Mr. Griffith’s House with Closed Shutters:
The Long-Buried Secret That Turned Lawrence Into D. W.
by William M. Drew (2012)
Although volumes have been written about the great director D. W. Griffith, he remains one of the most enigmatic figures in cinema history. Even the biographers he chose to chronicle his life were denied access to many facts in his personal history. This book reveals a hereto-unexplored phase of the pioneer director’s life that the author maintains would have a profound influence on his work. Based upon solid research, the book not only presents a scholarly analysis of the nexus between Griffith’s life experience and his interpretation of women’s roles, it also contains within its pages a compelling mystery that will fascinate its readers. With many rare illustrations. Film historian Kevin Brownlow calls it “A great discovery about a remarkable, unknown chapter in D. W. Griffith’s early life;” biographer Eve Golden says, “For those of us who love film history and real-life mysteries, he [William M. Drew] has come up with an irresistible page-turner;” and senior lecturer in film at UND, the late Christopher P. Jacobs describes it as “Fascinating and meticulously researched look into a long-lost side to Griffith’s career and personal life that often reads like a mystery novel.”
“To the future,
which will help us to better understand the past”
“There was a suggestion of mystery about Mr. Griffith that has
never been solved.” —Lillian Gish
Although D. W. Griffith has been the subject of many books and decades of research, much about his life has long remained a mystery. This is in large measure because the director was very much involved in what was written about him in the last years of his life, a concern on his part that has continued to affect biographical writing on him.
In particular, the period from 1900 to 1903 has long constituted a largely unknown phase in his life to such an extent that researchers for decades have been in the dark about just where he was or what he was doing for most of those three years. Indeed, this period is the least documented of any stage in his life from his birth in Kentucky in 1875 to his death in Hollywood in 1948.
The present book includes vital material on Griffith’s life in the first years of the twentieth century that has been unknown until now. At long last, it establishes where Griffith was for much of that period, what his activities were in the theatre then, and why in later years he apparently worked so diligently and successfully to suppress all evidence of this part of his life.
This period in Griffith’s life has remained unknown for a variety of reasons. Notably, he was not at that time a celebrity whose comings and goings would have attracted widespread attention and comment. Not only that, he was then, as throughout his theatrical career, using a stage name, further limiting the possibility of subsequent chroniclers retrieving the record of those years. While legally, with information supplied by his family, he was listed in the federal census enumerated on June 9, 1900, as living with his mother, two older sisters, and a younger brother in Louisville, in reality he was then far away in another part of the country acting under his stage name. He had left home in the summer of the previous year and would not return for a visit until several years had passed. His experiences in 1900-03 were of such a nature that he apparently did not share them with either family members or those to whom he would afterwards become close, whether it was his two wives, Linda Arvidson and Evelyn Baldwin, all those with whom he was associated in his heyday as a director, or those attempting to write his biography in the final decade of his life. Additionally, many of those who, purely through circumstances, were linked to him in one way or another in this period had their own personal reasons for wishing the connection to fade into oblivion as well.
Griffith’s success in concealing this lost period of his life from later generations is evidenced by the long list of writers who have overlooked it, including most recently Howard Blum in his widely acclaimed book, American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century. Published in 2008, Blum’s work is concerned with the October 1, 1910, bombing of the Los Angeles Times by trade unionists and the relation of three major figures to this event: William J. Burns, the detective who investigated the case, Clarence Darrow, the lawyer who defended the accused men, and D. W. Griffith, the director who made a series of outstanding films sympathetic to labor.
An artist, in truth, emerges from a mass of formative influences, both public and private. In Griffith’s case, the tragic burden of the Civil War, imbuing him with the deep sense of Southern identity that has proved so controversial to his reputation, was also the source of his life-long abhorrence of war. For example, in a 1922 interview responding to the criticism that some of his war films were too brutal, he declared:
“War is brutal! Ask the Germans. Ask the French. Ask the winners or the losers of any battle. The German doesn’t hate the Frenchman and the Frenchman doesn’t hate the German. They and the men of all nations would plow their fields in peace all their lives if some few men who seek only glory for themselves would not arouse them to a false fervor in which they do not think for themselves. They are aroused to this fervor by the picture of men going into war with bands playing and flags flying. The glory of war! Ask some of our boys who were over there about the glory of war. Glory of hell! There is no glory in war. The glory of war goes only to a few leaders who run no personal danger. That has been the history of mankind. Every war has meant a great loss, paid by the masses.”
This intense, passionate view of the dangers to the people stemming from the abuse of the powerful was equally apparent in the depiction in Griffith’s films of the mistreatment of the poor by the rich in economic struggles. Along with the public issues about which he often spoke freely and presented in his films, there were the more private influences upon which he would never comment for the record but were equally pervasive in shaping his highly individual vision. These private incidents are thus essential to any meaningful biographical analysis of the director.
The present work is not, of course, a full-length biography of Griffith, emphasizing as it does one major episode in his personal life that affected him dramatically. I have, however, included bits and pieces of information on various stages of his life that have tended to elude the standard biographers, including material on his stage career that has long been overlooked. Essentially, this book is a beginning, the opening of an inquiry, not a conclusion. It may very well be that the presentation of the long-lost material retrieved from the venerable newspapers in a coherent narrative will indeed lead to the location of private documents, such as letters and diaries, and long-suppressed recollections that will provide even more information, thus further illuminating the lives of Griffith and the others who interacted with him in this (until now) mysterious period.
There is, in truth, no such thing as a definitive study or chronicle of the past but rather a constant, ever-changing process of discovery and reinterpretation. In this sense, then, the past is as unpredictable as the future. In the early 1980s, I wrote a book-length study of Intolerance that was subsequently published by McFarland in 1986. Some years later, drawing on material to which I had not had access, Russell Merritt brought out an article with many more facts about the editing, release, and distribution of the film than I had included in those sections in which I discussed that topic.
This new book, by bringing to light a previously unknown period in Griffith’s life and career, may have unforeseen consequences. From the standpoint purely of providing the reader with a rousing, sometimes suspenseful narrative, I believe the true-life account included here will prove more than satisfying.
Much like one of the director’s own films, it is a story that never loses interest, remaining always compelling. And by clarifying what has been for so long obscured in the formation of a great and complex artist, I believe it goes beyond a purely private drama. For the effects of Griffith’s experiences in these years would ultimately determine the destiny of a new art, a development that would reverberate around the world.
William M. Drew
November 6, 2010
Hollywood, October 17, 1916
On a fall evening in 1916, the new capital of the cinema was host to the presentation of its greatest triumph when D. W. Griffith’s extraordinary new epic, Intolerance, was shown for the first time to a Hollywood audience at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles on October 17, 1916. The theatre was crowded with both society people and prominent film artists who, captivated, watched on the screen a masterpiece of the new art unprecedented in originality of expression. For three hours, the film, depicting man’s inhumanity to man throughout the ages, swept the audience into the stories of four different periods related in parallel form rather than consecutively. Utilizing the most lavish sets ever constructed for a motion picture, the film made past history come alive while bringing before the eyes of the spectators in the theatre a world of their own time that for many might have seemed just as remote—the poverty and injustice rampant in the cities of contemporary America.
During the intermission following the siege of Babylon, depicted on a mass spectacular scale grander than anything hitherto seen on the screen, the vast throng rose in a body and shouted for the film’s director. He had been standing alone in back of the first gallery, but, amidst all the hubbub, he managed to find his way to the stage. Clad in evening dress, he appeared pale and tired. His voice slightly trembled as, caught up in the emotion surging through the theatre, he responded to the audience:
“I had something to say, but you have taken it away from me. After the hard work and the perspiration and the toil, the great God sometimes sends us red-letter moments. You have given me one tonight. I thank you for myself. But if you have enjoyed the little play, I ask you to remember that its success has been due to a great extent to the people in the dark-room and the factories, the people whom you never see, and by the actors who have borne up through hard discouraging moments and who have had, further, to bear with the intolerance of the director.”
For D. W. Griffith, it was indeed a moment of triumph, one that had climaxed years of unremitting struggle and achievement. But what the audience that night, and millions of spectators ever since, did not know was the extent of his victory. For in depicting a world riven with injustice, class conflict, social hypocrisy, violence, jealousy, and poverty, he was portraying a world that he had known first-hand. The sufferings he dramatized on the screen did not simply spring from the imagination but were what he had himself endured to incorporate into the art that proved his salvation. In particular, he had survived one searing experience that he did not reveal even to his closest friends, although it had been just one year prior to the gala night at Clune’s that his association with this had finally ended.
The magic moment when he was acclaimed as the creator of Intolerance marked the culmination of sixteen years of creative striving that had begun with an early directorial effort in the theatre and then the production of a one-act play written under a pseudonym. There had followed other stage work as a playwright, one as an unaccredited assistant, the other produced under his own name. This, in turn, was succeeded by the years of anonymity as a film director in which, through his innovative genius, he had utterly transformed the new art of cinema. With his 1915 epic, The Birth of a Nation, he had become one of the most famous and controversial figures in America, but had adapted its narrative from the work of another writer. Now with Intolerance, entirely his original creation, he had completed his artistic evolution and was finally, triumphantly, D. W. Griffith, a great author in his own right. (William M. Drew – Prologue)
The tragic legend of the enigmatic genius forgotten and cast aside by an impersonal or ungrateful industry, while avoiding the more mysterious psychological factors underlying the 1947 breakdown even as it reinforced the image of the superhuman visionary, thus contained a considerable element of truth. The inauguration of the D. W. Griffith Award by the DGA in 1953 was clearly in part an attempt to alleviate the industry’s guilt over the director’s fate. The ironic absurdity of the same organization’s removal of Griffith’s name nearly a half century later lay in the fact that, under outside pressure, the industry was made to feel guilty over having felt guilt for neglecting a filmmaker now deemed unworthy of positive consideration due to the constant, overwrought attacks on one of his films! The demonization of Griffith, a perception borne of the ideological purity that followed in the wake of Schickel’s objectified portrayal, has yet to produce a full-scale biography of the filmmaker. But then the satanic figure envisioned by the evangelists of political correctness is far more removed from reality than the old heroic image, compounded as it is of myths that not only misrepresent the man but also simplistically distort history itself beyond any logical interpretation.
William M. Drew – Excerpt from Chapter 14, “The Reaction”
About the Author
William M. Drew, M.A., Summa cum laude, is the author of several books, including “D. W. Griffith’s ‘Intolerance: Its Genesis and Its Vision,” “Speaking of Silents: First Ladies of the Screen,” “At the Center of the Frame: Leading Ladies of the Twenties and Thirties,” and “The Last Silent Picture Show: Silent Films on American Screens in the 1930s.” He has written numerous articles for film journals and has been a consultant on film history documentaries.
I highly recommend this book for its quality of research and its potential to “change the conversation” about film maker, D.W. Griffith. Stated another way, the portrait of David Wark Griffith that emerges from William Drew’s pages IS congruent with the Griffith film art I have experienced. I have a sense that, like “Metropolis,” the power of Griffith’s art will drive the eventual restoration of his reputation. Mr. Drew’s book will hopefully accelerate this process, and I look forward to following its impact on Griffith scholarship. (Wayne A. Baughman)
This is the best book ever on D.W. Griffith! It is extremely well-researched and respectful. This book combines a long-forgotten, fascinating and grisly murder case with long overdue insights into Griffith’s work. William Drew’s analysis is a valuable corrective to the condescension of Richard Schickel and writers of that ilk, who sneer at Griffith and curry favor with their peers by refusing to see anything in his films other than racism. Only Lillian Gish and William K. Everson were as sensitive to the beauty of Griffith’s vision as William Drew — and that is saying a great deal. No one can claim any expertise on Griffith without first reading this book.
An excellent, extremely well researched work on D. W. Griffith’s early years. No one does this better than author, William M. Drew. The book reveals the intense, volatile romance that very well could have shaped the life of a man considered a genius in his own time. It’s time Griffith, the man and his works, are revisited and he is given credit for the ground-breaking masterpieces and film innovations he brought to the screen. It is important to have some knowledge of D.W. Griffith before diving into the passions of his earlier years. But, the story and its influences is well worth the read. I highly recommend it.
A great piece of historical detective work, a thorough biography of Griffith, and an excellent overview of Griffith’s public image and the way it has changed through the years. Highly recommended! (Thomas Barnes)