The Picturegoer – January 1921
David W. Griffith, The Man and His Methods by Donald Crisp
GRIFFITH, David Wark.
Born 1880, La Grange, Kentucky. Screen career since 1908. first as actor, then as director lor Biograph, where he introduced innovations which changed the whole course of motionpicture art; first to use “close – ups” and “cutbacks”; trained a large number of screen players who have since become stars; producer of “Birth of a Nation”; “Intolerance”; “Hearts of the World”; “Broken Blossoms” and ” Way Down East.”
Born London, England. Actor and producer. Played role of “Battling Burrows” in “Broken Blossoms. Producer of “The Poor Boob”; “Love Insurance”; “Putting it Over”; “Something to Do”; “A Very Good Young Man”; “Why Smith Left Home; “Too much Johnson,” and “The Six Best Cellars.”
Twenty years ago, when Ed. Porter, the veteran American producer, was making a picture entitled The Great Train Robbery, he engaged two men to act as bandits in a “holdup” scene. One of the men was G. M. Anderson, who afterwards won world – wide fame as “Broncho Billy”; the other was—D. W. Griffith.
Having made his modest movie debut, the subject of this article vanishes from our ken for a period of several years. But, later on, he returned to the industry, and this time he came to stay. D. W. Griffith joined the old Biograph studios in 1908 as scenario-writer and actor. Three pounds was the standard figure for a scenario in those days; and for his acting Griffith received a guinea a day. His salary when he left Biograph, five years later, was 1,000 pounds a week.
It was Griffith’s great ambition to be a producer; he went to Biograph with that fixed intention, and finally he got his chance. His first picture, The Adventures of Dolly, was a revelation to the trade, breaking all records for Biograph productions. Hitherto all scenes had been photographed from a fixed distance ; “close-ups” were unknown ; and the superiority of the Griffith method, which allowed full play to facial expression, was at once acknowledged. Among the Biograph actors and actresses who worked with Griffith in these early days were Mary Pickford, Mabel Normand, Blanche Sweet, Mack Sennett, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Jack Pickford, Mae Marsh, Lionel Barrymore, Miriam Cooper, Florence Laurence, Robert Harron (now deceased), Arthur Johnson (deceased), Courtney Foote, Kate Bruce, Owen Moore, Henry B. Walthall, Harry Carey, Dell Henderson, and the writer of this article.
In those days Mack Sennett had risen from “property-man” to a full-fledged comedian. Robert Harron was a studio messenger-boy, and Mary Pickford’s greatest ambition was to earn 10 pounds a week.
A scene from one of D. W. Griffith’s Biograph productions appears on the opposite page. It is especially interesting, because it shows Mary Pickford and Blanche Sweet playing together in the same picture It was called With the Enemy’s Help, and is the only film ever made in which these two famous stars shared the acting honours. Before he left Biograph, Griffith produced his great picture, Judith of Bethulia; and a year later he gave The Birth of a Nation to the world. Then came Intolerance, Hearts of the World, Broken Blossoms and his last big picture, not yet released in this country, Way Down East.
So much for D W Griffith, the producer. Of D.W. Griffith, the man, a volume might be written. I have worked with him as co-director, played under him as an actor, and lived with him in private life. And to know him as I have done is to admire him for his work’s sake and love him for his own sake. D. W. Griffith is by nature, artistic and poetical. That fact accounts for his emotionalism, and his emotionalism, in its turn, accounts for the wonderful power he has of making his players feel their parts. Coupled with his artistic temperament is a keen sense of commercial values that has helped him to place in correct perspective the various men and matters that come under his control in the studio. Knowing all this about the man, you can begin to visualise his methods when he “takes the floor.” His patience in prosecuting his search for detail is superb. There are producers who try a player for a certain part, and when that player, at the first attempt, fails to “deliver the goods,” drop the artiste and try another. If the second player manages to get a little nearer the producer’s conception of the part than did the first, the producer, sooner than “waste the time”—waste the time, mark you !- of going through it all again, calls for the camera and has the scene shot. Not so, Griffith. Nothing short of his conception of the part will suffice. To this end he takes players over their one scene for as often as ten tunes a day for a week or more. Perhaps it is only to walk into a crowded room and make a dramatic declaration. But, with infinite patience and an unconquerable determination,” D. W. makes the player perform the part time after time. This repetition induces confidence in the player until at last she loses all sense of the artificiality of the action and does it naturally, as though living the part.
If, on the other hand, she fails repeatedly, until ” D. W. ” is convinced that she is hopeless, she is turned over to the cashier, who hands her out her pay envelope. Griffith has no room for duds. In the studio he is highly emotional. No artiste who has any soul at all can help being stirred to the depths of her being by the emotion that he himself feels ; emotion which is highly contagious. Time after time I have seen him ” pulling it out ” of the star to such an extent that tears have streamed down his face, and his whole frame been gripped with the intensity of his own feelings. He is extremely sensitive and susceptible to his circumstances ; that is why he always uses music in the studio: as much to play on his own feelings as on those of the star—once he himself is stirred, he can, like a master musician, touch the keys that will make the right chords in the heart of the star give out the emotional values that are necessary.
Generally speaking, D. W. Griffith is a noiseless director. He is not of that class that persistently and insistently bellows down the megaphone like an infuriated bull. On the contrary, he makes very little noise, on the assumption that such behaviour is distracting, and certainly inimical to encouraging the artistic temperament. He works rather on the subdued plan. When the occasion demands it, he will simulate excitement in order to agitate the players, so that they can give the dramatic sense to their performance.
Throughout his career, from the time I first worked alongside him in the old Biograph days to the last handshake we had before I left Hollywood for London, he has always been a great believer in giving his players personal licence. He does not impose his will or his conception of the part on the player if the latter has good ideas of her own, and is able to get the effect that ” D”. W. ” wants by her own methods. He says that the artistic temperament cannot be cramped or governed by rule of thumb. And so ” D. W. ” allows the star to go about her business in her own way, so long as she obtains the right effect. On the other hand, he wastes no time with those players who claim to be temperamental. These temperamental displays, he considers, are really due to the first two syllables of the word! No matter how ” big ” the star was, if she commenced to be the great ” I Am,” and made no attempt to disguise her own conception of her superiority, he just used to hand her over to me to help her to find a new contract with somebody else.
As I look back on the man and his work, knowing him so thoroughly as I do, I am convinced that his pre-eminence in the world of film-producing is his skill in handling the human element that passes through his hands. And this, in its turn, is due to his unique knowledge of human nature in general. With unerring hands he touches the particular keys that, in varying dispositions, bring forth the temperamental emotions that make up the harmonious whole. Therein is the secret to Griffith’s success.