Introduction – by Ella Smith
A World of Movies – 70 Years of Film History (1976) – by Richard Lawton
A Delta Special
“Moving pictures” in America were at first shown in penny arcades. (A penny dropped into the slot of a machine called the Kinetoscope allowed the viewer to turn a crank and watch a subject in motion.) When screen projection became possible, they were shown in vaudeville houses. Finally they were transferred to the nickelodeon: a converted store with screen, projector and chairs.
By 1908 there were eight to ten thousand of these— but they were stuffy, ill-smelling places frequented by the poor and illiterate, and they would not improve until their product was good enough to attract a different audience.
Into this scene came a man who would bring order out of chaos. Within seven years, David Wark Griffith would master the art of the silent film — and the motion picture industry would flourish.
Griffith began his film career with reluctance. A playwright and actor from the legitimate theatre, he was working at New York’s Biograph Studio out of necessity. (Theatre people considered movies “galloping tintypes” — a form of entertainment not likely to distinguish itself.) His first directorial effort. The Adventures of DoHie, followed the pattern set by Porter but was more successful. It led to a contract with Biograph at $1 00 a week. Griffith soon became interested in his work. He abandoned existing formulas and invented new ones. His cameraman, Billy Bitzer, would protest that something couldn’t be done— and Griffith would answer “That’s why we’ll do it.” In this manner, he advanced pictures from novelty to art form.
He photographed a scene from more than one setup. He brought the camera closer to his players (resulting in “half an actor” — disturbing to the front office, but accepted by the public). He timed shots for psychological effect. He focused on objects— or portions of players, such as their hands—to point up ideas. And he introduced a more natural acting style to fit the intimacy of the medium. Lillian Gish, in a recent interview, said Griffith “taught that you must not be caught acting. The audience won’t believe you if they catch you acting. You must be whatever [the character] is.”
Differences of opinion with the front office made Griffith leave Biograph in 1913 and, taking Bitzer and many of his actors with him, he became head of production for the Mutual Film Corporation. The setup, at $1000 a week, guaranteed him the right to make two pictures of his own each year in exchange for the “potboilers” he was to turn out for the company.
1915 saw the full effect of Griffith’s genius when the 12-reel Birth of a Nation was released. Its dramatization of the Civil War and Reconstruction aroused audiences and provoked controversy. Woodrow Wilson said it was “like writing history with lightning” — and the full potential of the motion picture was revealed in that statement. No matter what a film maker wished to say, he had at his disposal a powerful medium if he could learn how to handle it.
One of Griffith’s most Important contributions (the intercutting of parallel action) reached its peak in his other masterpiece. Intolerance. Here, working with four separate plots unfolding simultaneously, he gradually shortened the time given to each. By cutting with increasing rapidity, he was able to build to a climax of epic proportions.
The Birth of a Nation was a box-office hit. Intolerance— too complex for 1916 audiences— was not. In fact, Griffith spent years paying oft the debts of the latter. But the impact of both films on the future of the industry probably has no equal.
(A World of Movies – 70 Years of Film History 1976 – by Richard Lawton)