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D. W. Griffith

D. W. Griffith
File:David Wark Griffith 1919.jpg
D. W. Griffith in 1919
Born David Llewelyn Wark Griffith
(1875-01-22)January 22, 1875
LaGrange, Kentucky,
United States
Died July 23, 1948(1948-07-23) (aged 73)
Hollywood, California,
United States
Occupation Film director, film producer
Years active 1908–1931
Spouse(s) Linda Arvidson (1906–1936)
Evelyn Baldwin (1936–1947)

David Llewelyn Wark "D. W." Griffith (January 22, 1875 – July 23, 1948[1]) was an American film director, mostly remembered as the director of the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation and the subsequent film Intolerance (1916).[2] He is closely associated with his frequent leading lady, Lillian Gish.

Griffith began making short films in 1908, and released his first feature, Judith of Bethulia, in 1913. His film The Birth of a Nation made pioneering use of advanced camera and narrative techniques, and its immense popularity set the stage for the dominance of the feature-length film in the United States. Since its release, the film has been highly controversial for its negative depiction of African Americans and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. Today it is both lionized for its radical technique and condemned for its racist philosophy.[1] Filmed at a cost of $110,000, it returned millions of dollars in profits, making it, perhaps, the most profitable film of all time, although a full accounting has never been made.[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 important 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] For his pioneering techniques and early understanding of cinema, Griffith is considered among the most important figures in the history of the medium.

Early life and education

D. W. Griffith<center>

Griffith was born in Crestwood, Kentucky to Mary Perkins and Jacob "Roaring Jake" Griffith, who were of Anglo-Welsh ancestry. Confederate Army colonel in the American Civil War and was elected as a Kentucky state legislator. Griffith was raised as a Methodist.[3] D. W.  attended a one-room schoolhouse where he was taught by his older sister, Mattie Griffith. After his father died when the boy 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 left high school to help support the family. He first took a job in a dry goods store, and later in a bookstore.

Griffith began his creative career as a playwright but met with little success; only one of his plays was accepted for a performance.[4] Griffith decided to become an actor, and appeared in many plays as an extra.[5]

Film career

File:Edgar Allan Poe - D.W. Griffith - 1909, American Mutoscope and Biograph - FLM17879 - OB 685469.webm
Edgar Allan Poe (1909), a silent movie by D.W. Griffith as a director early in his career and Frank E. Woods as a screenwriter, inspired by Poe's poem The Raven. Collection EYE Film Institute Netherlands.
File:Walthall with DW Griiffith2.jpg
D. W. Griffith on a movie set with actor Henry Walthall and others
File:Birth of a Nation (title screen).jpg
Title screen from The Birth of a Nation.
File:Fairbanks - Pickford - Chaplin - Griffith.png
Fairbanks, Pickford, Chaplin and Griffith
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Griffith at a rolltop desk, c. 1925
File:The Adopted Brother - Christy Cabanne, D.W. Griffith - 1913, Biograph - EYE FLM24373 - OB 685502 - 720 x 404.ogv
The Adopted Brother (1913), directed by Griffith and Christy Cabanne for Biograph is a western about revenge. Collection EYE Film Institute Netherlands.

In 1907, Griffith, still writing as a playwright, went to New York and attempted to sell a script to Edison Studios producer Edwin Porter.[4] Porter rejected Griffith's script, but gave him an acting part in Rescued from an Eagle's Nest.[4] Finding this attractive, Griffith explored the motion picture business. In 1908, Griffith accepted an acting job for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, commonly known as Biograph, in New York City. At Biograph, Griffith's career in the film industry would change forever.[6] In 1908, Biograph's main director Wallace McCutcheon grew ill, and his son, Wallace McCutcheon, Jr., took his place.[7] McCutcheon, Jr., however, was not able to bring the studio success.[6] As a result, the Biograph head Henry Marvin decided to give Griffith the position;[6] and the young man made his first movie for the company, The Adventures of Dollie.

Biograph's In Old California (1910) was the first film shot in Hollywood, California. Griffith produced and directed the Biograph film Judith of Bethulia (1914), one of the earliest feature films to be produced in the United States. At the time, Biograph believed that longer features were not viable. According to actress Lillian Gish, Biograph "thought that a movie that long would hurt [the audience's] eyes".[citation needed]

Because of company resistance to his goals, and his cost overruns on the film (it cost US$30,000 dollars 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;[8] it 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 Ince and Keystone Studios' Mack Sennett; the Triangle Film Corporation was headed by Griffith's partner Harry Aitken, who was released from the Mutual Film Corporation,[8] and his brother Roy.

Through Reliance-Majestic Studios, Griffith produced The Clansman (1915), which would later be known as The Birth of a Nation. Historically, The Birth of a Nation was the first blockbuster. It 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.[10] It was enormously popular, breaking box office records, but aroused controversy due to its depiction of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, and race relations in 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 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 by historians of the Dunning School for decades, although it met with strong criticism from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People 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. "They lost track of the money it made", Lillian Gish once remarked in a Kevin Brownlow interview.[citation needed]

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.

After seeing the film, which was filled with action and violence, audiences in some major northern cities rioted over the film's racial content.[11]

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.[12] Griffith put a huge budget into the film's production, which could not be recovered in its box office.[13]
File:Billy Bitzer D W Griffith 1920.jpg
Cameraman G. W. "Billy" Bitzer and director D. W. Griffith on location in the snow filming "Way Down East" (Griffith, 1920). Bitzer stands behind a Pathé camera.

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.[14]

Griffith 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.[15] Griffith was forced to leave United Artists after Isn't Life Wonderful (1924) failed at the box office.

He returned to his job as a director.[16] Griffith 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 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.[17]

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

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."[18] 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.[19]

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 visited 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. The actors found their old mentor's presence so disconcerting that he was asked to cut short his visit in order that filming could resume.[citation needed]


Griffith was discovered unconscious in the lobby at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles, where he had been living alone. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage on July 23, 1948, 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.[20] In 1950, The Directors Guild of America provided a stone and bronze monument for his gravesite.


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

Motion picture legend Charlie Chaplin called Griffith "The Teacher of us All". This sentiment was widely shared. Filmmakers as diverse as John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock,[21] Orson Welles, Lev Kuleshov,[22] Jean Renoir,[23] Cecil B. DeMille,[24] King Vidor,[25] Victor Fleming,[26] Raoul Walsh,[27] Carl Theodor Dreyer,[28] Sergei Eisenstein[29] and Stanley Kubrick have spoken of their respect for the director of Intolerance. Orson 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."[30]

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.

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California Historical Marker marking the site of D. W. Griffith's movie ranch in Sylmar, Los Angeles
  • 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.
  • In 2008 the Hollywood Heritage Museum hosted a screening of Griffith's earliest films, to commemorate the centennial of his start in film.[31]
  • 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

File:Corner in Wheat.webm
A Corner in Wheat, one of D.W. Griffith's films in the National Film Registry

D.W. Griffith has five films preserved in the United States National Film Registry 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


  1. ^ a b c d "D.W. Griffith". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved March 30, 2015. 
  2. ^ 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. ^ "Famous Methodists". Retrieved June 5, 2011. 
  4. ^ a b c "D. W. Griffith". Retrieved June 5, 2011. 
  5. ^ "American Experience | Mary Pickford". PBS. Retrieved June 5, 2011. 
  6. ^ a b c "D.W. Griffith Biography". July 23, 1948. Retrieved June 5, 2011. 
  7. ^ "Who's Who of Victorian Cinema". Retrieved June 5, 2011. 
  8. ^ a b "D. W. Griffith: Hollywood Independent". June 26, 1917. Retrieved June 5, 2011. 
  9. ^ "Fine Arts Studio". June 9, 1917. Retrieved June 5, 2011. 
  10. ^ MJ Movie Reviews – Birth of a Nation, The (1915) by Dan DeVore
  11. ^ "The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow . Jim Crow Stories . The Birth of a Nation". PBS. March 21, 1915. Retrieved June 5, 2011. 
  12. ^ ""Griffith's 20 Year Record", ''Variety'' (September 25, 1928), as edited by David Pierce for ''The Silent Film Bookshelf,'' on line". September 5, 1928. Retrieved June 5, 2011. 
  13. ^ "Intolerance Movie Review". May 29, 2011. Retrieved June 5, 2011. 
  14. ^ "American Masters . D.W. Griffith". PBS. December 29, 1998. Retrieved June 5, 2011. 
  15. ^ "Last Dissolve". Time Magazine. August 2, 1948. Retrieved August 14, 2008. 
  16. ^ "D. W. Griffith (1875–1948)". Retrieved June 5, 2011. 
  17. ^ 1936 in film
  18. ^ 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).
  19. ^ Ward, p. 110.
  20. ^ "D.W. Griffith (1875–1948) – Find A Grave Memorial". Retrieved June 5, 2011. 
  21. ^ "Pure Cinema". Retrieved October 18, 2012. 
  22. ^ "LANDMARKS OF EARLY SOVIET FILM". Retrieved October 18, 2012. 
  23. ^ "Jean Renoir Biography". Retrieved October 18, 2012. 
  24. ^ "MOVIE REVIEW : Restored 'Intolerance' Launches Festival of Preservation". Retrieved October 18, 2012. 
  25. ^ "Overview for King Vidor". Retrieved October 18, 2012. 
  26. ^ "Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master". Retrieved April 24, 2013. 
  27. ^ Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood's Legendary Director. Retrieved April 24, 2013. 
  28. ^ "Matinee Classics - Carl Dreyer Biography & Filmography". Retrieved October 9, 2012. 
  29. ^ "Sergei Eisenstein - Biography". Retrieved October 9, 2012. 
  30. ^ D.W. Griffith
  31. ^ "Hollywood Heritage". Hollywood Heritage. Retrieved June 5, 2011. 

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 and 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

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