Griffith, D. W. (1875-1948)

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GRIFFITH, D. W. (1875-1948)

David Wark "D. W." Griffith advanced the motion picture from a cheap amusement to an art form. Ironically, this theater-trained dramatist and would-be playwright developed many of the cinematic techniques that lifted the motion picture out of the shadow of the stage and gave it its own language and style.

Griffith began acting in films in 1907 at a salary of five dollars per day working under early director Edwin Porter. Griffith was hesitant to act in films, fearing this could hurt his stage career, but he needed the money. His playwriting background also helped draw him to the movies because he could earn extra money by writing story ideas for films. His story ideas soon landed him a job with the Biograph Company. Between 1908 and 1910, he directed 206 short one-reel films, averaging about two films per week. Each reel of film lasted approximately ten minutes. From 1910 to 1912, Griffith directed 104 two-reel films. Initially, there was resistance in the industry to extending a film beyond one reel. Biograph even released some two-reelers as separate films, such as His Trust, Part I and His Trust, Part II (also referred to as His Trust and His Trust Fulfilled). However, demand from customers to see both parts of a two-reel film together eventually led to the success of the longer films.

Across these hundreds of films can be seen the incremental steps of creating an art form. While early filmmakers such as Porter and the Lumière brothers (Louis and Auguste) used moving cameras, close-up shots, excellent photographic composition, and editing techniques, it was Griffith who understood the use of these techniques to create meaning. Griffith discovered what it meant to use close-up shots juxtaposed with long-range shots or medium shots. Griffith gradually developed his techniques of editing film so that the changes in camera angles, distance from the subject, pace of edits, and sequence of edits all carried meaning for the viewer. Griffith learned to direct the viewer's attention to specific detail in a scene, ensuring that the viewer would be led to specific conclusions related to the plot of the film script. In short, Griffith showed how the filmmaker could gain control over the emotional response that the audience had to a film.

Many of these advances were the result of changing the basic unit around which a film was built—from the individual scene to the individual shot. Early filmmakers relied on the scene as the basic unit of action. Thus, the camera would often capture an entire scene of action in one take. Griffith began using several takes from multiple camera angles to create one scene using each shot to specific advantage. This was, perhaps, his most important contribution to the art.

In 1913, Griffith stretched the running time of a movie to four reels with Judith of Bethulia. He went on to create the first American feature-length film two years later with The Birth of a Nation, which was twelve reels in length. With this film, Griffith brought together for the first time in one film most of the basic cinematic techniques that are still used in modern filmmaking. Still considered to be one of the most remarkable cinematic successes in the history of motion pictures, The Birth of a Nation was as controversial as it was successful (financially and artistically).

The film (based on the 1905 novel The Clansmen by Thomas Dixon) reflected the racial bias of Griffith's upbringing as the son of a Confederate Army officer. As with many of his films, the story line of The Birth of a Nation was built around the ravages of the American Civil War. Griffith emphasized the villainy of a mixed-race character and showed his abhorrence for the romantic intentions that a former slave showed toward the daughter of a white family. In general, he portrayed African Americans as being innately inferior to Caucasians. The "heroes" in the section of the film set in the post-Civil War era were the members of the Ku Klux Klan, a group that grew in power, influence, and infamy in the wake of the film. Due to the inflammatory content of The Birth of a Nation, protests and attempts to censor it were common. However, these only served to further the fame of the film and draw the audience to the theaters. By some estimates, the film, which had an original budget of between $110,000 and $125,000, grossed as much as $50 million during it run at the box office.

Griffith was surprised to be accused of being anti-Negro. He had failed to understand the need for equality among the races, believing it was enough that the film's white characters had treated the African Americans kindly. Still, he seems to have realized the error of his prejudice in the making of his next film, Intolerance (1916), although that film was as big a financial failure as The Birth of a Nation had been a success. Intolerance, which departed from the successful narrative style that Griffith had refined, relied instead on a new technique of montage that wound four stories around each other in order to emphasize the movie's idea or theme of intolerance—at the expense of focusing on telling a specific story. The American audience of 1916 could not cope with the demands of viewing this advanced style, and it has taken decades for film audiences and many filmmakers to become sophisticated enough to begin to appreciate the montage method. Soviet filmmakers did appreciate his innovation, however, and began to use montage techniques to bolster the focus on ideas and emotions in the propaganda films that followed the Russian Revolution.

Griffith participated in the formation of United Artists in 1919, along with Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks. However, his last successful film, Way Down East, was made only two years later in 1921. After that, critics became more hostile as he lost touch with public taste. Griffith finally left United Artists in 1924, due to his own mounting debt and the dismal box office performance of his films. After a monumental failure with The Struggle in 1931, Griffith gave up directing.

While Griffith established many of the modern film techniques, some even way ahead of their time, his subject matter failed to keep up with the changing world of the 1920s and 1930s. He fought losing battles against the star system (which gave prominence and power to the actors), as well as other shifts in the culture of the film industry. He lived his last seventeen years on a remnant of his once vast fortune.

See also:Chaplin, Charlie; Film Industry, History of; Film Industry, Production Process of; LumiÈre, Auguste/LumiÈre, Louis.


Ellis, Jack C. (1979). A History of Film. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

MacIntyre, Diane. (1997-1998). "The D. W. Griffith Canon." <>.

O'Dell, Paul. (1970). Griffith and the Rise of Hollywood. New York: A. S. Barnes.

Parshall, Gerald. (1998). "The First Prince of Babylon." U.S. News & World Report 124(21):58.

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

Williams, Martin. (1980). Griffith: First Artist of the Movies. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stephen D. Perry

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Griffith, D. W. (1875-1948)

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