D.W. Griffith might be the richest man – By Frederick J. Smith (Photoplay – Dec. 1926)

Photoplay Magazine December 1926

He Might Be the Richest Man in the World

By Frederick James Smith

If D.W. Griffith had thought of himself first he would be a millionaire today

David Wark Griffith
David Wark Griffith

Suppose D. W. Griffith had protected his pioneer screen devices with patents. Today the whole film business would be paying tribute. The fade-out and the soft focus would be bringing him a million dollars apiece each year. Suppose he had put his famous film finds under long term contracts. But he didn’t. So today Griffith lives quietly in a Broadway hotel. He hasn’t earned a cent for two years because he is paying old debts.

Billy Bitzer Josephine Crowell and DW Griffith
Billy Bitzer Josephine Crowell and DW Griffith

“I am not a bad business man,” says D. W. Griffith. “Honestly, I’m not. I was never in difficulties until I turned my business over to others. When I both directed and managed, I got along all right”

Billy Bitzer and D.W. Griffith inspect the negative (Los Angeles Herald)
Billy Bitzer and D.W. Griffith inspect the negative (Los Angeles Herald)

Suppose the pioneer motion picture devices had been patented as everything has been patented in the more modern field of radio. David Wark Griffith would be one of the richest men in the world, and the empire of films would be turned topsy-turvy. “Suppose I had patented the fade-out,” Griffith told me sadly the other day. “I would be drawing at least a million a year in royalties. The dissolve-out is absolutely necessary to the smooth telling of a story. Try counting the number of times it is used in a single picture. “To eliminate it would make necessary the abrupt beginning and ending of scenes. It would jar and distort the whole observation of a film drama.

Intolerance - shooting A Ride To The Rescue (Modern Story) D. W. Griffith, American film master
Intolerance – shooting A Ride To The Rescue (Modern Story)

” Yes, I might have patented it. You can patent anything derived from a mechanical device. I just didn’t realize its significance then. We were all pioneers— and I wanted to help the business.

“I might have patented the shooting of scenes through gauze. Sometimes it is called soft focus. They used to call it ‘mist photography’ in the old times. That is another mechanical device.

Mary Pickford is one of D. W. Griffith’s most famous discoveries. She flashed across the screen when Griffith was laying the foundations of pictures at the old Biograph studio

“The revenue from the gauze appliance would have been good for another million easily each year. Only the other day I patented a new application of this device, so I know that I could have protected the original. “It wouldn’t have been possible to patent the flash-back or the close-up,” Griffith went on. “Those are ideas of technique. But, with the other two devices under patent, I wouldn’t have needed them. I would have my millions, anyway.”

D.W. Griffith - late 1930's
D.W. Griffith – late 1930’s

The man who laid the foundation of motion pictures looked about his hotel room. He has a little suite of living room and bedroom in a Times Square hotel. Its windows look across the west side tenements to the Hudson and to Fort Lee, the pioneer Jersey Hollywood of the films. The living room is piled high with books and manuscripts. The remainder of the Griffith records repose in the hotel basement.

Mamaroneck NY Griffith Studios

“I’m not a bad business man,” Griffith continued. “Honestly, I’m not. I was never in difficulties until I turned my business over to others. In California in the old days, when I both directed and managed, I got along all right. It was only when I came to Mamaroneck and turned over my business handling to others that I became involved.

“Of course, the collapse of everything at Mamaroneck nearly broke my heart. We missed success so narrowly. Bad management and bad releasing contracts caused the destruction. But, when we failed, I made up my mind that the stockholders would be paid back. That’s why I took the contract at Famous Players—to earn enough to pay back every cent.

Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith analyzing film - editing
Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith analyzing film – editing

“Right at this moment I have earned enough to pay back 4 ½ of every 12 cents I owe each stockholder. I will have the whole thing paid in another year.

D. W. Griffith believes that Lillian Gish is the great actress of the screen. Even in view of her more recent films and their adverse criticism, he asks: “Who is greater?”

“I’m not earning a cent for myself. Actually, I’m working for nothing. Last year, in fact, I went behind fifteen thousand dollars. But I will be out of servitude in another twelve months.”


Another source of a possible fortune came up. Suppose Griffith had signed his various film discoveries to long term contracts, following the custom of today. Griffith found Mary Pickford, the Gishes, Constance Talmadge, Blanche Sweet, Richard Barthelmess and others. Suppose he had tied them up to lengthy contracts. “It couldn’t be done,” Griffith told me. “Did you ever try to work with an actor who is unhappy? Did you ever try to direct an actor who thought himself underpaid, who felt that he ought to be a star? I have. It’s a horrible experience. I wouldn’t have a restless player under contract for the world. I value my peace of mind too much.”

DW Griffith and Lillian Gish
DW Griffith and Lillian Gish

Sometime Griffith is going to write the story of his life. It will be after he finishes directing, if he ever does. Griffith wants to write. “Writers are the only ones who can express their ego,” he says. “Directors can’t, because pictures must be made to please the majority. We can’t deal with opinions. All we can do is to weave a little romance as pleasantly as we know how.”

J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith
J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith

Griffith naturally doesn’t like to express .comparisons. I did ask him to name the greatest actor he had ever directed.

Arthur V Johnson
Arthur V Johnson

He thought a while. “Arthur Johnson, I guess,” he said. “Yes, Arthur Johnson. Henry Walthall was excellent in romantic roles. Perhaps a little florid. Lionel Barrymore was vivid in those old Biograph days. But Johnson was matchless in everything — modern, romantic, comedy. He would have been a great film leader had he lived.”

Griffith did not commit himself so exactly about the greatest actress he had ever directed. He obviously seems to consider Lillian Gish and Carol Dempster the greatest. I asked him about Miss Gish, in view of her more recent film roles. He countered. “Who is greater?”

Lillian Gish - Hoover Art Studios LA
Lillian Gish – Hoover Art Studios, Los Angeles

Griffith doesn’tbelieve that the public is fickle about its stars. “Stars do not slip quickly,” he says, “despite the theory to the contrary. You hear that so-and-so will die if he doesn’t get a good picture immediately. Consider how many weak pictures have been made by the big favorites—who are still favorites. No, the public does not like to revise its estimates. It doesn’t want to go to the trouble of seeking new idols any more than the average man likes to seek a new object for his affections.” Griffith does not hold the German technique in awe.

“Motion pictures haven’t changed,” he declares. “The technique of telling your story varies with passing vogues, but the photoplay remains essentially the same. It has remained unchanged since the Biograph days.

“Yes, I know it has become the custom to say that the Germans are pioneers in a new technique. Why, they are doing the things that we discarded long ago. A certain primitive virility comes of that, but it is absurd to talk of a new technique. They do things long prohibited over here. Mugging, for instance. Long scenes played right at the camera. We did all that in the beginning. “The fact that this primitive stuff has been – dressed up with superb camera work has confused observers. The Germans have a fine mechanical mind. They have perfected the camera. In fact, after the war, we found that they had gone beyond us in cameras and camera equipment. In lighting, too. ” But this new German technique is all bosh.

David Wark Griffith Isn't Life Wonderful 1924
David Wark Griffith Isn’t Life Wonderful 1924

We make better pictures in America. Sacha Guitry. the French playwright-producer, once said that the Biograph film drama revolutionized the stage. The effect of films upon the spoken drama must be obvious to everyone.

The Germans haven’t revolutionized our screen play—not yet, anyway.”

Griffith has been called a recluse. He was for a time, when collapse confronted him at Mamaroneck. He goes to many films but seldom to screen premieres. His amusement tastes are various. I have seen him dancing happily after the theater. I have seen him enjoying himself as a ringsider at big prize fights. But I have never seen him enjoy himself so completely as he does when he is directing. Griffith says he would like to spend his days in a sailboat on the Chesapeake. But I know he is kidding himself. He likes pictures too much.

Dorothy & Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith (President Harding - Orphans of The Storm)
Dorothy & Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith (President Harding – Orphans of The Storm)

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