D. W. Griffith

D. W. Griffith

D. W. Griffith

D. W. Griffith (1875-1946) was an American film director, actor, and producer who is widely considered one of the founding fathers of Hollywood and the Wizard of Oz. He was the first head of a major film studio, the Paramount Fotochemical Company, and is best known as the director of the original “Ben-Hur” (1925), which is now considered a classic of the silent film era. In addition, Griffith played the lead roles in a number of other films, including “Broken Blossoms” (1919) and “Intolerance” (1916), which were also filmmaking milest.

David Wark Griffith, born on January 22, 1875, and passing away on July 23, 1948, was a trailblazing American film director whose contributions have left an indelible mark on the history of cinema. Renowned as one of the most influential figures in the motion picture industry, Griffith played a pivotal role in shaping film editing techniques and advancing the art of narrative filmmaking.

While modern audiences often associate Griffith with the 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation,” a groundbreaking yet controversial work, his impact extends beyond this notable piece. The film achieved unprecedented financial success, becoming one of the highest-grossing films of its time. However, its depiction of African Americans, glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, and support for the Confederacy stirred considerable controversy, leading to riots and attempts by the NAACP to have it banned.

In response to criticism, Griffith directed “Intolerance” in 1916, aiming to address concerns raised by his detractors. Beyond the controversies, Griffith, along with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, took a significant step in the industry’s evolution. In 1919, they co-founded the studio United Artists, aspiring to empower actors and directors to create films on their terms, breaking free from the constraints of commercial studios.

While Griffith continued to produce successful films like “Broken Blossoms” (1919), “Way Down East” (1920), and “Orphans of the Storm” (1921), financial challenges loomed. High production and promotion costs often resulted in commercial setbacks. Despite these hurdles, Griffith’s legacy endures, and he directed approximately 500 films, with the silent era dominating his prolific career. “The Struggle” (1931) marked his final feature film, concluding a remarkable chapter in the history of cinema.

Early life and influences

D. W. Griffith

D.W. Griffith, born to Jacob Griffith, a former Confederate colonel, spent his early years near Louisville, Kentucky. His education, guided by his older sister and fueled by his father’s vivid tales of wars and family readings, was disrupted when financial struggles hit the family after Jacob’s death when David was just 10. Moving to Louisville, Griffith had to leave formal education to support his family, working as an elevator operator and a bookstore clerk.

His foray into acting began with amateur theater groups, leading to his professional debut in small roles at the Temple Theatre. Griffith then embarked on a barnstorming acting career with touring companies. In 1907, he wrote and produced a play, “A Fool and a Girl,” based on his experiences in California, but it met with failure. Following this setback, he wrote another play, “War,” inspired by the American Revolution, which remained unproduced.

Upon the advice of a former colleague, Griffith sold scenarios for one-reel films to Edison Film Company and Biograph Company in New York City. Initially acting in films for both companies, he later became a director at Biograph. Over the next five years (1908-1913), Griffith made over 400 films, mostly one-reelers, but he experimented with longer formats, like “Judith of Bethulia” (1913), his last Biograph film.

During his time at Biograph, Griffith revolutionized motion-picture techniques, introducing the close-up, scenic long shot, and cross-cutting. Collaborating with cinematographer Billy Bitzer, he employed fade-outs and fade-ins for storytelling transitions and experimented with framing film images using special masks. Griffith also launched the careers of future film luminaries like Mary Pickford, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mack Sennett, Mae Marsh, Lionel Barrymore, and Harry Carey.

The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance

In 1913, D.W. Griffith left Biograph and joined Mutual Films, resulting in the creation of the groundbreaking film, The Birth of a Nation, officially opened as The Clansman in 1915. This film, while praised for its innovative technique, faced severe criticism for its racist ideology, causing riots in theaters. Despite being one of the most profitable films, grossing millions against its $110,000 cost, it was censored in various cities due to the controversies, turning Griffith into an anti-censorship advocate. His response to critics came in the form of Intolerance (1916), an epic film intertwining four distinct stories. Despite its artistic success, it proved financially challenging.

Griffith’s profits from The Birth of a Nation were invested in building his studio in Mamaroneck, New York, releasing films through United Artists, a distributor he co-founded. Despite notable works like Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920), the studio struggled due to the failure of some films and the economic downturn of the 1920s. Griffith then worked for Paramount Pictures and United Artists, producing films like America (1924) and Abraham Lincoln (1930), both exploring historical themes. However, after Abraham Lincoln, Griffith faced challenges in securing permanent employment or financing for future projects. His final film, The Struggle (1931), was an independent production that failed, marking the end of Griffith’s illustrious career in the motion-picture industry.

Early life

D. W. Griffith

Born on January 22, 1875, in Oldham County, Kentucky, D.W. Griffith was the son of Jacob Wark “Roaring Jake” Griffith, a Confederate Army colonel, and Mary Perkins. Raised in poverty after his father’s death when he was 10, Griffith attended a one-room schoolhouse taught by his sister Mattie. At 14, the family moved to Louisville, where his mother’s boarding house venture failed, adding to their struggles. Griffith left high school to work, initially in a dry goods store and later in a bookstore.

Embarking on an acting career with touring companies, Griffith also tried his hand at playwriting with limited success. His journey led him to New York City in 1907, aiming to sell a script to Edison Studios producer Edwin Porter. Although the script was rejected, Griffith secured an acting role in Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest. This experience shifted his focus to acting, leading to numerous film appearances as an extra.

Early film career

In 1908, D.W. Griffith joined the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company as a stage extra, where he met cameraman Billy Bitzer. When Biograph’s director fell ill, Griffith took the position, directing 48 shorts in 1909, showcasing innovative techniques like cross-cutting.

Griffith’s 1910 film, “In Old California,” was the first shot in Hollywood. In 1914, he directed his first feature, “Judith of Bethulia.” Facing resistance and cost overruns, he left Biograph, forming Reliance-Majestic Studios, later renamed Fine Arts Studios.

Joining Mutual Film Corporation, Griffith co-produced “The Life of General Villa” and founded Triangle Film Corporation. In 1915, he directed and produced “The Clansman,” later titled “The Birth of a Nation,” a controversial yet commercially successful film. The NAACP protested, leading Griffith to create “Intolerance” in 1916, addressing societal prejudices in four historical periods.

Griffith’s production partnership dissolved in 1917. He worked with Artcraft, First National Pictures, and co-founded United Artists with Chaplin, Pickford, and Fairbanks. Despite later films’ financial struggles, Griffith’s impact on cinema remained significant.

Later film career

Despite early successes, D.W. Griffith’s later career faced challenges. While some films like “Broken Blossoms” (1919) and “Way Down East” (1920) did well, commercial success eluded him. His association with United Artists ended after “Isn’t Life Wonderful” (1924) failed at the box office. Subsequent films like “Abraham Lincoln” (1930) and “The Struggle” (1931) also fell short.

In 1936, Griffith uncreditedly helped shoot the earthquake sequence for “San Francisco.” In 1939, Hal Roach hired Griffith for “Of Mice and Men” (1939) and “One Million B.C.” (1940), but creative differences led to Griffith’s departure. He wasn’t actively involved in directing scenes for these films.

Despite his significant contributions, Griffith’s later years were marked by a fading influence. He received a special Oscar in the mid-1930s, but by the 1940s, his presence on film sets could be distracting to younger actors.

Legacy

D. W. Griffith

D.W. Griffith’s legacy is a mix of celebration and controversy. Despite being hailed as a filmmaking pioneer by some, his work, especially “The Birth of a Nation,” is criticized for promoting white supremacist ideals. The film is linked to the KKK’s 20th-century revival.

Chaplin called Griffith “The Teacher of Us All,” and several acclaimed filmmakers, including Hitchcock, Kuleshov, Renoir, and Kubrick, praised his contributions. Griffith understood film techniques’ expressive power, notably in “The Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance,” which expanded the medium’s possibilities.

In 1953, the D.W. Griffith Award was established, but in 1999, it was renamed due to concerns about racial stereotypes in “The Birth of a Nation.” Griffith received a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. His influence is also commemorated in a postage stamp, a middle school in Los Angeles, and various events honoring his contributions to cinema.

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