D.W.Griffith (1875-1948)


D.W.Griffith was one of the original prime movers of the movie industry. Movies began as both a workmanlike tinkering into the nature of portrait art and a scientific sudy of motion. Neither approach suggested the story-making potential of the medium.

Yet early on, the artisans managed to harness scientific tools to better render reality, which meant there was a need to develop a cinematic language whereby individual shots might relate to one another, as well as more stylish techniques. early film makers had to establish a method for telling stories, and audiences had to learn how to interpret the stories and drive the commercial engine making it all possible. The movies required a champion-and D.W.Griffith was to fulfill this role.

Griffith began life as the son of a Confederate army Civil War hero, far from the US cultural centers of New York and Los Angeles. He grew up in the Old South during its lengthy economic struggle to confront an urban world, helping him form a very conservative, and Christian, world view. Smitten with the actor's bug, he set out in 1897 to be a performer and writer for the stage but, having enjoyed only limited success, he began acting in motion pictures for Edwin S. Porter at the Edison Company. Not greatly enamored of the short performances possible in single-reel movies of the day, Griffith turned to filmmaking with American Mutoscope and Biograph Co., where he directed hundreds of shorts between 1908 and 1915. It was during this stage of extraordinary output and experimentation that Griffith began establishing a sure hand with the basic syntax of movies, enabling him to transform this screen language into a series of popular, and still surviving, short films. Three Griffith gems from this period-'The Lonely Villa' and 'A Corner in Wheat' in 1909, and 'The Musketeers of Pig Alley' in 1912- helped promote the use of flashbacks, iris shots, and crosscuts as a means of expressing simultaneous activities with clearly defined heroes and villains.

In 1910 Griffith discovered a little village in California in which to shoot many of the Biograph films, including 'In Old California'. The weather was good and there was room for expansion. The village was known as Hollywood. He and the pioneers at Biograph turned Hollywood from a small farming town into the movie and entertainment capital of the world.

Griffith directed 'The Birth of a Nation' in 1915, his technically masterful Civil War and Reconstruction era epic, sketching the plight of a white Southern family as it endures the tragedy of losing a war and finding subsequent peace before re-emerging through the Ku Klux Klan. The next year saw 'Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages', a test of both cinematic storytelling technique and audiences' ability to follow along.

Griffith's reputation often rests on these two films, but there were later works, too, including 'The Mother and the Law' in 1919, 'Way Down East' in 1920, 'The Sorrows of Satan' in 1926, and 'Abraham Lincoln' in 1930. Along the way, in 1920, he helped establish United Artists with Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford. Although his career largely pre-dated the modern movie machine, Griffith was awarded an honorary Academy Award in 1936, and an honorary lifetime membership in the relatively new directors Guild of America.

Griffith died in 1948, having retired in the early 1930's. He is remembered today largely as the film maker of some of the earliest and, in retrospect, most racist, screen epics.