Biography of Filmmakers and Moviemakers: D.W. Griffith

About the American filmmaker D.W. Griffith, biography and history of the director.

D. W. Griffith (1875-1948). In the productions of David Wark Griffith can be found the origins or development of many basic principles of filmcraft. Cecil B. De Mille called Griffith "the master of us all."

Griffith was born in La Grange, Ky., January 23, 1875, the son of a famous Confederate colonel known as "Roaring Jake." After receiving a country school education, young Griffith acted for several years in stock companies as "Lawrence Griffith." Determined to be a playwright, he sold one play, but it was a failure. In desperation, he took an acting job at the Thomas A. Edison studio in New York, making his debut as the hero of Rescued from an Eagle's Nest (1907), directed by Edwin S. Porter. Within a few months, he made his directorial debut at American Biograph with The Adventures of Dollie (1908). Nearly 500 one-reelers of increasing excellence followed.

Porter, as early as 1903, had used close-ups as well as crosscutting between scenes of parallel action to further suspense. Griffith improved these devices and added innovations of his own. Leaving Biograph in 1913, he became director-general of the Reliance-Majestic Studios in California. During 1915-1916, he headed the Triangle-Fine Arts studios.

The Birth of a Nation (1915), his most celebrated picture, was made independently at the unprecedented cost of $100,000. Griffith directed this Civil War epic without a script, improvising freely throughout. It was the 1st movie to be shown at $2 admission prices, and it eventually grossed $50 million. This film was resented in some quarters because it depicted the Ku Klux Klan in a favorable light, but its influence upon directorial techniques was tremendous. Griffith's massive spectacle, Intolerance (1916)--possibly the greatest of all films--failed financially. Four stories from different periods of history were told together through intricate intercutting. Its Babylonian city was the largest set ever built.

Griffith cofounded United Artists Corp. in 1919, with his famed Broken Blossoms (1919) as the 1st release. More outstanding Griffith films followed, including Way Down East (1921) and Orphans of the Storm (1922). Griffith developed innumerable stars and directors including Lillian Gish, H. B. Walthal, Mae Marsh, Raoul Walsh, Erich von Stroheim, and Tod Browning.

By 1927, Griffith's concepts seemed almost Victorian. His 1st "talkie," Abraham Lincoln (1930), was successful; but the next, The Struggle (1931), was a disaster from which he never recovered. He returned briefly in 1940 as associate producer of One Million B.C., but otherwise found no employment in the film industry during the 2 decades that preceded his death on July 23, 1948.

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