D.W. Griffith Biography

Film Actor, Actor, Theater Actor, Director(1875–1948)
D.W. Griffith was one of cinema's earliest directors and producers, known for his innovations and for directing the 1915 film Birth of a Nation.

Synopsis

Born on January 22, 1875, in Floydsfork, Kentucky, D.W. Griffith worked as an actor and playwright before turning to cinema, creating highly innovative filmmaking techniques. He directed the 1915 feature-length work Birth of a Nation, which was a blockbuster but was also highly racist in content. Later work included Intolerance, Broken Blossoms and Orphans of the Storm. Griffith died on July 23, 1948.

Background

David Wark Griffith was born in Floydsfork, Kentucky, on January 22, 1875. He grew up on a farm, the son of an ex-Confederate colonel who died when Griffith was 10. An avid reader, the young Griffith eventually worked as a book clerk and later decided to pursue acting and write plays.

Innovative Filming Techniques

By 1908, Griffith had entered the fledgling world of moviemaking. He did acting work for the New York City film companies Edison and Biograph and went on to become a director of hundreds of shorts for the latter company, working with actors like Lionel Barrymore, Mary Pickford and the Gish sisters. He started to develop two-reel works and eventually made the four-reel film Judith of Bethulia. ("Four-reel" meant the movie could play for an hour.) At Biograph, Griffith was highly innovative with his filmmaking techniques, utilizing cross-cutting, close-ups and fade outs to distinctive effect, cultivating a deeper emotional milieu.

Directing 'Birth of a Nation'

By 1914, Griffith had left the company and worked as a director and head of production with Reliance-Majestic. He independently directed Birth of a Nation, released in 1915 and telling the story of the Civil War and Reconstruction era. Adapted from the book The Clansmen, the work was seen as the first U.S. blockbuster and has been lauded for its pioneering storytelling forms, greatly influencing modern moviemaking and shaping ideas around audience cultivation.

Racist Themes

Nation, however, was blatantly racist and distorted history, with its demeaning depictions of African Americans and a storyline that positioned the creation of the Ku Klux Klan as a means of vengeance over a woman's death. The film earned much criticism from a variety of avenues, including the NAACP, and riots broke out during showings. Over the decades, Nation has continued to spur outrage and dialogue.

Later Work

Griffith's next film, the critically lauded Intolerance (1916), was again innovative in its narrative structure by juxtaposing four different locales and eras. Then in 1919, Griffith co-founded United Artists with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford, with the production company serving as a distributor for his films. Griffith continued his output with works like 1919's Broken Blossoms (which was about an inter-ethnic romance), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921) and America (1924).

He made two pictures with sound, Abraham Lincoln (1930) and The Struggle (1931). Yet Griffith's sensibilities were considered out of sync with the evolving tone of film and he was unable to find work, though he did donate prints of his movies to the Museum of Modern Art. He lived in hotels during his later years and died in Hollywood, California, on July 23, 1948.

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