D.W. Griffith

b. 22 January, 1875, Oldham County, Kentucky, USA
d. 24 July, 1948, Los Angeles, California, USA

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The Birth of an Art

Introduction

Is there anyone today – any historian, any student of film, anyone with the least political sensitivity – who will dare to praise D.W. Griffith? The vicious racism of The Birth of a Nation prevents it from even being shown in most venues. The content of this one film, out of the more than 400 directed by Griffith, taints his entire oeuvre and prevents any kind of objective analysis of his films. In 1999, the Screen Directors’ Guild removed his name from their lifetime achievement award. Griffith remains the most reviled and detested film director in history, with the possible exception of Leni Riefenstahl.

Even the most flattering biography of Griffith, by Richard Schickel, describes his drunken, maudlin escapades after his star had fallen, his blind lack of business acumen, his unconscious but insidious racism, his self-defeating egomania.

Just as Americans typically laud Thomas Edison as the sole inventor of cinema, they credit Griffith with innovations such as the introduction of narrative film, the production of the first American feature film, the discovery of the close-up, and the evolution of other film techniques which were in place for years by the time he began directing. Griffith’s “innovations” were, in most cases, somewhat more effective uses of techniques already developed by others. He never graduated from primitive, full frontal framing in interior scenes and never employed a point-of-view shot in any of his films.

Griffith is judged today primarily from a political, not an aesthetic, standpoint. If we judge Griffith politically on the basis of one film, then it is only fair that we look at his entire oeuvre to see if it reflects any kind of coherent political viewpoint. And we can only do that if we view it in the light of the prevailing political points of view in early twentieth century America. In viewing Griffith’s films, we can see traces of William Jennings Bryan’s Populism in the nostalgia for a vanishing, small-town America, resentment of the wealthy and powerful, a pacifist viewpoint, prejudice and fear of African-Americans, and sympathy for the working class.

But there is no strong political position such as John Ford’s pro-New Deal stance in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) or King Vidor’s socialist vision in Our Daily Bread (1934). Even in The Birth of a Nation (1915), the South’s conqueror, Abraham Lincoln, is portrayed sympathetically as The Great Heart, while his greatest achievement – the emancipation of the slaves – is shown sowing hatred and devastation. When Griffith takes a political position, as in Intolerance (1916), it is usually directed against busybody reformers who create more problems than they solve.

While no straightforward, consistent political stance is in evidence in the Griffith oeuvre, there is a theme that runs through his major works. That theme is Family. Family threatened, family torn apart, family reunited, family destroyed, family created. One can only guess at the motivations for this obsession with Family from a man whose father died when he was ten, and who was never able to create a strong family relationship in his real life. But there is no mistaking his affinity for this theme, which occurs time and again. The most poignant, touching scenes in Griffith’s films usually revolve around a family separation or a family reunited.

A preoccupation with themes of rape, control and exploitation is part and parcel of Griffith’s obsession with Family. And those who would violate Griffith’s pure heroines and tear them away from their families are hulking, brutish males of alien races and backgrounds. Just one example, Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms (1919), is described in a subtitle as, “ … an abysmal brute – a gorilla of the jungles of East London …” This theme, too, must emerge from a deeply buried source of emotion originating in his family life. The thought that this repeated sub-theme of virginal heroines threatened by brutal males derives from Griffith’s suppressed desires is inescapable. Other directors have inflicted suffering and even death on the not-so-obscure objects of their desire: one thinks of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, or Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman. But no one crucified his idolised love object quite so thoroughly as D.W. Griffith did to Lillian Gish.

Surely these themes and obsessions originated in Griffith’s early life, in that supposedly idyllic time on the family farm down in Old Kentucky…

Early Life and Influences

David Wark Griffith was born on 22 January, 1875, on the family farm, Lofty Green, near Crestwood, Kentucky. Griffith’s father, “Roaring Jake” Griffith, had been a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, serving in the Kentucky Orphan Brigade under the leadership of its famed commander, General John C. Breckinridge. Jake was wounded several times during the war, including a severe stomach wound, which Griffith claimed caused his father’s death 20 years after the war. Lofty Green was burned and devastated during the war (ironically by Confederate raiders) and never regained its former prosperity. The postwar Griffith family eventually included Jake, his wife Mary, and their seven children.

Birth of a Nation

Much has been made of the impact of Griffith’s Southern background and firsthand experience of Reconstruction, and its influence on The Birth of a Nation. A few inconvenient facts get in the way. Griffith’s family lived on a farm, not a plantation, and owned few slaves. Kentucky was a Border State with divided loyalties. Twice as many Kentuckians fought for the Union than joined the Confederate forces during the Civil War. Kentucky was the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln the “Great Emancipator” and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. Kentucky did not suffer the scourge of “carpetbaggers” endured by the Deep South, and the state was never occupied by Union troops after the war. When the famed Seventh U.S. Cavalry was posted to Kentucky in 1871 to enforce the recently passed anti-Klan law, it saw no action against an apparently weak and inactive Klan. Relationships between the Griffith family and former slaves seem to have been friendly and respectful. Griffith mentions that four of them were present at his father’s deathbed.

The conditions of reconstruction shown in The Birth of a Nation simply never existed in Kentucky.

Farmers saw hard times after the Civil War, especially during the financial Panic of 1873. Jake Griffith seems to have done little to offset these hardships except drink, gamble, dance and recount old war stories to his cronies down at the general store. Mary Griffith and David’s older sister Mattie were apparently the ones who held the family together and earned a meager livelihood. Jake Griffith was a remote figure whom David felt cared little about him.

However irresponsible his father may have been, Griffith stated in his unpublished biography that, “ I think the one person I really loved the most in all my life was my father.” And Jake may have instilled a love of literature and the arts in his son by his eloquent family readings of Shakespeare.

After “Roaring Jake’s” death from peritonitis in 1885, the Griffiths found themselves deep in debt and mortgages. Eventually, they were forced to move from the green, rolling Oldham County hills to the booming metropolis of Louisville. There, Mary Griffith ran a series of boarding houses. David had only a grade-school education; then, in true Dickensian style, had to find work to support the family. He worked in a series of menial jobs. In 1893, he found work at Flexner’s, Louisville’s premiere bookstore. There, he devoured the cream of Victorian literature: Tolstoy, Hardy, Browning and Dickens. He experimented with a musical career, having a fine bass-baritone voice. But his greatest love was the theatre. Louisville had (as it still does) a flourishing theatrical scene. Young David Griffith enjoyed the thrill of seeing the great stars of fin-de-siècle theatre: Joseph Jefferson, Ada Rehan, John Drew, Richard Mansfield and the tempestuous Sarah Bernhardt. His fondest memory was of the delicate, virginal Julia Marlowe in Romeo and Juliet. Bitten by the theatrical bug, David worked as a super and usher at a Louisville theatre. Then, sometime in 1896, he made the momentous decision to join that most despised and degrading of professions: the theatre.

Actor and Playwright

David Wark Griffith, billed first as “Lawrence Brayington” and then as “Lawrence Griffith“, had a mostly undistinguished and obscure theatrical career. Appearing in touring stock companies or with Louisville theatre groups, he worked for years in the famously insecure and penurious conditions actors endured in turn-of-the-century America. Between engagements he worked odd jobs such as picking hops or shoveling coal on a freighter. Agonisingly unsuccessful at obtaining any real work in New York City, he often slept in flophouses and frequented brothels, all the while imbibing the colourful and tumultuous immigrant life of the Lower East Side.

Moving to the more genial atmosphere of California, he found work shuttling between theatres in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and also appeared at times in touring companies. It was in San Francisco that he met his future wife, Linda Arvidson, another young, struggling actor. There he also found work with the famed Nance O’Neil stock company. Griffith was on tour with the O’Neil group when he received a telegram from Linda: in the aftermath of the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, she desperately wanted to escape devastated, burnt-out “Baghdad by the Bay”. She joined Griffith in Boston, where the O’Neil tour ended. David and Linda were married in the historic Old North Church, which would figure so prominently in his film America (1924).

In New York, Griffith formed another connection important to his future: he and Linda appeared in the play The One Woman by Thomas Dixon Jr., also author of the novel and play The Clansman and its companion piece, The Leopard’s Spots.

Griffith could look back at his acting career with some satisfaction. If he had not stormed the heights of an Edwin Booth or Richard Mansfield, in a decade he had amassed immense stage experience and appeared in a great variety of roles with a slight bit of critical and public praise. He played in all the old hoary chestnuts of the Victorian theatre, including the tortuously plotted vehicles of Victorien Sardou, and at least three plays which he would later film: Ramona, The Two Orphans, and Judith of Bethulia.

But Griffith also had visions of developing a career beyond that of a marginally successful character actor: that of playwright. The result was an intensely autobiographical play, A Fool and a Girl. To the astonishment of the Griffiths, the play was optioned by none other than one of America’s leading matinee idols, James K. Hackett, to the tune of a lordly $700.

The play was ripped apart by the critics in Baltimore and Washington D.C. and never made it to Broadway. Undeterred, Griffith began work on yet another play set during the American Revolution and entitled War. Meanwhile the Griffiths had to eat. And so it was that, in 1907, David Wark Griffith began peddling scenarios to those lowly moving picture companies…

The Biograph Years

As Griffith remembered it, the first scenario he tried to pawn off on the managers at the Edison Studios was a plagiarised version of Tosca. They weren’t interested, but they were in search of experienced actors. And so Griffith (billed as “Lawrence Griffith”) lowered himself enough to appear in Biograph and Edison films as early as December, 1907. The surviving Griffith screen appearance most often seen today is an Edison film entitled Rescued From The Eagle’s Nest.

After the Griffiths appeared in a few films with the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company (know universally as the Biograph) Griffith was given the chance to appear in summer stock in Maine. According to Linda Arvidson, it was she who persuaded Griffith to remain at the Biograph in the hope of future advancement. That chance came when the house director, Wallace (“Old Man”) McCutcheon fell ill and Griffith was hired to direct a “lemon” called The Adventures of Dolly. No one could have foreseen that he would remain at the Biograph for the next five years, direct more than 400 films, and propel the company into the forefront of the American movie industry.

Griffith came to the Biograph at a propitious time. The company had been embroiled in a long, arduous patents battle with Edison for years. It had recently been reorganised and was attempting to regain the quality its films had lost during the distracting patents war. The Biograph’s leadership was determined to remain independent and not to join the recently formed Motion Pictures Patents Company, dominated by Edison.

Thus Griffith strode onto the Biograph scene at precisely the right moment. His leadership abilities were self-evident, and within a year he was supervising all of the Biograph’s film production, directing the greater part of the films himself. At this time he was cranking out two one-reel films a week. Griffith formed one of film history’s great creative partnerships with his favourite cameraman, G.W. “Billy” Bitzer. Bitzer’s technical proficiency would allow Griffith the freedom to use irises, fadeouts, tracking and panning shots, close-ups, panoramic views and eventually much more.

Volumes have been written about Griffith’s contributions to the art of film during his Biograph years. After he left the company in 1913, Griffith ran an ad in the Dramatic Mirror boasting of his innovations, including, “… close-up figures, distant views as represented first in Ramona, the ‘switchback’, sustained suspense, the ‘fade out’, and restraint of expression, raising motion picture acting to the higher plane which has won for it recognition as a genuine art.” Film historians have given Griffith credit for these and many other innovations in storytelling, so it comes as something of a shock to actually view the Biograph films.

Griffith’s films at the beginning of his Biograph years seem just as stagebound and primitive as those of his predecessors. If the two-minute little bagatelle called Those Awful Hats (1909) still entertains because of its Méliès-like use of trick effects, films such as The Sealed Room (1909) feature little suspense, no close-ups, no “distant views” at all, and precious little “restraint of expression”. But within a year, Griffith would direct A Corner In Wheat, adapted from the Frank Norris novel The Octopus and his story “A Deal in Wheat”. Portraying the miserable conditions faced by farmers and the urban poor, Griffith parallels them with the life of a millionaire who manages to dominate the world’s wheat supply. Due to his speculation, the price of bread doubles and the poor are starving. The magnate meets a fitting end, being smothered to death by cascading wheat in a grain elevator. While the film boasts no close-ups except a brief one of a message late in the film, there is also no theatrical hamming as all the actors display “restraint in expression”. The emoting does not reek of the Victorian stage, but registers as true film acting. The exteriors shot on the farm are stark, realistic and convincing. The quality of A Corner In Wheat, and the developing power of film, was recognised by the Dramatic Mirror, which commented, “No orator, no editorial writer, no essayist could so strongly and effectively present the thoughts conveyed in this picture.” And Griffith’s fixation on family themes is evident in his treatment of the indigent farm family and the poverty-stricken city-dwellers.

The New York Hat

Viewing the Biographs today, one of their great strengths has to be the actors that Griffith chose to appear in them. The New York Hat, filmed in 1912, is a case in point. Starring the charming, vivacious Mary Pickford, the film also features a warm, benevolent performance by a young Lionel Barrymore. The hen-like scandalmongers, the respectable members of the church council, and other villagers, are all perfectly chosen types. Griffith chose to work with mainly young, enthusiastic actors who had some stage experience, but were not bound by the melodramatic stage conventions of the day. The roster of actors with whom Griffith worked at Biograph includes many who would shape multiple aspects of the film world within the next decade: Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mary Pickford, Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett, Lionel Barrymore, Harry Carey, Henry B. Walthall, Bobby Harron, Mae Marsh, Blanche Sweet, Donald Crisp … and the list goes on.

The scope of subject matter that Griffith filmed during his employment at Biograph is dizzying, including Westerns, dramas of urban life, “ride-to-the-rescue” crime stories, Civil War melodramas, bucolic romances, adaptations of Victorian literary classics, social commentaries and more. The films usually were one-reelers, running 12–14 minutes. But the amount of action that Griffith was able to cram into these little works is incredible. In just one example, His Trust (1910), a Confederate officer leaves for the Civil War, entrusting the care of his wife and daughter to the old family retainer, George. The Rebel troops are seen marching away to action. In the ensuing, well-directed battle, successive waves of Confederate troops drive the Yankees away, but at the cost of the officer’s life. A courier returns his saber to the family and brings news of the officer’s death. Then Union troops invade, loot the family mansion, and burn it to the ground. George runs into the burning home to save the little girl and then returns to salvage her father’s saber. Then he brings the bereft wife and child to his own humble slave quarters and goes to sleep outside. So the family torn apart by the Civil War is safe through the efforts of its faithful servant (Wilfrid Lucas in crude blackface.) All this happens within one reel!

An expansion of quality in the Biograph films began in 1910, when Griffith began making annual pilgrimages with his company to Los Angeles to film in surrounding areas. The Biograph was not the first company to establish operations in the Los Angeles area – the Selig company had filmed there since 1907 – but the picturesque scenery added a great deal to Griffith’s opportunities for location shooting.He took full advantage of this, whether for stories of the ocean such as The Unchanging Sea, shot on the Santa Monica beaches, or for Western backgrounds, such as the landscapes in Ramona. Griffith apparently had the honour of being the first filmmaker to actually shoot in the then-rural village of Hollywood, when he filmed In Old California there in 1910.

Through most of these films, the core theme of Family is all-important. What makes this theme even more poignant in Griffith’s life is that in 1911 he and his wife Linda separated, due to his infidelity. His own family was shattered, and it was his own fault. Now his only real family would be his film family: his colleagues at the Biograph.

The culmination of Griffith’s Biograph years, both artistically and chronologically, is The Mothering Heart, shot in 1913. By this time the Biograph allowed Griffith to expand some of his films to two reels, or about 25 minutes of running time. Lillian Gish stated that this gave Griffith more time to think and experiment. If so, the difference certainly shows in this film, which exceeds in emotional depth most of Griffith’s other Biograph work. Again, a family is torn apart, this time by the husband’s infidelity. Lillian Gish’s performance is astonishing, especially in the harrowing scene in which, after the death of her baby, she thrashes the bushes in her parents’ garden with a switch. Griffith had pushed even the two-reel films he directed at the Biograph to their limit of expressiveness.

The nature of that expressiveness has been described in many different ways. To Griffith’s biographer Richard Schickel, the limitations and pressures of the Biograph years forced Griffith to focus on his best qualities as an artist. Speaking of the urban crime drama The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), Schickel stated: “ … it was this unthinking but constant touching of the roots of his experience that, in the long run, makes Griffith’s Biograph films so rewarding.” Tom Gunning, author of D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film, feels that Griffith developed a new narrative form for film, demonstrated through the parallel editing in his “race-to-the-rescue” films. This narrative editing was used in a more sophisticated way in A Corner in Wheat, in which Griffith contrasted the three worlds of the farm, the urban bread store, and the Wheat King’s milieu through parallel editing. Gunning also stresses the new methods of film acting that Griffith introduced: “In the late Biograph films Griffith created a new relationship between performer and camera, one based on an understanding of the camera, and therefore the cinema spectator, as a powerful voyeur with the ability to penetrate into the character’s most private reaches.” Scott Simmon, in The Films of D.W. Griffith, states that, “,,, Griffith’s great work lies among his Biographs of 1908–13, not his later features.” Simmon feels that Griffith’s early films are not only more personal, but coincide with the optimistic, sunny spirit of pre-World War I America.

In any case, 1913 marked a new departure for D.W. Griffith, not only due to personal ambitions but to changes sweeping the foundations of the existing American film industry.

Judith of Bethulia

Judith of Bethulia

Far from inventing the feature film, Griffith was very much a latecomer to feature production. Features were produced as early as 1906 in Australia, with a biography of Ned Kelly. The Vitagraph Company produced an American feature-length version of Les Miserables and The Life of Moses in 1909. By 1912–13, increasingly lengthy and spectacular features were becoming common. They included Queen Elizabeth, (starring Sarah Bernhardt) and another version of Les Miserables from France, and Quo Vadis and The Last Days of Pompeii from Italy.

By 1913, exhibitors began to move away from tiny neighbourhood nickelodeons to larger film theatres charging an admission fee of 10–15 cents. In New York, the Regent and Strand theatres opened in 1913–14 as the first of the “Movie Palaces” that were to become so widespread. The movies were becoming lengthier, and were being accepted as middle-class entertainment.

Griffith felt that if he wanted to retain a position of leadership in the American film industry, he would have to start making feature films. The Biograph leadership did not sympathise. And so Griffith resorted to subterfuge. During his annual company pilgrimage to California in 1913, he began production on a feature-length (six-reel) film based on the story from the Biblical Apocrypha and the old stage play in which he had appeared: Judith of Bethulia. Griffith’s enthusiasm for the project was so infectious that he converted the Biograph accountant , J.C. Epping, sent to rein him in. The result – starring familiar Biograph regulars such as Blanche Sweet, Henry B. Walthall, Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh and Bobby Harron – resembles the efforts of a short-story writer attempting to pen a novel. Though the performances (especially those by Blanche Sweet in the title role, and Walthall as Holofernes) hold up well, the battle scenes appear confusing and perfunctory. Worse, Griffith’s reception at the Biograph when he returned to New York was chilly. The company began cutting Judith down to four reels and could promise Griffith nothing but a return to filming one-reel movies.

And so Griffith left the Biograph after five momentous years. He cast about for new employment with Adolph Zukor and finally found it with Harry Aitken, head of the Mutual film company. Shortly, most of Griffith’s “stable” of actors and technicians joined him at Mutual. Chronically short of funding, the Mutual bosses put Griffith to work filming a few inexpensive features, which even Griffith called “potboilers”. Two of his later Mutual films, Home Sweet Home and The Avenging Conscience (both 1914), both starring Henry B. Walthall, were a cut above the rest. But by that time Griffith was deep in the planning stages of what he hoped might be his greatest film to date: The Clansman.

Racist Masterpiece

Just why did D.W. Griffith choose Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman as the source material for his most ambitious work to date? The answer may be more complicated than a desire to express racist fantasies. Certainly, a Civil War story would appeal to the son of a Confederate officer. The 50th Anniversary of Lee’s surrender and the end of the Civil War loomed in April 1915, and Griffith surely wanted to capitalise on the many parades, pageants and commemorations that would accompany it. Then again, Griffith and Thomas Dixon Jr. knew each other and Griffith had appeared in one of Dixon’s plays. And an ostensibly antiwar film would be topically appropriate to the slaughter in Europe that began in August 1914, while The Clansman was in production. Griffith himself said that his enthusiasm was for a climax more significant and stirring than any he had directed before: “… Now I could see a chance to do this ride-to-the-rescue on a grand scale. Instead of saving one poor little Nell of the Plains, this ride would be to save a nation.”

What today’s audiences viewing Griffith’s jaundiced view of Reconstruction tend to forget is that he was portraying the commonly accepted view of that period in American history. No less than the eminent historian who, in 1914, held the office of President of the United States agreed with Griffith. In fact, Griffith quoted Woodrow Wilson to that effect in his title cards. So the idea that Griffith consciously selected the material to express hatred of African-Americans is untenable. What is also undoubtedly true is that the most emotional, disturbing and powerful scenes in The Birth of a Nation are those dealing with the true horror the film denounces: not war, but miscegenation. The scenes of Austin Stoneman (a thinly disguised caricature of Congressman Thaddeus Stevens) being influenced by his scheming mulatto mistress; the nightmarish scenes of little Flora Cameron being pursued to her death by the lustful ex-slave Gus; the attempted rape of Lucy Stoneman by hulking Silas Lynch; and the harrowing detail near the end of the film revealing Dr. Cameron ready to dash out the brains of his surviving daughter with his pistol butt rather than see her violated by barbaric black soldiers: all these point to the true message of The Birth of a Nation. And it was a message endorsed and accepted by the vast majority of white Americans, North and South, in 1914, a year in which 54 African-Americans were lynched across the United States.

Perhaps it was this submerged theme, as well as the enthusiasm of embarking on filmmaking of such a grand scale, that led Griffith to throw himself into The Clansman with such superhuman energy. His enthusiasm infected the entire cast and crew, from Henry B. Walthall to Lillian Gish, Miriam Cooper, Walter Long, Mae Marsh and all the rest of the huge cast, as well as cameramen Billy Bitzer and Karl Brown, and burly George Siegman, who doubled as the evil mulatto Lynch and as Griffith’s kindly but firm production assistant.

The Birth of a Nation

Most performed beautifully, with the exception of Mary Alden, in the role of Lydia Brown, Stoneman’s mulatto mistress. Her mugging, overenthusiastic performance invariably draws laughter from today’s audiences. Henry B. Walthall’s performance as Ben Cameron, the “Little Colonel”, was especially subtle and powerful, and Walthall, another son of a Confederate officer, would be identified with this role for the rest of his long career.

As for Griffith, The Birth of a Nation was in some respects a step backward from his earlier films. Especially in the broad caricature performances of the white actors in blackface, and in the melodramatic flutterings of Lillian Gish during the scene in which George Siegman confesses his lust for her, one feels that the expansion of scale in this production led Griffith to abandon the subtlety that distinguished his later Biographs. But for every crudely portrayed scene, there is another such as the incredible panning shot revealing a woman and her daughters weeping over the destruction of their home by Sherman’s army, or the beautifully underplayed, still wrenching return of the “Little Colonel” to his shattered home as he is drawn inside by the arms of his sister and mother.

Surviving test shots show the care with which Griffith chose the terrain for his Civil War battle scenes, and how he used pyrotechnics to fill gaps in the action. His meticulous preparation is more amazing when it is recalled that he had to solicit additional funding to complete the film even during production, when Harry Aitken came up short. The resulting battle scenes are authentic, convincing and stirring, and the climactic “ride-to-the-rescue” by the Klan and its ensuing battle with African-American soldiers still tremendously exciting, if one can distance oneself from the repellant subject matter. Griffith’s use of parallel editing is superb, as he cuts from the gathering of the mounted Klan members to the chaos erupting in the town of Piedmont, to Lillian Gish resisting rape at the hands of Silas Lynch, to the Camerons and their friends besieged in a little cabin by bestial African-American soldiers.

The film debuted in Los Angeles as The Clansman on 8th January, 1915, and in New York City on 3rd March as The Birth of a Nation, a title change supposedly suggested by Thomas Dixon. Accompanied by an orchestral score cobbled together from period songs and from Wagner and other classical composers played by a 40-piece orchestra, the film was a sensation. No American film had played to such epic length (three hours) or had portrayed the nation’s history with such grand sweep, scale and excitement. The Birth of a Nation became the first film to be shown at the White House, after which President Wilson reportedly remarked, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all too terribly true.”

The Birth of a Nation was a hit from the beginning. Cameraman Karl Brown remembered the premiere audience giving the film a standing ovation. Griffith stood in front of the screen after the end of the film as wave after wave of cheers and applause washed over him. The film played in New York for 48 weeks. It is estimated that Birth made close to $60 million worldwide on its first run, not counting its reissues in 1922 and 1930. Entire fortunes were based on The Birth of a Nation, like that of Louis B. Mayer, who obtained distribution rights along the East Coast. The critical reception was equally enthusiastic, with the Evening Globe reviewer asserting that The Birth of a Nation was “… without question the most extraordinary picture that has been made – or seen – in America so far.”

Even before the film began its run, its source material led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to make a vigorous protest against its distribution. The NAACP lobbied the National Board of Censors to ban the film, then met with Mayor Mitchell of New York City in an attempt to have the film proscribed in that community. In Boston, a melee between police, Pinkerton detectives and a protest group of 200 African-Americans erupted at a theatre running The Birth of a Nation. In Philadelphia, there was another confrontation between police, security guards and 500 protesters. The NAACP organised boycotts, court challenges, protests, lobbying campaigns and other actions against The Birth of a Nation across the country, eventually succeeding in having it banned in eight states for a number of years.

Typical letters asking for a ban came from the NAACP chapter in Dayton, Ohio, to the City Manager after the film was finally released there in 1917. The letter stated: “So realistic and convincing is this picture argument that in no locality where it is exhibited is the relation between the races the same afterward. In some cities for squares around households have been known to discharge all colored help and never allow their employment again… We are trying to keep the film from being produced in this city and have petitioned Mayor Shroyer to that end.”

The Birth of a Nation

Through all the controversy, Griffith professed amazement at the furor. He continued to assert that the film was totally accurate historically. In fact, he offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could find a historical error in the film. He always maintained that his defense of Birth was in opposition to those who would censor the arts and destroy freedom of expression.

The Birth of a Nation has been accused of inspiring the organisation of the second Ku Klux Klan in 1915 in Georgia, and of inciting the race riots and lynchings that swept the nation in 1919. Although the intangible influence of the film on these events cannot be fully calculated, it is clear that Tom Simmons, the founder of the second Klan, was influenced mainly by the Georgia trial and lynching of Leo Frank. Frank, a Jew, was accused of raping and murdering a girl named May Phagan, one of his employees. In fact, the second Klan’s original name was The Knights of Mary Phagan. The many violent incidents in 1919 were caused by racial tensions due to the migration of thousands of African-Americans to the North to find work in wartime factories. Also, many proud African-American war veterans were resolved not to endure the kind of discrimination they had suffered before the war.

Despite these caveats, nothing can excuse the vicious, brutal portrayal of African-Americans in The Birth of a Nation, nor its implication that they must never be allowed full participation in the political process – or to ever marry into the white race.

Despite the criticism and attacks on The Birth of a Nation, Griffith was now seen as The Master: the unqualified leader of the American film industry, and the world’s most famous and respected film director. In order to maintain that leadership (and to answer his critics), Griffith had to do the nearly impossible: top The Birth of a Nation. And that is exactly what he proceeded to do …

The Greatest Film?

Even before finishing The Birth of a Nation, Griffith started work on another film entitled The Mother and the Law. Starring Mae Marsh and Bobby Harron, the story lashed at Griffith’s critics by depicting reformers as frustrated old maids and nitwitted hypocrites. Segments also paralleled the story of the 1914 Ludlow Massacre in Colorado, during which a still-disputed number of strikers were shot down by company goons who had infiltrated the Colorado National Guard. Eleven children and a woman who had taken refuge in a pit underneath one of the strikers’ tents were smothered to death when the tent was burned down over them. The company being struck was Colorado Fuel & Iron, owned by the Rockefeller interests. Griffith’s Populist instincts were aroused by the opportunity to lash out at the Rockefeller family, the most hated capitalists in America.

Griffith was advised that The Mother and the Law was too intimate and small-scale a story to be released by the director of The Birth of a Nation. Griffith’s viewing of Giovanni Pastrone’s epic Italian film Cabiria, depicting the attack on Carthage by the Romans, and a visit to the turreted and domed buildings of the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, turned his mind in other directions. The unimaginable slaughter in Europe during the Great War must have also stimulated his desire to make an even stronger antiwar message than the one ending Birth.

Griffith brought back the entire cast of The Birth of a Nation, with some important additions, for the film which came to be called Intolerance. The walls of Babylon and of Belshazzar’s palace were built under the supervision of “Huck” Wortman, Griffith’s set designer and construction manager. The streets of 16th-Century Paris and of ancient Jerusalem were also reconstructed, along the with modern slum settings. The Babylonian sets remain among the most lavish, splendid and impressive ever built for a motion picture.

Intolerance

Griffith’s four stories (the fall of Babylon, the crucifixion of Christ, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and the modern story) were united only by the supposed theme of “intolerance”, and a mysterious linking image of Lillian Gish rocking a cradle. As the four stories play out in sequence, Babylon falls to the Persian invaders, the Huguenots are massacred in Paris, Christ is crucified, and only a frantic, nail-biting ride-to-the-rescue saves The Boy from the gallows in the modern story. The famous shot as the camera slowly tracks down and into the spectacular Babylonian palace set, crowded with thousands of revelers, remains the most famous single shot in film history. Modern audiences can still be swept away during the ride to save The Boy’s life, as he stands on the gallows with the razors of the executioners poised unsteadily over the strings that will trip the gallows door. And for once, not a delicate Victorian maiden evading rape, but a downtrodden working-man suffering from very real and contemporary injustice is the one being rescued. In The Birth of a Nation, the climactic vision of Jesus seems not only extraneous but downright blasphemous in light of the film’s message. On the other hand, the images of universal peace at the climax of Intolerance seem like the perfect culmination of the film’s theme and message.

Intolerance is light years ahead of The Birth of a Nation in nearly every way. The occasional crudities and overacting in Birth are mostly gone in Intolerance. Every member of the huge cast responded to Griffith’s leadership with memorable performances. Mae Marsh, Bobby Harron and Miriam Cooper in the modern story; Constance Talmadge as the courageous, tomboyish Mountain Girl in the Babylonian sequence; and Howard Gaye as Christ in the Judean story, were especially excellent. And the list of assistant directors Griffith employed reads like a “who’s who” of men who later became prominent Hollywood directors in their own right: Tod Browning, Christy Cabanne, Allan Dwan, Victor Fleming, Sidney Franklin, W.S. “Woody” Van Dyke and Erich von Stroheim, as well as old reliable George Siegman, who doubled up playing Cyrus the Great. Not only the sets and the scale of the film but the spectacular battle sequences in the Babylonian story dwarfed anything attempted in Birth.

The resulting film emerged as a titanic experiment. Whether it worked or not has been debated for 90 years. No less an expert than Sergei Eisenstein felt that the interweaving of four stories lacked a unifying image, and underlying theory of film mechanics, that would have given it more power. Famed drama critic Alexander Wolcott stated that in Intolerance, “Unprecedented and indescribable splendor of pageantry is combined with grotesque incoherence of design and utter fatuity of thought…” More recently, Richard Schickel has written that the fatal flaw in Intolerance was Griffith’s belief that he was grappling with great, universal themes, and, “… his failure to do so at any but the most primitive and sentimental level.” Griffith himself seems to have realised that the film did not meld convincingly when he shot new footage and released two segments of the film independently as The Mother and the Law and The Fall of Babylon in 1919. If Intolerance is an artistic failure, it is the grandest, most ambitious failure in film history.

Intolerance was not a massive failure at the box office, but it was not the kind of overwhelming success that The Birth of a Nation had been. Certainly it did not wipe out Griffith financially, as legend would have it. Griffith’s practice of showing his films as “road show” attractions at elevated ticket prices, in a select number of theatres, and with an expensive travelling orchestra, limited and ate into profits. If critics and audiences did not respond to Intolerance and its more diffuse, complicated appeal as they had to Birth, Griffith’s stature as the world’s most famous, admired film director was untarnished. And so he was summoned into the midst of the world conflict that he had denounced in his most ambitious film …

The Pinnacle, 1917–1925

In 1917, Griffith travelled to England at the invitation of the British War Office’s film section. Wined and dined by the British aristocracy, given audiences with Queen Alexandra and Lloyd George, and acclaimed at the London premiers of Intolerance, Griffith was also escorted to the front lines in France. He was allowed to shoot British and French troop maneuvers and, joined by Lillian Gish and other actors, endured zeppelin raids in London.

The resulting film, Hearts of the World, reflects little of the Great War’s reality. After some very limited location shooting in France, the majority of the film was shot in the area around the crumbling Babylon sets from Intolerance and other California locations. The resulting film is another tale of Family disrupted by the Great War. Though the images of Lillian Gish wandering the battlefield searching for her lost lover (Bobby Harron) are haunting, there is no sense of the grimness and horror of trench warfare.

Hearts of the World resolves itself into another ride-to-the-rescue (or, more accurately quick-march-to-the-rescue), with Lillian Gish saved from the fiendish clutches of a lustful Hun officer (George Siegman) by the advancing Allied armies. Again Erich von Stroheim was an advisor, actor and assistant director, leading to a galaxy of “bestial Hun” performances during the next few years.

Griffith apparently viewed Hearts of the World as what is was – frankly, a propaganda film geared to create enthusiasm for the Allied cause. The film was extremely profitable, despite the terrible flu epidemic that raged during its release. Lillian Gish felt, however, that Griffith always harboured a sense of guilt about Hearts of the World, quoting him as saying, “War is the villain, not any particular people.”

Now under contract to Adolph Zukor and his Artcraft company, Griffith directed two war films, The Great Love and The Greatest Thing in Life (both now lost) and two bucolic romances, A Romance of Happy Valley and True Heart Susie. Both of the latter films starred Bobby Harron and Lillian Gish, and both were somewhat autobiographical recreations of Griffith’s Kentucky boyhood. Charming both in their settings and in the performances of their leads, these little films, further explorations of the Family theme, are now acclaimed as among Griffith’s best by latter-day admirers.

Griffith filmed one more formulaic war film, The Girl Who Stayed at Home, starring newcomers Richard Barthelmess and Carol Dempster. Dempster was apparently Griffith’s new lover, and she gradually supplanted Lillian Gish in his affections and as the star of his later films.

Then he embarked on the production of a film that many regard as his greatest, another intimate family drama set far from the hills of Kentucky. Based on the story “The Chink and the Child” from Thomas Burke’s collection entitled Limehouse Nights, Broken Blossoms would star Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess and Donald Crisp. Aided by art director Charles Baker, Billy Bitzer, and another experienced cameraman, Henrik Sartov, Griffith’s remarkably atmospheric recreation of the London docks is one of the strongest assets of his film. The heartfelt, touching performances of Gish and Barthelmess formed another strong element. Usually a dignified and restrained actor, Donald Crisp was goaded by Griffith into an overdrawn, exaggerated performance as Battling Burrows, the bestial “gorilla” of the London slums.

Broken Blossoms

Like Intolerance, Broken Blossoms is another plea for tolerance and understanding, and another denunciation of hypocrisy. This time, though, the story was far less diffuse and confusing than Intolerance, centering on only three characters and one time period. Hoping to uplift the backward and uncivilised Anglo-Saxons, Cheng (Barthelmess) journeys to the heart of their civilisation – London. Obviously a failure at reforming the English, he is relegated to running a small shop in the Limehouse slums. There he meets Lucy (Gish), a downtrodden victim of her brutal father, boxer Battling Burrows (Crisp). Cheng attempts to shelter Lucy, but her father finds her and beats her to death for the offense of interracial romance (and, it is implied, out of incestuous jealousy). Cheng shoots down Burrows, then commits suicide. In the aftermath, a policeman reading the war news comments, “Better than last week. Only 40,000 casualties”.

Lillian Gish’s performance is unnerving, in its tragic aspects (including her famous gesture of turning her mouth up into a smile with her fingers) and in its climactic hysteria in a closet as her father beats down the door to kill her. After the filming of this scene, Griffith was reportedly so upset that he exclaimed to Gish, “My God! Why didn’t you tell me you were going to do that!”

On its surface, Broken Blossoms may seem like another reworking of Griffith’s fixation with virginal heroines menaced by brutish sexual predators. The skillful performances of Gish and Barthelmess, the rich Limehouse atmosphere, and the wholly tragic denouement without the traditional, cliched ride-to-the-rescue, place it on an artistic plane among Griffith’s greatest achievements. Despite its gloomy plot, Broken Blossoms was an almost universal critical and box office success. Perhaps this was because it reflected the public mood after the end of the Great War, or perhaps the public genuinely appreciated its artistic quality. In any case, the success of Broken Blossoms confirmed Griffith’s status as The Master.

Then Griffith took two career steps that were to lead to his future financial distress. Together with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, he formed United Artists Distributing Company. William S. Hart was invited to join the company, but wisely declined. Though the idea behind United Artists, broached initially by film executives Hiram Abrams and B.P. Schulberg, was attractive, the reality was that each of the principals would struggle to produce enough films to make the new company profitable. Griffith attempted to do that with an undistinguished tale of Old California, Scarlet Days (1919), and another rural drama partially dealing with spiritualism, The Greatest Question (1919), again starring Lillian Gish and Bobby Harron.

Griffith made another fatal financial decision in purchasing the former Flagler estate on Long Island to create his own production studio. Purchasing the estate, converting it into a film production studio and maintaining the estate and grounds would eat into the future profits from Griffith’s films – profits which would steadily decrease as the decade of the 1920s unfolded. Putting Lillian Gish in charge of studio construction, and hiring her to direct a film starring her sister Dorothy, Griffith took his stock company to Florida. There, he directed two forgettable films, The Idol Dancer and The Love Flower. Griffith’s Florida sojourn made headline news when the boat which he chartered to take him and his cast and crew to the Bahamas for location shooting was delayed by and presumed lost in a hurricane.

Griffith’s career was shadowed by failure and tragedy in 1920. He paid handsomely to film the Edward Sheldon play Romance, which had been a hit in London. The film was actually directed by Griffith’s associate Chet Withey, and turned out to be a huge critical and popular flop. And his leading lady in the Florida films, Clarine Seymour, died in April 1920, from a mysterious operation that may have been a botched abortion.

Way Down East

Lillian Gish and other Griffith colleagues thought he had lost his mind when he paid a very large sum to buy the rights to an old chestnut of the American stage, Way Down East. The melodrama premiered in 1897 and was enormously popular for decades as presented by touring companies. Again starring Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess, with the usual Griffith stock company in support, Way Down East (1920) was a homespun tale of a young woman, Anna (Gish) tricked by a wealthy philanderer, Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman) into a fake marriage. He abandons her when she becomes pregnant. In poignant scenes reminiscent of The Mothering Heart, her baby dies. Wandering onto the Bartlett farm, she is taken in by the family and falls in love with David Bartlett (Barthelmess). Coincidentally, the Bartlett farm is near the Sanderson estate, and the two families are familiar with each other. The intolerance of village gossips brings Anna’s story to Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh) and he orders Anna from his home. She wanders, distraught, through a blizzard and collapses on an ice floe in the frozen rive. Davis struggles to rescue her before she is swept over the falls. She is rescued, of course, and the film ends happily with a triple wedding.

Griffith handled the aged melodrama with wonderful rustic touches, in a story and milieu that, as Richard Schickel wrote, “…went to the simple heart of a simpler time …” The cliffhanger ending had audiences standing and cheering. Famed Soviet director Vsevolod Pudovkin said that the storm and rescue sequence was, “… one of the most powerful achievements of the American cinema.”

The premiere of Way Down East was overshadowed by another tragedy – the death, on the eve of the film’s opening, of Bobby Harron, one of Griffith’s best and most expressive actors. Whether Harron’s death was suicide or an accident is still debated. Billy Bitzer later remarked that Harron’s death marked a symbolic turning point in the Griffith stock company, that in some intangible way the atmosphere was never the same.

Way Down East was another critical and box-office triumph – the greatest that Griffith ever enjoyed. However, the film’s success was marred by disputes with United Artists that revealed the company’s basic flaw: only four filmmakers could not possibly produce enough films to compete with the major Hollywood studios as they were developing in the 1920s.

Griffith, so successful with a well-tried stage melodrama, made the decision to film yet another, even older, play. This was The Two Orphans, which had premiered way back in 1874 and in which Griffith himself appeared as a young actor. Retitled Orphans of the Storm (1921), the crowded plot dealt with two sisters, Louise and Henriette, one of them blind, played by Dorothy and Lillian Gish. Separated when they travel to Paris to find a cure for Louise’s blindness, they survive many complicated adventures before Henriette has to be saved from the guillotine through another ride-to-the rescue by Danton and his followers. The film gave Griffith the opportunity to pillory (almost literally) another hypocritical “reformer”, Robespierre. Orphans of the Storm is a delightful film in every way. The homely little details of 18th-Century French life, the rumbustious performance of Lucille La Verne as the female Fagan, and the strong portrayal of Danton by Monte Blue are all exemplary. The famous recognition scene, in which Henriette hears the voice of her lost, blind sister from a balcony, is one of the film’s strongest assets. Danton’s ride-to-the rescue is more imaginatively filmed, and more exciting, than the ride of the Klan in The Birth of a Nation.

The magnificent Paris sets reportedly inspired French director Abel Gance to make his epic biography of Napoleon. But the film did not grip Griffith’s audiences as emotionally as Way Down East. As a result, Orphans of the Storm turned a modest profit, but nothing as spectacular as the success of Way Down East. Griffith needed a success of those proportions to sustain his production costs and the expense of maintaining his own studio. And Lillian Gish, sick of the continuing rivalry with Carol Dempster for Griffith’s affections, left him.

Griffith was advised to retrench and make a modest, low-budget film. The result was One Exciting Night (1922), starring Carol Dempster and Henry Hull. The film would have come in on time and under budget had Griffith not decided to add a climactic storm sequence costing $250,000. This decision cost Griffith any profits that the film’s modest box office would have provided. Griffith’s next film, The White Rose (1923), was filmed in Florida and Louisiana. Starring Mae Marsh, Carol Dempster and English star Ivor Novello, The White Rose was finished quickly and economically. If Griffith had continued with this pattern, his debts might have been retired and he might have retained a measure of financial solvency.

Instead, he turned to another epic subject – the American Revolution. Harking back to his play War, he wove actual Revolutionary War incidents – Paul Revere’s ride, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the signing of the Declaration of Independence – into a rather flimsy love story, entitled America, involving Neil Hamilton and Carol Dempster. Again, the story focused on the Family theme, this time on two families, one Patriot, the other Loyalist. Griffith had to stretch credibility by making Hamilton a courier for the Patriot cause, thus giving him an excuse to be a witness to the most important events of the Revolution. And, of course, there had to be a patented ride-to-the-rescue, this time to save Dempster from the clutches of the libidinous British Colonel Walter Butler (Lionel Barrymore). America is notable today primarily as Griffith’s last silent epic.

While America certainly generated good box office, most of the profits went to Griffith’s creditors. Journeying to Italy, he toyed with the idea of relocating and starting a new career there under Mussolini’s patronage.

In 1924, Griffith began production on a modestly-budgeted film based on a story by British author Geoffrey Moss. Eventually, ironically, entitled Isn’t Life Wonderful, the story dealt with a family of Polish refugees living in Germany. Again starring Neil Hamilton and Carol Dempster, the film dealt with the family’s struggle for survival in the midst of postwar German inflation and poverty. Harking back to Griffith’s Biograph days, Isn’t Life Wonderful boasted no ride-to-the-rescue or inflated, falsely poetic title cards. The emphasis was, purely and simply, on the family’s devotion and everyday lives. Seen today as Griffith’s last complete artistic success, the film met a lukewarm reception from audiences expecting to see another Griffith “super-picture”.

Contract Director, 1925–1930

Griffith now faced the loss of his studio, and the loss of his financial independence, together with the breakup of his affair with Carol Dempster. He was now an employee of Adolph Zukor and the Famous Players Company, not The Master anymore. In 1925 he completed two undistinguished films starring W.C. Fields and Carol Dempster, Sally of the Sawdust and That Royle Girl. Griffith’s films began to seem old-fashioned and passé in the era of jazz, Prohibition, and “flappers”, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Lost Generation and bathtub gin.

Sorrows of Satan

Just how far Griffith fell in artistry and public esteem in the late 1920s can be judged by what other directors were doing. While Griffith was churning out dreck such as The Sorrows of Satan, Drums of Love, Battle of the Sexes, and Lady of the Pavements, Fritz Lang was making Metropolis, Die Frau im Mond, Spione and M. Sergei Eisenstein was filming Battleship Potemkin and October. King Vidor was directing The Crowd and F.W. Murnau was filming Sunrise. Abel Gance shot Napoleon, with its spectacular final triptych. Carl Dreyer directed The Passion of Joan of Arc. And what must have galled Griffith more than any of these was the fact that Lillian Gish was starring brilliantly in two films directed by Victor Sjöstrom, The Scarlet Letter and The Wind. No wonder that Griffith began to rely more and more on alcohol to calm his nerves.

But in 1929, Griffith was given the chance to direct a film of substance by his new employer, Joseph Schenck, president of United Artists. This would be nothing less than a biography of Abraham Lincoln, a return to the material covered in The Birth of a Nation. The principal screenwriter was Stephen Vincent Benet, a recent Pulitzer Prize winner for his epic Civil War poem, John Brown’s Body. Famed actor Walter Huston was engaged to play Lincoln. Griffith responded to the challenge of his first sound film with enthusiasm and skill. The early rural scenes with Lincoln and Ann Rutledge have a bucolic poetry akin to those in Way Down East. And the depictions of the Battle of Winchester and Sheridan’s Ride, while extraneous to the Lincoln story, have a scale and excitement surpassing those in Birth. The scenes of the Confederate Army’s retreat to Appomattox even brought back Henry B. Walthall as General Robert E. Lee’s faithful aide, Colonel Walter Taylor. In tandem with the release of Abraham Lincoln, The Birth of a Nation was re-released with a recorded soundtrack. Abraham Lincoln was, as Richard Schickel observed, “… the first major historical film of the sound era …” Griffith was thus as great a pioneer of sound film as he had been of silent cinema.

Decline and Fall, 1931–1948

Though Abraham Lincoln was an overwhelming critical success, audiences did not warm to it. After Schenck and United Artists allowed Griffith’s contact to expire, he went to work on an independent production. The Struggle (1931), starring Vaudevillian Hal Skelly and John Houseman’s wife Zita Johann, was a disaster from the beginning. Filmed in cramped conditions in an inadequate New York studio and on the streets of the city, The Struggle was the story of the hero’s struggle with alcoholism … or was it a tirade against Prohibition? The resulting film was a failure in every possible way, though present-day Griffith apologists have tried to depict it as a masterpiece of realism.

And so David Wark Griffith’s career as a film director was over…

According to legend, D.W. Griffith struggled through his final years in poverty, ignored by the film industry he helped to create, and forgotten by the public and his peers. This legend was fostered by Lillian Gish to the end of her very long life. The truth is very different. For one thing, legal and financial maneuvering by Griffith’s attorney cousin, Woodson Oglesby, left Griffith in relative prosperity for the remainder of his life. And he was far from forgotten by the public or by Hollywood. In 1933 he was hired to star in a twice-weekly radio show featuring his reminiscences about the origins of Hollywood. He received a handsome payment for a British remake of Broken Blossoms, but his drunken escapades in London cost him the chance to be involved in any meaningful way.

In 1936, a bitter strike by the writers’, directors’ and actors’ guilds disrupted Hollywood. Frank Capra, President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, sought to bring a temporary truce to the hostilities by inviting Griffith to accept a special award at the Oscars ceremony. He was also tapped to present the Best Actress and Best Actor awards to Bette Davis and Victor McLaglen. Film footage of the rehearsal for the awards ceremony shows Griffith, immaculate in white tie and tails but possibly inebriated. He threatens to hit an obviously angry Bette Davis over the head with her statuette, and then calls for a footstool so he can properly present the Oscar to the towering, embarrassed McLaglen. The Oscar ceremony coincided with Griffith’s marriage to 26 year-old Evelyn Baldwin, after his first wife Linda Arvidson had been callously maneuvered into a Kentucky divorce.

There was a further return to the limelight in 1940, when Hal Roach hired Griffith to assist with casting and other advice with the production of Roach’s prehistoric drama One Million B.C.. Griffith worked on various plays and scenarios that he thought might be worthy of production, and frequently travelled back to Kentucky. That same year, Iris Barry, Curator at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, organised a retrospective showing of Griffith’s major films – the first such honour afforded to any film director. Griffith responded gratefully by donating his papers and copies of his films to MOMA.

Griffith’s marriage with Evelyn unravelled due to his drinking and jealousy, and they divorced in 1947. He died at the Temple Hospital in Hollywood on 24 July 1948, of a cerebral hemorrhage. At his memorial service, Donald Crisp gave a moving tribute before breaking down in tears.

Legacy

During Griffith’s lifetime, other filmmakers freely acknowledged their debt to him. Intolerance energised the imaginations of such Soviet directors as Eisenstein to the possibilities of montage. Abel Gance stated that when he brought his film J’Accuse to the United States in 1921, “Only one opinion mattered to me and that was Griffith’s”. The respect shown to Griffith to the end of his life by such successful Hollywood directors as “Woody” Van Dyke and King Vidor was evidence of their feelings toward him. One does not have to defend Griffith with the unquestioning loyalty of Lillian Gish to acknowledge his influence on so many pioneers of the film world. But it is difficult to distill the essence of that influence.

Other directors and cameramen devised most of the effects that Griffith claimed to have invented. But Griffith expanded the narrative possibilities of those devices beyond what had previously been possible. As Kevin Brownlow said, Intolerance “…sparked off one of the most exciting and concentrated creative eras in the history of art.”

Certainly the strongest element of Griffith’s influence is the way in which he respected his own films as a manifestation of a true new art form. Above and beyond any of the mechanics of photography and editing, this is what stands out. He recognised that film required a new method of acting and a new way of storytelling. In an interview published in the New York Times shortly after the premier of The Birth of a Nation, Griffith stated, speaking of the influence of film, “… the human race will think more rapidly, more intelligently, more comprehensively that it ever did. It will see everything – positively everything. … The time will come, and in less than ten years, when the children in the public schools will be taught practically everything by moving pictures. Certainly they will never be obliged to read history again.”

With Griffith’s naïve belief in the potential of film came an equally naïve blindness to the possibility that the art form could be used for evil ends. To the end of his life, Griffith never acknowledged the harm that he had wrought with The Birth of a Nation. Nevertheless, Griffith’s contribution to the art of film, and his personal dedication to expanding the range of film as an art form, can never be denied.

The essence of Griffith’s art is expressed in the memoirs of his great cameraman, Billy Bitzer. Bitzer said that whenever he judged a particular shot impossible, Griffith would say, “That’s why you have to do it.”

D.W. Griffith (right)

Filmography

1908

The Adventures of Dolly
The Redman and the Child
The Tavern Keeper’s Daughter
A Calamitous Elopement
The Greaser’s Gauntlet
The Man and the Woman
For Love of Gold
The Fatal Hour
For a Wife’s Honor
Balked at the Altar
The Girl and the Outlaw
The Red Girl
Betrayed by a Hand Print
Monday Morning in a Coney Island Police Court
Behind the Scenes
The Heart of O’yama
Where the Breakers Roar
The Stolen Jewels
A Smoked Husband
The Zulu’s Heart
The Vaquero’s Vow
Father Gets in the Game
The Barbarian, Ingomar
The Planter’s Wife
The Devil
The Romance of a Jewess
The Call of the Wild
After Many Years
Mr. Jones at the Ball
Concealing a Burglar
The Taming of the Shrew
The Ingrate
A Woman’s Way
The Pirate’s Gold
The Guerilla
The Curtain Pole
The Song of the Shirt
The Clubman and the Tramp
Money Mad
Mrs. Jones Entertains
The Feud and the Turkey
The Test of Friendship
The Reckoning
One Touch of Nature
An Awful Moment
The Helping Hand
The Maniac Cook
The Christmas Burglars
A Wreath in Time
The Honor of Thieves
The Criminal Hypnotist
The Sacrifice
The Welcome Burglar
A Rural Elopement
Mr. Jones Has a Card Party
The Hindoo Dagger
The Salvation Army Lass
Love Finds a Way
Tragic Love
The Girls and Daddy

1909

Those Boys
The Cord of Life
Trying to Get Arrested
The Fascinating Mrs. Frances
Those Awful Hats
Jones and the Lady Book Agent
The Drive for Life
The Brahma Diamond
The Politician’s Love Story
The Joneses Have Amateur Theatricals
Edgar Allen Poe
The Roue’s Heart
His Wife’s Mother
The Golden Louis
His Ward’s Love
At the Altar
The Prussian Spy
The Medicine Bottle
The Deception
The Lure of the Gown
Lady Helen’s Escapade
A Fool’s Revenge
The Wooden Leg
I Did It, Mama
A Burglar’s Mistake
The Voice of the Violin
And a Little Child Shall Lead Them
The French Duel
Jones and His New Neighbors
A Drunkard’s Reformation
The Winning Coat
A Rude Hostess
The Road to the Heart
The Eavesdropper
Schneider’s Anti-Noise Crusade
Twin Brothers
Confidence
The Note in the Shoe
Lucky Jim
A Sound Sleeper
A Troublesome Satchel
“Tis An Ill Wind That Blows No Good
The Suicide Club
Resurrection
One Busy Hour
A Baby’s Shoe
Eloping With Auntie
The Cricket on the Hearth
The Jilt
Eradicating Auntie
What Drink Did
Her First Biscuits
The Violin Maker of Cremona
Two Memories
The Lonely Villa
The Peach Basket Hat
The Son’s Return
His Duty
A New Trick
The Necklace
The Way of Man
The Faded Lilies
The Message
The Friend of the Family
Was Justice Served?
Mrs. Jones’ Lover, Or I Want My Hat!
The Mexican Sweethearts
The Country Doctor
Jealousy and the Man
The Renunciation
The Cardinal’s Conspiracy
The Seventh Day
Tender Hearts
A Convict’s Sacrifice
A Strange Meeting
Sweet and Twenty
The Slave
They Would Elope
Mr. Jones’ Burglar
The Mended Lute
The Indian Runner’s Romance
With Her Card
The Better Way
His Wife’s Visitor
The Mills of the Gods
Pranks
Oh, Uncle
The Sealed Room
1776, Or the Hessian Renegade
The Little Darling
In Old Kentucky
The Children’s Friend
Comata, the Sioux
Getting Even
The Broken Locket
A Fair Exchange
The Awakening
Pippa Passes
Leather Stockings
Fools of Fate
Wanted, A Child
The Little Teacher
A Change of Heart
His Lost Love
Lines of White on the Sullen Sea
The Gibson Goddess
In the Watches of the Night
The Expiation
What’s Your Hurry
The Restoration
Nursing a Viper
Two Women and a Man
The Light That Came
A Midnight Adventure
The Open Gate
Sweet Revenge
The Mountaineer’s Honor
In the Window Recess
The Trick That Failed
The Death Disc
Through the Breakers
In A Hempen Bag
A Corner in Wheat
The Redman’s View
The Test
A Trap for Santa Claus
In Little Italy
To Save Her Soul
Choosing a Husband
The Rocky Road
The Dancing Girl of Butte
Her Terrible Ordeal
The Call
The Honor of his Family
On the Reef
The Last Deal
One Night and Then –
The Cloister’s Touch
The Woman from Mellon’s
The Duke’s Plan
The Englishman and the Girl

1910

The Final Settlement
His Last Burglary
Taming a Husband
The Newlyweds
The Thread of Destiny
In Old California
The Man
The Converts
Faithful
The Twisted Trail
Gold is Not All
As It Is In Life
A Rich Revenge
A Romance of the Western Hills
Thou Shalt Not
The Way of the World
The Unchanging Sea
The Gold Seekers
Love Among the Roses
The Two Brothers
Unexpected Help
An Affair of Hearts
Ramona
Over Silent Paths
The Implement
In the Season of Buds
A Child of the Ghetto
In the Border States
A Victim of Jealousy
The Face at the Window
The Marked Time-Table
A Child’s Impulse
Muggsy’s First Sweetheart
The Purgation
A Midnight Cupid
What the Daisy Said
A Child’s Faith
The Call to Arms
Serious Sixteen
A Flash of Light
As the Bells Rang Out
An Arcadian Maid
The House with the Closed Shutters
Her Father’s Pride
A Salutary lesson
The Usurer
The Sorrows of the Unfaithful
In Life’s Cycle
Wilful Peggy
A Summer Idyll
The Modern Prodigal
Rose O’Salem Town
Little Angels of Luck
A Mohawk’s Way
The Oath and the Man
The Iconoclast
Examination Day at School
That Chink at Golden Gulch
The Broken Doll
The Banker’s Daughters
The Message of the Violin
Two Little Waifs
Waiter No. 5
The Fugitive
Simple Charity
The Song of the Wildwood Flute
A Child’s Stratagem
Sunshine Sue
A Plain Song
His Sister-In-Law
The Golden Supper
The Lesson
When a Man Loves
Winning Back His Love
His Trust
His Trust Fulfilled
A Wreath of Orange Blossoms
The Italian Barber
The Two Paths
Conscience
Three Sisters
A Decree of Destiny
Fate’s Turning
What Shall We Do With Our Old?
The Diamond Star
The Lily of the Tenements
Heart Beats of Long Ago

1911

Fisher Folks
His Daughter
The Lonedale Operator
Was He A Coward?
Teaching Dad to Like Her
The Spanish Gypsy
The Broken Cross
The Chief’s Daughter
A Knight of the Road
Madame Rex
In the Days of ’49
The Two Sides
Enoch Arden, Part 1
Enoch Arden, part 2
The White Rose of the Wilds
The Crooked Road
A Romany Tragedy
A Smile of a Child
The Primal Call
The Jealous Husband
The Indian Brothers
The Thief and the Girl
Her Sacrifice
The Blind Princess and the Poet
Fighting Blood
The Last Drop of Water
Robby the Coward
A Country Cupid
The Ruling Passion
The Rose of Kentucky
The Sorrowful Example
Swords and Hearts
The Stuff Heroes Are Made Of
The Old Confectioner’s Mistake
The Unveiling
The Eternal Mother
Dan the Dandy
The Revenue Man and the Girl
The Squaw’s Love
Italian Blood
The Making of a Man
Her Awakening
The Adventures of Billy
The Long Road
The Battle
Love in the Hills
The Trail of the Books
Through Darkened Vales
Saved From Himself
A Woman Scorned
The Miser’s heart
The Failure
Sunshine Through the Dark
As in a Looking Glass
A Terrible Discovery
A Tale of the Wilderness
The Voice of the Child
The Baby and the Stork
The Old Bookkeeper
A Sister’s Love
For His Son
The Transformation of Mike
A Blot on the ‘Scutcheon
Billy’s Stratagem
The Sunbeam
A String of Pearls

1912

The Mender of the Nets
Under Burning Skies
A Siren of Impulse
Iola’s Promise
The Goddess of Sagebrush Gulch
The Girl and Her Trust
The Punishment
Fate’s Interception
The Female of the Species
Just Like a Woman
One is Business, the Other Crime
The Lesser Evil
The Old Actor
A Lodging for the Night
His Lesson
When Kings Were the Law
A Beast At Bay
An Outcast Among Outcasts
Home Folks
A Temporary Truce
The Spirit Awakened
Lena and the Geese
An Indian Summer
The Schoolteacher and the Waif
Man’s Lust for Gold
Man’s Genesis
Heaven Avenges
A Pueblo Legend
The Sands of Dee
Black Sheep
The Narrow Road
A Child’s Remorse
The Inner Circle
A Change of Spirit
An Unseen Enemy
Two Daughters of Eve
Friends
So Near, Yet So Far
A Feud in the Kentucky Hills
In the Aisles of the Wild
The One She Loved
The Painted Lady
The Musketeers of Pig Alley
Heredity
Gold and Glitter
My Baby
The Informer
The Unwelcome Guest
Pirate Gold
Brutality
The New York Hat
The Massacre
My Hero
Oil and Water
The Burglar’s Dilemma
A Cry for Help
The God Within
Three Friends
The Telephone Girl and the Lady
Fate
An Adventure in the Autumn Woods
A Chance Deception
The Tender-Hearted Boy
A Misappropriated Turkey
Brothers
Drink’s Lure
Love in an Apartment Hotel

1913

Broken Ways
A Girl’s Stratagem
Near to Earth
A Welcome Intruder
The Sheriff’s Baby
The Hero of Little Italy
The Perfidy of Mary
A Misunderstood Boy
The Little Tease
The Lady and the Mouse
The Wanderer
The House of Darkness
Olaf-An Atom
Just Gold
His Mother’s Son
The Yaqui Cur
The Ranchero’s Revenge
A Timely Interception
Death’s Marathon
The Sorrowful Shore
The Mistake
The Mothering Heart
Her Mother’s Oath
During the Round-Up
The Coming of Angelo
The Indian’s Loyalty
Two Men of the Desert
The Reformers, Or the Lost Art of Minding One’s Business
The Battle at Elderbush Gulch
Brute Force
Judith of Bethulia

1914

The Battle of the Sexes
The Escape
Home, Sweet Home
The Avenging Conscience

1915

The Birth of a Nation

Intolerance

1916

Intolerance

1918

Hearts of the World
The Great Love
The Greatest Thing in Life

1919

A Romance of Happy Valley
The Girl Who Stayed At Home
Broken Blossoms
True Heart Susie
Scarlet Days
The Greatest Question

1920

The Idol Dancer
The Love Flower
Way Down East

1921

Dream Street
Orphans of the Storm

1922

One Exciting Night

1923

The White Rose

1924

America
Isn’t Life Wonderful

1925

Sally of the Sawdust
That Royle Girl

1926

The Sorrows of Satan

1928

Drums of Love
The Battle of the Sexes

1929

Lady of the Pavements

1930

Abraham Lincoln

1931

The Struggle

1940

One Million B.C. (uncredited)

Select Bibliography

Michael Allen, Family Secrets: The Feature Films of D.W. Griffith, British Film Institute, London, 1999.

Richard Barry, “Five Dollar ‘Movies’ Prophesied”, The New York Times, March 28, 1915.

Billy Bitzer, Billy Bitzer: His Story, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, New York, 1973.

Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By, University of California Press, Berkeley/London, 1968.

Sergei Eisenstein and Jay Leda (eds), Film Form, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1949.

Tom Gunning, D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1991.

Gregory S. Jay, “’White Man’s Book No Good’: D.W. Griffith and the American Indian”, Cinema Journal, vol. 39, no. 4, 2000, p. 3–26.

Eric Rhode, A History of the Cinema From Its Origins To 1970, Da Capo Press, New York, 1976.

Richard Schickel, D.W. Griffith: An American Life, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1984.

Scott Simmon, The Films of D.W. Griffith, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993.

Articles in Senses of Cinema

A Corner in Wheat: An Analysis by Erik Ulman

The Unchanging Sea by Paul Harrill

Web Resources

Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Links to many online articles can be found here

Pioneer Film Director Dishonored By Those Who Follow In His Footsteps
Article by Christopher P. Jacobs in High Plains Reader, December 1999–January 2000.

D.W. Griffith’s First Movie
Article by Linda A. Griffith, D.W.’s first wife, written in 1916.

The Greatest Films: The Birth of a Nation
Reviewed by Tim Dirks.

The Outsiders: How D.W. Griffith Paved the Way for Ed Wood
Jesse Walker for Reason Online.

D.W. Griffith
Review of Kino’s D.W. Griffith box set DVD in Bright Lights Film Journal

The Musketeers of Pig Alley
Review of the film

D.W. Griffith (1875-1948)
Article on Griffith’s work

 

About The Author

John Steinle is a museum director in Colorado. He has been fascinated with the movies ever since he got so excited at a screening of Moby Dick when he was six years old that he got sick! He has appeared in many film and video documentaries for the National Park Service and other agencies.