Bitzer, Billy

views updated May 17 2018


Cinematographer. Nationality: American. Born: Johan Gottlieb Wilhelm Bitzer in Roxbury, Massachusetts, 21 April 1872; brother of the photographer John C. Bitzer. Education: Trained as silversmith: studied electrical engineering, Cooper Union, New York. Family: Married Ethel (Bitzer), son: Eden Griffith Bitzer. Career: 1894—joined Magic Introduction Company, later called American Mutoscope, then Biograph Company, and photographed (with Laurie Dickson); projected first Mutoscope films, shown in 1896; in the next dozen years photographed many newsreel and popular interest subjects; 1908—first film shot for D. W. Griffith, A Calamitous Elopement: shot most of Griffith's films until 1924 (in Hollywood after 1913); 1926—founder, International Photographers of the Motion Picture Industries (twice president); worked in a New York photographic shop in late 1930s; 1939—began assembling old cameras and restoring film prints and documents for Museum of Modern Art. Died: Of heart disease, Woodland Hills, California, 29 April 1944.

Films as Cinematographer:


William McKinley at Canton, Ohio; Hard Wash


President McKinley's Inauguration; Mutoscope Shorts


U.S.S. Maine, Havana Harbor; Spanish-American War Scenes


Jim Jeffries-Jim Sharkey Fight; Ambulance Corps Drill; Children Feeding Ducklings; How Ducks Are Fattened; Train on Jacob's Ladder, Mt. Washington; Frankenstein Trestle, White Mts.; Canadian Pacific Railroad Shots; Union Pacific Railroad Shots; The Picturesque West


Galveston Hurricane Shots; Polo Games, Brooklyn; The Interrupted Message (+ d, sc); Tough Kid's Waterloo; Grand Trunk Railroad Scenes; Water Duel; Love in the Suburbs; Last Alarm; U.S. Naval Militia; Council Bluffs to Omaha—Train Scenic; Childhood's Vow; At Breakneck Speed (Fall River, Mass.)


Middies Shortening Sail; Boats under Oars; Pan-American Exposition Electric Tower; Union Pacific Railroad Scenes; In the Grazing Country; Fattened for the Market


St. Louis Exposition


I Want My Dinner; N.Y. City Fire Dept.; American Soldier in Love and War; Boy in the Barrel; Dude and the Burglar; Don't Get Gay with Your Manicure; Model Courtship; Jeffries-Corbett Fight (restaged); Happy Hooligan Earns His Dinner; How Mike Got the Soap in His Eyes; In the N.Y. Subway; Kidnapper; Physical Culture Girls; Poor Old Fido; President T. R. Roosevelt, July 4th; Professor of the Drama; Pajama Girl; Sweets for the Sweet; Shocking Incident; She Fell Fainting in His Arms; Too Ardent Lover; Unprotected Female; Unfaithful Wife; Wages of Sin; Widow; Willie's Camera; Why Foxy Grandpa Escaped Ducking; Weighing the Baby; You Will Send Me to Bed, Eh?


Auto Boat on the Hudson; Vanderbilt Cup Auto Race; Holland Submarine Torpedo Boat; Children in the Surf; Coney Island Police Patrol Chicken Thief; First Baby; Hero of Liao Yang; Judge Alton B. Parker; Lost Child; Moonshiners; Person; Racing the Chutes at Dreamland; Seashore Baby; Slocum Disaster; Speed Test of Tarantula; Swimming Class; Two Bottle Babies; Widow and the Only Man


Al Treleor Muscle Exercises; Athletic Girl and Burglar; Auto Races, Ormonde, Fla.; Ballroom Tragedy; Barnstormers; Between the Dances; Chauncy Explains; Country Courtship; Dream of the Racetrack Fiend; Deer Stalking with Camera; Departure of Train from Station; Deadwood Sleeper; Everybody Works but Father; Firebug; Flight of Ludlows Aerodrome; Fun on the Joy Line; Gee, If Me Mudder Could See Me; Gossipers; Great Jewel Mystery; Henpecked Husband; His Move; Horse Thief; Impossible Convicts; Kentucky Feud; Leap Frog Railway; Ludlow's Aeroplane; Lifting the Lid; Mobilizing Mass. State Troops; Moose Hunt in Canada; Mystery of the Jewel Casket; Nan Paterson's Trial; Oslerizing Papa; Pipe Dream; Quail Shooting; Pinehurst; Reuben in the Subway; River Pirates; Reception of British Fleet; Salmon Fishing, Quebec; Sparring at N.Y. Athletic Club; Simple Life; Spirit of '76; Trout Fishing, Rangeley Lakes; Turkey Hunt, Pinehurst; Two Topers; Under the Bamboo Tree; Wine Opener; Wedding; Wrestling, N.Y. Athletic Club


At the Monkey House; Black Hand; Country Schoolmaster; Critic; Dr. Dippy's Sanitarium; Fox Hunt; Friend in Need Is Friend Indeed; Gateway to the Catskills; Grand Hotel to Big Indian; Hallroom Boys; Holdup of Rocky Mt. Express; In the Haunts of Rip Van Winkle; In the Heart of the Catskills; Lighthouse; Married for Millions; Masqueraders; Mr. Butt-In; Mr. Hurry-Up; Night of the Party; Paymaster; Poughkeepsie Regatta; San Francisco; Society Ballooning; Subpoena Server; Trial Marriages; Through Austin Glen; Valley of Esopus; Village Cut-Up


Crayono; Deaf-Mutes Ball; Dr. Skinum; Elopement; Falsely Accused; Fencing Master; Fights of Nations; Hypnotist's Revenge; If You Had a Wife Like This; Jamestown Exposition; Love Microbe; Model's Ma; Mrs. Smithers' Boarding School; Neighbors; Professional Jealousy; Rube Brown inTown; Tenderloin Tragedy; Terrible Ted; Truants; Under the Old Apple Tree; Wife Wanted; Yale Laundry


Bobby's Kodak; Classmates; Lonesome Junction; Snowman; Boy Detective; Princess in the Vase; Yellow Peril; Caught by Wireless; Famous Escape; Her First Adventure; Old Isaacs, the Pawnbroker; His Day of Rest; Hulda's Lovers; King of the Cannibal Islands; King's Messenger; Mixed Babies; Music Master; Romance of an Egg; Sculptor's Nightmare; When Knights Were Bold; At the French Ball; Invisible Fluid; Man in the Box; Night of Terror; 'Ostler Joe; Outlaw; Over the Hills to the Poorhouse; Thompson's Night Out; Black Viper; Fight for Freedom; Kentuckian; A Calamitous Elopement; Deceived Slumming Party; The Man and the Woman; Betrayed by a Handprint; Monday Morning in a Coney Island Police Court; Smoked Husband; The Stolen Jewels; Where the Breakers Roar; The Zulu's Heart; The Barbarian, Ingomar; Concealing a Burglar; The Devil; Father Gets in the Game; Mr. Jones at the Ball; The Planter's Wife; Romance of a Jewess; Vaquero's Vow; After Many Years; The Guerilla; The Ingrate; Money Man; Pirate's Gold; Song of the Shirt; Taming of the Shrew; The Christmas Burglars; The Clubman and the Tramp; The Feud and the Turkey; The Reckoning; The Test of Friendship; Valet's Wife; The Curtain Pole; Mrs. Jones Entertains; The Maniac Cook; A Wreath in Time; The Honor of Thieves; The Criminal Hypnotist; The Sacrifice; The Welcome Burglar; A Rural Elopement; Mrs. Jones Has a Card Party; The Hindoo Dagger; The Salvation Army Lass; Love Finds a Way; Tragic Love; The Girls and a Daddy


Those Boys; The Cord of Life; Trying to Get Married; The Fascinating Mrs. Frances; Those Awful Hats; Jones and the Lady Book Agent; The Drive for Life; The Brahma Diamond; The Politician's Love Story; The Jones Have Amateur Theatricals; Edgar Allan Poe; The Roue's Heart; His Ward's Love; At the Altar; The Prussian Spy; The Medicine Bottle; The Deception; The Lure of the Gown; Lady Helen's Escapade; A Fool's Revenge; The Wooden Leg; I Did It, Mama; A Burglar's Mistake; The Voice of the Violin; A Little Child Shall Lead Them; The French Duel; Jones and His New Neighbors; A Drunkard's Reformation; The Winning Coat; A Rude Hostess; The Eavesdropper; Confidence; Lucky Jim; A Sound Sleeper; A Troublesome Satchel; 'Tis an Ill Wind; The Suicide Club; Resurrection; One Busy Hour; A Baby's Shoe; Eloping with Auntie; The Cricket on the Hearth; The Jilt; Eradicating Auntie; What Drink Did; Her First Biscuit; The Violin Maker of Cremona; Two Memories; The Lonely Villa; The Peach-Basket Hat; The Son's Return; His Duty; A New Trick; The Necklace; The Way of Man; The Faded Lillies; The Message; The Friend of the Family; Was Justice Served?; Mrs. Jones' Lover; The Mexican Sweetheart; The Country Doctor; Jealousy and the Man; The Renunciation; The Cardinal's Conspiracy; The Seventh Day; Tender Hearts; A Convict's Sacrifice; Sweet and Twenty; The Slave; They Would Elope; Mrs. Jones' Burglar; The Mended Lute; Indian Runner's Romance; With Her Card; The Better Way; His Wife's Visitor; The Mills of the Gods; Oh, Uncle!; The Sealed Room; 1776, or Hessian Renegades; The Little Darling; In Old Kentucky; The Children's Friend; Comata, The Sioux; Getting Even; The Broken Locket; A Fair Exchange; The Awakening; Pippa Passes; Leather Stocking; Fools of Fate; Wanted, a Child; The Little Teacher; A Change of Heart; His Lost Love; Lines of White on the Sullen Sea; The Gibson Goddess; In the Watches of the Night; The Expiation; What's Your Hurry?; The Restoration; Nursing a Viper; Two Women and a Man; The Light That Came; A Midnight Adventure; The Open Gate; Sweet Revenge; The Mountaineer's Honor; In the Window Recess; The Trick that Failed; The Death Disk; Through the Breakers; In a Hempen Bag; A Corner in Wheat; The Redman's View; The Test; A Trap for Santa Claus; In Little Italy; To Save Her Soul; Choosing a Husband; The Rocky Road; The Dancing Girl of Butte; Her Terrible Ordeal; The Call; The Honor of the Family; On the Reef; The Last Deal; One Night and Then—; The Cloister's Touch; The Woman from Mellon's; The Duke's Plan; The Englishman and the Girl


The Final Settlement; His Last Burglary; Taming a Husband; The Newlyweds; The Thread of Destiny; In Old California; The Man; The Converts; Faithful; The Twisted Trail; Gold Is Not All; As It Is in Life; A Rich Revenge; Romance of the Western Hills; Thou Shalt Not; The Way of the World; The Unchanging Sea; The Gold Seekers; The Two Brothers; Unexpected Help; Ramona; Over Silent Paths; The Impalement; In the Season of Buds; A Child of the Ghetto; In the Border States; A Victim of Jealousy; The Face at the Window; The Marked Timetable; A Child's Impulse; Muggsy's First Sweetheart; The Purgation; A Midnight Cupid; What the Daisy Said; A Child's Faith; The Callto Arms; Serious Sixteen; A Flash of Light; As the Bells Rang Out; The Arcadian Maid; House with the Closed Shutters; Her Father's Pride; A Salutary Lesson; The Usurer; Sorrows of the Unfaithful; In Life's Cycle; Wilful Peggy; A Summer Idyll; The Modern Prodigal; Rose o' Salem Town; Little Angels of Luck; A Mohawk's Way; The Oath and the Man; The Iconoclast; Examination Day at School; That Chink in Golden Gulch; The Broken Doll; The Banker's Daughters; The Message of the Violin; Two Little Waifs; Waiter No. 5; The Fugitive; Simple Charity; Song of the Wildwood Flute; A Child's Strategem; Sunshine Sue; A Plain Song; His Sister-in-Law; The Golden Supper; The Lesson; When a Ma Loves; Winning Back His Love; His Trust; His Trust Fulfilled; A Wreath of Orange Blossoms; The Italian Barber; The Two Paths; Conscience; Three Sisters; A Decree of Destiny; Fate's Turning; What Shall We Do with Our Old?; The Diamond Star; The Lily of the Tenements; Heart Beats of Long Ago


Fisher Folks; His Daughter; The Lonedale Operator; Was He a Coward?; Teaching Dad to Like Her; The Spanish Gypsy; The Broken Cross; The Chief's Daughter; A Knight of the Road; Madame Rex; His Mother's Scarf; How She Triumphed; In the Days of '49; The Two Sides; The New Dress; Enoch Arden (2 parts); The White Rose of the Wilds; The Crooked Road; A Romany Tragedy; A Smile of the Child; The Primal Call; The Jealous Husband; The Indian Brothers; The Thief and the Girl; Her Sacrifice; Blind Princess and the Poet; The Last Drop of Water; Bobby the Coward; A Country Cupid; The Ruling Passion; The Rose of Kentucky; The Sorrowful Example; Sword and Hearts; TheStuff Heroes Are Made Of; Old Confecioner's Mistake; The Unveiling; The Eternal Mother; Dan the Dandy; Revenue Man and the Girl; The Squaw's Love; Italian Blood; The Making of a Man; Her Awakening; The Adventures of Billy; The Long Road; The Battle; Love in the Hills; The Trail of the Books; Through Darkened Vales; Saved from Himself; A Woman Scorned; The Miser's Heart; The Failure; Sunshine through the Dark; As in a Looking-Glass; A Terrible Discovery; The Voice of the Child; A Tale of the Wilderness; The Baby and the Stork; The Old Bookkeeper; A Sister's Love; For His Son; The Transformation of Mike; A Blot on the Scutcheon; Billy's Strategem; The Sunbeam; A String of Pearls; The Root of Evil


The Mender of the Nets; Under Burning Skies; A Siren of Impulse; Iola's Promise; The Goddess of Sagebrush Gulch; The Girl and Her Trust; The Punishment; Fate's Interception; The Female of the Species; Just Like a Woman; One Is Business, the Other Crime; The Lesser Evil; The Old Actor; A Lodging for the Night; His Lesson; When Kings Were the Law; A Beast at Bay; An Outcast among Outcasts; Home Folks; A Temporary Truce; The Spirit Awakened; Lena and the Geese; An Indian Summer; The Schoolteacher and the Waif; Man's Lust for Gold; Man's Genesis; Heaven Avenges; A Pueblo Legend; The Sands of Dee; Black Sheep; The Narrow Road; A Child's Remorse; The Inner Circle; An Unseen Enemy; Two Daghters of Eve; Friends; So Near Yet So Far; A Feud in the Kentucky Hills; In the Aisles of the Wild; The One She Loved; The Painted Lady; The Musketeers of Pig Alley; Heredity; Gold and Glitter; My Baby; The Informer; Brutality; The New York Hat; My Hero; The Burglar's Dilemma; A Cry for Help; The God Within; The Unwelcome Guest; Pirate Gold; The Massacre; Oil and Water; Three Friends; The Telephone Girl and the Lady; Fate; Adventure in the Autumn Woods; A Chance Deception; The Tenderhearted Boy; A Misappropriated Turkey; Brothers; Drink's Lure; Love in an Apartment Hotel


Broken Ways; A Girl's Strategem; Near to Earth; A Welcome Intruder; The Sheriff's Baby; The Hero of Little Italy; The Perfidy of Mary; A Misunderstood Boy; The Little Tease; The Lady and the Mouse; The Wanderer; The House of Darkness; Olaf, an Atom; His Mother's Son; Just Gold; The Gold; The Yaqui Cur; The Ranchero's Revenge; A Timely Interception; Death's Marathon; The Sorrowful Shore; The Mistake; The Mothering Heart; Her Mother's Oath; During the Roundup; The Coming of Angelo; An Indian's Loyalty; Two Men of the Desert


In Prehistoric Days; Judith of Bethulia; The Battle at Elderbush Gulch; The Battle of the Sexes; The Escape; Home, Sweet Home; The Avenging Conscience


The Birth of a Nation




Hearts of the World; The Great Love; The Greatest Thing in Life


A Romance in Happy Valley; The Girl Who Stayed Home; True-Heart Susie; Scarlet Days; Broken Blossoms ; The Greatest Question


The Idol Dancer; The Love Flower; Way Down East


The White Rose




Drums of Love; The Battle of the Sexes


Lady of the Pavements


By BITZER: book—

Billy Bitzer: His Story, New York, 1973.

By BITZER: article—

"I Remember," in Cine-Technician (London), September/October 1944.

On BITZER: articles—

Owen, Kenneth, "The Man Behind," in Photoplay (New York), August 1915.

Sterling, Philip, in New Theatre (New York), April 1937.

Arnheim, Rudolph, in Intercine (Rome), January 1938.

Stern, S., in Films in Review (New York), October 1952.

Image (Rochester, New York), March 1958.

Mitchell, George J., "Billy Bitzer, Pioneer and Innovator," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), December 1964.

Lightman, Herb A., "The Film Artistry of D. W. Griffith and Billy Bitzer," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), January 1969.

Focus on Film (London), no. 13, 1973.

Silent Picture (London), no. 18, 1973.

Spehr, Paul, in Backstage, 12 November 1976.

Williams, Martin, in Griffith: First Artist of the Movies, New York, 1980.

Gish, Lillian, "Griffith et Billy Bitzer," in Cinématographe (Paris), June 1981.

Brown, Karl, in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), January 1983.

Schickel, Richard, in D. W. Griffith, London, 1984.

McDonough, T., "Tender Is the Light," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), April 1984.

Turconi, Davide, "'Hic sunt leones': The First Decade of American Film Comedy," in Griffithiana, September 1996.

* * *

Billy Bitzer's career as a cinematographer spanned the silent film era, and his development as a cameraman provides a history of early filmmaking. Because he worked primarily with D. W. Griffith, the foremost director in silent film, he is permanently linked with Griffith in film history. The two worked so closely together that their collaboration amounted to a kind of partnership, one that produced the most outstanding films of the 1910s, among them Broken Blossoms, Intolerance, The Birth of a Nation, and Judith of Bethulia. In the 1920s, however, with the exception of Way Down East (1920), Griffith's career declined, as did Bitzer's. In addition to cultural changes brought on by World War I there were changes in cinematic style: German expressionism proved incompatible in content and technique with Griffith and Bitzer, who did not adapt well to a changed movie industry.

A former electrician with the Magic Introduction Company, Bitzer became a photographer when the company acquired the Mutoscope camera and changed its name to American Mutoscope and then Biograph. Among his earliest newsreels were William McKinley's receiving the presidential nomination in Canton, Ohio, and the Jim Jeffries-Jack Sharkey championship prizefight—he used 40 lights over the ring. He began making short fiction films in 1900 (he wrote, photographed, and directed The Interrupted Message, his first film). When Griffith came to Biograph, Bitzer had quite a bit of experience. When the two began working together in 1908, however, both men had to become cinematographic students in order to shoot the complex narratives Griffith had designed. Although Bitzer has been credited with the creation of the close-up, soft-focus photography, the iris shot, the fade-out, and backlighting, many of these techniques had been used before (Griffith credited Georges Méliès with some of these innovations); but Bitzer and Griffith were the first team to use these techniques to advance and enhance the narrative. Some of the cinematic "effects" were the results of accidents or mistakes; in his autobiography Bitzer recounts the accidental-discovery story of double exposure, as well as of the "reverse light" effect. He learned to shoot into the sun using a shaded lens, used the close-up to advance the narrative in The Mender of Nets, and, after Hendrik Sartov, a special effects photographer, joined the Griffith team, achieved the soft-focus effect which made Broken Blossoms an artistic triumph—the diffused, softened lighting on the Chinese rescuer is contrasted with the documentary photography accorded Battling Burrows. His first use of backlighting was in The Politician's Love Story, and he used Rembrandt lighting and profile portrait-effect in Edgar Allan Poe, fireside-light in A Drunkard's Reformation, parallel-action montage in The Lonely Villa, and morning-light effect in Pippa Passes. Sartov's arrival, however, heralded the beginning of Bitzer's decline. As he noted in his autobiography, "With the entrance of Sartov, I became the pupil." Sartov received cinematography credit for Griffith's Dream Street, and after Way Down East Bitzer was only one of several cameramen on the last five Griffith films.

—Thomas L. Erskine

Billy Bitzer

views updated May 21 2018

Billy Bitzer

Often associated with the success of film director D.W. Griffith, pioneer silent film cameraman Billy Bitzer (1872-1944) is credited with having discovered or improved upon many cinematic techniques.

Billy Bitzer was born John William Bitzer in Roxbury, Massachusetts, on April 21, 1872. He was baptized Johann Gottlieb Wilhelm Bitzer, adopted George William as his formal name, and was known as Billy or G.W. during his career in film. His parents, Johann Martin and Anne Marie (Schmidt) Bitzer, were German immigrants who had settled in the Roxbury section of Boston, where his father worked as a blacksmith and harness maker. Bitzer's younger brother was photographer John C. Bitzer.

Began Filming Newsreels

Bitzer was trained as a silversmith, but in his early twenties he worked as an electrician in New York City. He took night classes at Cooper Union, studying electrical engineering. In the mid-1890s Bitzer went to work for Magic Introduction Company, which soon became American Mutoscope and then Biograph Company. This early motion picture enterprise produced movies and made cameras, projection equipment, and flip-card viewing machines. Initially hired as an electrician, Bitzer took on the role of photographer and began filming newsreels when Magic Introduction Company acquired Mutoscope Camera.

Among the big events Bitzer filmed early in his career at Biograph Company was the presidential nomination of William McKinley on McKinley's front lawn in Canton, Ohio. This film was shown on Biograph Company's first program in 1896. He was the projectionist at the premier showing of the company's motion pictures in October of that year. Capturing footage of the Spanish-American War, Bitzer became the first cameraman to shoot a war in motion picture. He filmed USS Maine, Havana Harbor in 1898 for the William Randolph Hearst organization. Another early accomplishment was Bitzer's lighting of the boxing match between Jim Jeffries and Tom Sharkey in 1899. Using more than 40 lights over the ring, Bitzer took credit for the first successful artificially-lighted indoor film.

Bitzer's first short fiction movies were shot in 1900. His initial effort, The Interrupted Message, was a film Bitzer wrote, photographed, and directed himself. He soon became the head cameraman for Biograph Company, photographing films both for projection and for the Mutoscope flip-card viewers. As a cinematographer, he was responsible for the lighting and photographing of images in the making of a film. Cinematography developed as a separate craft early in the history of film, and Bitzer rose to prominence and was regarded as a leader in his field.

Teamed With Griffith

Actor D.W. Griffith turned to directing at Biography Company in 1908. He teamed with Bitzer to form the best-known director-cameraman pair in the history of American film. As close as brothers, the two men had chemistry unmatched in the industry. Griffith's intricate stories were brought to life by Bitzer's photography, and their creative force involved some tension amidst the harmony. Despite their occasional differences, the duo's collaboration lasted 16 years. Their work demonstrated the potential of film as an art form.

New Cinematic Techniques

Bitzer and Griffith's movie-making partnership fostered the development of numerous cinematic techniques. Bitzer's soft-focus photography involved the use of a light-diffusion screen in front of the camera lens, thereby softening the subject. The pair's Broken Blossoms (1919) employed diffused, softened lighting with this method and made the film an artistic success.

As one of the first photographers in film to effectively use perspective, Bitzer improved the way close-ups and long shots were handled. He was also a pioneer in lighting, using sunshine and firelight as special effects in his photography. Bitzer was the first cinematographer to shoot a film using entirely artificial lighting, thus ending the need to rely on natural light.

The iris shot is Bitzer's best-known innovation. This technique involves the frame slowly opening in a widening circle as a scene begins, or slowly blacking out in a shrinking circle to end a scene. This process was used throughout Griffith and Bitzer's Civil War epic masterpiece The Birth of a Nation (1915), and extensively in Intolerance (1916). Both of these films are considered to be among the most brilliant of the 1910s.

Collapse of a Partnership

Despite great success during that era, the film industry began to change and Griffith and Bitzer did not adjust well. World War I spawned cultural changes in the United States, and German expressionism in film was incompatible with the duo's style. Griffith began to recruit younger cameramen to work with his chief cinematographer. This was especially offensive to Bitzer, as he had remained with Griffith during difficult financial times, sacrificing his salary to help potentially successful films to be completed. As a veteran, Bitzer did not appreciate Griffith's hiring of 16-year-old Karl Brown to assist him. The young newcomer recalled the friction this caused between Griffith and Bitzer in his book Adventures with D.W. Griffith: "I was young and ignorant, and I had no reputation to maintain or protect; I could fail repeatedly and it didn't matter because nobody expected me to do anything else but fail. But if I should just happen accidentally to make something good enough to go into a Griffith picture, I was a genius, no less, at least for that one brief moment. But if Bitzer ever failed at all to produce his incomparable best, such as one scene out of a thousand that was not quite superlatively fine, then the old man was slipping and it would be well to look around for a replacement to have handy just in case."

When special effects cameraman Hendrik Sartov was hired by Griffith in 1919, Bitzer was forced to share his billing. Sartov's forte was a soft focus close-up which very much impressed Griffith. Bitzer's once-thrilling techniques were no longer moving. Brown noted Bitzer's disappointment in Adventures, "And now Griffith had brought in Sartov to make a fool of Bitzer at his own specialty, the big beautiful close-ups of Lillian Gish. This must have been a real crusher for Bitzer, who had taken Griffith under his wing back in the old Biograph days and had patiently taught Griffith which end of the camera took the pictures."

Bitzer became depressed and began drinking and disappearing for days at a time. He recalled those days in his biography Billy Bitzer: His Story, "With the entrance of Sartov, I became the pupil." Another nail in the filmmaking duo's coffin was Griffith's insistence on creating a star out of Carol Dempster. An actress of questionable talent, Dempster was Griffith's leading lady in numerous films, all of which Bitzer reluctantly photographed. He disliked Dempster and resented the attention Griffith lavished on her, but the team continued to work together through the making of Griffith's last silent film, Lady of the Pavements (1926).

Union Organizer

Bitzer founded the International Photographers of the Motion Picture Industry in New York in 1926. He held the union's presidency twice. The union later became the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Since 1975 an annual Billy Bitzer Commendation Award is presented to one of its members. Bitzer was honored with the award posthumously in 1976. Cinematographer and recipient of 1987's award remembered Bitzer in Back Stage, "I think Bitzer would be proud of his union today. Remember he started the union during difficult times. I am very honored to be associated with a cinematographer like Billy Bitzer." A union chapter was established in Hollywood in 1929, and Bitzer was blacklisted by the film industry.

Contributed as Film Historian

During the Depression era, Bitzer worked for the government-funded Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a cameraman. He also prepared filmstrips and recorded lectures. In the 1930s his work for the Museum of Modern Art in New York included contributions to a history of the Biograph Company. He also reconstructed antique cameras and restored old movies for the museum's film archive.

Bitzer's image was one of a short man who wore a rumpled hat, baggy pants, and a thin tie, who stood on his camera box to film his shots. He used a hand-cranked Pathe camera, and usually Griffith was at his side shouting directions to the actors. Bitzer converted to Roman Catholicism in middle age, having been raised Lutheran. After his 20-year common-law marriage to Elinore Farrell dissolved, he married Ethel Boddy in 1923. He and Ethel had a son, Eden Griffith Joseph Bitzer. Bitzer's death on April 29, 1944, was due to a heart attack. He had been living at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, California, and was buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery in Flushing, New York.


Billy Bitzer: His Story, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973.

Brown, Karl, Adventures with D.W. Griffith, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, Columbia University Press, 1993.

Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 3: 1941-1945, American Council of Learned Societies, 1973.

International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 4: Writers and Production Artists, St. James Press, 1996.


Back Stage, January 9, 1987, p. 1.


"Bitzer, Billy," Encyclopedia Britannica, 12, 2000).

MacIntyre, Diane, "Did You Get That, Billy?," The Silents Majority, 12, 2000). □