (1912) and Brute Force (1914).
  24. Jump up^ Ward, p. 110.
  25. Jump up^ Green, Paul (2011). Jennifer Jones: The Life and Films. McFarland. p. 69. ISBN 0-786-48583-3.
  26. Jump up^ Schickel, Richard (1996). D.W. Griffith: An American Life. Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 31. ISBN 0-879-10080-X.
  27. Jump up^ Schickel 1996 p. 605
  28. Jump up^ Leitch, Thomas; Poague, Leland (2011). A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock. John Wiley & Sons. p. 50. ISBN 1-444-39731-1.
  29. Jump up^ “Landmarks of Early Soviet Film”. Retrieved October 18, 2012.[permanent dead link]
  30. Jump up^ “Jean Renoir Biography”. biography.yourdictionary.com. Retrieved October 18, 2012.
  31. Jump up^ “Movie Review: Restored ‘Intolerance’ Launches Festival of Preservation”. latimes.com. Retrieved October 18, 2012.
  32. Jump up^ “Overview for King Vidor”. tcm.com. Retrieved October 18, 2012.
  33. Jump up^ “Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master”. Archived from the original on September 14, 2013. Retrieved April 24, 2013.
  34. Jump up^ Moss, Marilyn (2011). Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director. University Press of Kentucky. pp. 181, 242. ISBN 0-813-13394-7.
  35. Jump up^ “Matinee Classics – Carl Dreyer Biography & Filmography”. matineeclassics.com. Archived from the original on December 15, 2013. Retrieved October 9, 2012.
  36. Jump up^ “Sergei Eisenstein – Biography”. leninimports.com. Retrieved October 9, 2012.
  37. Jump up^ “MintyTees @ Amazon.com: vintage/celebrities/directors/dw_griffith/details/”. Archived from the original on December 15, 2013.
  38. Jump up^ “Griffith Middle School: Home Page”. Retrieved December 3, 2016.
  39. Jump up^ “Petition calls for Griffith Middle School name change over racism – LA School Report”. Retrieved December 3, 2016.
  40. Jump up^ “Hollywood Heritage”. Hollywood Heritage. Retrieved June 5, 2011.

DW Griffith 24

Further reading

  • David W. Menefee, Sweet Memories (Dallas, Texas: Menefee Publishing Inc., 2012)
  • Lillian Gish, The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me (Englewood, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1969)
  • Karl Brown, Adventures with D. W. Griffith (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973)
  • Richard Schickel, D. W. Griffith: An American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984)
  • Robert M. Henderson, D. W. Griffith: His Life and Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972)
  • William M. Drew, D. W. Griffith’s “Intolerance:” Its Genesis and Its Vision (Jefferson, New Jersey: McFarland & Company, 1986)
  • Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968)
  • Seymour Stern, An Index to the Creative Work of D. W. Griffith, (London: The British Film Institute, 1944–47)
  • David Robinson, Hollywood in the Twenties (New York: A. S. Barnes & Co, Inc., 1968)
  • Edward Wagenknecht and Anthony Slide, The Films of D. W. Griffith (New York: Crown, 1975)
  • William K. Everson, American Silent Film (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978)
  • Smith, Matthew (April 2008). “American Valkyries: Richard Wagner, D. W. Griffith, and the Birth of Classical Cinema”. Modernism/modernity. 15 (2): 221–42. Retrieved September 14, 2014.
  • Iris Barry and Eileen Bowser, D. W. Griffith: American Film Master (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1965)
  • Drew, William M. “D.W. Griffith (1875–1948)”. Retrieved July 31, 2007.

External links

DW Griffith 8

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s