David Wark Griffith

18.08.2011 in09:52 in Film director,stage director -->


David Wark Griffith was born in La Grange, Kentucky on January 22, 1875. After stints as both writer and actor of poetry and plays, Griffith first entered the motion picture industry as an actor for Edison Studios in 1907. He moved over to Biograph in 1908 for the salary of $ 5 a day. Griffith’s work at Biograph would forever change the way movies were made.

Biograph was one of the first motion picture studios in America, when films were sold outright by the foot, and not rented as they are today. Films were silent and no more than one reel in length (a running time of about 12 minutes). At a price of 10-cents a foot, the cost of a reel of film was about $100. When Griffith first came to Biograph, the studio was only selling about 20 copies of each new film and was in poor financial condition.

Biograph was in pressing need of a director. The job was offered to Griffith at an increase in salary, but he was reluctant to take it. He was working steadily and was afraid that if he failed he would lose his job as an actor. Henry Marvin, founder of Biograph, assured Griffith that if he did fail as a director, his acting chores would continue. Griffith reluctantly accepted.

Griffith had only a rudimentary understanding of film making. He knew that film directors were no more than sheepherders, moving the actors from one place to another on the screen. The cameraman was king. Biograph had two: Arthur Marvin, brother of Griffith’s boss, and a German immigrant named G.W. “Billy” Bitzer. When Griffith selected The Adventures of Dollie for his initial plunge, Marvin was assigned to be his cinematographer. Bitzer, in the meantime, offered the novice director all the help that he could.

Both cameramen wanted Griffith to succeed. If he didn’t, chances were that they would be pressed into directing, a move that both considered a demotion.

The Adventures of Dollie was typical of the films of the day. A little girl is kidnapped by a band of roving gypsies and sealed in a water cask. The cask falls off the wagon when crossing a river and the cask, with the little girl inside, is swept down the stream toward a waterfall. In the nick of time the girl is rescued by two boys.

The simple story was filmed by Griffith and Marvin in two days at Sound Beach, Connecticut, in 700 feet (or just under nine minutes of running time). On the surface, the picture looked no better nor no worse than any other Biograph film. But there was something special about it. The Adventures of Dollie sold almost 100 prints — something almost unheard of for a Biograph film.

Griffith’s second film, The Redman and Child did nearly as well and Biograph had found not only a new director, but its salvation as well.

Between 1908 and 1913, Griffith directed hundreds of films for Biograph, yet in the entire time his name never appeared on the credits — nor did those of his actors. The greatest of all the early film actors worked for Biograph: Mary Pickford, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mae Marsh, Harry Carey, Henry B. Walthall, Mack Sennett, Fred Mace, Florence Turner, Constance Talmadge, Donald Crisp, Robert Harron, and others — all got their start with Griffith.

But Griffith was not happy. In his Biograph years he had perfected all the elements of so-called film grammar — cross-cutting, tracking shots, the running insert, flashbacks, and more. He wanted to make longer films, but Biograph fought him all the way.

Biograph was a member of the Motion Picture Patents Company, a trust organized by Thomas Edison and his associates to restrict production of motion pictures to ten companies, to eliminate further competition. Theaters paid a two-dollar weekly fee and and could only exhibit Trust-produced films. Independents who tried to produce their own films were often met with violence.

The Trust had a policy when it came to filmmaking — keep it simple and keep it profitable. One-reel films were profitable and there was no reason to make them longer or more expensive. Griffith did manage to make a number of two-reelers, but it was always under protest from the company.

By 1913, the grip of the Trust was weakening, but not their resistance to change. Griffith decided to leave Biograph and, when he did, he took his stock company of actors with him. Biograph’s decline began the moment Griffith walked out the door. In five years, it was gone.

Griffith, on the other hand, continued to prosper and in 1915 he put forth his most ambitious effort, the twelve-reel destined to be classic Birth of a Nation, based on Thomas Dixon’s southern tilted Civil War era drama. Although highly controversial for its content both then and now….(the climax of the movie is a highly dramatic gathering and riding of the Ku Klux Klan)….the film was an instant sensation. Griffith was hailed as a genius.

He followed this up with another controversial film titled Intolerance in 1916. Although applauded by the critics, this movie met some box office resistance and lost money. The picture followed the action of three modern tales of city life, inter-cut throughout the film. It was perhaps a little too real for audiences of the time.

Griffith from this time on would alternate between more sure fire money makers such as One Exciting Night (1922), and more personally satisfying efforts such as Orphans of the Storm (1922). He was one of the founders of United Artists in 1919. But toward the end of the 1920s, Griffith’s movies was slowly sinking into oblivion. In the glitter of the Jazz Age, his filmmaking was considered hopelessly old-fashioned.

He moved to New York and his movies lost even more appeal for mainstream audiences. His last picture, “The Struggle”, was made in 1931 and played in theaters only a week before being withdrawn. Griffith returned to Kentucky and his family. Then, in 1940, comedy producer Hal Roach summoned Griffith back to Hollywood to “supervise” the making of “One Million B.C.”, a remake of one of his old Biograph films about primitive man. Although he was to act as only a consultant, the autocratic Griffith tried to take over the whole production and was dismissed.