D. W. Griffith

D. W. Griffith

Both a filmmaking pioneer and a social provocateur, director D. W. Griffith almost singlehandedly developed the techniques by which films would be made while simultaneously showing how they could be both a significant commercial and cultural element of American culture for good or ill. Once called "the father of film" by actress Lillian Gish and "the teacher of us all" by Charlie Chaplin, Griffith took a nascent medium wallowing in mediocrity and used his insatiable desire to experiment to break the conventions of his era and develop new means of relating narratives for the screen. After making almost three movies a week from 1908-1913, where he innovated with new techniques like close-ups, cross-cutting and deep focus, Griffith made the feature length Civil War epic "The Birth of a Nation" (1915), a technical triumph and box office hit undermined by its overtly racist themes of the times. He responded to public outrage in the form of protests and riots with "Intolerance" (1916), an expensive masterpiece that sought to answer his critics that failed at the box office and left him in dire financial straits for the remainder of his career. Though he formed the studio United Artists with Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks in 1919, Griffith dropped out five years later over his failure to make a hit film that would resolve his debts. Though he continued making movies for UA and Paramount Pictures, nothing he made reached the heights of "Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance." In the end, Griffith's legacy as a groundbreaking pioneer who gave birth to modern filmmaking was mired by his obvious sentiment to racial stereotypes, which haunted him for decades after his death.

Born David Wark Griffith on Jan. 22, 1875 in Oldham County, KY, Griffith was raised by his father, Jacob, a farmer who once fought the U.S. Army in the Mexican-American War and later fought with the Confederates in the Civil War, and his mother, Mary, bearer of seven children. His father died when Griffith was young and left the family destitute. A quiet child who received little education but loved to read, Griffith harbored dreams of becoming a writer and an actor. When he was 14, his mother left the farm and moved the family to Louisville, where she failed in her venture to run a boarding house. Around this time, Griffith began working odd jobs to help support the family. Still wanting to break into show business, he had his first theater job as an extra with Sarah Bernhardt's company in 1896, while the following year he made his stage acting debut with the Meffert Stock Company in Louisville. Griffith also plied his trade as a writer and sold his first play "The Fool and the Girl" in 1906. But when he tried to sell a story to Edwin S. Porter, Griffith was signed on to the producer's Edison Company as an actor instead.

Though unsuccessful in selling his writing, Griffith did learn a great deal about making films from working with Porter, who had somewhat developed rudimentary moviemaking techniques to include shorter scenes, naturalistic locations and more movement on camera. Meanwhile, he made his leading debut in Porter's "Rescued From an Eagle's Nest" (1907), in which the young actor was so carelessly filmed that he was obscured by the edge of the frame - an experience that served him well later when he began directing his own films for American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Later that year, Griffith did get his chance to direct and he showed an immediate talent for creative use of the frame, as well as developing rhythmic editing to build dramatic tension with short movies like "The Adventures of Dollie" (1908), "A Corner in Wheat" (1909) and "The House with Closed Shutters" (1910) to name but a few. From 1908 to 1913, Griffith averaged almost three films a week, mostly for Biograph, and used overlapping schedules and a stock company of actors who rapidly moved from one film to the next, sometimes on the same day. Griffith paid special attention to his actresses, developing a number of important performers like Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet and Mae Marsh.

At this time, filmmakers in other countries, especially France and Denmark, were making comparable discoveries about the importance of editing; often their films were shown in the United States, just as Griffith's Biograph productions were exported to Europe. That ongoing exchange made it nearly impossible for film historians to clearly define sources of innovation and influences which many consigned solely to Griffith. Nonetheless, he made hundreds of groundbreaking one- and two-reel movies, but wanted to push the boundaries and make longer films. Biograph refused his request to make "Judith of Bethulia" (1914) a four-reel movie, though Griffith ignored their demand and went ahead anyway. Made in 1913, Biograph held onto the film's release until the following year, which undercut the profit-sharing deal they had with Griffith. Frustrated, the director quit the company and took the stock company of actors with him to producer Harry Aitken's Mutual Film Company. There he began making the movie for which he would become infamous for, "The Birth of a Nation" (1915), simultaneously one of the most important and reviled films ever made in cinema history.

An epic Civil War saga the centered on two families - one Northern, one Southern - and the aftermath suffered by both during Reconstruction, "Birth of a Nation" brought Griffith both enormous acclaim and infamy. Audiences were dazzled by the film's sweep and epic power, as well as its intimate moments of pain and joy. But Griffith's embrace of the original Ku Klux Klan and his abhorrent depiction of black characters, who were shown as being inferior to whites, stirred a huge storm of controversy that sparked protests and riots across the country. Griffith was heavily criticized for the film's overtly racist message - a furor that continued well into the next century - even though "Birth of a Nation" became a giant box office success; in fact, one of the most profitable films ever made. The technical innovation on display - the use of close-ups and long shots, superimpositions, deep focus, jump cuts and cross cutting to increase tension - not only prompted filmmakers of the day to innovate their own films, but also served as inspiration for generations of directors that followed. Still, Griffith embraced an extreme ideology that race somehow determined one's superiority and that one should fight to maintain this belief for the benefit of society. Regardless of the brilliant technical innovations, "Birth of a Nation" was forever tarnished as a racist screed and was further undermined by giving rise to the second Klan, which formed and came to political prominence immediately following its release. The new Klan even used the film as a recruitment tool well into the 1970s.

Griffith won financial independence with "Birth of a Nation" and almost immediately moved on to another epic, an elaboration on the notion of parallel historical developments, which he would present through cross-cutting across time rather than geography."Intolerance" (1916) was a quartet of stories of man's inhumanity to man which some historians charge was Griffith's compensation for the accusations of racism made against him after "Nation." Enormously expensive to produce, the film was nearly as big a box office flop as "Nation" had been a hit. Despite its financial failure, the film's reputation over the years in some ways surpassed its predecessor, while its influence was apparent in the works of Carl Dreyer, Sergei Eisenstein, Fritz Lang and many other directors. The massive expense of both "Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance" forced Griffith to dissolve his partnership with Aitken and left him in perpetual debt made worse by seeking to pay them off with proceeds from future productions. Meanwhile, he formed United Artists with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, where he made "Broken Blossoms" (1919), "Way Down East" (1920), "Orphans of the Storm" (1921), "One Exciting Night" (1922), "The White Rose" (1923) and "Isn't Life Wonderful" (1924). None achieved the financial success of "Birth of a Nation" and Griffith departed United Artists in 1924.

But some of the films made during that time were financial hits, though the dividends paid went to Griffith's creditors and not into his own pocket. He went on to make films like ""The Sorrows of Satan" (1926) for Paramount Pictures, an assignment he did not want initially, but turned out to be one of his most critically appreciated films. Griffith also continued making films for United Artists despite his financial stake being dissolved, turning out the weak romance "Drums of Love" (1928), often considered one of his worst films, as well as "The Battle of the Sexes" (1928) and "Lady of the Pavements" (1929). By the end of the silent era, Griffith was saddled with a reputation for extravagance, which was somewhat undeserved, and a Victorian brand of sentimentality which was an integral part of his personality, although a steadily less compelling component of his films. Griffith entered the sound era with "Abraham Lincoln" (1930), starring Walter Huston in the first talkie film about his life. Griffith next directed "The Struggle" (1931), a rather bleak and unappealing look at a newly married couple (Hal Skelly and Zita Johann) whose marriage is threatened by the husband's resurgent alcoholism.

Made with his own money, "The Struggle" failed miserably at the box office and left him in serious financial straights. It wound up be the last movie he ever made. Ignored by the industry he played such an important role in creating, Griffith retreated to over a decade of isolation at Hollywood's Knickerbocker Hotel, where he died alone from a cerebral hemorrhage on July 23, 1948. He was 73. For years, the scurrilous content of "Birth of a Nation" and the unabashed sentiment of many of the other features consigned Griffith to the status of irrelevancy. But in the mid-1960s, a Griffith revival began with reappraisal of his early works and acknowledgements of his immense contributions. Prior to that, in 1953, the Directors Guild of America instituted the D.W. Griffith Award, the highest honor it bestowed upon a deserving member for technical prowess. Recipients would include Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean and even Griffith's old friend Cecil B. DeMille. But in 1999, the DGA discontinued the award due to the racial stereotypes in "Birth of a Nation" and changed the name to the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award.