Unappreciated by the studio bosses at the time of his death, D. W. Griffith is now sometimes hailed as the Father of Film. Griffith is remembered by film scholars as the innovative silent film director who elevated filmmaking to an art form, but to the general public, he is remembered as the maker of just one film, The Birth of a Nation (1915), widely reviled as the most racist ever produced. In addition to his revolutionary use of cinematic storytelling techniques, Griffith also helped transform the craft of acting on screen and the way motion pictures are produced and distributed. He was the principal director for The Biograph Company between 1908 and 1913, in which time he had made around 450 films. Cecil B. DeMille once called Griffith “the teacher of us all.” French director Rene Clair opined, “Nothing essential has been added to the art of the motion picture since Griffith.”
However, people often get carried away in attributing the invention of filmmaking techniques to Griffith. He did not invent the close-up, the fade-out, or crosscutting between the actions in two parallel story lines. The French filmmaker George Méliès (1861–1938) used the close-up before Griffith, as did other directors; Gottlieb Wilhelm “Billy” Bitzer (1874–1944), Griffith’s frequent cameraman, invented the fade-out; and Edwin S. Porter (1870–1941) had used crosscutting in The Great Train Robbery (1903). Griffith brought these techniques together and lent them eloquence. He cited Dickens and Whitman as influences on his use of parallel action and a sense of dramatic tempo.
An actor himself, Griffith encouraged actors and actresses to act naturalistically. He made many stars, including Mae Marsh; Lillian Gish (1893–1993); Mary Pickford (1892–1979), who became his partner in United Artists (UA); and Raoul Walsh, who became a famous director and screenwriter.
Griffith became a producer at Biograph, though his title was “production supervisor.” He groomed a number of actors to become directors. His first such protégé was W. Christy Cabanne (1888–1950), who began to direct in 1913. Griffith and his partners in UA had been well ahead of their time, because the majority of American-made films today are produced independently and then released through studios.
David Llewellyn Wark Griffith was born the sixth of seven children to reach adulthood to Colonel Jacob “Roaring Jake” Wark Griffith (1819–1885) and Mary Oglesby Griffith, on January 22, 1875, in Kentucky on the family farm, Lofty Green. He and his father were inclined to make extravagant claims about their Welsh ancestry and the elder Griffith’s accomplishments in two wars. J. W. Griffith was a physician, a Confederate cavalry officer, an alcoholic, a state legislator, and a KKK member.
David W. Griffith’s formal education stopped at the sixth grade, but his sister Mattie continued his education at home. In 1889, Mattie died, and around that time their widowed mother lost her family farm, and, impoverished, she moved the family to Louisville, Kentucky. Griffith worked odd jobs and developed a love of theater. In 1891, he joined The Twilight Revelers, an acting troupe.
In 1906, he was cast in The Clansman, but was given notice when the play reached New York. Reverend Thomas Dixon Jr. (1864–1946), a child of slave-holders like Griffith, had adapted his novel The Clansman, an Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan for the stage himself. It was the second book in Dixon’s Ku Klux Klan trilogy. The play, which sparked the Atlanta race riot of 1906, was so popular that even before Griffith used it as the basis for Birth of a Nation the Kinemacolor Company tried (and failed) to film it.
In 1907, after the first play he wrote bombed, two friends suggested Griffith become a screenwriter. Porter hired him as an actor for the Edison Company film Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest. In 1908, he began to write, act, and later direct for Biograph. He wrote the scenarios for Old Isaacs, The Pawnbroker (1908), and other films, including The Stage Rustler, in which he also appeared as an actor. As a director, Griffith’s first hit film was The Romance of the Jewess (1908). The New York Dramatic Mirror praised Griffith’s film The Red Man and the Child (1908).
If Birth of a Nation was Griffith’s masterpiece, he had already created, developed, or addressed a number of the film’s themes, setting, archetypes, and images in shorter films he had made for Biograph between 1909 and 1911. These included In Old Kentucky (1909) and The Battle (1911), melodramas set during the Civil War. White supremacy is also the underlying theme of The Zulu’s Heart (1908), That Chink at Golden Gulch (1910), and Iola’s Promise (1912).
Griffith chafed under Biograph’s constraints. The company did not want to produce a film longer than two reels, which would be considered short films now, when ambitious European filmmakers made four- to six-reel films. For instance, Cabiria (1914) was a spectacle that ran approximately 120 minutes, directed by Giovanni Pastrone, and written by Gabriele D’Annunzio.
Inspired by the Book of Judith and adapted from a play by T. B. Aldrich, Griffith made Judith of Bethulia (1914), the first American four-reel film, which at 55 minutes was more than twice as long as any of his previous films. According to Frank Capra, the “one man, one film” concept was born when Griffith told Biograph President J. J. Kennedy after Judith he wanted control of his films and a share of the profits. Biograph did not release the film until after Griffith left the company.
Griffith accepted an offer from Reliance-Majestic, a Mutual Film Corporation production company owned by brothers Harry and Roy Aitken. Under the contract, Griffith would direct two movies a year and produce others–a generous deal based in part on Griffith having brought members of his technical crew and stock company of actors with him from Biograph.
The very first New York Times movie review covered Cabiria and Griffith’s film The Escape (1914), referred to as “photo plays” in the Times. The Escape, one of five films Griffith made for Mutual, was a seven-reel adaptation of a play of the same name by Paul Armstrong that concerned eugenics.
Frank E. Woods, a screenwriter Dixon had commissioned to adapt his play for the screen, arranged for Dixon to meet Griffith. Dixon’s sale of the movie rights included a share of the royalties. Griffith and Dixon worked on the treatment while Griffith continued to shoot films for Mutual. Their source materials were The Clansman novel and play, as well as The Leopard’s Spots, the first book in Dixon’s KKK trilogy. Lillian Gish indicated that Woodrow Wilson’s A History of the American People was a source for the second half of the film, and an excerpt was also cited in intertitle cards after the intermission. Shortly after Christmas, 1913, Griffith and Dixon went to California to shoot the film.
Griffith and his production team brought together many innovations in this film. These included the use of magnesium flares for nighttime photography outdoors, still-shots, scenes filmed from multiple angles, historically authentic costumes, the camera iris effect, panning (tracking shots), close-ups, cameo-like profiles, fade-outs, lap dissolves, high-angle shots, panoramic long shots from up to several miles away, crosscutting between two scenes to create montages, and color tints for dramatic effect. He staged the battles scenes with hundreds of extras to evoke the Civil War photojournalism of Mathew Brady. Tableaux billed as “historical facsimiles” accurately depicted Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court-house and Booth’s assassination of Lincoln.
The Birth of a Nation was the first American film to have a production budget of about $100,000, to be 12 reels long, to have a running time of about three hours, to have an original musical score played in theaters, to be screened in regular theaters with ticket prices of $2 that were comparable for live performances, to run in some theaters for months at a time, to be screened at the White House, and to be screened for members of the U.S. Supreme Court and members of Congress. It was not the first to be distributed as a road show, but it was the first to be shown extensively that way, and it opened up the South American markets for American cinema. In time, it would be seen by about 200,000,000 people.
In 1915, H. E. Aitken founded the Epoch Producing Corporation with Griffith to market Birth of a Nation. It was first screened on the West Coast as The Clansman. The premiere on February 8, 1915, was at J. R. Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles, where it was screened for the rest of the year. A second print of the film was sent to New York for a preview, which was seen by Dixon and Aitken. After the film ended, Dixon, greeted with applause as he descended from the balcony, shouted to Griffith the film should be entitled “The Birth of a Nation.” Griffith founded a company to deal with his royalties.
Dixon set about getting endorsements with which to counteract hostile critics. He used his social connections to secure the imprimatur of President Woodrow Wilson and Chief Justice Edward D. White. Dixon had met Wilson as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. Wilson thought it would be unseemly for a widower in a state of mourning to be seen at a theater, so he had the film shown at the White House on February 18, 1915, for the benefit of his family and the cabinet. The man who gave jobs that Republican presidents had traditionally reserved for blacks to southern whites said, “It is like history written with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
The Aitken brothers promoted the film’s official New York City premiere at the Liberty Theatre on West 42nd Street, where The Clansman had been staged in 1906, on March 3, 1915. Epoch Corporation developed an unprecedented advertising campaign for the film that included advance ticket sales, reserved seats, a 40-piece orchestra, billboards in Times Square, posters in suburban commuter train stations, special trains from New Jersey and Connecticut, and horsemen dressed as KKK night riders in the streets.
The Birth of a Nation played at the Liberty Theatre for 47 weeks and earned $500,000 there alone. Similar statistics would be reported for the Majestic Theater in Brooklyn. The movie played in Boston and Chicago for a year. It was screened in the South for 15 years. The movie earned about $48,000,000, of which Griffith received around $1,000,000.
In Birth of a Nation, Griffith presented a creation myth of the first Klan, which helped set the stage for the foundation of the second Klan. W. J. Simmons refounded the Klan in 1915. He was inspired by Dixon’s novel, the Atlanta premiere of Birth of a Nation, and the lynching of Leo M. Frank by a group called the Knights of Mary Phagan (a 14-year-old girl in Frank’s employ he was alleged to have killed).
NAACP Secretary May Childs Nerney sent out thousands of pamphlets and requested preview tickets. Protesters faced an uphill battle, though. Even the West Coast secretary of the NAACP admitted the film was “a masterpiece.” There were multiple bouts of applause during the screening for the National Board of Review, but they agreed to a few deletions requested by the NAACP and allowed three white members to see a preview, one of them Jane Addams. O. G. Villard, a founder of the NAACP, refused to accept ads for Birth of a Nation in the New York Evening Post, but did print a negative review by Jane Addams. Griffith excised the most offensive shots.
Remarkably, Griffith believed himself to be the aggrieved party and he wrote a pamphlet, The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America. In 1915, H. E. Aitken was forced out of Mutual Film Corporation and cofounded the Triangle Film Corporation, with Griffith as a partner.
Griffith released his second epic film, Intolerance (1916), a 13-reel film with a running time of 175 minutes, made on a budget of approximately $2,500,000. It covered (1) the Persian conquest of Babylon in 539 BC, (2) Christ’s ministry and Crucifixion, (3) the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in France in 1572, and (4) contemporary conflict between capitalists and striking workers. In another innovation, Griffith intercut between the four story lines in four very different historical epochs. To make it easier to distinguish between the four epochs, Griffith gave each a different tint. There are 50 transitions across time and space.
The “Babylonian Story” was quite a spectacle as it included a city wall wide enough for Prince Belshazzar to ride in a chariot along the top, seminude sacred prostitutes in the Temple of Ishtar, war elephants, siege towers, and 16,000 extras. Griffith depicts the celebration after the Babylonians repulse the first Persian assault with a moving crane shot that captures the city walls, massive sculptures, and thousands of extras.
One of the reasons why the film bombed at the box office was the pacifist and anti-death penalty themes did not suit the period of World War I. Also, contemporary audiences had seen films before that switched back and forth between different characters in different physical locations, but they were not accustomed to stories that switched back and forth between different story lines in different eras. In 1921, his company formed to release Intolerance, Wark Producing Corporation, declared bankruptcy.
The War Office Committee of the British Ministry of Information helped finance Hearts of the World (1918). The movie started out at 12 reels, but Griffith cut 4 after the armistice. It made a $500,000 profit.
In 1919, with Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977), Griffith cofounded UA. At first, the company served the solitary purpose of distributing independently produced films. Each of the founders owned his or her own production company and through UA released films, as well as handled sales and advertising.
UA was the smallest of the eight major movie studios. Unlike the others, UA did not own a studio lot in Hollywood and had no actors under contract. Nor did it own a chain of movie theaters, at a time when four of the Big Five major studios– Warner Brothers, Paramount, Fox, and RKO–owned theaters. The fifth, MGM, was owned by a movie theater chain, Lowes, Inc. The owners did not expect UA to turn a profit, so it could charge lower distribution fees. The independent producers received a larger share of the rental fees from movie theaters that screened movies.
Through UA, Griffith released Broken Blossoms (1919), The Love Flower (1920), Way Down East (1921), Dream Street (1921), Orphans of the Storm (1922), and America (1924). Artistically, some of these films are considered among his best, but only Way Down East was a hit.
In 1924, Griffith began work for Paramount. Through a complicated arrangement, since Griffith remained under contract with UA, he filmed Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924) in Germany for Paramount, and it was released by UA. He adapted the play Poppy, and Paramount president Adolph Zukor arranged for it to be re-leased by UA as Sally of the Sawdust (1925). His film The Sorrows for Satan (1926) was a mess as a result of studio interference: the set designer Norman Bel Geddes was told to film the final scene behind Griffith’s back, which Griffith then reshot, and Julian Johnson reedited the film. It bombed at the box office and Zukor blamed Griffith.
In 1926, Griffith rejoined UA. He signed a contract with Chairman Joseph M. Schenk to direct five films for Schenk’s Art Cinema Corporation to be released through UA with the stipulation that Schenk would have script approval and gain voting control of Griffith’s stock in UA. Unfortunately for Griffith, he directed three movies in a row that flopped: Drums of Love, a remake of his own film The Battle of the Sexes, and Lady of the Pavements. His next film was Abraham Lincoln (1930), Griffith’s first talkie and the first talkie to depict Lincoln’s whole life. John Considine Jr. edited without his input. Schenk felt Griffith’s alcoholism made him unreliable. At his request, Schenk let Griffith out of the contract. Times critic Mordaunt Hall wrote “there are many Griffith ideas that bring to mind his direction of ‘The Birth of a Nation.’ These touches are sometimes very effective, but on other occasions they are tinctured with old-fashioned melodrama.”
The box office success of Abraham Lincoln inspired a revival of Birth of a Nation in New York City and allowed Griffith to get a bank loan to independently produce and direct The Struggle (1931), based on the novel The Drunkard by the writer Émile Zola (1840–1902) on a budget of $300,000. The film was a box office disaster and Griffith never directed another film.
In 1932, D. W. Griffith, Inc. went bankrupt. In 1933, Griffith sold his interest in UA. Hal Roach Sr. decided to remake Griffith’s film Man’s Genesis (1911) as One Million B.C. (1940) and invited Griffith to take charge of the production. The Hal Roach Studios publicity department released conflicting statements about whether Griffith was the film’s director or producer. Ultimately, Roach said Griffith directed none of the footage in the film and Griffith asked to have his name removed.
Griffith married two actresses. In 1906, he married Linda Arvidson in Boston and they moved to New York City. She encouraged him to enter the movie industry and appeared in the first film he directed, The Adventures of Dollie (1908). In late 1935, he filed for divorce, stating he and Linda had been separated since 1911. On March 2, 1936, he married young Evelyn Marjorie Baldwin, who had played Nan in The Struggle. The highlight of their honeymoon was the presentation of a special award during the 1936 Academy Awards ceremony. In 1947, they separated, and she filed for divorce. On July 22, 1948, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died the next morning in the Temple Hospital.
Mae Marsh would later recount that while Griffith’s body lay in state before his funeral at the Masonic Temple, she and John Ford visited the funeral parlor together and were told only four people had visited before them, one of them Cecil B. De Mille. Donald Crisp, who had played General Grant in Birth of a Nation, delivered the eulogy. The honorary pallbearers included Lionel Barrymore, John Ford, Samuel Goldwyn, Richard Barthelmess, Chaplin, De Mille, Walter Huston, Louis B. Mayer, Roach, and Zukor.
Griffith was buried in Mount Tabor Cemetery in Centerfield, Kentucky. In 1950, the Screen Directors’ Guild (SDG) had the body moved about 200 feet and placed over the grave a stone with the SDG symbol. Three of his stars–Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, and Richard Barthelmess–attended the event, as did SDG president Albert S. Rogell, and Evelyn Griffith.
Colm Feore played Griffith in the telefilm And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003), which referenced Griffith’s role as a producer of The Life of General Villa (1914). Filmmakers, film critics, and film buffs continue to cite Griffith. For instance, according to New York Times correspondent Michael Cieply, director Timur Bekmambetov described his adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter for 20th Century Fox, due to be released in June of 2012, as a cross between Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln and F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922).
—Sean M. O’Connor
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Wagenknecht, Edward and Anthony Slide. The Films of D. W. Griffith. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1975.