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David Llewelyn Wark Griffith (January 22 1875 – July 23, 1948) was a premier pioneering American film director. He is best known as the director of the controversial and groundbreaking 1915 film The Birth of a Nation and the subsequent film Intolerance (1916).

Early life

Griffith, of Welsh ancestry, was born in La Grange, Kentuckymarker to Jacob "Roaring Jake" Griffith and Mary Perkins Griffith. His father was a Confederate Army colonel, a Civil War hero, and a Kentuckymarker legislator. D.W. was educated by his older sister, Mattie, in a one-room country school. His father died when he was 7, upon which the family experienced serious financial hardships. At age 14, Griffith's mother abandoned the farm and moved the family to Louisvillemarker where she opened a boarding house, which failed shortly. Griffith left high school to help with the finances, taking a job first in a dry goods store, and, later, in a bookstore.

Griffith began his career as a hopeful playwright but met with little success; only one of his plays was accepted for a performance. Griffith decided to instead become an actor, and appeared in many plays as an extra.

Film career

In 1907, Griffith, still having goals for becoming a successful playwright, went to New York and attempted to sell a script to Edison producer Edwin Porter. Porter rejected Griffith's script, but gave him an acting part in Rescued From An Eagle's Nest Finding his way into the motion picture business, he soon began to direct a huge body of work. In 1908, Griffith accepted an acting job for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, commonly known as Biograph, in New York Citymarker. At Biograph, Griffith's career in the film industry would also change forever. In 1908, Biograph's main director Wallace McCutcheon grew ill, and his son, Wallace McCutcheon, Jr., took his place. McCutcheon, Jr., however, was not able to bring the studio good success. As a result, Biograph head Henry Marvin decided to give Griffith the position; Griffith then made his first movie for the company, The Adventures of Dollie.

Biograph was the first company to shoot a movie in Hollywood, Californiamarker, the film In Old California (1910).

Influenced by the Italian feature film Cabiria (1914), Griffith was convinced that feature films were commercially viable. He produced and directed the Biograph film Judith of Bethulia (1914), one of the earliest feature films to be produced in the United States. However, Biograph believed that longer features were not viable. According to actress Lillian Gish, "[Biograph] thought that a movie that long would hurt [the audience's] eyes".

Because of this, and the film's budget overrun (it cost US$30,000 dollars to produce), Griffith left Biograph and took his whole stock company of actors with him, and joined the Mutual Film Corporation and formed a studio, with Majestic Studio manager Harry Aitken known as Reliance-Majestic Studios (which was later renamed Fine Arts Studio). His new production company became an autonomous production unit partner in Triangle Film Corporation along with Thomas Ince and Keystone Studios' Mack Sennett; the Triangle Film Corporation was headed by Griffith's partner Harry Aitken, who was released from the Mutual Film Corporation and his brother Roy. Through Reliance-Majestic Studios, he produced The Clansman (1915), which would later be known as The Birth of a Nation.
Historically, The Birth of a Nation was the first blockbuster. It is considered important by film historians as one of the first feature length American films (most previous films had been less than one hour long), and arguably it changed the industry standard to one still recognized today. It was enormously popular, breaking box office records, but aroused controversy in the way it expressed the racist views held by many in the era (it depicts Southern pre-Civil War black slavery as benign, and the Ku Klux Klan as a band of heroes restoring order to a post-Reconstruction black-ruled South). Although these views matched the opinions of many American historians of the day (and indeed, long afterwards), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People campaigned against the film, but was unsuccessful in suppressing it. It would go on to become the most successful box office attraction of its time. "They lost track of the money it made," Lillian Gish once remarked in a Kevin Brownlow interview. Among the people who profited by the film was Louis B. Mayer, who bought the rights to distribute The Birth of a Nation in New Englandmarker. With the money he made, he was able to begin his career as a producer that culminated in the creation of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. Margaret Mitchell, who wrote Gone with the Wind, was also inspired by Griffith's Civil War epic .

However, after seeing The Birth of a Nation, audiences in some major northern cities also responded by rioting over the film's racial content. After The Birth of a Nation had run its course in theaters, Griffith would also respond to the negative reception a vast amount of critics gave the film through his next film Intolerance, which dealt with the effects of intolerance in four different historical periods: the Fall of Babylon; the Crucifixion of Christ; the Massacre of the Huguenots; and a modern story. During its release, however, Intolerance was not a financial success; although it had good box office turn-outs, the film did not bring in enough profits to cover the lavish road show that accompanied it. Like The Birth Of A Nation, Griffith put a huge budget into the film's production, which was also a key factor in its failure at the box office. The production partnership was dissolved in 1917, so Griffith went to Artcraft (part of Paramount), then to First National (1919-1920). At the same time he founded United Artists, together with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. At United Artists, Griffith continued to make films, but never could achieve box office grosses as high as either The Birth of a Nation or Intolerance.

Later film career

Though United Artists survived as a company, Griffith's association with it was short-lived, and while some of his later films did well at the box office, commercial success often eluded him. Griffith features from this period include Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921), Dream Street (1921), One Exciting Night (1922) and America (1924). Of these, the first three were successes at the box office.

Griffith was forced to leave United Artists after Isn't Life Wonderful? (1924) failed at the box office, and returned to his job as a director. Griffith made a part-talkie Lady of the Pavements (1929) and only two full-sound films, Abraham Lincoln (1930) and The Struggle (1931). Neither was successful, and he never made another film.

In 1936, director Woody Van Dyke who had worked as Griffith's apprentice on Intolerance, asked Griffith to help him shoot the famous earthquake sequence for San Francisco. Though Griffith was uncredited, the Clark Gable - Jeanette MacDonald - Spencer Tracy blockbuster was the top-grossing film of the year.


He died of cerebral hemorrhage (stroke) in 1948 on the way to a Hollywood hospital, after being discovered unconscious in his room at the Knickerbocker Hotelmarker in Los Angeles, where he had been living alone. There was a large public service in his honor at the Hollywood Masonic Temple, where numerous stars came to pay their last respects. He is buried at Mount Tabor Methodist Church Graveyard in Centerfield, Kentucky. In 1950, The Directors Guild of Americamarker provided a stone and bronze monument for his gravesite.


Motion picture legend Charles Chaplin called Griffith "The Teacher of us All". This sentiment was widely shared. Filmmakers as diverse as John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles have spoken of their respect for the director of Intolerance. Regardless of whether he actually invented new techniques in film grammar, he seems to have been the first to understand how these techniques could be used to create an expressive language, something that would gain popular recognition with the release of The Birth of a Nation (1915). In early shorts such as Biograph's The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) which was the first "Gangster film", we can see how Griffith's attention to camera placement and lighting heighten mood and tension. In making Intolerance the director opened up new possibilities for the medium, creating a form that seems to owe more to music than to traditional narrative.Griffith was honored on a 10-cent postage stamp by the United States issued May 5, 1975.

California Historical Marker marking the site of D.W.
Griffith's movie ranch in Sylmar, CA.

In 1953, the Directors Guild of Americamarker instituted the D.W. Griffith Award, its highest honor. Its recipients included Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, John Huston, Woody Allen, Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock, and Griffith's friend Cecil B. DeMille. On December 15, 1999, however, DGA President Jack Shea and the DGA National Board—without membership consultation (though unnecessary according to DGA's regulations)—announced that the award would be renamed the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award because Griffith's film The Birth of a Nation had "helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes." Francis Ford Coppola and Sidney Lumet, previous recipients of the award, agreed with the guild's decision.

Griffith was a leading character in The Biograph Girl, a 1980 stage musical about the silent film era.

On December 10, 2008 Hollywood Heritage Museummarker hosted a screening of Griffith's earliest films, to commemorate the centennial since his start in film.

On January 22, 2009 the Oldham History Center in La Grange, Kentuckymarker opened a 15 seat theatre in Griffith's honor. The theatre features a library of Griffith films to choose from.

Film preservation

D.W. Griffith has five films preserved in the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". These films are Lady Helen's Escapade (1909), A Corner in Wheat (1909), The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916), and Broken Blossoms (1919).

Selected filmography

See also


Further reading

  • Lillian Gish, The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me (Englewood, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1969)
  • Karl Brown, Adventures with D. W. Griffith (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973)
  • Richard Schickel, D. W. Griffith: An American Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984)
  • Robert M. Henderson, D. W. Griffith: His Life and Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972)
  • William M. Drew, D. W. Griffith’s "Intolerance:" Its Genesis and Its Vision (Jefferson, NJ: McFarland & Company, 1986)
  • Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968)
  • Seymour Stern, An Index to the Creative Work of D. W. Griffith, (London: The British Film Institute, 1944-47)
  • David Robinson, Hollywood in the Twenties (New York: A. S. Barnes & Co, Inc., 1968)
  • Edward Wagenknecht and Anthony Slide, The Films of D. W. Griffith (New York: Crown, 1975)
  • William K. Everson, American Silent Film (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978)
  • Matthew Smith, "American Valkyries: Richard Wagner, D. W. Griffith, and the Birth of Classical Cinema," in Modernism/modernity 15:2 ([871] April 2008), 221-42.

  • Iris Barry and Eileen Bowser, D. W. Griffith: American Film Master (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965)

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