D. W. Griffith

gigatos | April 5, 2022


David Wark Griffith, better known as D. W. Griffith, was an American film director, born on January 22, 1875 at La Grange Manor in Crestwood (Kentucky) (en) (Kentucky) and died on July 23, 1948 in Hollywood (California). Prolific director, he shot about four hundred short films in five years, from 1908 to 1913, and directed, from 1914, the first American super-productions.

He evolved screenwriting to allow for longer and longer films. In 1914, he joined forces with two other executive producers, Thomas Harper Ince and Mack Sennett, to create the Triangle Film Corporation and partially escape the financiers who, from that time on, ran American cinema and forced it to prefer proven recipes to innovative films. In 1919, after the failure of his last blockbuster, Intolerance, he founded United Artists with actors Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, to better control their rights to the revenues of their films.

First steps

David Llewelyn Wark Griffith was born on January 22, 1875 in Floydsfork (1910), Kentucky to Jacob Griffith and Mary Perkins Oglesby. He was a colonel in the Confederate States Army, a Civil War hero and a Kentucky legislator. The sixth of seven children in the family, he was educated by his older sister Mattie, a schoolteacher. In 1885, he was 10 years old when his father died, which caused the family serious financial problems. They abandoned the farm to live at Shelby County Farm. In 1890, they moved to Louisville where his mother opened a boarding house. The Griffiths still lived in poverty and David Wark, at the age of fifteen, had to start working. He worked as a newspaper salesman, elevator operator, and in a bookstore. It was then that he had his first experience of amateur theater at a school performance. He was fortunate to see Sarah Bernhardt during a tour she gave in the United States.

He married Linda Arvidson in 1906. He became a stage actor and accompanied acting troupes across the United States for several years, without much success, while doing other jobs for a living. Around 1907, he proposed film subjects to production companies based in New York, but he was first hired as an actor, to play the role of the father in Rescued From an Eagle”s Nest by Edwin Stanton Porter and J. Searle Dawley, produced in early 1908 by the Edison Manufacturing Company.

The Adventures of Dollie

As Porter”s film was a success, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, a competitor of the Edison Manufacturing Company, realized that Griffith had talent and offered him the opportunity to direct a film himself in 1908: The Adventures of Dollie.

Griffith went to the movies a lot. He saw all of Porter”s films, the one that got him into the business, and especially The Great Train Robbery, released in 1903. He deduced that the strength of the shots shot on natural exteriors, which explains the worldwide success of this film, is a good reason to move a camera, whatever the cost. In his memoirs, he even considers (no doubt with a smile) that some of the filming in sunny California was a real vacation.

He also saw the films of those whom the film historian Georges Sadoul calls the “Brighton School. He noticed how the English filmmakers invented the cutting of both time and space, and how they freed themselves from the statism of photography which, in 1908, was the rule of an art that was still searching for itself. During his time as a bookstore salesman, he took the opportunity to devour a large number of novels, and he learned how the writer moves from one place to another, and then returns to the first, only to move to a third place. This freedom, the cinema did not receive it as an endowment as the novelist, each change of location is for the filmmaker an ordeal, he must move with arms and baggage, not to mention actors, and take risks (Griffith knows this because the role of the father he played in the film of Porter was in fact a “stunt”). Georges Méliès, whose films Griffith had seen, had found a radical solution to avoid all these problems: he had fixed his camera permanently in his studio in Montreuil. Griffith”s discovery can be summed up in a few words: if filmmakers want to tell ever more complex stories, they must multiply the adventures experienced by many characters in different places. The recipe, the only one, is to structure films like novels: show a character in a situation with another character, make them leave each other, and each one on his own, they meet in turn other characters with whom they live elsewhere other adventures. In this way, led by the “meanwhile”, the story can develop without limit.

For the time being, Griffith had to be satisfied with the standard length of a film: a reel of about 300 meters, or 10 to 15 minutes maximum (one reel film). However, from his first film, Griffith made a master stroke. The Adventures of Dollie will change the technique of cinema narration. The film is skilfully structured in scenes that alternate with each other, suggesting that the first action continues while we see the second. This alternation gives rise to a very rich sensation, both the creation of space and the creation of time, which will become the main problem of cinema. This “small film” that is The Adventures of Dollie, small because the argument is thin, but this is the case of the majority of films of the time, is a bit like the film of the Englishman George Albert Smith, Grandma”s reading glass, which had experimented with the alternation of two shots, used for the first time the close-ups and invented the subjective camera, all in one work. With The Adventures of Dollie, Griffith demonstrates how virtual time can be created in cinema, through a systematization of alternating shots, which would later be called alternate editing, the very basis of filmic narrative. This gives the possibility to control the length of the films and in particular to go beyond the standard of the one-reel movie, and to enter the era of feature films.

The era of the one-real

From 1908 to 1913, Griffith shot more than 400 short films for the Biograph company. He was recognized as an actor”s director and talent scout. Mary Pickford was hired by him, as well as Douglas Fairbanks, Lillian Gish and her sister Dorothy Gish, Blanche Sweet, Mabel Normand, Lionel Barrymore, Mae Marsh and Florence Lawrence. His films were a great commercial success and his director”s contract was increased every year. In January 1910, he was one of the first directors to travel to Los Angeles, where the climate was more favorable to outdoor filming during the winter. He returned there regularly in the winter. If others, such as William Selig, preceded him to California, it seems that Griffith was the first to have shot a film in the village of Hollywood, well before the arrival of the studios. It was In Old California, released in March 1910. Considered lost, this film was found in 2004 and screened for the first time in 94 years at the Beverly Hills Film Festival. Its greatest quality lies in the photographic work done by Griffith for the scenes shot on the Hollywood hill.

He explored practically all genres: drama, comedy, westerns, historical films, social criticism, and adaptations of literary works. With Apache Heart, shot in 1912 in New York, he signed one of the first gangster films.

But his fundamental contribution to cinema remains the importation and adaptation to filmic language of the technique of alternating narratives, which is the basis of the novel. The great French film historian, Georges Sadoul, states that “the great merit of the master during his years of work was to assimilate the scattered discoveries of various schools (the English of Brighton, in particular, editor”s note) or directors and to systematize them. But until 1911, and whatever has been written, Griffith seems to have treated all his scenes in general shots (medium shots, editor”s note), hardly closer than those of Méliès. His originality manifests itself in his research into alternating montage. Sadoul rightly disputes the rather opportunistic allegations of film historian Jean Mitry who, invited to a symposium on Griffith, attributed to him the invention of practically all the elements of the language of cinema, and in particular the discovery of the “scale of shots.” “Thinking that the camera, which was very maneuverable, made it possible to approach or move away from the characters on purpose and to move – or situate – freely around them, he made them act in a space that was no longer limited by the narrow frame of the scene… The scene – that is to say, what we call today a sequence – was thus fragmented into a succession of different shots, Griffith gradually establishing and specifying the scale of the shots.

However, one would look in vain in all the one-reel films made by the filmmaker from 1908 to 1911 for the presence of tight shots, and more particularly close-ups. In La Villa solitaire (1909), whose scenario is an exact copy of a film produced by Pathé Frères in 1908, Le Médecin du château, all the shots, without exception, are medium shots (characters seen at full length). The story is the same: a doctor is driven away from his home (the “castle”) by a false emergency mounted by brigands and he leaves his wife alone with his daughters. The intruders force the door and besiege the lady and her family, who barricade themselves in a room. The doctor, astonished not to find the seriously ill person he had been warned about, telephones his wife, and thanks to this means of communication, which at the time was a terrible novelty, he returns in time with reinforcements to save his little family. In the film Pathé Frères (whose director is undetermined), “all the shots in the film are wide, except for the telephone conversation, because the filmmaker chose to get close to the characters, to use close-ups, because he felt it was necessary to show a new device, the telephone, which was not very common at the time, except in well-to-do areas. With a wide shot, full-length, which was the usual, the audience would have been frustrated with the spectacle of this strange machine in which the doctor and his wife can shout at each other in the silence of silent cinema, and without this close-up of the camera, the spectators might not even have understood what the characters were doing.”

For Griffith to finally introduce close-ups in his films, it was not until 1911. “In The Heart of Misery, he shows a single close-up of a candle cutting into a rope, the rope that holds little Katie suspended above the void by burglars trying to extort the combination to the safe from her old friend. This close-up is an explanatory shot, what we call an insert, to better see a detail”, and is not a novelty in world cinema. Later, on the other hand, Griffith shows a rare talent for discovering “the timeless beauty of psychological close-ups or close-ups that underline the intimate reactions of a character through the magic of their tight framing and reveal his soul with its multiple facets, its qualities as well as its defects, its desires, its fears, its desires and its dilemmas. “This is what gives this masterpiece, Birth of a Nation, its reputation for perfect facial expression, despite its highly questionable subject matter.

First “four reels

As the first full-length films appeared in American cinema, Griffith tried to convince Biograph to produce longer films. He was successful and Judith of Bethulia, a four-reel film (approximately 60 minutes), was produced in 1913. “It took us two whole weeks to make this film, which, because of my prodigality, must have cost more than thirteen thousand dollars. This earned me the wrath of the management once again. Biograph wanted to cut the film into four episodes that were distributed separately. This disagreement led to the postponement of the release of the film, while the feature films were gaining ground in the market. It was finally released in March 1914. From then on, Biograph wanted to entrust the production of large-scale films to experienced theater directors, Griffith being confined to one-reel films. Griffith tried his luck: he burst into the office of the president of the company, J.J. Kennedy, and demanded that he be given the right to shoot films of several reels, and also asked for a percentage of the sales (royalties). He was immediately kicked out. But in the meantime, Griffith got in touch with a newcomer in the production business who created Mutual Film and offered him to make longer films.

In a few months of 1914, he directed several films of nearly an hour. These included The Battle of the Sexes, Home, Sweet Home, The Escape and The Avenging Conscience. These films required not only higher budgets but also more ambitious and better structured synopses. Griffith”s knowledge of storytelling, developed over nearly seven years, contributed to the advent of feature films.

The film, renamed Birth of a Nation, was released on February 8, 1915. It tells the story of the Civil War and the Reconstruction that followed, emphasizing the southern and revisionist point of view, presenting African Americans as savages who would rule the South by depriving whites of their rights, glorifying segregation and adopting the point of view of the lost cause. Upon its release, the film was denounced for its racist discourse and its apology of the Ku Klux Klan.

Despite, or because of, the assumed bias, the film is a great popular success and as such is considered the first blockbuster produced in Hollywood.


In 1916, he directed Intolerance, investing everything he had earned with Birth of a Nation. This film is probably Griffith”s most personal. “In Intolerance, Griffith had done everything: directed the crowds and actors (with a staff that included W.S. Van Dyke, Tod Browning, Erich von Stroheim), supervised the sets, costumes, photography, music, ensured the editing, finally wrote a screenplay that was mostly an outline; the film did not have a prior cut and it was partly improvised on the spot.” Griffith, who had tried out his “parallel action” technique in several dozen one- to three-reel films, believed that parallel stories could be treated the same way one treats parallel actions, by simply alternating them. His film is composed of four stories that do not take place in the same place or time, and none of the characters are obviously related to the characters in the other stories:

After the catastrophic release of Intolerance, Griffith will realize that he was wrong from the conception of the film. He would attempt to release the two most successful and complete parts, the destruction of Babylon and the modern story of the false culprit (subtitled The Mother and the Law), as stand-alone films that would reach an audience that had disdained them when they were artificially mixed together. But it was too late to benefit from the enormous hype that had been organized around this unusual film.

“In Intolerance, by attempting to alternate four totally unrelated stories, with no communication between them in either space or time, Griffith causes them to implode, and their artificial coming together through the sole theme of intolerance fails to create a unity of storytelling… They end up playing off each other and their suspensefulness is exhausted by being cut off by the occurrences of the other stories.”

“The capture of Babylon by Cyrus II is an act of war, a simple conquest, and not the result of any intolerance… As for the death sentence on the innocent young ruffian, the fanaticism of the Puritan club at the beginning of the story does not obscure the fact that it is first and foremost the story of a miscarriage of justice, based on overwhelming evidence, and not the fact of the intolerance of justice, as evidenced by the almost miraculous intervention of the governor, who cancels the execution in extremis.”

As for the other two stories, they are so much left in draft form that by the end of the film Griffith forgets them. “The Passion has no more space than a Stations of the Cross on the walls of a cathedral. Let”s remember anyway that the death sentence of Jesus is a political act, the prophet asked his followers to refuse the worship of busts representing the Roman emperors, which was a sign of disobedience to the occupiers. The St. Bartholomew”s Day massacre was as much about suppressing the political force represented by the Protestants, who were in the majority in certain sensitive regions of the kingdom, as it was about affirming that the king owed his crown to his coronation according to Catholic rites, rites whose sanctity was not recognized by the Protestants, who could eventually demand the emergence of another dynasty. In 1938, the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein analyzed Griffith”s mistake and drew a Marxist-Leninist political lesson from it, arguing that Griffith was not armed with the historical materialism of Soviet filmmakers, so the American could only make an ideological mistake:

“Intolerance”s failure in its lack of homogeneity lies in something else entirely: the four episodes chosen by Griffith were really incompatible… Is it possible that a tiny common trait – the general outward sign of Intolerance, with a capital letter – taken metaphysically and not semantically, is capable of uniting in (public) consciousness phenomena so scandalously irreconcilable from a historical point of view as the religious fanaticism of St. Bartholomew”s night and the struggle of strikers in a large capitalist country! The bloody pages of the struggle for hegemony in Asia and the complex process of the Jewish people”s struggle against colonialism and subjugation to the Roman metropolis?”

Griffith, who had invested his entire fortune in Intolerance, made it a point to honor all debts on the film.

Difficult end of life

Griffith directed other works, including The Broken Lily (1919), Through the Storm (1920) and Street of Dreams (1921). In 1918, he co-wrote, under the pseudonym of Granville Warwick, the screenplay for Chester Withey”s The Hun Within. (The Hun Within) by Chester Withey, which he also supervised the direction. In 1919, he moved to Mamaroneck (New York State), where he built his own studios.

But he had a difficult end to his career, marked by financial failure, a loss of artistic independence and problems with alcoholism. Disdained by most producers, since his failure of Intolerance, inspiring distrust because of a certain megalomania, he saw his career decline rapidly in the second half of the 1920s and end in 1931 with the shooting of “The Struggle”. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the Temple Hospital in Hollywood on July 23, 1948, practically destitute, living only on donations from his fans.

He is buried in the Mount Tabor Methodist Church Cemetery in Crestwood, Oldham County, Kentucky.


D.W. Griffith and the Wolf is a documentary directed by Yannick Delhaye in 2011, broadcast on Ciné + and Cinaps TV. This documentary deals with the life and work of D.W. Griffith.

External links


  1. D. W. Griffith
  2. D. W. Griffith
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