The Robinson Library

The Robinson Library >> Motion Pictures
D. W. Griffith

ground-breaking director

D.W. Griffith

David Llewelyn Wark Griffith was born to Jacob Wark Griffith and Mary Perkins Oglesby in Crestwood, Kentucky, on January 22, 1875. His father had served as a Colonel in the Confederate Army and in the Kentucky Legislature, but by the time of David's birth the family's fortunes had suffered dramatically. When he was ten years old, his father died, plunging the Griffith family into debt-ridden poverty. By the time he was fourteen, his family was forced to abandon their unproductive farm for a new life in Louisville where his mother opened a boarding house, an undertaking that soon failed. With the family still besieged by debts, David left high school to help with the finances, taking a job first in a dry goods store, and, later, in a bookstore.

Griffith's work at the bookstore inspired in him a desire to become a playwright, but he enjoyed no success in that venture and decided to try his hand at acting instead. He began working on the stage in Louisville at the age of 20, and was soon touring the country in stock companies, primarily as an extra.. For a decade he alternated work on the stage with manual labor, holding a variety of jobs, while still trying to establish himself as a playwright. He finally succeeded at getting one of his plays produced in 1907, when James K. Hackett produced A Fool and a Girl. The play flopped, however, so Griffith decided to enter the motion picture industry.

Moving to New York City, then the home of the motion picture industry, Griffith attempted to sell a script to Edison Studios producer Edwin Porter. Porter wasn't interested in Griffith's script, but he did hire him to play the lead in Rescued from an Eagle's Nest (1908). Griffith soon moved to the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company (commonly known as Biograph), where he both acted in films and provided scripts. When Biograph’s chief director became ill, Griffith was hired as a replacement. His first film as a director was The Adventures of Dollie (1908).

Griffith spent the next five years working in anonymity, as the studio refused to publicize the names of its talents, during which he directed hundreds of mostly one-reel films for Biograph, most of them featuring then novel camera effects and movement, lighting, close-ups, and editing. Along the way he built a stock company of young actors and actresses that included Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, Mae Marsh, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Robert Harron, Henry B. Walthall, and Lionel Barrymore. Placing great value on the use of locations for the realism he sought to heighten the drama, Griffith laid the foundations of Hollywood when in 1910 he began annually taking his company from New York to California for seasonal filming, beginning with In Old California. In 1913 Griffith directed Judith of Bethulia, the first feature-length film ever produced by Biograph. Disagreements between Biograph and Griffith during and after filming led to Griffith leaving Biograph, and Biograph delayed release of Judith until 1914 so it would not have to honor its profit-sharing agreement with Griffith.

After leaving Biograph, Griffith entered into a partnership with Harry Aitken of Mutual to set up Reliance-Majestic Studios in Hollywood. Many of the actors and actresses he had "assembled" at Biograph followed him, including Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Blanche Sweet, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, and Robert Harron. The first major film he produced and directed at Reliance-Majestic was The Avenging Conscience (1914), a psychological thriller adapted from Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Tell-Tale Heart."

The movie for which Griffith is best known was also made with Reliance-Majestic. For this one he adapted The Clansman, a best-selling melodramatic novel about the Reconstruction era by Thomas Dixon, expanding the story and its staged dramatization into a large-scale depiction of the Civil War and its aftermath that alternates spectacular scenes with poignant, intimate scenes of families caught up in the vortex of great events. The result was The Birth of a Nation, which premiered in Los Angeles on February 8, 1915, and in New York City on March 3. Although the film was a huge financial success, its depiction of the Ku Klux Klan led to protests and claims of Griffith being a racist, and controversy over the film and its contents continues to this day.

advertising bill for Birth of a Nation

Griffith attempted to address the claims of his being a racist by producing Intolerance, in which he portrayed the effects of intolerance in four different historical periods -- the Fall of Babylon, the Crucifixion of Jesus, the events surrounding the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre (during religious persecution of French Huguenots), and a modern story. Released in September of 1916, the film initially enjoyed good box office returns. Ticket sales began declining as the United States approached entry into World War I, however, and the film ended up being a financial failure. It also failed to stem the controversy Griffith had stirred up with The Birth of a Nation, and he spent much of the rest of his life attempting (usually unsuccessfully) to rid people of the idea that he in any way condoned the actions of the Ku Klux Klan.

After his partnership with Aitken was dissolved in 1917, Griffith went to Artcraft (part of Paramount) and then to First National. The most notable of several films he directed during this time was Hearts of the World (1918), which incorporated actual footage taken in England and at the battle front in France, although the bulk of the film was shot in California. In 1919 he joined with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Charlie Chaplin to form United Artists, for which he produced/directed Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921), Dream Street (1921), One Exciting Night (1922), and America (1924), among others. Of these, the first three were successes at the box office, but Griffith was forced to leave after Isn't Life Wonderful (1924) failed.

After leaving United Artists, Griffith went back to directing, but never again found success. He broke into "talkies" with Abraham Lincoln in 1930 and The Struggle in 1931, but both films failed miserably at the box office and he never made another film. In 1936 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized his many contributions to film art with a special Oscar. He died in Hollywood on July 23, 1948, and was buried at the Mount Tabor Methodist Church Graveyard in Centerfield, Kentucky.


American Masters
Gilda's Blue Book of the Screen

See Also

Edwin Porter
Edgar Allan Poe
Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.
Charlie Chaplin

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> Motion Pictures

This page was last updated on 01/22/2019.