Great American Film Directors – 1987 (D.W. Griffith)

Great American Film Directors – 1987

From The Flickers Through Hollywood Golden Age

D.W. Griffith

Written by Dian G. Smith

Griffith was not just a director of film masterpieces. He directed the very first film masterpieces. He changed the motion picture from a novelty sideshow, seen for five cents at a dingy nickelodeon with a tinny piano, into an art. “To watch his work,” wrote film critic James Agee, “is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination, and first eloquence of language: the birth of an art.”

D.W. Griffith
D.W. Griffith, internationally known movie director and producer, greets the press in this 1922 photo before sailing for Europe. (AP Photo)

David Wark Griffith was born on January 22, 1875, on a small dirt farm near Crestwood, Kentucky. His childhood memories are dominated by his father (“my hero”). Colonel Jake Griffith told his seven children stories about their family’s noble history and about his brave deeds in the Civil War. These stories, though often far from the truth, made a deep impression on the shy, sensitive David. He grew up believing he was descended from a king of Wales on one side and an immigrant English lord on the other and thinking of the Civil War as “the lost cause.” The Birth of a Nation, his film about that period, Griffith said, “owes more to my father than it does to me.” Colonel Griffith was called Roaring Jake because of his booming voice on the battlefield. He also used that voice to read aloud from the Bible, Shakespeare, and other classics to his family and their neighbors. This was a great part of his son’s education, for David attended a one-room country school where his older sister was the teacher. Unfortunately, besides his tales, the colonel brought back from the war only some worthless Confederate bills. Never a hard worker, he now had the excuse of “war wounds” and set up post on the porch to supervise, drink, and politic. Colonel Griffith died when David was ten, leaving his family heavily in debt. They were forced to move to a poorer farm and then to Louisville, where Mrs. Griffith ran a small boarding house. Yet memories of the beauties and hardships of Kentucky country life stayed with Griffith and appeared in many of his films.

D W Griffith late 1890s
D W Griffith late 1890s

David delivered papers after school and then, at fifteen, quit school to help support his family. He had many menial jobs, but the one he liked best was as stock boy at a bookstore where the intelligentsia of Louisville met. He would often listen in on discussions of literature and current events as he dusted the books. Customers sometimes gave him tickets to the theater and concerts, and it was at this time that he decided to become an actor and playwright. His mother, a strict Methodist, was horrified, and the only professional training he got was two years of singing lessons. Griffith’s acting career had more downs than ups. For about thirteen years, beginning when he was seventeen, he toured with countless companies that folded after varying lengths of time. The penniless Griffith would then have to make his way home, often by hopping freight cars. In between engagements, he took whatever jobs he could find, from shoveling ore out of ships to picking hops. But Griffith treasured these experiences: “It was from knowing all manner of men that I derived my most useful education.” His failure as a leading man did permanent damage to his vanity, however. He considered himself ugly and tried to offset his long hook nose by always wearing wide-brimmed hats. In 1905, he fell in love with Linda Arvidson, a young actress who had performed with him in a company in San Francisco.

linda arvidson

They got married the next year and moved to New York. He had sold a play about migratory workers and planned to support her by writing plays. His play failed, however, and a friend suggested that he try writing for moving pictures. Like others in the legitimate theater, Griffith looked down on this new medium, but he did agree to see one. “I found it silly, tiresome, inexcusable . . . but the great interest the audience evinced impressed me.” At first he was offered only acting jobs by the movie companies. Then the Biograph Company began to buy his stories, and soon, because of the shortage of directors, he was asked to direct. His first film was The Adventures ofDollie (1908), about a little girl kidnapped by Gypsies and sent down a rushing stream in a barrel. He made it in two days with only one rehearsal; for his work he was paid sixty-five dollars. Yet even in this film Griffith was thinking creatively and dramatically. “I adopted ‘flashback’ to build suspense,” he wrote. “Instead of showing a continuous view of a girl floating downstream in a barrel, I cut into the film by flashing back to incidents that contributed to the scene and explained it.”

Griffith - The Adventures of Dollie
Griffith – The Adventures of Dollie

After the success of Dollie, Griffith was allowed to pick his own stories, actors, and locations. He also began a long collaboration with cameraman Gottlieb Wilhelm (“Billy”) Bitzer. Between 1908 and 1913 he directed about 450 films for Biograph. Working fourteen hours a day, six or seven days a week, he turned out one twelve-minute and one six-minute film a week. And in the process, according to film critic Iris Barry, “Griffith discovered and laid down all the basic principles of filmmaking.”


Most of Griffith’s Biograph films were contemporary melodramas dealing with everyday life. He wrote some himself; others came from the story department or were borrowed from literature. Many were filled with action and had the famous “Griffith ending”—a last-minute chase. The Civil War was his favorite historical period, and he was concerned about the sufferings of the poor. In A Corner in Wheat (1909) a tycoon buys up the wheat crop, causing prices to soar. Griffith breaks into the scene of a grand party celebrating the tycoon’s success with a tableau of poor people waiting in a bread line. Griffith is credited with what may have been the first comedy series (the Jones comedies), the first gangster picture (The Musketeers of Pig Alley, 1913), the first American film spectacle (The Massacre, 1912, about Custer’s Last Stand), and the first psychological drama (The Avenging Conscience, 1914).

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) The Musketeers of Pig Alley 1912 — with Lillian Gish.
The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) The Musketeers of Pig Alley 1912 — with Lillian Gish.

When he left Biograph in 1913, Griffith published a newspaper advertisement claiming to have been the first to use a number of techniques: “the large or close-up figures, distant views . . . the ‘switchback,’ sustained suspense, the fade-out, and restraint in expression.” In truth, some of these had been used before, but Griffith was the first to use them to help tell a story. He showed a close-up of a wife’s face, for instance, in After Many Years (1908) to reveal her grief over losing her sailor husband in a shipwreck. In The Lonedale Operator (1911), he cut back and forth between two simultaneous events to build suspense: a telegraph operator calls desperately for help as thieves try to break into her office; meanwhile, with the cuts getting shorter and shorter, the hero races his train to her rescue, arriving just in time. Griffith was particularly concerned with realism. With the camera so close, he urged his actors to be more “subtle and expressive” than they would be on the stage. He also experimented with realistic lighting—natural light coming through a window, for instance, and light from a fireplace. He much preferred natural settings to the studio, first using those nearby. “A beautiful sleet had covered the trees in Central Park,” his wife Linda wrote, “and we hurried out to photograph it, making up the scenario on the way.”

Linda (Arvidson) Griffith

Then he started taking his company on location, first to a small village in New York State and then to California. It was after one of the California trips that his deteriorating relationship with Linda culminated in a bitter fight about his attentions to other women. They separated, but didn’t divorce officially for many years. To those who knew Griffith later, it seemed strange that he had ever been married, for he was completely devoted to his work. “I believe in the motion picture not only as a means of entertainment but as a moral and educational force,” he wrote. In the course of making his first films, Griffith established a repertory company, mainly of young women, which stayed with him. He chose very young actresses, he said, because the camera is hard on the face. But he also liked the role of father figure and teacher, and the family atmosphere that was  otherwise missing from his life. Griffith was concerned about physical fitness and boxed every morning, but his favorite sport was dancing. He would often take his company for a night of dancing, and wherever they went on location, there was someone to play the piano. Yet Griffith kept a distance from his actors and actresses and never saw a girl alone in his office. Lillian Gish, his greatest actress and oldest friend, always called him Mr. Griffith in public; he called her Miss Gish or Miss Lillian.

As a director, Griffith never used a script but would rehearse until all the actors knew their roles and the cameraman knew exactly what to do. “With his energy,” said Mae Marsh, “I remember best his infinite patience. … He never lorded it over his players. . . . He would say, ‘You understand this situation. Now let us see what you would do with it.'” He encouraged his actors to study everyone around them as models for their art. According to Lillian Gish, “We were all made to visit hospitals, insane asylums, death prisons, houses of prisoners, to catch, as he put it, humanity off guard so that we would know how to react to the various emotions we were called upon to portray.”

DW Griffith - Mamaroneck NY - Way Down East
DW Griffith filming team – Mamaroneck NY – Way Down East

D. W. Griffith was also a perfectionist. By 1920, when he was making Way Down East, he was shooting scenes thirty or forty times before he was satisfied. He supervised the editing himself and then went to the opening nights in major cities and cut further, based on audience response. The natural extension of Griffith’s editorial and photographic experiments would have been longer films, but Biograph was unwilling to finance them. The owners were horrified when Judith of Bethulia (1914), his first feature, an Old Testament spectacle with a large cast and elaborate sets, doubled its original budget. In 1913 Griffith left Biograph to become head of production for Majestic-Reliance, and he took his best players with him. For this company he was expected to keep a film assembly line going (“grinding out sausages,” he called it) and to train and supervise actors and directors. But he spent most of his time working on his own films, two of which were to be his great masterpieces, The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916).


The Birth of a Nation, a story of the Civil War and Reconstruction, has been hailed as the first motion picture and one of the greatest ever made. “Mastery and tenderness of characterization, instinctive mastery of form: these were his gifts to movies,” wrote critic Arlene Croce. It has also been condemned as racist because of its portrayal of blacks as either childlike or crude and lecherous, and for its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation

The motion picture was based on The Clansman, a violently racist contemporary novel that reinforced the attitudes with which Colonel Griffith had imbued his son. “One could not find the sufferings of our family and friends—the dreadful poverty and hardships during the war and for many years after—in the Yankee-written histories we read in school,” Griffith wrote. “From all this was born a burning determination to tell some day our side of the story to the world.” To dramatize this history Griffith used a technique he had employed in Judith and would use in all his spectacles: focusing on a personal story. Here it is the story of two families, one northern (the Stonemans, based on Thaddeus Stevens) and one southern (the Camerons), who become entwined through friendship and love.

Griffith personally oversaw every aspect of this twelve-reel film, with its great marches, battles, and rides on horseback. He rehearsed his cast for almost two months without a written script, somehow conveying to them his fervor. For his own sense of continuity, he had the film processed every day. In The Birth of a Nation Griffith was able to use to the fullest all the techniques he had developed. He used fade-ins and fade-outs as transitions. He used “masking,” covering the camera lens to block off part of the image, to provide drama. A shot of a mother and her children on a hillside in the upper corner opens to reveal Sherman’s troops down below, burning their farm. He told his story by moving from one narrative thread to another. This cross-cutting is especially effective in the climactic scene when the Klan races to the rescue of the Camerons.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation 2

His camera was constantly on the move, whether traveling on a dolly through a farewell ball for the southern soldiers or looking down on marching troops. He also tried new techniques. He wanted close-ups of the flying hoovesof the Klan’s horses. Bitzer got them for him by crouching on the ground, although the side of his camera was kicked in. Behind the technique is Griffith’s innate sense of drama. In the moving scene of Ben Cameron’s return to his home in the South, his mother’s arm draws him in through the open doorway though she herself is unseen. Griffith also breaks the tension with touches of comedy. A love-struck hospital guard moans and sighs as Lucy Stoneman (Lillian Gish) tends the wounded soldiers.

Lillian Gish - Birth of a Nation
Lillian Gish – Birth of a Nation

The film was a sensation, giving new respectability to the movies. It was shown mainly in legitimate theaters, where tickets cost an unprecedented two dollars. Despite its success, Griffith was terribly upset by the charges of racism, and some critics see his next picture, Intolerance (1916), as a reply.

Intolerance is made up of four stories of injustice and prejudice and the evil caused by the self-righteous, which are intercut so that the action of one parallels or contrasts with those before and after. There are three historical sagas, each focusing on a personal story: the betrayal of Belshazzar in the sixth century B.C. by his priests and the fall of Babylon to the Persian Cyrus; the crucifixion of Christ; and the Massacre of the Huguenots on Saint Bartholomew’s Day in a.d. 1572. The modern saga is filled with urban tragedies. At the end, an innocent young man (Robert Harron) is found guilty of murder and sentenced to be hanged. He is saved at the last minute when his loving wife (Mae Marsh) reaches the gallows with a pardon. Intolerance had a credited cast of more than sixty, thousands of extras, and vast sets (the Babylonian set was almost half a mile long, and an army could march on its walls).


Yet Griffith, with only a pocketful of notes, managed every detail himself. In this film Griffith moved his camera more than ever before. The shot at the opening of the feast of Belshazzar, a “tracking shot,” starts a quarter-mile away and moves gradually down and forward to enter the action of the city. It was taken from a 140-foot rolling tower mounted on six railroad tracks. Intolerance is also admired for the emotional range of the actors, the rhythm of cutting, the composition of the shots, the dramatic use of the size and shape of the screen, and close-ups of important details. There is a brief close-up of Mae Marsh’s tightly clasped hands, for instance, as she sits through her husband’s trial. Griffith invented what is now called the process shot, using an artificial sky over Babylon when the Persians attack, to provide a sense of depth and vastness. He also tinted the film more than he had ever done before—using blue for night scenes, yellow for sunny or lighted rooms, and red for the Babylonian battle at night. But the reviews of Intolerance were mixed, and it was a commercial failure. Some viewers could not follow the plot. The constant movement prevented others from getting emotionally involved. And in 1916, when America was about to enter World War I, the film’s pacifist them§ clashed with the public spirit. This failure was a financial blow to Griffith, who had put his own money into the movie. Before the failure of Intolerance, Griffith made a deal to work for Artcraft, then started on Hearts of the World (1915), a propaganda film the British government had asked him to make. He sent his actors to a London railroad station to observe the emotions of soldiers and civilians.

D.W. Griffith in the trenches on the western front
D.W. Griffith in the trenches on the western front

Griffith wrote the script, saying at the time that “viewed as drama, the war is disappointing.” He thus chose to show the horrors of war through the stories oftwo American families trapped in a village in occupied France. The film was a financial success, and Griffith went on to fulfill his Artcraft commitment, though most of those films have been lost. In 1919 Griffith made a bid for independence by beginning work on a studio of his own near Mamaroneck, New York, on Long Island Sound. He also joined with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charles Chaplin in a new distributing company called United Artists, which was to protect them from a threatened merger of producing companies. To pay for the studio and to finance his United Artist pictures he made a number of potboilers for First National, which got bad reviews.

Broken Blossoms - Lillian Gish
Broken Blossoms – Lillian Gish

Broken Blossoms (1919), his first picture for United Artists, was a solid hit, and it is still considered among his best. Critics of the time liked it better than The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, praising the poetic mood Griffith created with artificial fog, special lighting effects, and tints. Griffith himself composed its musical theme. Taken from a collection of stories about the Chinese district of London, it is the tragic story of the love of a Chinese man (Richard Barthelmess) for an English girl (Lillian Gish).

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – Broken Blossoms

She is the illegitimate daughter of a violent boxer who abuses her. (He even threatens her when she can’t force a smile on her sad face.) When he discovers her at the man’s house, where she had been treated like a princess, he drags her home and finally beats her to death. Gish went to a mental hospital to study the hysteria she had to show in that scene. Gish and Barthelmess also starred in Griffith’s next picture, Way Down East (1920), which was second only to The Birth of a Nation in commercial success. It was a well-known theatrical melodrama written in the 1890s, which no one but Griffith thought could be revived.

Way Down East - "I baptize thee Trust Lennox ..."
Way Down East – “I baptize thee Trust Lennox …”

Anna is an innocent country girl seduced by a city playboy and deserted when she becomes pregnant. Afterher baby dies, she and the son of a squire for whom she is working fall in love. But when gossip about her past reaches the squire, he kicks her out into a terrible storm.

She is floating down a river on a cake of ice approaching a waterfall when her lover rescues her, and all is forgiven. Griffith used cross-cutting, as he often did, for the rescue scene. But there is also a moving scene earlier that cuts from Anna in her shabby room with her dead baby in her arms to her seducer luxuriating on his family’s estate.  Griffith’s career now went into decline, and his films began to be criticized as  melodramatic and sentimental. A number of explanations have been given: that his artistic skill had deteriorated; that fame had made him self-conscious; that he no longer had total control of his films; that filmmaking had become too complex for him. There is also the possibility that audiences were becoming more sophisticated (film now had its first sex symbol—Theda Bara) and were no longer interested in sweet innocence.

Carol Dempster in 'Dream Street' (D.W. Griffith, 1921)
Carol Dempster in ‘Dream Street’ (D.W. Griffith, 1921)
'Dream Street' (D.W. Griffith, 1921)
‘Dream Street’ (D.W. Griffith, 1921) lobby card

Griffith made a weak imitation of Broken Blossoms (Dream Street, 1921) with Carol Dempster, his current flame but a limited actress. Then he made Orphans of the Storm (1922), a combination of an old melodrama and Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities, which audiences liked but not well enough to pull Griffith out of his financial rut. Though some critics have praised it, film historian Lewis Jacobs called it the work of a man “no longer influencing the movies but being influenced by them.” He then had two failures: another historical drama, America (1924), about the Revolutionary War, and Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924), about the terrible conditions in Germany after World War I.

In desperation, Griffith was persuaded to let Lillian Gish go, as an economy measure. The result was a deep personal loneliness, for the Gishes had been a substitute family for him. Although Griffith loyally sent money to his relatives in Kentucky, he got little love or even attention in return. He also made a deal with Adolph Zukor, giving up his independence on story decisions, budgets, and casting to become, at the age of fifty, just another Paramount director. By 1927 Griffith was at the very bottom of his career. His last three films, all with Carol Dempster, had lost money. Paramount had released him. Now he and Dempster separated, but he had no money to direct films independently. He made essentially the same deal with United Artists he had had with Paramount, and he moved back to Hollywood. His first three films had disappointing returns, and he began drinking too much. But the studio was willing to take a chance on his first sound film, Abraham Lincoln (1930), starring Walter Huston.

Abraham Lincoln - lobby card
Abraham Lincoln – lobby card

By now he admitted that his drinking was an illness, and the filming, he said, was a “nightmare of the mind and nerves.” Several trade magazines chose him as best director of the year, but audiences did not respond to the film and Griffith himself complained that he hadn’t had enough control and that the result was “all dry history with no thread of romance.” Again he was released. Griffith got a small windfall in 1931 in the form of a tax refund that allowed him to make his last film, The Struggle. He made it cheaply and quickly. It is the story of a family man who becomes a drunkard and a bum and is finally saved and nursed to health by his loving wife and young daughter. Although some critics now consider it better than Abraham Lincoln, audiences in the midst of the Depression were looking for light amusement, and The Struggle lasted only a week in the theaters. Griffith secluded himself in his hotel and drank. For the next sixteen years, he lived on impossible dreams and memories of the past. Although he was given a few honors by the film industry and appeared occasionally in public, his work was not fully appreciated until long after his death.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) With D.W.Griffith and his wife Evelyn in their West Coast home — with Lillian Gish and D. W. Griffith.
The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) With D.W.Griffith and his wife Evelyn in their West Coast home — with Lillian Gish and D. W. Griffith.

His personal life was also unhappy. In 1935 he finally divorced Linda Arvidson and married Evelyn Baldwin, a twenty-four-year-old actress whose sweet appearance fit his ideal of female innocence.

D W Griffith

But the marriage was a failure, and in 1947 he moved into the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel, where he drank heavily in his room and roamed the streets and bars at night. D. W. Griffith died of a cerebral hemorrhage on July 23, 1948, at the age of seventy-three, and was buried in his family’s plot in Kentucky, according to his instructions. The grave remained unmarked until 1950, when the Screen Directors Guild provided a marble head-stone with a gold medallion.

Dian G. Smith  – 1987

Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish at Griffith's Memorial Lagrange Kentucky May 14, 1950
Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish at Griffith’s Memorial Lagrange Kentucky May 14, 1950
Great American film directors : from the flickers through Hollywood
Great American film directors : from the flickers through Hollywood

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