Biography :: 1875 - 1948
Header Photo: Promotional still from D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915).
D.W. Griffith :: Facts
David W. Griffith
David Wark Griffith
Capt. Victor Marier
Captain Victor Marier
Gaston de Tolignac
M. Gaston de Tolignac
Evelyn Baldwin (2 March 1936 - November 1947) (divorced)
Linda Arvidson (14 May 1906 - 2 March 1936) (divorced)
D.W Griffith :: Biography (1875 - 1948)
On December 31.1913, D.W Griffith announced his departure from the American Biograph Company with who he had worked since 1908. In an advertizement in The New York Dramatic Mirror, he summarized his achievements during the Biograph years, claiming that he had 'revolutionized motion picture drama' and founded the modern tehnique of the art'. To Griffith, on the strength of his own declarations, are normally credited the first uses of such devices as the close up and the long shot, the flashback (or as he called it the 'switchback'), the fade-in and fade-out, the use of the iris lens to pick out details of action, the use of titles, the concept of editing for parallel action and 'dramatic continuity', the atmospheric use of lighting , and the encouragement of 'restraint in expression' in screen acting.
Some of these claims, particularly where restrained acting was concerned, were to find more substantial justification in the post-biograph years. By 1920, Griffith could reasonably be said to have pioneered the expressionist use of colour tinting, the concept of widescreen cinema, and the commissioning of original music scores. He had also sent a camera up in a balloon and directed at least two of the greatest films the cinema would ever know. But there was no doubt, even at the time that Griffith left both Biograph and film history the richer for a five and a half year output unequalled by any other filmmaker in any other era.
D. W. Griffith welded together the techniques evolved by earlier pioneers and single-handedly created the art of screen narrative
That output, as has since been clarified, was not quite the one-man technical revolution Griffith suggested. In the process of copyright registration, American motion picture producers during 1894 to 1912 printed the individual frames of their work as photographs on paper for preservation by the Library of Congress. Thanks to these 'paper-prints', and to the research into them by archivist Kemp Niver in the late Forties, it has become possible for Griffith's Biograph films to be studied in a more informative light.
What has emerged is at first sight contradictory to the Griffith claims; instead , Edwin.S. Porter (for the Edison Company) and G.W. 'Billy' Bitzer (for Biograph) are amply illustrated as authentic pioneers. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903) has long been established as a primitive example of parallel story-telling, and ends up (or starts, according to taste) with the medium close-up, in colour, of a bandit shooting at the camera and thus at the audience. But Porter's other Edison productions, from the turn of the century, are also alive with dissolves, close-ups and camera movements. The effects are far from sophisticated - but they are there. Similarly, in such dramas as Moonshiners (1904) Bitzer pans fluently, if not particularly smoothly, around the countryside, while in The Black Hand (1906) he can be seen making use of titles, a two-shot, and a close up. In both technique and subject (as with, for instance A Kentucky Feud, 1905) he clearly marks out the territory that was subsequently to be assigned to Griffith. This indebtedness to the first film-makers is further reinforced by the irony that Griffith was directed by, among others, Porter in Rescued from An Eagle's Nest, when as an aspiring actor he worked at Biograph in 1907, and by Bitzer in The Sculptor's Nightmare, made in 1908, by which time he had officially joined the company. (Bitzer subsequently worked as Griffith's cinematographer for the next 16 years.)
What Griffith brought significantly to the screen, then, was not a collection of technical tricks, but the skill to use them effectively to enhance his stories. It was a skill derived partly from the theatre - his first love - and partly from his family background, with its 'scholarly atmosphere'. But most crucially, the skill grew inevitably from the experience of maintaining an output of around nine films a month throughout his stay at Biograph. In the startlingly prolific context of nearly five hundred productions in five and-a-half years, Griffith was given the unique opportunity - and had the responsive personality - to make every conceivable experiment in film-making at a time where rules were few, the audience vast and enthusiastic, and the future unlimited.
Born on January 22, 1875 on a farm in Crestwood, Kentucky, Llewelyn Wark Griffith came of excellent Southern stock. His father had been a colonel in the Confederate army, and his domestic life seems to have been ordered along firmly ethical and devout (but not ardently militaristic) lines. He later said:
'My parents always directed our studies and our thoughts towards the noble,the great in literature'he later said , and from the age of six he was determined to become 'a great literary man'
Numerous early jobs included being a salesman for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a hop-picker, a newspaper reporter and drama critic in Louisville, and an actor under the stage name of Lawrence Griffith in stock and touring companies. He wrote a play, The Fool and the Girl, which was produced in Washington and Baltimore in 1907 without much success. Taken by a friend to see his first picture show, he found it 'silly, tiresome, inexcusable; any man who enjoys such a thing should be shot at sunrise'. But it led him to offer film stories to Edison and Biograph Studios in New York, and it was only a short step to finding employment as a bit-player for the cameras,along with his wife Linda Arvison.
Mrs Griffith has described in her autobiography (When the Movies Were Young, published in 1925) how the Biograph Company, originally created to make the peepshow devices called Mutoscopes to rival Edison's Kinetoscopes, were by 1908 desperateley searching for good material. At the suggestion of Billy Bitzer's camera assistant, Arthur Marvin (who happened to be the general manager's brother), the studio offered a story by staff-writer Stanner Taylor (later to write many of Griffith's one reelers) to the reluctant Lawrence Griffith - only when established did he become known as 'David' or 'D.W.', on the assurance that he could have his acting job back if the project did not work. Photographed by Marvin, The Adventures of Dollie (1908) starred Linda Arvidson and Arthur Johnson, a young stage actor with no film experience whom Griffith picked for his suitable appearance. It was shot in a week, premiered in New York on July 14, 1908 and judged successful enough for Griffith to be granted a one-year contract which, with royalties, raised his salary from practically nothing to $500 a month. Apart from brief appearances when, in a crisis, there was no-one else to fill the walk-on roles, he never did go back to acting.
The torrent of films that poured from Biograph for the next few years has survived remarkably intact and has been carefully charted by, among other film critics, Robert Henderson (in his book D.W Griffith: The Years at Biograph) and Edward Wagenknecht and Anthony Slide (In The Films of D.W Griffith), although not too may film critics have the stamina to voyage across the full flood of Griffith's early output. His one reelers ventured into almost every conceivable territories long before they were defined (and late confined) as separate genres - in fact, the argument could be made that Griffith was the inventor of everything but fantasy cinema, which was pioneered by George Melies and Thomas Edison, and the epic spectaculars which he left to the Italian film-makers until he could afford to outclass them.
His were among the first - if not the first - slapstick comedies (with The Curtain Pole in 1909 setting the scene for the Keystone antics of his Biograph colleague Mack Sennett), suspense thrillers, Westerns, gangster stories, social-realism dramas and romantic melodramas. He made costume films, adventure stories and war films, together with some adaptations, not always acknowledged, from such writers as Alfred Lord Tennyson. Leo Tolstoy, Guy de Maupassant, James Fenimore Cooper, and O. Henry. The variety of titles is astonishing in any month picked at random from the Biograph list: October 1908, for example, saw the release of The Devil, The Zulu's Heart. Father Gets in the Game, The Barbarian Ingomar. The Vaquero's Vow, The Planter's Wife, Romance of a Jewess, The Call of the Wild and Concealing a Burglar.
Today, just a handful of the Biograph works have a lasting reputation, though many more deserve attention. Among those most frequently reconsidered are Pippa Passes, which achieved the distinction of being the first film to be reviewed by the New York Times (on October 10.1909); the Mary Pickford classic The Lonely Villa (1909), a suspense story of a family imprisoned in their own home by a marauder with a gun; The Lonedale Operator (1911), in which the camera was mounted on a locomotive to observe the struggle between the heroine (Blanche Sweet) and a railroad gang: and Man's Genesis (1912), a Stone Age parable in which an early screen dinosaur wobbled across the landscape.
If the one-reelers had anything in common (other than the 'AB' logo that featured in all the backgrounds to protect copyright), not surprisingly it was a sense of speed. They could be made on any inspiration, even the slender basis of a change in the weather; the unit would make up a story on the spot to unfold against the background of a recent snowfall, or to take advantage of a vista of autumn trees. And since there was not time to show insignificant detail, Griffith used titles more creatively than had previously been tried, in the place of cumbersome or irrelevant action, pushing his stories headlong from climax to climax. Marriages were made, broken and mended in ten minutes, wars fought and lost in the space of a single shot. His stories, springing from this frantic schedule, frequently based themselves on a race against time, and the need to show widely separate events interacting with each other led him to the logical solution of cross-cutting.
Griffith had a vision of movies as
'the greatest spiritual force the world
has ever known'
Despite the misgivings of the studio bosses, the obstinate vitality of Griffith's editing style never seemed to upset the one-reeler audiences:
'I borrowed the idea from Charles Dickens. Novelists think nothing of leaving one set of
characters in the midst of affairs and going back to
deal with earlier events in which another set of
characters is involved. I found that the picture
could carry, not merely two, but three or four
simultaneous threads of action - all without confusing the spectator.'
As Griffith's experience grew, so did his ambition. His stories were increasingly complex, his cast ever larger, his budgets less comfortable to Biograph. His later one-reelers, straying occasionally into two reels despite his producers' certainty that no audiences would tolerate such lengths, looked more and more like sketches and episodes from far grander
projects. The Battle (1911) can now be seen as a
rehearsal for The Birth of a Nation (1915), The
Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) for the modern story
in Intolerance (1916), while A Feud in the Kentucky
Hills (1912) anticipates both The Massacre (1913)
and The Battle at Eiderbush Gulch (1914), brilliant and spectacular films which in turn were
preparing for the sophisticated performances and magnificent photography of the later epics.
The parting of the ways came with Judith of Bethulia (1913), which Griffith made as a four-reeler at such casual expense, and in the teeth of such Biograph opposition, that there was no alternative but to fire him. As he left, he took his team with him -- the teenagers who had matured to stardom in the same era that movie fandom had come into being as a direct response to the 'Biograph Girls', together with cameraman Bitzer, editor James Smith, and a score of designers and assistants. They moved to the Reliance-Majestic Company (distributing through Mutual) and between April and July 1914 they made the five-reel The Battle of the Sexes in five days for under $5000; the ill-fated (and ill-received) seven-reel melodrama The Escape; the six-reel, three-story Home, Sweet Home, which combined all the Griffith players in one film for the first time; and the six-reel oddity The Avenging Conscience, based on works by Edgar Allan Poe. None of these productions appears to have been successful, either dramatically or commercially. But it hardly mattered. Within six months, the Griffith team had created The Birth of a Nation , and the face of cinema was permanently changed.
Including the Reliance-Majestic productions. Griffith made 32 features after leaving Biograph. They were as disparate as his one-reelers had been, straying from the unargued (if controversial) classic status of The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Broken Blossoms (1919), and Way Down East (1920), to the ambitious but unsatisfying Orphans of the Storm (1921). America (1924) and Abraham Lincoln (1930), and to such largely peculiar and often plainly ' unattractive ventures as Sally of the Sawdust, That Royle Girl (both 1925) and the lavish The Sorrows of Satan (1926).
His final film, The Struggle (1931), a grim and obviously heartfelt warning of the perils of alcoholism, although vindicated by later critical re-evaluation, was a crushing commercial disaster, especially as it came within a year of his having won a 'best director' award for his first sound film, Abraham Lincoln. In the remaining 17 years of his life he made nothing further. Instead, he was avoided by the studios for whom he had almost single-handedly created the film industry, and he was forgotten by the public. When the D.W. Griffith Corporation went into bankruptcy and his films were auctioned, he picked up the rights to 21 of them for a mere $500.
Lillian Gish, his greatest star, said:
'To us, Mr Griffith was the movie industry. It had been born in his head.'
But the infant proved to be less respectful of past traditions than its creator, and as it grew his parental influence quickly lost its grip. Griffith's stories obsessively examined the theme of virtue under siege — he was repeatedly shutting his young lovers, his innocent heroines, his helpless children into traps from which they were usually (but certainly not always) rescued only at the last moment. With his affection for Dickensian romanticism, he held firmly and sentimentally to the view that entertainment and education were one, and that beauty and youth were their own justification - beauty not only of appearance but also of character and behaviour. If it was an approach that steadily lost headway against the accelerating cynicism of the times, it remained with Griffith himself as an undimmed faith.
He would say jubilantly to his unit:
'We are playing to the world. We've gone beyond Babel, beyond words. We've found a universal language - a power that
can make men brothers and end war forever. . . .'