1875 - 1948
of the pioneers of contemporary filmmaking (and often cited as the single most
important figure in the history of American cinema), D.W. Griffith was also one
of the most controversial figures in the history of Hollywood. Born in La
Grange, KY, the son of a physician and Confederate hero during the Civil War,
Griffith grew up in poverty in Louisville, KY, and gravitated to acting at an
early age. At the turn-of-the-century, he worked as a performer in various
touring companies with mixed success and in virtual poverty. After years of
frustration on the stage, he turned to movies, and became an actor and writer,
establishing himself at New York's Biograph Studio. He eventually became a
producer and, in 1908, a director. He directed every Biograph release through
the end of 1909, and, later as chief of production, supervised the making of
every film released by the company for the next three years, personally
directing all of the major productions. Most of these 450 films were comedies,
although a significant minority were dramas. But it was in 1913 that Griffith's
ambitions became clear with “Judith of Bethulia;” violating the restrictions
of the studio heads, Griffith made the Old Testament drama into a four-reel
film, almost double the length that had been approved, and an epic by the of the
film standards of the day.
spiritual father and sustaining mother to an infant art, D. W. Griffith expanded
the artistic horizons of audiences, safely shepherding cinema into adulthood and
nurturing its unique language. Many early cinema stars earned their close-ups
and honed their craft with Griffith, who was a busy promoter of silent stars
such as Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish.
with innovations including crosscutting, close-ups, and the iris shot, Griffith
had such a pervasive influence on film that his name became synonymous with the
medium. His performers respected him absolutely as patriarch, mogul, and
creative captain. As his popularity and box-office receipts skyrocketed, so did
his expansive aesthetic; he melded grandiose historical settings with intimate
scenes of heart-wrenching human drama. His greatest triumph was the epic
"Birth Of A Nation" (1915), a work that paradoxically cemented his
fame and shattered his enviable reputation. This three-hour War for Southern
Independence Reconstruction melodrama became a landmark in American filmmaking,
both for its artistic merits and for its breakthrough use of flashbacks,
fade-outs, and close-ups.
single-handedly elevated American film -- which had previously stood in the
shadow of its European cousins (Italian filmmakers, in particular, had been more
ambitious much earlier) to world-class stature, and forced Americans who had
thought of movies as light entertainment to perceive them as serious creations,
worthy of respect equal to the greatest stage dramas and capable of creating
theatrics that a live performance couldn't hope to match. The
movie's War for Southern Independence setting, however, was to prove a blemish
on Griffith's reputation -- a Southerner by birth and family history with a deep
resentment of the toll that Reconstruction played on his homeland.
“Birth of a Nation” was harshly condemned, however, for
its racial bias and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan; several subsequent
lynchings were blamed on the film.
Griffith continued to direct feature films into the 1920s, the scale of his
productions got ever bigger, and so did the messages he hoped to convey.
"Intolerance" (1916), a cinematic defense of intellectual freedom,
unveiled an altruistic Griffith who sought the olive branch from that segment of
the public alienated by "Birth of a Nation." Bloated, confusing, and
lacking in internal consistency, "Intolerance" came at a huge cost to
morale and finances. Its failure forced Griffith into dependence on other
backers, permanently breaking his spirit and his aesthetic concentration.
Although Griffith made numerous other films, none ranked in sheer brilliance with his two monumental works. Among the best of these later efforts were "Broken Blossoms" (1919), released by his newly formed corporation, United Artists (he co-founded United Artists with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and Charlie Chaplin); "Way Down East" (1920); and "Abraham Lincoln" (1930).
Despite such major works as the lively “America,” an account of the Revolutionary War, and “Isn’t Life Wonderful?, a compassionate look at post-war Germany, almost all were box-office failures, costing Griffith creative control over his films. Other than his comedies with W.C. Fields, “Sally of the Sawdust” and “That Royale Girl,” his last silents were trivial, impersonal dramas. He made only two sound films: the biopic “Abraham Lincoln,” distinguished by Walter Huston’s acting and Griffith's ease with sound, and “The Struggle,” a sensitive but neglected drama of alcoholism. Their failure sealed his fate, and he never got another job. Griffith, who was both worshipped and maligned in the span of a lifetime, died alone, and largely forgotten by the industry he helped to build, at the age of 73 in 1948. The legacy he left was an art form called cinema.