Lillian Gish – The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me (Review by ARTHUR MAYER, New York Times, 1969)

The Movies Mr.Griffith and Me
The Movies Mr.Griffith and Me

Lillian Gish

The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me. By Lillian Gish with Ann Pinchot. Illustrated. 388 pp. Englewood Cliffs. N.J.: Prentice-Hall. $7.95.


Published: June 8, 1969

Miss Lillian Gish is, in Brooks Atkinson’s words, ”An American institution.” She is, as Peter Glenville says, “an impeccable, dedicated, disciplined actress.” and her new book is studded with similar tributes from such celebrities as Koussevitsky, Jed Harris, Scott Fitzgerald, Percy Hammond and King Vidor. She is, however, also a lady of admirable reticences-she once employed a publicity representative merely to keep her name out of the newspapers and she has little flair for the scholarly research or the self-revelation required by the triple demands of history, biography and autobiography implied by her book’s subtitle.

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.

What she has to contribute about early movie annals has been often told before and is marred by many errors as well as guesses masquerading as facts. The method by which “The Birth of a Nation,, was distributed, for example, makes it impossible for anyone to assert that “in the first two years of its life it played to an audience of 25 million people.” “ Way Down East” never “had to pass the scrutiny of the censor board of every state. Only 27 states ever had, at one time or another, censorship boards and few of these were in existence in 1920 when it was released.

The biographical portions of “The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me” are similarly disappointing. They portray all the external facts of her life without ever disclosing its inner substance and quality. Everybody adores her and she reciprocates their affections-fellow actors, authors, musicians, dramatists, even the banker who managed her family finances. Indeed she seems to have a fondness for every variety of the human species except movie exhibitors who refused lo play the original eight hour version of “Intolerance” and picture co-executives who failed to realize that Griffith single-handed was creating for the film medium a new language and a new syntax. Her most absorbing passion, however, was for her mother and her sister Dorothy. She rejected her persistent suitor George Jean Nathan primarily because he seemed to resent” the intensity of this relationship. Nobody, however, who has waded through pages attesting to her mother’s “ wisdom,” “perfection,” “taste” and “beauty” and to Dorothy’s “pert, saucy ways” her “spritely nature,” her “rollicking spirit,”, her “gaiety and humor,, (the only concrete example of which was her penchant for sitting on men’s hats), can wholly blame Mr. Nathan.

George Jean Nathan, Lillian Gish and Rudolph Kommer at Leopoldskron
George Jean Nathan, Lillian Gish and Rudolph Kommer at Leopoldskron

Although Miss Gish tells us little that is significant about the movies or herself, she is eminently well qualified to portray and interpret the singularly complex, gifted personality with whom she was closely associated in their most formative years. No one has a closer first-hand acquaintance with the techniques and innovations by which the great pioneer transformed what Edison had regarded as “a scientific curiosity,” of so little permanent value that it was not worth investing $150 to take out foreign patents, into the best loved of modem arts.

Her description of the mechanics of the rehearsal system on which his achievements were so largely based, and which his successors so ill-advisedly abandoned, deserves careful study by every film maker. His gifted, adoring young performers were given an opportunity to rehearse each part in a new film under his close supervision. “Once the parts were awarded the real work began. Mr. Griffith would move around us like a referee in a ring, circling, bending, walking up to an actor, staring over his great beak of a nose, then turning away. By the time he had run through the story dozens of times he had viewed the action from every conceivable angle and achieved the desired effect.”

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Griffith demonstrating his rapport with animals — with D. W. Griffith.

When the young girl who regarded movie jobs at $5 a day as a stopgap between stage appearances and the rising director who only a few years previously had jeered at the “galloping tin types” met first in the old Biograph Studios, they had much in common. “Mr. Griffith,” as she was to respectfully call him for the nine years they worked together, was immediately impressed by her “exquisite, ethereal beauty.” She, on her part, thought “he held himself like a king” with eyes that were “hooded and deep set.” They were both poor, ambitious, seeking their fulfillment in work rather than in love or play. He had a father fixation almost the equal of her attachment to her mother. Much of his misrepresentation of the Union cause was due to his adulation of “roaring Jake”‘Griffith who had been a colonel under Stonewall Jackson. That he unhesitatingly accepted the legends and traditions of the old South is understandable in view of his education and environment. When, however, Miss Gish rushes to his support, she demonstrates her unfailing loyalty to Griffith rather than her usual common sense. It is the conventional but fallacious response to charges of racism that a man cannot be prejudiced because he “had grown up with Negroes on the farm and, as a baby had had a Negro mammy,” or that “he always treated Negroes with great affection and they in turn, loved him.”

Although Miss Gish gave the appearance of frailty, no task could daunt her. When she was on location for “Way Down East” the temperature never rose above zero, but at her own suggestion, she says, she lay on an ice floe drifting toward the falls with a hand and her hair trailing in the water. “My face was caked with a crust of ice and snow, and little spikes formed on my eyelashes, making it difficult to keep my eyes open.” Characteristically, Griffith shouted to his cameraman Bitzer above the howling storm, “Billy, move in! Get that face! Get it!” “l will,,. Billy answered, “if the oil doesn’t freeze in the camera.”

Lillian Gish in Way Down East
Lillian Gish in Way Down East

Working for other picture makers, however, she was occasionally prepared to admit weariness. One of her most revelatory stories (omitted for some unknown reason from her book) tells of an experience with Charles Laughton when he was directing “Night of the Hunter.” He required her to make at least a dozen takes. Finally she keyed her acting higher than she thought it ought to go and asked, “Is that what you want?” Laughton answered, “No, the first take was fine. I just wanted to see how many different ways you could do it.” “Well,” she answered, “if you want to waste your money on useless takes, that is all right with me, but I do get tired.”

Griffith’s dedication to his career and to the medium which he had so unexpectedly discovered to be his métier and his mission, matched her own. Although he married twice, no marriage to a man who habitually worked 16 hours a day, taking time off only to eat and sleep, could possibly prove successful. As for Miss Gish, she never even attempted it, though as Anita Loos once remarked, “Men were always marrying her in absentia.” She regarded matrimony as a “24-hour-a-day job.” Her films, she said, were her children.

Lillian Gish, Ralph Forbes, Fritzi Ridgeway, John S - Wedding - The Enemy
Lillian Gish, Ralph Forbes, Fritzi Ridgeway, John S – Wedding – The Enemy

What they shared, above all else, was their abiding faith in this “new uncorrupted art.'” Griffith would frequently say, “We are playing to the world. What we film tomorrow will stir the hearts of the world and they will understand what we’re saying. We’ve gone beyond Babel, beyond words, we’ve found a universal Ianguage – remember that when you stand in front of a camera.”

And Lillian Gish never forgot it.

A Wedding
Lillian Gish in Altman’s “A Wedding” 1978

Mr. Mayer, a veteran of 50 years in the movie business, currently conducts film courses at Dartmouth and other colleges.

The New York Times Book Review

We all adore her, and the affection is returned Lillian Gish NYTimes June 8, 1969-2
We all adore her, and the affection is returned – Lillian Gish – NYTimes Book Review June 8, 1969 – page 2

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Admin note: Personal opinion – Mr. Mayer, a veteran of 50 years in the movie business, skilled writer, tends to forget that Miss Gish was an actress, not a novelist. Therefore her book was seen from the stage, blinded by Klieg lights. As an actress, Miss Gish wasn’t concerned – when was the Censor Board founded in all American states – she was not working in a statistical office. Bringing up the rehearsal (The Night of the Hunter) when she admits that she’s tired, I believe it’s childish to compare Way Down East (1920), with The Night of the Hunter (1955), when Miss Gish was 62 years old.

I am very grateful to Mr. Mayer for his statement, despite the fact he considered “the biographical portions of “The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me” – disappointing. The reason Miss Gish broke her “engagement” to Mr. Nathan was because “Her most absorbing passion, however, was for her mother and her sister Dorothy. She rejected her persistent suitor George Jean Nathan primarily because he seemed to resent” the intensity of this relationship.” 

“We are playing to the world. What we film tomorrow will stir the hearts of the world and they will understand what we’re saying. We’ve gone beyond Babel, beyond words, we’ve found a universal Ianguage – remember that when you stand in front of a camera.”

And Lillian Gish never forgot it.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation 5

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

From Public Honor to Public Disgrace: A Chronology of the Tragic Fall of D. W. Griffith’s Reputation in the United States, 1975-2019 – By William M. Drew

From Public Honor to Public Disgrace: A Chronology of the Tragic Fall of D. W. Griffith’s Reputation in the United States, 1975-2019

By William M. Drew

Griffith Stamp USO

1975—The centenary of D. W. Griffith’s birth on January 22, 1875 is widely commemorated in the United States. Highlights include a retrospective of his films at the Museum of Modern Art, television coverage such as interviews with his celebrated actress, Lillian Gish, a number of articles and other publications, and a special postage stamp bearing his name and likeness issued by the US Postal Department.  This celebration of the pioneering director’s life and achievements climaxes a decade of intense interest in, and study of, his work touched off by an earlier Museum of Modern Art retrospective in 1965. In the ensuing years, a number of historians including Kevin Brownlow, William K. Everson, Edward Wagenknecht, Anthony Slide, Russell Merritt, John H. Dorr, Arthur Lennig, and Robert M. Henderson have published many writings on Griffith. Many in this new generation of critics and historians challenge the traditional assumptions of earlier writers like Lewis Jacobs who had argued that the director’s career came to an end due to his outmoded Victorian vision. On the contrary, the new historians maintain in their studies of Griffith’s work that the filmmaker continued to grow as an artist in his later films. In addition to these critical reassessments, such former associates of the director as Lillian Gish and cinematographer Karl Brown have written acclaimed memoirs of their years with the director. Also furthering the reputation of the filmmaker in this period have been the many television appearances in his behalf made by Miss Gish as well as director Orson Welles, the host of a PBS series of silent films in 1972 that included works by Griffith whom Welles lauded as “the premier genius” of the cinema.

Griffith directing Way Down East
D. W. Griffith directing Lillian Gish in “Way Down East” (1920)

In the fall of 1975 a momentous court ruling decides that Griffith’s 1915 film, “The Birth of a Nation,” is now in the public domain. For the past decade, a battle between rival distributors Paul Killiam and Raymond Rohauer over the rights had largely limited public screenings of the controversial Civil War-Reconstruction film to occasional revivals of the abridged 1930 music and effects reissue. It was not available for purchase on 8mm. as it once had been, it was never screened on television during this period, and most 16mm. rental companies specializing in classic films no longer carried it. Such other major Griffith films as “Intolerance,” “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East,” and “Orphans of the Storm” had been more widely available and for many cineastes were their introduction to the director. But due to the 1975 court ruling, it will now be possible for many people to view a tinted version of the original silent film production of “The Birth of a Nation.”

Gish 1 X Theater
Lillian Gish and Hollis Moore, BGSU president, in 1976)

1976—On June 11, with Lillian Gish in attendance, the Gish Film Theater and Gallery is dedicated on the campus of Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. At the initiative of Dr. Ralph H. Wolfe, a professor of film and literature and with the support of university president Hollis Moore, the theater has been established to honor the achievements of native Ohioans Lillian and Dorothy Gish. Wolfe had originally intended to name it the Lillian Gish Theater until the actress stated she would prefer that it include her sister as well. Over the years, the theater, located in Hanna Hall, will be enlarged and include a display of photographs obtained from the Museum of Modern Art showing the Gish sisters throughout their careers including a number of images from their years with Griffith. With the support of private donors, many of them prominent in the cinema, and an endowment bestowed by Miss Gish, the theater will become the nucleus of Bowling Green State University’s film studies program, providing free access to students and the public seeking to learn about cinema and its history.

1977—The popular TV series, “Roots,” with its depiction of the travails of a black family in the South in the 19th century, inspires some negative critical references to “The Birth of a Nation” with its very different interpretation of the same era from a white Southern perspective. Nevertheless, the American Film Institute in its tenth anniversary special broadcast on CBS on November 21 does include both “The Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance” among the 50 greatest American films selected by the organization’s members. Along with Buster Keaton’s “The General” and Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” and “Modern Times,” the Griffith epics are the only silents included in the full list, none of which are among the top ten films highlighted on the program which has Lillian Gish as one of the featured stars in attendance.

Henry B. Walthall in "The Birth of a Nation"
Henry B. Walthall in “The Birth of a Nation”

1978—In the first few years of the ready availability of “The Birth of a Nation” following the court ruling regarding its copyright status, most public screenings of the film appear to be without protest or incident.  However, a planned showing of the film in April at the city museum in Riverside, California, where the film was first presented to the public in 1915, is canceled after protests from blacks. A proposed compromise by which a black spokesman would present a rebuttal to the film’s point of view either before or after the three-hour screening had failed to defuse the objections to its being shown.

On July 30 of this same year, there is a more ominous incident connected with a screening of the film when a revived Ku Klux Klan group descends on the Southern California city of Oxnard. In an attempt to fan the flames of discord between whites and Hispanics, the Klan stages a “charitable” event supposedly benefiting white victims of Hispanic crime by showing the abridged 1930 reissue of “The Birth of a Nation.” The event provokes a riot by protesters, an incident which is a major news story throughout the country. While the Klan’s exploitative stunt does nothing to increase its now-miniscule membership or advance its particular agenda, it does bring a fresh amount of negative publicity to the film, laying the groundwork for further protests in the future.

Red Grooms' "Way Down East" sculptures on the NKU campus
Red Grooms’ “Way Down East” sculptures on the NKU campus

1979—On April 12, a large sculptured representation of Griffith and his cinematographer G. W. “Billy” Bitzer filming Lillian Gish on the ice in “Way Down East” is unveiled on the campus of Northern Kentucky University in Covington, Kentucky. The sculptures are the work of noted artist Red Grooms who had conceived of this tribute to early filmmakers after seeing “Way Down East” in 1965 during the Museum of Modern Art’s Griffith retrospective. The first such monument to the director and his career, the colorful sculptures are installed on the university campus as part of its series of tributes to eminent Kentuckians. The “Way Down East” sculptures are well received and for many years will occupy a pride of place in the central part of the campus.

1980—In January, the National Board of Review announces the establishment of the annual David Wark Griffith Award for movie excellence, an honor to be given to outstanding contemporary films, performances and direction as well as for recognition of lifetime achievements. It joins the D. W. Griffith Lifetime Achievement Award, established by the Director’s Guild of America in 1953, as the second such honor to bear the pioneer filmmaker’s name. The National Board of Review’s annual Griffith awards are first presented on February 10 at a private banquet held at Luchow’s, a venerable Manhattan restaurant where Griffith often dined. At the ceremony, chaired by veteran actress Betty Furness, Meryl Streep, Sally Field, Peter Sellers, and John Schlesinger are among the artists who receive Griffith awards for their work in notable films released in 1979. Myrna Loy receives a Griffith award for her lifetime of achievement in cinema, presented to her by a recent co-star of hers, Alan King. Others in attendance at this historic event include Maureen O’Sullivan, Richard Gere, Lauren Hutton, Lee Strasberg, Cliff Robertson, and Dina Merrill.

Hollywood by Kevin Brownlow

The first episode of Kevin Brownlow’s mammoth 13-part television series on the American silent cinema, “Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film,” premieres in April in cities across the United States including in the San Francisco Bay Area. Containing many interviews with silent veterans combined with much footage from the early cinema, this remarkable series does much to revive interest in the silent cinema. A major part of the first episode deals with “The Birth of a Nation.” Reversing the emphasis in his landmark history of silent film, “The Parade’s Gone By,” published in 1968, in which he hailed Griffith’s 1916 “Intolerance” as having “sparked off one of the most exciting and concentrated creative eras in the history of art,” Brownlow in the first episode of his documentary series now presents “The Birth of a Nation” as the apex of the American cinema’s early development. He devotes considerable time to the racial controversy over the film’s second half, recirculating to a wide audience the claim that the 1915 epic was the principal reason for the Ku Klux Klan’s revival in the 20th century rather than broader social and political factors.

On June 10, 1980, two months after the premiere presentation of the first episode of “Hollywood,” a mob of mostly white radicals calling themselves the International Committee Against Racism stage a riot in San Francisco’s Richelieu Theater which is showing the 1930 sound reissue of “The Birth of a Nation.” Some of the protestors had been active in the anti-Klan protests in Oxnard two years before. Although the theater’s screening has nothing to do with advancing any political agenda and is simply a standard art house revival as part of a double bill with Keaton’s “The General,” the leftist group, determined to suppress the showing of the 1915 film, invades the premises, shouting “Death to the Klan!” In the process, they vandalize the theater, destroying projection equipment and burning a print of the film. As a result of this incident, which is widely reported in the press, public screenings of the film in the United States thereafter will become increasingly rare in succeeding years. On the infrequent occasions when “The Birth of a Nation” is presented to an audience, it will usually be accompanied by a discussion group at its conclusion with individuals representing the black community commenting on the film.

Lillian Gish at AFI 1984 Lifetime Honor

1984—On April 17, there is a nationally televised broadcast on CBS of the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award given to Lillian Gish. Only the second woman to receive this distinguished award, the program, recorded in March, features a host of Lillian’s colleagues, most of them from a younger generation, paying warm tribute to the acclaimed actress. The references to Lillian’s associate, D. W. Griffith, including clips from some of the films they made together, elicit applause and cheers.

This same month of April 1984 sees the publication of Richard Schickel’s long-awaited biography of D. W. Griffith. Containing much more information on the director than an earlier biography by Robert M. Henderson published in 1972, Schickel’s book is widely praised by reviewers. This critical appreciation, however, scarcely extends to the book’s subject. Largely ignoring the more positive features of Schickel’s treatment of the director, influential reviewers like David Sterritt and David Thomson emphasize what they see as Griffith’s many flaws as a filmmaker presented in the biography. They maintain that the book provides ample evidence that Griffith fell by the wayside because his vision was such a limited one, bound by the anachronistic Victorian values and prejudices of his youth. For all its inclusion of fresh documentation, therefore, Schickel’s book is marked by a reassertion of the conventional attitudes toward the director of earlier historians like Lewis Jacobs. In reversing the gains in understanding and appreciation of Griffith that had emerged through the work of the new historians in the 1960s and 1970s, Schickel’s biography is thus in synch with the new trend toward ideological conformity in the mid-1980s that will later prove devastating to the filmmaker’s reputation.

Although it is now less often shown publicly to audiences, “The Birth of a Nation” throughout the 1980s becomes more accessible to the public than ever before thanks to its ready availability in the new home video technology. This dissemination thus increasingly focuses attention on this one film at the expense of Griffith’s other works. With political correctness now all the rage in academic studies, “The Birth of a Nation” is often the subject of harsh published analyses excoriating its point of view as a primary indicator of the spread of racism in American history and culture. So corrosive has the film’s reputation become that in some quarters it now even affects negatively the historical standing of Woodrow Wilson. Lauded for decades by liberal historians as one of America’s six greatest presidents along with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and the two Roosevelts, Wilson is now more and more referenced in terms of his racial views, specifically his reported praise of “The Birth of a Nation” after viewing it at a special White House screening.

Also throughout the 1980s, Griffith loses through death many of the surviving veteran filmmakers who had been most directly inspired by him and often expressed their indebtedness to him. The passing of such great directors as King Vidor, George Cukor, Rouben Mamoulian, Orson Welles, John Huston and early in the next decade, Frank Capra and Hal Roach deprives Griffith of some of his most visible and eloquent champions.

Actor Life For Me 2

1988—Despite the advent of political correctness in a number of quarters, Griffith and the work he did with his associates still retain considerable respect in the wider world. On July 11 of this year, PBS’ “American Masters” series airs “Lillian Gish: The Actor’s Life for Me,” a sympathetic look at the legendary actress’s career including an appreciation of her collaboration with Griffith. Co-narrated by Miss Gish and Eva Marie Saint, the program is well received by reviewers. Also in 1988, there is the publication by a university press of William Rothman’s book, “The ‘I’ of the Camera,” that includes a sophisticated analysis of Griffith’s work demonstrating a continuity with the historiography of the 1960s and 1970s that championed the director as a complex artist with something meaningful to say.

1989—A major cinematic event of the year is the presentation of an ambitious seven-year reconstruction of Griffith’s “Intolerance” at the New York Film Festival on October 2, complete with a live symphony orchestra performing Joseph Carl Breil’s original score. Coming at the same time that the 1916 masterpiece has been chosen as one of the first 25 American films to be included in the Library of Congress’ new National Film Registry and one year after a highly successful revival of the film at the London Film Festival by Kevin Brownlow’s Photoplay Productions, the new presentation generates impressive advance publicity in the US news media. A joint project between the Museum of Modern Art and the Library of Congress under the direction of Gillian B. Anderson, a music specialist at the Library, and Peter Williamson, a film technician at the Museum, it is promoted as the restoration of “Intolerance” as it was shown at its world premiere at New York’s Liberty Theater in 1916.  Critical response to the reconstruction ranges from rapturous to much less favorable with the latter objecting to the interjection of still frame blow-ups to reproduce lost or missing footage. Nevertheless, there are many who find the film very impressive and powerful in this new presentation, a favorable response repeated at its January 26, 1990 showing at the Castro Theater in San Francisco where the “San Francisco Chronicle” critic, Judy Stone, hails it as “a once-in-a-lifetime event.” Perhaps partly due to the mixed critical reaction as well as the ready availability of other versions of the film in the growing VHS market, the reconstructed “Intolerance” soon disappears from public view.

Intolerance - Medici

1990—With the advance press write-ups of the reconstructed “Intolerance” perhaps the last really favorable publicity Griffith will receive on a wide scale, the climate following its screenings soon becomes much bleaker for the director as attention is more and more focused on its 1915 predecessor. The nation-wide release in February of Edward Zwick’s “Glory,” a critically acclaimed Civil War spectacle about an African-American regiment in the Union Army fighting for its freedom, becomes the occasion for some writers to contrast it with “The Birth of a Nation” to the obvious disadvantage of the latter. Even more ominously for the director’s reputation, newly prominent black directors including Spike Lee and John Singleton repeatedly cite “The Birth” as the embodiment of everything negative that African-Americans had been fighting against for decades, particularly as related to the cinema. From out of the past, the pioneer African-American director Oscar Micheaux is now transformed into a symbol of historic resistance to Griffith. Initially when Micheaux attracted belated attention from historians in the 1970s, he was largely considered a rather pedestrian director on the evidence of his sound films of the ‘30s with his one available silent film, “Body and Soul” (1925), regarded as an exception to an otherwise mediocre track record.  But in the early 1990s, his “Within Our Gates” (1920), a dramatic presentation of racism as it affected blacks in the early 20th century, is rediscovered and restored. With both “Within Our Gates” and “The Birth of a Nation” added to the National Film Registry in 1992, Micheaux’s film is now promoted as the African-American “answer” to Griffith’s 1915 spectacle, although in its own day it was never advertised as such when it was shown almost exclusively to black audiences. Despite the simultaneous inclusion of both historically significant films on the registry, the head of the NAACP protests the film board’s selection of “The Birth” as an undeserved honor “paying tribute to America’s shameful racial history.”

1993—An era comes to an end with the passing of Lillian Gish at the age of 99 on February 27. Although for reasons of age and health she had ceased making personal appearances in the last five years of her life, she had been at the very center of the renaissance of enthusiasm for Griffith’s work, tirelessly being interviewed and lecturing on her association with the director. That same year, two other prominent players who had worked for Griffith late in his career will also die—William Bakewell, who appeared in “The Battle of the Sexes” and “Lady of the Pavements,” on April 15, and Zita Johann, the feminine lead of Griffith’s final film, “The Struggle,” on September 20. With these deaths, the epoch of Griffith’s entire 23-year directorial career has passed into history. Now it will be all the easier for those of a later generation to cast this legacy in a light that furthers their particular agenda.


On March 24, not quite one month after Lillian Gish’s death, PBS broadcasts an ambitious three-hour documentary by Kevin Brownlow entitled “D. W. Griffith: Father of Film.” A co-production between Britain’s Thames Television with which Brownlow is then affiliated and PBS’ “American Masters” series, the documentary includes an impressive number of interviews and much footage from Griffith’s films. It is produced with all the technical skill for which Brownlow’s documentaries are justly renowned. Yet for all these qualities, the documentary is ultimately a major disappointment. Its chief flaw, one which affects its presentation of Griffith as a whole, is the overemphasis on “The Birth of a Nation.” This focus succeeds in overshadowing his other works even as it exacerbates the old controversy over the 1915 film. With so much time expended on this one production, the documentary’s presentation of the all-important Biograph period seems rushed while there is no real consideration of Griffith’s remarkable impact on filmmakers all over the world. As the reviews attest, even the documentary’s acknowledgment of Griffith’s progressive depictions of social issues in such films as “Intolerance,” “Broken Blossoms,” and “Isn’t Life Wonderful?” has little impact in comparison to the extended treatment given “The Birth,” exemplified by the inclusion of the embittered reaction of veteran black actor William Walker to his experience of seeing the film at the time of its release.  Additionally, the lengthy presentation of inflammatory scenes had caused PBS to insist on yet more “politically correct” material in the form of an interview with black historian John Hope Franklin as a counterbalance. While such material would have been entirely suited to a documentary chronicling the history of the 1915 spectacle, here it has only succeeded in crowding out any look at the director’s wider role in affecting the hearts and imaginations of audiences and film artists the world over. As indicated by the description here of “Hearts of the World” as opportunistic war propaganda in a reversal of Brownlow’s earlier praise for this film as the creation of an artist of integrity, the documentary marks in part a much less favorable view of Griffith than had been evident in the historian’s previous writings. A lost opportunity in interpreting cinema’s first visionary genius for a new generation, “D. W. Griffith: Father of Film,” however inadvertently, paves the way for what will follow in its wake.

David Wark Griffith Isn't Life Wonderful 1924
“Isn’t Life Wonderful?” (1924)

Evidence of Griffith’s collapsing reputation is provided in a book published in this same year of 1993. “The Films of D. W. Griffith” by Scott Simmon, a prominent film historian who had also helped restore Micheaux’s “Within Our Gates,” strikes a highly negative tone toward the director, both as an individual and as an artist. While Simmon does praise some of Griffith’s later work, he mostly regards it as inferior to the early Biographs the filmmaker made in 1910 and 1911 which this historian sees as the highpoint of the director’s entire career. In effect, Simmon’s book in its dismissive view of much of Griffith’s work represents an even more extreme revival of Lewis Jacobs’ treatment of Griffith in his 1939 book, “The Rise of the American Film.” The sophisticated analyses of Griffith’s work that had been such a fresh approach in the 1960s, 1970s and to a somewhat lesser extent the 1980s have been swept away in Simmon’s shallow, superficial study marked by a relentless conventionalism. There are not only the usual expressions of outrage toward “The Birth of a Nation” and the notion that this somehow should determine how the director’s entire work ought to be viewed, there is also the resuscitation of the thesis that Griffith largely declined as an artist in later years due to his supposed limitations. In the 1970s at the height of the Griffith revival, an influential film journal had drawn a contrast between the old-fashioned cinema historian who spoke of Griffith’s decline and the new, more advanced critic who wrote about Griffith’s growth. Symbolic of its throwback to an earlier view of the director, Simmon’s book even gives Griffith’s date of birth as January 23, 1875, a once-common error that during the years of the Griffith revival had given way to the correct date of January 22, 1875.

Midnight Ramble

1994—On October 26, PBS’ “American Experience” broadcasts “Midnight Ramble,” an hour-long documentary on the history of “race” movies, the works of pioneer African-American filmmakers in the silent era and the first two decades of sound. The critically acclaimed documentary places a heavy emphasis on D. W. Griffith and “The Birth of a Nation” and the influence it purportedly had on Oscar Micheaux whose early films including “Within Our Gates” (1920) and “The Symbol of the Unconquered” (1921) are seen as impassioned responses to the 1915 film. Indeed, so much does the documentary stress Griffith’s supposed villainy that it ultimately overshadows any positive understanding of Micheaux as an independent artist with a personal vision of his own. For if Griffith is now defined solely by “The Birth of a Nation,” Micheaux for his part is largely delineated as existing in opposition to Griffith. The documentary also demonstrates how any story depicting Griffith negatively, no matter how questionable its accuracy, can now be packaged as the truth. One of the documentary’s interviewees relates as a factual occurrence the story of Cora Hawkins, a black maid allegedly working for Griffith who was so appalled by “The Birth of a Nation” that she angrily quit the director’s service in protest. In fact, the incident and even the woman, complete with imaginary dialogue, were apparently invented by Homer Croy, a popular white novelist, in his heavily fictionalized, long-discredited 1959 book, “Star Maker: The Story of D. W. Griffith.” Although Croy had devised this episode simply because he thought it would make an entertaining story rather than for any compelling political reason, its inclusion in “Midnight Ramble” gives it far greater significance by making it seem that Griffith was the well-deserved recipient of a black woman’s outrage.

Despite these attacks on Griffith’s reputation, they do not have any apparent effect on the standing of artists who were prominently associated with the director. In this same year of 1994, the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize is established through a provision in Lillian’s will, an award to be given annually to an individual who has “made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.”

But while the Gish name is now attached to a significant new honor that will be awarded to many celebrated artists in the years ahead, that of their mentor disappears from another prestigious award. For 1994 also sees the apparent end of the National Board of Review’s Griffith awards which had been given out annually to many distinguished artists and films since 1980. While there is no concrete evidence that the award was targeted for specifically political reasons, its termination at this time is clearly in synch with the downturn in Griffith’s fortunes. The decline of the director’s reputation in the 1990s is further accelerated by the disappearance of a number of notable individuals in the film history field who had championed him over the years. The influential critic, Pauline Kael, who hailed “Intolerance” as the cinema’s greatest achievement, retires from regular reviewing in 1991. Eileen Bowser, the main archivist at the Museum of Modern Art for several decades and who had been at the forefront of the renaissance of interest in Griffith since the 1960s, retires from her position as curator in 1993. Death silences others including in 1993 John H. Dorr, one of the leading new critics who in the 1970s brought fresh appreciation to Griffith’s later works. The death in 1996 of William K. Everson, a very prominent film historian who had been a tireless advocate for Griffith since the 1950s, proves to be an irreparable loss. The passing in 1995 of Griffith’s grand-niece, Gerrie Griffith Reichard, the family member most active in the director’s cause, is yet another dispiriting loss. Although Griffith’s second wife, Evelyn Baldwin, who had a prominent role in the filmmaker’s last work, “The Struggle,” was interviewed for Kevin Brownlow’s documentary, she afterwards vanishes from the limelight and will die in 2004 at the age of 94, a passing unreported in the press.

Hal Skelly, Zita Johann and Evelyn Baldwin in "The Struggle" (1931)
Hal Skelly, Zita Johann and Evelyn Baldwin in “The Struggle” (1931)

On the plus side, much of Griffith’s work is now more visible than ever in the 1990s with excellent quality VHS releases of his films brought out by cinema preservationists David Shepard, Kevin Brownlow, and Paul Killiam and fairly frequent screenings on the new TCM (Turner Classic Movies) cable network. Another positive is the launching in 1997 of the world’s first complete retrospective of all of Griffith’s extant films at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in northern Italy. The retrospective, which will be an annual feature of the festival until its conclusion in 2008, the centenary of the director’s first film, will result in the publication of a series of volumes comprising scholarly essays on Griffith’s work, many of them written by American historians. Nevertheless, these more hopeful indications of continuing interest in the director’s career are largely offset by the virtual lock that a new generation of cineastes mostly hostile to Griffith has in shaping prevailing attitudes about the pioneer filmmaker.

1997—The renowned director Stanley Kubrick becomes the latest filmmaker to receive the Directors Guild of America’s D. W. Griffith Lifetime Achievement Award. In a recorded acceptance speech played at the DGA’s March 8 ceremony, Kubrick lauds Griffith as the innovator who was “instrumental in transforming movies . . . to an art form,” a man “always ready to take tremendous risks in his films” and who, like Icarus, flew so high that he was burnt by the sun. He concludes his speech by observing that “D. W. Griffith left us with an inspiring and intriguing legacy, and the award in his name is one of the greatest honors a film director can receive, something for which I humbly thank all of you very much.”


1998—On June 16, CBS broadcasts the American Film Institute’s new three-hour special entitled “100 Years … 100 Movies,” a somewhat belated commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the first projected American films in 1896. The AFI honors this historic anniversary by unveiling a list of the 100 greatest American films as determined by 1,500 filmmakers, film critics, prominent citizens, and “randomly selected” filmgoers. As is customary with such lists, many of the selections and omissions are extremely controversial. In particular, the AFI is criticized by many cinephiles for limiting its representation of the silent cinema to just four films—Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush,” “City Lights,” and “Modern Times” and, no. 44 on the list, D. W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.” Some of the overall criticism comes from such dedicated cineastes as critic Jonathan Rosenbaum who responds with a counter-list of his own that includes more silent films including Griffith’s “Intolerance” and “Broken Blossoms” rather than “The Birth.” But there are others, particularly in the black community, who especially deplore the selection of the 1915 spectacle. This includes the NAACP as well as Camille Cosby, the wife of comedian Bill Cosby, who point to the inclusion of “The Birth” on the AFI’s top 100 list as evidence of the persistence of racism in contemporary American society. Unlike the AFI’s 1977 list of 50 greatest American films which chose “Intolerance” as well as “The Birth,” the 1998 list thus succeeds in creating still more negative publicity for Griffith. The resulting controversy over its continuing prominence as indicated in this list will appear to act as a provocation to those advocating more severe measures to reduce the stature of the film’s director.

Lillian Gish in "Way Down East"
Lillian Gish in “Way Down East”

As if on cue in response to this, there is in 1998 the first attempt to remove one of the few existing honors to Griffith, an effort that sadly succeeds. While for a number of years there had been no controversy over Red Grooms’ “Way Down East” sculptures that had been installed on the Northern Kentucky University campus in 1979, this all begins to change in the 1990s with the escalation of attacks on “The Birth of a Nation” and its director. Students suddenly begin demanding that the sculptures be removed on the grounds that they honor a “racist” filmmaker even though they commemorate another Griffith film, one which did not deal with racial issues at all but instead had condemned the oppression of women in a male-dominated society. As matters come to a head in 1998, none of this is apparently considered in the campus debate when faculty members join the students’ protest. One political science professor declares that Griffith was “responsible for one of the darkest periods in this country’s history” and Grooms’ sculptured tribute was “a dagger in the heart of black people and decent white people who know the history of this man.” As a consequence of such exaggerated demagoguery, the colorful sculptures are removed to a less conspicuous place on the otherwise dreary-looking campus. There they will remain until 2004 when they are finally dismantled and placed in storage.

1999—On December 14, the campaign against Griffith reaches a landmark climax when, in a statement signed by Jack Shea, the current president of the Directors Guild of America, the organization announces that its national board has voted unanimously to retire its most prestigious prize, the D. W. Griffith Lifetime Achievement Award, and to create a new career achievement award with the name to be chosen at a later date. In explaining the move, Shea states: “As we approach a new millennium, the time is right to create a new ultimate honor for film directors that better reflects the sensibilities of our society at this time in our national history. There is no question that D. W. Griffith was a brilliant pioneer filmmaker whose innovations as a visionary film artist led the way for generations of directors. However, it is also true that he helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes.” The DGA’s board had reached the decision to strip Griffith’s name from the award, given out to many of the most acclaimed filmmakers in history, with little debate and without consulting the guild as a whole. The same day of this announcement, Kweisi Mfume, then head of the NAACP, applauds the move, declaring it should never have been named after Griffith in the first place and that people had had to live with the “horrors” caused by “The Birth of a Nation” ever since. Griffith’s biographer, Richard Schickel, whom the DGA had consulted about the issue, also supports the decision, saying that “by any standard [Griffith] was a racist.” Unlike the Northern Kentucky University controversy which received no press coverage outside its region, the DGA’s decision to remove the most noteworthy commemoration of the director in the cinematic capital he had founded is a major news story throughout the country. While this repudiation of Griffith has a number of defenders, it is also strongly criticized by Kevin Brownlow and such well-known filmmakers as Curtis Harrington and William Friedkin. The National Society of Film Critics issues a statement deploring the action, calling it “a depressing example of ‘political correctness’ as an erasure, and rewriting, of American film history, causing a grave disservice to the reputation of a pioneering American filmmaker.” But despite this protest, the DGA does not reverse its decision. However, apparently unable to find another, more politically acceptable directorial legend to replace Griffith’s name on the award, the honor will remain anonymous, a simple “lifetime achievement award.”

Eisenstein Commemorative coins

Even as Griffith’s reputation in his own country spirals downward, glaringly demonstrated by the DGA’s action, his Russian counterpart in a nation undergoing far more dramatic changes meets with a very different fate. In film history, Griffith’s name has been traditionally linked with Sergei M. Eisenstein as a master of montage, the Russian director having acknowledged his indebtedness to the American pioneer whom he called “the grand old man of us all.” As the Soviet Union began to fall apart in the late 1980s, it seemed possible that Eisenstein in Russia, like Griffith in the United States, might fall victim to a form of political correctness with the repudiation of the revolution he had supported and the end of the system which had commissioned his films.  Indeed, both in Russia and elsewhere, critics had emerged who dismissed Eisenstein’s works as outdated reminders of a totalitarian past best forgotten. Like “The Birth of a Nation” which had been blamed for America’s racial ills, Eisenstein’s films had started to be attacked by some writers as having provided cinematic justification for the brutalities of the Soviet regime from its founding in 1917 to the later horrors of collectivization and the purges in the 1930s. It had been a matter of considerable import how Eisenstein would be remembered in the new post-Communist era during his centennial. The answer comes on January 23, 1998, the 100th anniversary of his birth, when the Bank of Russia issues two minted commemorative coins bearing Eisenstein’s name and portrait. On the back of both is the traditional double-headed eagle that has supplanted the hammer and sickle of the former Communist government. But what has not been supplanted in the new Russia is an abiding respect for the cinematic genius whose works stirred audiences around the world.  The honors will continue into the new century with the issuing of an Eisenstein commemorative postage stamp by the Russian government in 2000. Then in 2005 in an agreement between UNESCO, the Russian film company, Mosfilm, and the Russian Vivat Foundation for music and the theatre, a special award is established to be given to deserving individuals in the world of cinematography. This is the UNESCO Sergei Eisenstein Medal which, struck in Russia, bears the likeness and signature of the director. The Russia that seeks to avoid the proscription of major parts of its cultural heritage after decades of enduring the rigors of the party line on artistic and historical issues now stands in stark contrast to the totalitarian purity of political correctness that has decimated Griffith’s reputation in the United States.

2001—Although no medals or other formal honors will come Griffith’s way in the new century, he does receive one notable commemoration if an anonymous one on November 9 when a large-scale entertainment and shopping complex opens in Hollywood. Representing the revitalization of the film capital, the center appropriately includes Babylon Court, an impressive replication of the famous set from “Intolerance.” With the nearby Kodak Theater (later renamed the Dolby Theater) the new permanent home of the annual Academy Awards presentations, Babylon Court furnishes a colorful backdrop to the Oscar show. The idea of paying this tribute to Griffith’s visionary epic with a recreation of the Babylonian set had originated years before with another artist, famed writer Ray Bradbury. He will later point out that his celebrated dystopian novel, “Fahrenheit 451,” was a forecast of political correctness in which literature is suppressed after minority groups protest how they are depicted in specific books. In an era in which Bradbury’s nightmare vision has started to become true in the United States, the one honor Griffith can now have in Hollywood or anywhere else in his native country is a tribute in which his likeness is not displayed nor his name included in its formal title, although it does appear on the accompanying plaque. As such, it represents an ironic recurrence in the state of the director’s fortunes. When he began making films for Biograph, Griffith worked anonymously, attaining a unique form of celebrity as the unknown genius creating the most extraordinary films yet seen. Now, decades after his death, he has been so widely excoriated for “The Birth of a Nation,” the film that made him famous in the United States, that his recognition has to be earned once again through a kind of anonymity, as indicated by the homage paid to him and his epochal masterpiece by Babylon Court.

Modern Griffith Babylon

2004—A fresh reminder of Griffith’s diminished reputation is dramatically illustrated by two very different public responses to “The Birth of a Nation” during this year. A black conceptual artist named DJ Spooky unveils a presentation he calls “Rebirth of a Nation,” a video remix of the 1915 original he calls “a film glorifying a horrible situation.” The project, intended to undercut “The Birth” by using reedited footage to project a contrary point of view, is commissioned by the Lincoln Center Festival. DJ Spooky begins touring the world presenting “Rebirth of a Nation” to audiences in many countries. Although some critics write that his remix is ultimately less than successful, the low regard in which “The Birth” is now held brings DJ Spooky’s presentation considerable praise from more polemical observers and he will continue with the tour for over a decade.

But if a cut-up remix of the film, essentially a politicized variant of “Fractured Flickers,” flourishes as a public exhibition, the same can hardly be said for the original work. In August of this same year of 2004, Charlie Lustman, the current owner of Hollywood’s venerable Silent Movie Theater, announces his intention of showing “The Birth of a Nation.” However, he is forced to cancel the screening, not only because of an impending protest but also due to threats to destroy the theater and even against his life. This time, even the long-obligatory planned inclusion of a black spokesman to counter the film’s point of view has proved unavailing against the forces of intimidation that now reign supreme in a country constantly proclaiming its adherence to democracy.

2007—On June 20, the American Film Institute presents another CBS TV special, “AFI 100 Years. . .100 Movies,” a revised list of 100 American films selected as the greatest from a poll of artists and leaders in the film industry. This time “Intolerance” replaces “The Birth of a Nation” on the list, and for good measure, Keaton’s “The General” and F. W. Murnau’s “Sunrise” are added as well to a selection that also retains the three classic Chaplin features chosen in the previous decade.

2008—Despite the AFI’s belated acknowledgment of Griffith’s most complex epic, a film it had included during its first TV special in 1977 before dropping it two decades later, there is little change in the steep decline in the director’s reputation during the first years of the 21st century although his films continue to be readily available in the new DVD format that has supplanted VHS. But, as indicated by the lack of any significant attention paid in America to the centennial of the onset of his directorial career in 2008, there has been little real progress in a deeper understanding of his career in his native country via publications. The Pordenone Silent Film Festival does observe the anniversary by completing its long, complete retrospective of the director’s work and issuing the last of its scholarly volumes with essays by a number of authorities on the subject, “The Griffith Project,” published by the British Film Institute. In the United States, however, the main scholarly book on Griffith to appear at this time is Melvyn Stokes’ “D. W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation:’ A History of the Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time.” In a rare contrast to the constant obsession with the Civil War-Reconstruction film as the work that defines the director, Howard Blum in 2008 does publish “American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century.” This acclaimed book is concerned with the 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. Not a strictly historiographical text but rather an example of the “non-fiction novel” genre pioneered by Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” Blum’s book is nevertheless a gripping narrative of the past with the presentation of Griffith as a socially progressive artist a welcome departure from the incessant attacks on him in many other publications.

A future president confronts the evils of slavery in a lost scene from "Abraham Lincoln" (1930)
A future president confronts the evils of slavery in a lost scene from “Abraham Lincoln” (1930)

The following year, “Stagestruck Filmmaker: D. W. Griffith and the American Theater” by David Mayer, a less salutary result from the Pordenone festival’s retrospective of the director, is published by a university press. The book, a study of the influence of the theater on Griffith’s films, is marred by Mayer’s heavily judgmental view of the director. Repeatedly, Mayer attacks Griffith as dishonest and racist. He even veers off course from the ostensible topic of the book—Griffith’s adaptation of stage techniques to film—by devoting considerable space and research in attempting to prove that the representation of the Civil War and Reconstruction in “The Birth of a Nation” was inaccurate due to the filmmaker’s bias. Mayer writes of a scene in the film in which the viewer sees Lincoln “harassed by . . . abolitionist congressmen, reluctantly sign the Emancipation Proclamation.” In truth, there is no depiction of the Emancipation Proclamation in “The Birth,” a historic event Griffith did not recreate until his 1930 film, “Abraham Lincoln,” where it is shown immediately after a depiction of the brutal mistreatment of the slaves in the south, hardly revealing the racist antagonism toward the landmark decree Mayer imputes to the director. Mayer’s claim that Griffith showed Lincoln signing the document almost against his will in the earlier film is either deliberate misrepresentation or an inexplicable lapse of memory about one of the most easily accessible of all films via the many home video releases.  With his own ideological bias thus apparently overriding a concern for careful historical documentation, Mayer completely misses in his account of Griffith’s stage career the dramatic, long unknown information about this less studied part of his life finally coming to light on the new online digitized newspaper archives.

Mark Cousins - The Story of Film Oddysey

2011—Evidence that the downgrading of Griffith has now become an Anglo-American project is provided by British critic Mark Cousins’ 15-part documentary series, “The Story of Film: An Odyssey.” Based on Cousins’ 2004 book of the same title, the series, which will be shown on TCM two years after its release, is an ambitious effort to trace the history of world cinema from its late 19th century beginnings to the early 21st century. Of all the major cinematic pioneers and innovators with which the series deals, Griffith evokes the least enthusiasm, the most reluctance to praise on the part of Cousins. Whereas in the first episode dealing with the birth of the cinema he eagerly comments on Georges Melies and Edwin S. Porter, he delays any consideration of Griffith until much later in the program when he introduces him by saying he was “over remembered” compared to several notable early women filmmakers who had long been neglected. While disputing his reputation for technical innovation, Cousins does acknowledge and praise the sense of realness Griffith brought to films with his images of nature and moments of psychological intensity. However, he then fires the usual volleys at “The Birth of a Nation,” calling it a “deceitful” film as he assails it for racism. Borrowing directly from the first episode of Brownlow’s “Hollywood” series, he once again blames it as the principal reason for the 20th century revival of the Klan. Turning to “Intolerance,” he notes its spectacle and advanced technique with its influence on such directors as Eisenstein. But he misses any opportunity to discuss the riveting social consciousness of the Modern Story, describing it simply as being about “gangsterism” with characters dressed in “jazz era costumes,” a strange designation for a film made in the 1910s. Cousins has based his whole series on the concept of a binary pitting Hollywood vs. the rest of the world. To this end, he defines the American cinema’s characteristic style as being what he calls “closed romantic realism” by which he means a superficial appearance of realism concealing an escapist, romantic approach. He maintains that, by contrast, the best films made in other countries have dealt much more deeply with the realities of human existence. Hence, in order to position Griffith in the dominant Hollywood tradition of escapism, he has totally ignored the director’s repeated, fierce opposition to the prevailing trends in American narrative films in ways that anticipated French poetic realism and Italian neo-realism. Cousins makes no mention of the tragic masterpiece, “Broken Blossoms,” the powerful study of postwar poverty in Europe, “Isn’t Life Wonderful,?” largely filmed on location in Germany, and Griffith’s final film, “The Struggle,” depicting alcoholism and lower-middle-class life in New York again using authentic settings. Including in his series these films’ challenge to Hollywood norms might have undermined part of his thesis while helping to restore Griffith’s former renown as one of the cinema’s greatest artists.

Dorothy and Lillian Gish in "Orphans of the Storm" (1921)
Dorothy and Lillian Gish in “Orphans of the Storm” (1921)

The sharp decline in Griffith’s reputation does not appear to have had any adverse effect on the star with whom he was most often identified, Lillian Gish, whose work as an actress in silent films continues to be acclaimed despite all the attacks leveled at “The Birth of a Nation.” After all, there had never been a tendency, even in the McCarthy era, to blacklist or condemn actors and actresses merely for appearing in an objectionable film. It was the writers and directors who had been the most often blamed for such works. In this context, there are now critics, professed admirers of Lillian’s extraordinary performances, who attempt to draw a distinction between the actress and the director. An extreme example of this can be found in the writings of Dan Callahan, one of the new generation of film historians apparently unfamiliar with the appreciative analyses of Griffith that had flourished from the 1960s to the 1980s. In a 2006 article for a film journal, Callahan lauded Lillian’s acting in her silents while reviling Griffith as a villainous racist whose association with Miss Gish he represented as a sadomasochistic relationship in which the one positive were her luminous performances transcending his repellent vision. Although in revising this piece for a subsequent book Callahan will tone down some of his most over-the-top rhetoric condemning the director, his basic hostility to Griffith remains intact, a glaring contrast to an illuminating 1980s essay by critic Blake Lucas sensitively analyzing the Griffith-Gish partnership.

Spike Lee Gish Prize

This differentiation between the director and the actress seems to have been successful in helping to avert any controversy over Lillian Gish’s role in cinema history. Over the years since it was initiated in 1994, the annual Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize has been awarded to many distinguished individuals of color without generating any heated debate. This contrasts with the fate of the DGA’s Griffith award, the removal of which had been justified on the grounds that it might be disturbing to bestow such a noteworthy honor on a black filmmaker. By contrast, when in September of 2013, Spike Lee becomes the recipient of the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, he is quite happy to accept the award, noting the ironies of life inasmuch as two of the films that had the most impact on him when he was a student at New York University were “The Birth of a Nation” and “The Night of the Hunter,” both with Lillian. Lee concludes his acceptance speech by saying, “Peace and love to the Gish sisters.”

iris -barry-griffith

2014—On the eve of the centenary of “The Birth of a Nation,” there is yet another attack on Griffith in the fall, this time from a prominent figure in an institution that had formerly supported him for many years, New York’s Museum of Modern Art Film Library. Griffith had donated his films and memorabilia to MOMA in the 1930s soon after the archive’s founding. The Museum presented its first Griffith retrospective in 1940, accompanied by the book, “D. W. Griffith: American Film Master,” written by the archive’s founder and first curator, Iris Barry. Under the leadership of Eileen Bowser, then the associate curator at MOMA, the archive presented the second retrospective of Griffith’s work in 1965, a series that initiated the significant revival of appreciation of the filmmaker. Promoted to the position of full curator, Bowser during her years at the archive continued to make major progress in the study of Griffith, often working with Lillian Gish and Blanche Sweet on these projects. Bowser also oversaw MOMA’s third Griffith retrospective in 1975, his centenary year.  In 2011, Ron Magliozzi had become the new associate curator and would go on to inherit Bowser’s position as full curator in 2016. However, he hardly seems to share his predecessor’s regard for Griffith. In the fall of 2014, he announces as an exciting new discovery an unreleased silent film that had actually been safeguarded by the Museum decades before. This is a feature-length film with an all-black cast headed by the legendary Bert Williams that was shot in the fall of 1913 at the Biograph studio not long after Griffith had left the company to embark on his own independent production. The all-black film was co-directed by T. Hayes Hunter and Edward Middleton who left the company in early 1914 without having assembled the footage into a production that could be shown to the public. Uncertain what to do with the uncompleted film which did not even have a title, the Biograph management locked up the material in a vault without ever releasing it. With no mention of its filming in the trade publications of the day, the film has been named “Lime Kiln Field Day” by MOMA. While the most probable explanation for its never reaching the public was the departure of the directors combined with Biograph’s reluctance to continue the series of features they made in association with the theatrical partnership of Klaw & Erlanger, Magliozzi advances a different reason, one grounded in a virtual conspiracy theory. He comes up with the idea that Griffith’s racism in “The Birth of a Nation” somehow influenced Biograph managers the year before to shelve the film. As illogical as this interpretation is to explain the fate of this fascinating and mysterious project, the climate against Griffith is now so hostile, including at the very organization which had once furthered his reputation, that anything involving racial issues can be used to condemn him anew.

2015—The observation of the 100th anniversary of the release of “The Birth of a Nation” had effectively been launched in November of 2014 with the publication of “The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War.” Written by journalist Dick Lehr, the book presents the controversy of the film in terms of the contrasting lives of Griffith and William Monroe Trotter, the Boston-based African-American activist who led protests against “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915. While Lehr acknowledges that Griffith and his film were technically brilliant, his depiction of the director and his family background is highly unsympathetic. Griffith is seen merely as a narrow-minded racist who did no more than reflect his father’s values, a convenient villain and foil to the tragic hero of his narrative, William Monroe Trotter. About all he has to say concerning Griffith’s other films is that he “never made another moving picture that matched the power and success of his 1915 blockbuster.” He does write that Griffith demonstrated once again his technical mastery in “Intolerance” but says nothing about its theme and social content, falsely writing that “the reviews were tepid at best.” Lehr does not comment on any of his other works, not even “Broken Blossoms” and “Way Down East,” nor mention the immense impact they had on filmmakers around the world. His main goal is clearly to scapegoat Griffith for all of America’s racial woes since 1915 and to ignore anything that does not fit into his thesis. Lehr’s book becomes the basis of a one-hour documentary produced for PBS by Independent Lens. Entitled “Birth of a Movement: The Battle Against America’s First Blockbuster,” the documentary premieres on February 6, 2017. It reproduces the Manichean interpretation of Lehr’s book with the expected comments by Spike Lee and DJ Spooky, becoming yet one more chapter in the never-ending campaign to demonize Griffith as the arch-racist of American history. Lehr, for his part, capitalizes on the documentary by retitling his book, “The Birth of a Movement: How Birth of a Nation Ignited the Battle for Civil Rights,” for an early 2017 reprinting timed with the release of the PBS film.

Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish in "Broken Blossoms" (1919)
Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish in “Broken Blossoms” (1919)

With Lehr’s book setting the tone for the 2015 centenary and the years that immediately follow, Griffith, more than ever, is defined almost entirely by what has now become the most reviled of all American films. Comparatively little attention is paid to “Intolerance” during its 2016 centennial, the epic production that at the time of its release moved an African-American critic in Los Angeles’ leading black newspaper, the “California Eagle,” to write that the film “not only demonstrates the wonderful inventive mind” of its creator, “but clearly shows that D. W. Griffith stands out above them all as the greatest humanitarian of the age” in his “clear appeal for justice.”  Instead, it is “The Birth” which is now continually referenced by black filmmakers and critics, a campaign which then influences the larger society in its view of the pioneer director. In a deliberate swipe at Griffith’s film, Nate Parker entitles his 2016 film about Nat Turner, the famous leader of a slave rebellion, “The Birth of a Nation.” Also in 2016, Ava DuVernay’s feature-length documentary, “13th,” dealing with the history of slavery and its long-term effects, includes footage from the 1915 film as part of its jeremiad against white oppression. The year following the PBS documentary based on Lehr’s book, Spike Lee, whatever his positive feelings for the Gish sisters are, includes yet another attack on “The Birth” in his 2018 film, “BlackKkKlansman.” During a frenzied era of demands to tear down all monuments dedicated to Confederate heroes and calls by some to ban the other famous Civil War-Reconstruction film, “Gone With the Wind,” those seeking to launch more direct assaults on “The Birth of a Nation” and its director are confronted with a dilemma. As public presentations of “The Birth” are now exceedingly rare thanks to threats of intimidation, even when showings of the film are accompanied by a black spokesman opposing its perspective, there are no longer opportunities to picket such screenings in protest. The removal of the “Way Down East” sculptures from Northern Kentucky University two decades earlier had eliminated the one existing honor to Griffith on a college campus while stripping his name from the DGA’s Lifetime Achievement Award not long afterwards had terminated his most salient commemoration by the Hollywood film industry. Soon enough, however, those bent on totally removing any positive association with Griffith will manage to find yet another target, one that virtually no one had foreseen could become an object of manufactured outrage.

Ralph Wolfe in the lobby of the Gish Film Theater in October 2016
Dr. Ralph H. Wolfe in the Gish Film Theater at its original Hanna Hall location, BGSU in October 2016

2019—For 40 years, the Gish Film Theater had been a true asset to the campus of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, not only a fitting tribute to the two legendary actresses it honored but a valuable resource for the study and appreciation of the film art. In 2016, however, the new provost and vice-president of the university, Rodney K. Rogers, who came from the business world, was determined to convert Hanna Hall, the home of the Gish Film Theater, into a new location for the College of Business Administration. In order to realize his plans to reshape the building for its new purpose, he had decided to remove the theater and its gallery featuring many photos from the Gishes’ careers to another location. The announced choice for the theater’s new home was to be the Bowen-Thompson Student Union Building. In 2018, following Rogers’ assuming the position of president of the university, the Gish Film Theater was evicted from Hanna Hall to be relocated in the student union building. Despite being the founder and longtime curator of the theater, Dr. Ralph H. Wolfe had not been consulted about the arrangements. As 2019 begins, it is planned to reopen the Gish Film Theater in its new location on March 29 in a rededication to feature an appearance by Lillian Gish’s close friend, actress Eva Marie Saint. Those plans, however, never come to fruition. In February, in the wake of a campus screening of Ava DuVernay’s documentary, “13th,” with its inclusion of footage from “The Birth of a Nation,” the Black Student Union begins clamoring that there should not be a theater named after Lillian Gish because she had starred in a “racist” film. That “The Birth of a Nation” was only one of many films in which she had acted in her 75-year screen career, that the theater was also named for her sister Dorothy who did not even appear in the Civil War-Reconstruction film—none of this matters in the least to the Black Student Union which claims that the theater’s location in the Bowen-Thompson Student Union Building somehow contributes to “an intimidating, even hostile, educational environment.” With protests having escalated into a hate-filled crowd during a late February student meeting, Eva Marie Saint cancels plans to visit BGSU. The scheduled rededication of the theater is now very much in doubt as a university task force considers removing the Gish name from the theater.  Supported by two campus political groups, the College Republicans and the College Democrats, the Black Student Union continues its campaign against the theater using as its hashtag, “Ditch the Gish,” terminology which reveals the highly sexist overtones of this assault on the legacy of two outstanding pioneering female cinema artists who had advanced the cause of women world-wide during their remarkable careers. On April 21, citing the example of the DGA’s removal of Griffith’s name 20 years earlier, the task force recommends removing the Gish name from the theater. The report they issue justifying the move is stunning in its ignorance and narrow-mindedness. Completely disregarding Lillian’s many other films, they claim among other things that her role in “The Birth of a Nation” defined her entire career, a rationale which scarcely explains why her sister should share the same fate. In an effort to persuade the university’s board of trustees to overrule the task force’s recommendation, an online petition is launched urging BGSU to retain the Gish Film Theater. Before the petition can be sent to them, however, the board of trustees votes on May 3 to remove the Gish name from the theater. Once the name is changed from the Gish Film Theater to the BGSU Film Theater, the attractive display of photos of the sisters disappears from the gallery to be replaced by a vacant space as the only indication of what had once been there for several months. Film historian Joseph McBride, who had worked with Lillian on the 1984 AFI tribute, strongly condemns the move in an eloquent article. He joins with Mike Kaplan, who had produced Lillian’s final film, “The Whales of August,” in circulating a letter written by Kaplan urging that the actress not be scapegoated for one film and that her name and that of her sister be restored to the theater. More than 50 prominent artists, writers and scholars, including Martin Scorsese, Helen Mirren, James Earl Jones, Malcolm McDowell, and Lauren Hutton, are among those signing the letter. Articles in publications covering the range of the political spectrum from the “World Socialist Website” on the left to the “National Review” on the right deplore the decision. The BGSU officials, however, are unmoved, even when it is pointed out by McBride that it is ethically questionable for the university to continue taking the money she had bequeathed to the institution while subjecting her to public disgrace. Events have now come full circle from the notable honors accorded Griffith in 1975 to a climate 44 years later in which two celebrated actresses are now disgraced as surrogates for the director with whom they had worked.

William M. Drew – December 2019

BGSU Film Theater

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

“Birth of a Nation” Breaks All Records – (Photoplay, July 1924)

Photoplay Magazine Volume XXVI, Number Two – July 1924

“Birth of a Nation” Breaks All Records

The Perfect Song - The Birth of a Nation

Seven years before the producer of “The Birth of a Nation,” then just Larry Griffith, an actor out of a job, found a chance to play a role in a little one-reel Edison drama for five dollars a day. Seven years since he sold his first script to Biograph for fifteen dollars.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation 5

“The Birth of a Nation” broke all manner of theater records in various world capitals and became, as it remains today, the world’s: greatest motion picture, if greatness is to be measured by fame. It has ever since continued to be an important box office success. Early in 1924 “The Birth of a Nation” played in the great Auditorium Theater in Chicago, surpassing any previous picture audience record for that house.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation 6

“The Birth of a Nation” is nine years old.

No other dramatic screen product has lived so long, with the single and interesting exception of the little one-reel Sennett Keystone comedies featuring Charles Chaplin.

Here, perhaps, is a test of screen art. “The Birth of a Nation” was Griffith vindication for his flourishing departure from Biograph. Because of the halo that “The Birth of a Nation” has conferred upon them, some of the now famous names from the cast must be recalled: Henry Walthall, Mae Marsh, Elmer Clifton, Robert Harron, Lillian Gish, Joseph Henabery, Sam de Grasse, Donald Crisp and Jennie Lee.

Griffith’s attainment in “The Birth of a Nation” must be credited with a large influence in extending an acceptance and appreciation of the screen art into new, higher levels. Here was a picture that could not be ignored by any class. It also exerted a large, even if indirect, influence on the course of motion picture finance. Hundreds of thousands and million were now to become easy figures in the manipulation of the thought of the industry. “The Birth of a Nation” is said to have cost over a quarter of a million. It would have been cheap at a million. The public has paid 815,000,000, according to the estimate of J. P. McCarthy, who has put the picture on the screens of the world.

In this single picture, Griffith, above all others, forced an indifferent world to learn that the motion picture was great. In the next chapter we shall tell some untold tales of screen destiny, rich with personal drama and adventure, stories of Charles Chaplin, Pancho Villa. Jack Johnson and Jess Willard. a curious bypath story of the world war and Broadway, and the amazing truth of how one idea and one little girl, Mary Pickford, rocked the whole vast institution of the screen and set all of its invested millions a-tremble.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Griffith demonstrating his rapport with animals — with D. W. Griffith.

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Lillian Gish’s Genius Will Outlast Ava DuVernay and the Canon Wreckers – By Armond White, June 2019

National Review

Lillian Gish’s Genius Will Outlast Ava DuVernay and the Canon Wreckers

By Armond White June 26, 2019 6:30 AM

Instead of having the great actress’s name erased, students should see her in Griffith’s Broken Blossoms.

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

Lillian Gish is considered America’s greatest film actress by most people who know anything about movie history. Gish was a key figure, acting in numerous classics from the silent era and into the 1980s. For members of the Black Student Union at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio, Gish is a pariah. A victim of Millennial rewriting of inconvenient history, she has had her name removed from an on-campus theater.

Oct 9 1982 (BGSU) Lillian Gish in The Gish Film Theater
Oct 9 1982 (BGSU) Lillian Gish in The Gish Film Theater

After a screening of Ava DuVernay’s propaganda documentary 13th, about racism in the U.S. criminal-justice system, which cites as proof carelessly incorporated footage of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1916), featuring Gish, BGSU students sought Soviet-style revenge. Their poorly informed fervor cowed BGSU administrators even though Gish in her will endowed the college with her archives and an honorarium prize for arts. BGSU defended the censure and made lame excuses about “an inclusive learning environment.” Higher education sinks continuously lower in the dark age of political correctness.


No one at BGSU was educated about Gish’s eminence. Her worthiness was like a public statue of the unknown soldier; her commemoration should be the safekeeping of educators and cultural guardians who make sure that students and the public receive proper information about our cultural heritage.


Over 1800 have signed the petition

So when I was asked to sign a petition objecting to Gish’s mistreatment, I agreed with its declaration. Punishing Gish is part of an ongoing series of cultural defamations that began in 1999 when the Directors Guild of America stripped D. W. Griffith’s name from its annual awards (soon followed by the National Board of Review). This showed complete disregard for Griffith’s significance to film form and to American cultural history.

Last week, producer-publicist Mike Kaplan and historian Joseph McBride released the petition signed by over 50 film-culture figures. “Only 50?” a friend asked. “What about the 50,000 who didn’t sign?” No outcry from Gish Prize recipients Laurie Anderson, Spike Lee, Bob Dylan, Suzan-Lori Parks, or Anna Deavere Smith.


If American art and political history were taught well and seen clearly, more names and voices would be raised in outrage. Gish deserved defense from every filmmaker and arts person in the country for the way she and Griffith distinguished human expression. They invented the expressive close-up, with its insight into psychology and memorable illustration of behavior. Gish is an integral part of America’s complex history. Understanding her work is not just a matter of being more sophisticated than DuVernay, who opportunistically misused The Birth of a Nation and spread disinformation; it’s also a matter of appreciating the moral density of human experience in art.

Hester Prynne worried for her ill daughter - Lillian Gish - Scarlet Letter
Hester Prynne worried for her ill daughter – Lillian Gish – Scarlet Letter

We see Gish’s extraordinary range as Southerner Elsie Stoneman, innocently caught up in the factional turmoil of The Birth of a Nation’s Civil War; Thomas Hardy’s updated American Tess embodying female delicacy and strength in Way Down East; her idealization with sister Dorothy Gish as siblings separated by warring forces of the French Revolution in Orphans of the Storm; a portrayal of romantic simplicity in True Heart Susie; her embodiment of American moral crisis as Hester in The Scarlet Letter; her ageless, mythic motherhood in Intolerance; and her sound-era roles as the feminine principle in Duel in the Sun; the fearless Christian matriarch in the expressionist Night of the Hunter; a realistic variation on that role in The Unforgiven; a modern confrontation with racist dictatorship in The Comedians; her complex characterization as the officious and repentant Miss Inch in The Cobweb; and finally her iconic girlish matriarch in Altman’s A Wedding.

Gish’s fierce and clear characterizations set out the possibilities for film acting and are matched by few other performers. This year marks the centenary of Broken Blossoms, one of her finest Griffith collaborations. It is also cinema’s premier examination of Western racism and global, which is to say spiritual, fellowship. This ecumenical love story between a Chinese immigrant (Richard Barthelmess) and a white girl child in London’s Limehouse slum district is a poem of contrasts — between cultures, sexes, and sensibilities. Gish’s fright when locked in a closet by her brutal father, Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp), is the screen’s greatest moment of terror, and her adoration by the sensitive Chinese devotee turns sympathy to empathy. It is the greatest of all representation and identification movies and should be definitive proof of Griffith’s humane artistry, superseding The Birth of a Nation’s controversies.

Lillian Gish holding her Honorary Oscar at the 43rd Academy Awards, April 15th 1971. (Photo by Pictorial Parade Archive Photos)
Lillian Gish holding her Honorary Oscar at the 43rd Academy Awards, April 15th 1971. (Photo by Pictorial Parade Archive Photos)

But canon wreckers and propagandists such as DuVernay would deny Gish’s accomplishments, overturning rich history for tribal grievance and its handmaiden, ignorance. It’s unlikely that DuVernay’s fascist-influenced career will ever equal Gish’s or that her poorly educated followers will ever appreciate the difference. To tarnish a star of Gish’s genius diminishes us all. “It’s not dark yet,” sang Gish prize winner Bob Dylan, “but it’s getting there.”

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

In rememberance Lillian Gish 1993 BGSU
In rememberance Lillian Gish 1993 BGSU

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

THE SILENT SCREEN – Richard Dyer MacCann

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)

THE SILENT SCREEN – Richard Dyer MacCann

Essays in honor of American executives, directors,

stars, comedians and films, 1896-1926

The Birth of a Nation was unquestionably the greatest and most influential film ever made up to 1915. In it D.W. Griffith brought to bear everything he had learned of dramatic and cinematic art, and that was what made the message so power- ful. But art is not innocent, and criticism is not confined to style. To treat this motion picture, in the classroom or any- where else, simply as an expression of cinematic skills is to ignore the vital difference between those arts which are abstract (like music) or nontemporal (like painting), and those which, like literature and drama, act out human relationships and social implications. Film criticism that pretends to be “purely aesthetic” is vacuous as well as irresponsible. If art is blinding in its brilliance, this does not excuse but rather intensifies the deadly effects of violence and hatred.

The Birth of a Nation 1915 3

What were those people in the audience in Los Angeles cheering and yelling about? Did they stand up and stamp and cheer because their critical judgment told them they had seen a great work of cinema? Or were they responding to the bold, naive appeal this movie made to underlying instincts of fear, ignorance, and racial superiority through the visual impact of that “Anglo-Saxon Niagara”? This is the Birth of a Nation problem, and we cannot avoid it if we honestly study film as a part of American life. Whether we call ourselves critics or historians, we cannot ignore the power of the motion picture for good and for evil.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation 5

If Griffith was riding high after The Birth of a Nation—prosperous and praised for his skill in a new medium—he had also committed a form of social libel by drama, a condemnation of a whole group in American society as barbarians and primitives.

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

There was a riot in Boston. A group of black people tried to buy tickets for the movie. Several hundred protesters rallied behind them. Two hundred policemen promptly appeared to prevent it. During the show someone threw a rotten egg at the screen, and stink bombs were dropped from the balcony. Showings were stopped for one day. In newspapers throughout the country the message of the film was attacked and Griffith’s right to speak defended. Newly formed black groups—the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—gained strength in confronting this inflammatory film.

The Birth of a Nation 1915 5

At different times and for different periods, The Birth of a Nation was banned in Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, Topeka, and San Antonio, and in the states of Ohio, Illinois, and Michi- gan. Censors made cuts in the film in New York, Boston, Dallas, Baltimore, and San Francisco. One of the first cuts was a fantastic tableau which showed the whole black population of the United States lined up at a harbor to be deported back to Africa. Tom Dixon, author of The Clansman, told one editor that this deportation represented his main interest in writing the novel and encouraging the making of the film.

d.w. griffith and robert harron taking a lunch break during the filming of the birth of a nation

What was Griffith’s reaction to all this uproar? For the time being he remained the supremely confident movie magician. He never seemed to feel he was at fault in any way. He defended himself against every attack—and also helped make necessary cuts in the film. He issued a pamphlet stoutly claiming that the motion picture was a part of the free expression protected by the first amendment to the Constitution. (This rather persuasive position had just been contradicted by the Supreme Court in the Mutual Film case, not to be overturned until 1952.)

Intolerance – Babylon

Then he turned to his own medium for further defense. He had already completed The Mother and the Law, a modern story of a boy falsely accused of murder. He took this modest film and combined it with a grand spectacle on the fall of Babylon, inflating both of them by intercutting two other stories in a historical extravaganza. He called the whole daring, innovative, rather indigestible concoction. Intolerance. He was busily attacking age-old prejudices, but not the racist barriers of the American North or South. Above all, he was attacking his critics. And with this rather unstable motivation, he brought forth a strange, violent picture intended to oppose hatred and violence.


Critics and academicians down through the years have looked at Griffith’s creative intentions—especially his unique endeavor to intercut four different stories all the way through the film—and they have found Intolerance to be monumental, complicated, brilliant, and therefore exciting. Ordinary audiences have looked directly at the film and found it confusing and boring. Griffith himself later admitted that a single spectacle would have worked better. He recut the Babylonian and the modern stories separately and reissued them, but the total effort remained a financial failure.


Did D. W. Griffith go into a decline after Intolerance? This is the view of Lewis Jacobs in The Rise of the American Film, but it is a view bound to the aesthetic notion that montage is the highest form of cinematic art. His later films are simply different in purpose and therefore in style, and Blake Lucas has eloquently argued that “his more intimate and subtle works are often superior” because he sought to describe “the infinite shadings of human emotion and interaction.”

Hearts of the World
Hearts of the World

It could also be proposed that Griffith simply closed the door for a while on his obsessive epic impulse—and on social controversy. He did make a grandiose film supporting the Brit- ish cause in World War I, and he was exhilarated by the praise and honors heaped on him while he was in England and France. Then for quite a while he moved with confidence in a more comfortable range of subjects. His style tended to be more congruent with the simpler subjects he chose, more self-effacing, less flashy in terms of editing, with more long takes and continuity editing—more realistic, in fact, or at least ranging in the area between realism and romanticism where he was most at home.

In True Heart Susie, for example, Lillian Gish plays one of her most subtle roles, a farm girl who sells a cow so she can secretly support her childhood sweetheart through college. It takes her gawky neighbor (played by Robert Harron) a very long while to appreciate her, but there is finally a subdued and happy ending in this most rural of all possible worlds.

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

Broken Blossoms (1919) is another world altogether—the depressing atmosphere of the Limehouse district in London. A Chinese youth (played by Richard Barthelmess) comes to the violent Western world on an errand of mercy: to teach the peaceful ways of Buddha. He meets and loves a pitiful girl (Lillian Gish) who is in constant dread of being beaten to death by her father. He finally kills the father for doing exactly that, then kills himself—an ironic end to his mission.

Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms

A short, powerful film. Broken Blossoms stunned the critics. Photoplay called it “the first genuine tragedy of the movies.” The public, too, surprised theater owners by supporting at the boxoffice the integrity of this film and its consistent mood, so perfectly achieved by the dim backgrounds and the tense, controlled performances of the two young actors.

Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess in “Broken Blossoms” (Lucy Burrows and Cheng Huan “Chinky”)

Broken Blossoms is certainly the film which most clearly extends the Griffith range and persuades us of two things: He was an artist of the screen, and he was truly versatile. He was not merely an inventive pioneer to be studied for historical reasons. He was a creator of works of permanent value.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Richard Barthelmess, Lillian Gish and Lowell Sherman

Another film also invalidates the theory of “‘decline”after Intolerance. Way Down East (1920) was enormously popular and profitable. It was a melodrama, one which had been touring the states since the turn of the century. A story of an innocent woman tricked into a fake marriage, pregnant, abandoned, mourning her dead child, wandering into the country—it is climaxed by a denunciation of her seducer, an expulsion from the household, and a rescue by the young son who loves her. The rescue takes place in a blizzard, and required Lillian Gish to ride a block of ice down the river.

It sounds both bizarre and banal, and critics then and since have often discounted the story as unworthy of a serious director’s attention. But Griffith knew there were basic human val- ues in it and he trusted his actress to bring them out. All the emotional high points are presented with intense conviction, and the love story, so long delayed, is heightened instead of overwhelmed by the hazardous chase on the ice.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith on set (Vermont)

The fascinating thing about this old-fashioned story is how modern its moral is. Of course Griffith takes the opportunity to put down the supercilious rich city people in the early scenes, but he also turns us against the farm folk, so ignorant and sanctimonious. We yearn to help this frail outcast woman, and when she is rescued, we realize it is not accomplished by her return to rural life, but by the younger generation.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish

Here is an early version of many similar situations in later Hollywood films (made by John Ford and others) in which our sympathy is with the sinner and not with the Pharisees of society. The melodrama of Way Down East not only looks back. It also looks forward and prepares the way for a time when women will be able to tell their own story and claim some kind of independence in a more sympathetic world. This is the secret of the film’s appeal to audiences in the 1920s and the 1980s: we always know we are for Lillian and against the cruel condem- nation of an unfeeling, outmoded moral code.

It is a curious and noteworthy fact that Griffith had already encouraged Lillian Gish in real life to direct one of the Dorothy Gish comedies he was responsible for as executive producer. Such a decision reflected good judgment as to his star’s gifts and strengths. But it also was some kind of sign of an awkward move toward more liberal positions, socially if not politically. Griffith had tried in a small way to make up for the racism in The Birth of a Nation when he had a white Southern soldier kiss a dying black soldier in a film now lost. The Greatest Thing in Life. He had earlier shown rather consistent respect for native Americans in several early one-reelers that presented them as not only noble but exploited by the white man. He had made further points about prejudice, of course, with Broken Blossoms.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Griffith demonstrating his rapport with animals — with D. W. Griffith.

As usual, he didn’t quite know what he was doing: he was not a literary man, an intellectual, or a trained historian. He was a dealer in myths and emotions, not theories and logic. But can we propose that Griffith was subconsciously trying in Way Down East to catch up with the world? It was a world which was barely beginning, long after reconstruction days, to value equality of rights almost as much as freedom for the strong to get ahead. Did he know that it was time to give up some of the cruder claims of Darwinism—perhaps even some of the traditions of caste, the old Southern proprieties he had always praised?

Although Griffith never found it possible to consider members of the black race equally entitled to power and position— and in that stubborn opinion was joined by many white Americans from that day to this—he nevertheless seemed to have a strong attachment to certain basic ideals of democracy. The poor and the underdogs were often his heroes. The selfish capitalist who managed momentarily to gain monopoly power in A Corner in Wheat fell to his death in his own grain bin. Rich dowagers who dabble in organized charity (in Intoler- ance) and wealthy ladies who lack sympathy for their poor honest relations (in Way Down East) got harsh treatment at his hands. During those early “productive years when he felt so close to his audience—and was making two or three pictures a week— Griffith took up the conflict between rich and poor as often as he thought it was wise. Tom Gunning in his analysis of parallel editing, finds carefully worked out visual contrasts of this sort in The Song of the Shirt (1908), The Usurer (1910), and One Is Business, the Other Crime. In 1911, along with the usual romantic triangles, costume pictures, Mexican stories, and civil war dramas, there was an outcropping of seven stories with slum backgrounds.

The last film Griffith was free to make on his own -— before he gave up his independence to work on assignment for Paramount and United Artists — was a disturbing semi-documentary about the economic desolation of postwar Germany. “Isn’t Life Wonderful” (1924) left its sad young couple, at the end, grateful just to be alive (as the title indicated), but near starvation after their precious hoard of potatoes is stolen.

wg bitzaer and dw griffith -intolerance

This does not mean Griffith was any sort of political radical. The violent conflict between capital and labor in the modern story of Intolerance is supposed to have induced Lenin (according to Lillian Gish) to offer Griffith a position in charge of Soviet film production. Lenin certainly had the wrong man. Griffith’s old aristocratic loyalties together with his developing democratic creed would have put him doubly at odds with the authoritarian system of leveling going on under the Communist regime. His inner conflict was the same one that has troubled Americans for so long, the dual Jeffersonian ideal which says everyone deserves an equal opportunity to participate and learn but the able and talented few deserve special rewards.

Rising from obscurity and poverty, Griffith drove toward fame and power as an individual. Yet in his films, he struggled with issues of class relations, economic hardship, unchecked personal domination, nationalism, and war. Even his gentlest romances often posed the question of a woman’s role in family or in society. Like King Vidor in later years, he responded with earnest, untutored warmth to the currents of thought around him.

Essays in honor of American executives, directors, stars, comedians and films, 1896-1926


The silent screen
The silent screen cover

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

STAR MAKER – The Story of D. W. Griffith (1959) by HOMER CROY


The Story of D. W. Griffith (1959)


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.

D.W. Griffith on set
D.W. Griffith on set

He made eighteen stars:


  1. Mary Pickford
  2. Lillian Gish
  3. Dorothy Gish
  4. Mae Marsh
  5. Blanche Sweet
  6. Richard Barthelmess
  7. Henry B. Walthall
  8. Robert Harron
  9. Florence Lawrence
  10. Mabel Normand
  11. Miriam Cooper
  12. Carol Dempster
  13. Una Merkel
  14. James Kirkwood
  15. Owen Moore
  16. Joseph Schildkraut
  17. Monte Blue
  18. 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.”

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation 6


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.)

d.w. griffith and robert harron taking a lunch break during the filming of the birth of a nation

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.

The Birth of a Nation - Massive troop movements wide shot D. W. Griffith, American film master
The Birth of a Nation – Massive troop movements wide shot

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.

The Birth of a Nation 1915 4

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.)

Peck and Berndt with Pathe Camera once owned by Billy Bitzer
Gregory Peck and Berndt with Pathe Camera once owned by Billy Bitzer

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.)

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

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.

the birth of a nation - lillian gish - elsie stoneman rescued

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.