The Story of D. W. Griffith (1959)
by HOMER CROY
I am pleased that i can pass along to the reading public the first story of the life of David Wark Griffith. He lived in a blaze of publicity for his stars and his stories, but he told little of himself, especially of his early life; nothing of his personal life. He had a secret marriage; he spoke not at all of this. In fact most people thought he was a bachelor. And, in one sense, he was. I met him only once. I spent an evening with him when he was just starting to make The Birth of a Nation. I was representing Leslie’s Weekly; no wonder he gave me so much time, for it was for this magazine that he had written his one published poem-‘The Wild Duck.” He didn’t mention the poem, but I expect during the evening he thought of it many times. Strangely enough, I cannot remember one important thing he said; and the piece I wrote is so inane that I hope no human eye ever falls on it again. I certainly did not realize that he would become a world figure, and that someday I would be attempting to tell his story. And I don’t think he had the faintest idea then that he would become a world figure, especially in a medium that later he came to despise. I have had access to his autobiography which is still in manuscript form. It deals with his early days, for he never finished it. It does, however, give some vivid pictures of his life as a farm boy. The intimate material in this book has come from people who knew him. He was strangely uncommunicative about himself. As an example, when he first came to New York he couldn’t land a job as an actor, so he got one working in the subway that was being built; his special assignment was wielding a pick and shovel. He told his brother Albert L. Griffith about this, but mentioned it only once. And he told Evelyn Griffith, and one or two others. That was all.
He made eighteen stars:
- Mary Pickford
- Lillian Gish
- Dorothy Gish
- Mae Marsh
- Blanche Sweet
- Richard Barthelmess
- Henry B. Walthall
- Robert Harron
- Florence Lawrence
- Mabel Normand
- Miriam Cooper
- Carol Dempster
- Una Merkel
- James Kirkwood
- Owen Moore
- Joseph Schildkraut
- Monte Blue
- Louis Wolheim
He launched, or furthered, the film careers of:
- Lionel Barrymore
- Noel Coward
- Douglas Fairbanks
- DeWolf Hopper
- Erich von Stroheim
- Carmel Myers
- William Boyd
- (Hopalong Cassidy)
- Sir Herbert Beerbohm-Tree
- Lupe Velez
- Colleen Moore
- Constance Talmadge
- Ruth St. Denis
- Mack Sennett
- Ralph Graves
- Ivan Lebedeff
- W.C. Fields
- Zita Johann
- Ivor Novello
- Bessie Love
- Alma Rubens
I wrote Mae Marsh in Hermosa Beach, California, and asked if she had any memories of the making of The Battle at Elderberry Gulch. Her answer:
“One thing that stands out in my memory is this. In the picture were Lillian Gish, Lionel Barrymore, Harry Carey, myself, and others. We were undergoing an Indian attack. At one place in the story Lillian Gish was sitting on the steps in front of the cabin. Harry Carey was to point a pistol at her, and this the brave Harry Carey did. But Lillian wasn’t as frightened as Mr. D. W. thought she should be, so he touched Billy Bitzer on the shoulder, which meant for him to start the camera, then crept up behind Lillian and shot off the pistol. The effect was fine—Lillian almost jumped out of her skin and we escaped from the treacherous Indians.”
HE MAKES THE BIRTH OF A NATION
Judith of Bethulia was held in the vaults for a year, then released—not as a “special feature,” but as a unit in the Trust’s routine weekly output. Handled this way— as part of the service for which the exhibitors paid the company could not ask a higher price for the film. As a result it was considered a financial failure and Griffith was looked on as a director who could not be depended on. The public did not want “multiple-reel pictures,” the Trust said. In this the Trust was a trifle in error; the public wanted them very much, indeed. The Trust, however, stubbornly refused to change its policy and soon was in trouble, and finally failed. Meantime, the public was eating up “multiple-reel pictures,” but the Trust was too dead to see the depressing spectacle. Griffith left Biograph and joined Mutual, with a special contract with Harry E. Aitken, its president, which allowed him to make any kind of picture he wanted. Griffith rejoiced. He was now, in effect, his own master. He would not be harried by the box office. He arrived in Los Angeles February 14, 19 14, on fire to make the kind of picture he wanted to make without the business office having a hand on his shoulder. And with him, just as eager as Griffith, was faithful Billy Bitzer. Griffith had in process of production, cutting, printing, and release three pictures which must be finished before he began The One. He tore into them; they promised to be moneymakers. While nominally supervising these productions for Mutual, Griffith was secretly at work on his new and inspiring story. He was hiring extras and costumes. A war was preparing in Europe; the one he was getting ready to film was more real to him than the one across the ocean. He had always spoken contemptuously of picture making. He would say to Billy Bitzer, “Well, let’s get to work and grind out another sausage.” But he had no such reflection on the new picture he was just starting; it would tell the truth about the neglected South.
The story principle, which he had established at the very beginning, was still in effect: the Griffith last-minute rescue. He had added to this bare bones the matter of social importance. Poor Dolly, in The Adventures of Dolly, had been rescued from her barrel at the last possible moment. Even in Judith of Bethulia the Jews had been saved by Judith with her platter. But he no longer wanted what he called “family situations”; he wanted a story that dealt with masses of people under stress, even with the fate of nations. He had always had this social consciousness; now he could make others aware of it. He had seen a stage play entitled The Clansman by the Reverend Thomas E. Dixon, of North Carolina. The play was tawdry, but in it was an idea—the condition of the South after the Union armies had retired in victory. The idea had been stowed away in his mind; he reread the book. He read also another book of the Reverend Mr. Dixon—The Leopard’s Spots—and decided to use part of this story in the general plot. He would depict the aftermath of the war and would show what had happened to thousands of southerners who had lost everything, like his father. This would be no pitiful four-reeler; it would be the biggest, the most important picture ever made.
He told Harry Aitken what he wanted to do. Aitken said that he knew the mind of the directors of his company and that they would never agree to put up the sum needed— $50,000. A blow, indeed. After some discussion Griffith suggested they form their own company and produce the picture. Aitken agreed to this and said he would be personally responsible for the $50,000. It was a wonderful, breathtaking moment. Griffith—who did not think in small terms—named the company the Epoch Film Corporation. The time had come! He could produce, could be his own master. He would do big things. He had two other films to finish, but secretly he was working on the story of the South. As usual, he had the outline in his head; there would be no scenario. He would take the scenes in the order that seemed best. His imagination leaped; his mind soared; he had wings. He would depict the most dramatic events that had taken place in the War Between the States. He would show the Battle of Petersburg; he would show Sherman’s march to the sea; the burning of Atlanta; the assassination of President Lincoln. He would show the Negroes being led by “carpetbaggers” from the North, and he would show how law and order were restored by the Night Riders. He laid the evils of Reconstruction on two leaders of the Republican party: Senator Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts, and Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania. Supporters of Stevens pointed out that he lived for years with a Negro woman in Washington, D.C. But it must also be pointed out that he did not marry her; the reason for this, it was said, was because he was afraid he would lose social caste in Washington. Who were to be his actors? Well, he would use the Griffith Players, and so he selected Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Robert Harron; Donald Crisp was to play General Grant, Raoul Walsh was to play John Wilkes Booth, and Erich von Stroheim was to have a small part. And there were to be lesser players. (Mary Pickford had joined another company and was not available.)
The building of the sets and the laying out of the battlefields were begun; a whole city must be built—later to be burned. Eighteen thousand soldiers had to be arranged for— men to fight for the North and men to fight for the South. And they must have not only uniforms, but also horses. An unexpected difficulty arose. A war in Europe was imminent and the quarreling nations were buying horses in this country. He had to have horses, come what might, so he went into the market and bid against England, France, Italy, and Russia. And he must have shells that would explode, and these he bid for; they were harmless, but otherwise the same as the armies were to use. And vast quantities of cotton goods for the Ku Klux Klan—these had to be secured against foreign bidding. His plans mounted; his ambition soared.
“Billy,” he said, “I’m going to take battle scenes at night.”
” ‘Battle scenes at night’?” repeated Billy Bitzer. “It cannot be done. Mr. Greeffith. It is not known how.”
“We’ll learn. Remember, battle scenes at night. That’s what I want.”
“Ve vill do it, Mr. Greeffith,” said Billy.
Rehearsals started. He had always been demanding of his cast; now he was more so than ever. They complained, but he pushed them on, sometimes even bullying them. Expenses mounted. The actor-killing rehearsals continued day after day. He carried everything in his head; not a scrap of paper to guide him. The days he had spent working on his history of the South were now yielding dividends. He knew the war as did few people. But it was from the southern point of view. For six weeks the rehearsals continued; no scene was too small to be rushed over; no scene so big that it could not be improved. He rehearsed the shooting of President Lincoln twenty-two times. Finally the great day came. The camera turned for the first time—and the day was July 4, 19 14. A strip of land had been rented from private owners and closed off; here the battle scenes were rehearsed and then made; there was no retake. And then the ride of the Clansmen was made. Billy Bitzer staked his camera down so as to get the effect of the horses passing over him; and this they did, indeed, as he lay on the ground in the dust raised by their thundering feet. In fact, one of the horses crashed into the camera and broke it. Hastily the camera was patched up and the fierce, demoniac ride continued.
It became a struggle to pay the cast, especially the extras— and there were 16,000 of them. Also there was the matter of supplying them lunch on the set. He himself had to go to the store that was making up the boxes and ask the store to trust him. It agreed to. No sooner was one problem solved than another came to take its place. But he kept the camera turning; the picture was going into the box. He worked furiously; no writing in secret now. Mr. Aitken came to him. “Griffith, I see on the office memorandum you want more money. Haven’t you got enough?” “No, Mr. Aitken. I’ll have to have more.” “You’ve spent all the money set aside for the picture.” “Things have been against me, Mr. Aitken. The war has made a big difference. I’ll need $50,000 more.” Mr. Aitken looked at him, aghast. “We haven’t got it and we can’t get it. Finish up the picture and we’ll salvage what we can.” “The picture would be botched. I couldn’t do that, Mr. Aitken.” “Then you’ll have to do it alone. There will be no more money.”
Griffith was stunned. The picture was half completed—no more money. It was a black night, but he was not defeated. Work was stopped. Griffith went to his friends and asked for money—a bitter experience for such a proud and haughty man.
“I haf friendts undt I vill ask dem,” said Billy Bitzer.
“I have friends, too,” said John D. Barry, his secretary and office manager. “I have a well-to-do one in Pasadena. I’ll ask him.”
A day or two later Barry came into Griffith’s office, his face beaming, his eyes shining. He held up a check. “Mr. Griffith, I’ve got $700.”
For a moment Griffith could not speak. “God is on our side,” he said, touched. There appeared on the set the Reverend Thomas Dixon, tall and lean and sallow. Actors in make-up and in Civil War costumes were waiting to be rehearsed; they stared at the visitor. Who was he? Griffith went quickly to meet him. The actors stared at this, too, for they knew that their director did not like to be interrupted in a scene. After the greetings were over, the distinguished author came directly to the point.
“D. W., y’know-” Griffith caught the tone. “Excuse me,” he said hastily; “let’s walk over there where we can be alone. I think it will be better,” he added in a notable understatement. “You know,” continued Dixon when they withdrew, “you agreed to pay me $2,500 for my book and play. I dislike to speak of this, but I haven’t got anything yet.” Griffith was embarrassed and ill at ease. “I’m kind of low on money just now, Mr. Dixon. Could you wait awhile? I’ll pay you, you can depend on that.” “I feel I have the right to expect it now. You led me to believe that in the beginning,” said the austere visitor. “I know I did, but unexpected expenses have come up.”
There was an embarrassed silence. “Mr. Dixon, will you accept ten times that amount in stock in our company?” He didn’t know about that, the Reverend Mr. Dixon said; stock deals were always a treacherous business. But the earnest, the persuasive Griffith got him to agree, and finally the Reverend Mr. Dixon left.
The actors were watching the sallow man and they were watching Griffith, but Griffith offered no explanation.
“Who was dot sour apple?” asked the privileged Billy Bitzer. “An old friend,” said Griffith and then, without being too abrupt with Billy, took up his directing. At last the picture was finished. So well had he rehearsed—so well had he prepared—that not one battle scene had to be taken over. All of the picture, including the battle scenes and the ride of the Clansmen, was shot with one camera. That camera has disappeared; no one knows what became of it.
(Note: If that camera could be found and put on exhibit in the D. W. Griffith section of the Museum of Modern Art, it would be an outstanding addition. It would bring us close to this great period in American picture making.)
The most famous “still” picture that has ever come out of Hollywood was one involving Lillian Gish and an unknown soldier—unknown, that is, until recently. The still showed Lillian Gish coming out of the hospital in Atlanta; as she came out, a Union soldier, his hands resting wearily on his rifle, sees Lillian and looks at her with such yearning, in such an I-see-anangel way that it brought down the house. The man was an extra and when the film was over he melted into the California mist. Years later, in fact, recently, it was discovered this immortal was a man named Walter Freeman. (Author’s comment: I wonder if he is living. I hope so, indeed.)
Then came the cutting. Griffith sat in the little cutting room on a chair with metal legs, hunched over the cutting table, endlessly running the film forward and backward to bring out the contrasts he wished. He seemed always to know what he wanted and he seemed never to tire. Finally the picture was completed; it had cost $110,000—a staggering sum.
From Mae Marsh, in a letter to the author:
You ask what salary we got in The Birth of a Nation. He was driven for money, but there was not a week we were not paid. I got $35 a week. In Intolerance I got $85. After the release of Intolerance and the attention the picture attracted, I joined the newly formed Goldwyn Pictures Corporation at $3,000 a week. That was the way things went in early Hollywood.
It was announced that the picture was coming to Boston, the birthplace of Abolition, the city from which William Lloyd Garrison—the first Abolitionist—had thundered. Immediately the city was in arms. Negro preachers and Negro leaders and white teachers and lawyers denounced the film. It should not open. But it did open in April 19 15 at Tremont Temple. Four thousand Negroes, led by white supporters, turned out to oppose it. They gathered on the steps of the capitol building, on Beacon Hill, and demanded that the film be suppressed. There were just as many people on the other side, demanding that the film continue. There was a clash. The police could not control the situation; the Boston Fire Department was hastily summoned and came with its hose. The clash promptly became worse. The call went out for medical aid. Two ambulances were required to get the injured to the hospitals. Governor Walsh threatened Griffith with arrest. Griffith was bewildered by the storm of protest that swept the country. He was derided on the streets; he got threatening letters and telephone calls. He was attacked by newspapers. He said that he loved Negroes; they said that if the picture represented his love, they did not want it. He had no knack for controversy and got the worst of it. At first he had been proud of the picture; now he did not want to be seen in public and would go to no social function. Griffith was back in the Hotel Astor, but now he did not have to walk through the lobby to attract attention. He was the man of the hour, the most talked-about man in the entertainment field in America.
The telephone rang. “Mayor Mitchell wants to talk to you.”
The mayor of New York!
Griffith could hardly believe his ears. “I want to see you,” said John Purroy Mitchell when he came on the telephone. “A committee has asked me to go with them to your hotel.” What, thought Griffith, could a committee want to talk to him about? Was it some kind of award? When the door opened, Griffith was surprised to have Mayor Mitchell, one white man, and two Negroes walk in. Introductions were made. Mayor Mitchell came immediately to the point. “We are shocked by your picture. You have done a great injustice to the colored people, and, in all fairness, you should take the picture off.” Griffith was stunned. “What do you think is wrong?” he finally managed to ask. “You make,” said one of the committee, “the Negroes out as heinous, inhuman creatures. Every time a Negro appears in the film, he is a villain.” “The villains are the carpetbaggers,” said Griffith when he got possession of himself. “They were white; they led the colored people into the situations I depicted. I must tell you, we have very carefully researched the story and everything shown on the screen happened. You have no right to ask me, on historical grounds, to close the picture, and I will not agree to do so.” “The Negroes never acted that way,” said one of the committee harshly. “You have them seizing white girls on the streets and making off with them. That is not true.” “I am afraid it is true,” said Griffith, dismayed by the bitterness displayed against him. “You don’t realize the impact that the War Between the States made on people. People- Negroes and whites—were not in their right minds. That is what it amounted to.”
“I accuse you,” said one of the committee, “of being anti- Negro.” “I’m not anti-anybody,” said the shocked man. “I’m so overwhelmed by your accusations that I can hardly speak. But I will say this. I grew up with Negroes. I was nursed by a Negro mammy.” The talk grew in heat. Griffith maintained he was innocent; the mayor and the committee maintained he had brought disgrace and humiliation on what one of the committee called “ten million American citizens.” Griffith said again that the real culprits were the carpetbaggers; and that the southerners were better friends to the Negroes than the unscrupulous men from the North. Finally it was settled: Griffith agreed to take out the hate-arousing scenes; and this was done. One hundred and seventy scenes were taken out. One thousand three hundred and seventy-four “shots” were left in. The picture reopened. Even with the deletions, the situation was so delicate that Pinkerton detectives were placed in the audience to see that there was no disturbance. And there they sat, performance after performance, ready to pounce. But they were not called on and did not have to pounce. The picture as offered to the public was two hours and forty-five minutes long. Griffith had suddenly been catapulted into national attention. Some people were calling him a genius; others were denouncing him bitterly. He himself was bewildered by the violence of the feeling that had been aroused against him personally. He went around in a cloud, hardly knowing what to do. The only thing he knew was that he was right and that he had presented a fair treatment of conditions after the war. He had to guard himself against fanatics who must see him personally and tell him where he was wrong.
The telephone at the Astor rang. “Cora Hawkins is here to see you,” the operator said. He was delighted. How well the two of them had got along together. How well they understood each other. When he heard the elevator he went out—and there was broad, thick, heavy-waisted, square-faced Cora. With her was a little boy. “Hello, Cora!” he called heartily. “Come in. I’m glad to see you. Is this little David?” “How-de-do, Mr. David,” said Cora soberly. “Yes, that’s my boy. I been tellin’ him about you.” “Sit down, Cora. Well, he’s a promising-looking boy. I often think of those days on East Thirty-seventh Street, and how you cheered me up when I was low.” “I think of them, too,” said Cora in the same sober, reserved way.
They talked, but not in the easy way of old. “A person doesn’t know how time races by until he sees an old friend who reminds him of the past,” said Griffith. “Well, how’re things with you, Cora? I hope everything is going well.” Cora moved uneasily. Something was on her mind. “Mr. David, I always think you my friend. I always think that.” “Why, I am, Cora. I am indeed. Are you in some kind of trouble?”
“Yes, suh. I is.” “Well, now maybe we can take care of that! What is it, Cora? Are they after you?”
“It ain’t that kind of trouble, Mr. David. It’s deeper’n that. It’s here.” She indicated her generous bosom. “Mr. David, I go to see the picture you have in de theater, almost the first one in. I go in. An’ den the picture commence.” She paused, so great was her emotion. “It hurt me, Mr. David, to see what you do to my people. I could hardly stan’ it. I keep savin’, ‘Dis is not my Mr. David. He same name, but he different man.’ But I have seen your photo in de paper an’ I know it is my Mr. David that I wuk for on East Thirty-seventh Street and we have so many nice talks.”
He was genuinely touched. “Why, that’s history, Cora. I didn’t make it up. My father told me much and I got much out of books.”
“It may be history but it not my people. No colored folks ever do like the picture say. Dat place where Mae Marsh run through the forest with Gus after her, an’ he ketch up—and she jump off the cliff—that never happen, Mr. David. My people never do dat.” “He was a mulatto, Cora. I am afraid such scenes did take place.” “Finally de picture is over an’ I come out, feelin’ sick, an’ I go in so happy.”
“I am sorry, Cora. I am, indeed. I wanted to show how the colored people were misled by white scalawags.”
“I don’t know what you meant to do—I only know what I see.” She paused, choked with emotion. “Mr. David, you see him.” She pointed to the little boy. “His name no longer David. It’s Thomas.”
Griffith was deeply hurt. He again tried to explain his point of view, but Cora saw only hers, and a pained silence rose between them. Finally she stood up. “Good-by, Mr. David. Come on, Thomas.” Taking the child by the hand, she led him out. He sat for some moments, a hurt and disturbed man. The telephone rang. Many things to do, many people who wanted to see the man who made the most controversial picture in the history of the world. Now, for the first time, money was pouring in to him. What would he do with it? What, with money at his command, would the restless, driving man do next?
by HOMER CROY – 1959