Integrative Arts 10

Illusionism and D.W. Griffith


The Birth of a Nation... might be said to have caused the shotgun wedding of the stage and the movies.

- D.W. Griffith


David Wark Griffith

Born 23 January 1875, La Grange, Kentucky Died 23 July 1948, Los Angeles, California.


A touring actor with a variety of regional stock companies and a journalistwith the Louisville Courier (1897-99), Griffith later appeared in vaudeville and on the legitimate New York stage before being hired to write motion picture scenarios for the Edison Company and starring in the film Rescued from the Eagle’s Nest (1907). Hired by the Biograph Studio in 1908 as a scriptwriter and director, he made around five hundred one and two reel films over the next five years, a collection of westerns, romances and adventure yarns ranging from The Adventures of Dolly (1908) to the early work of Mary Pickford in The Violin Maker of Cremora, (1909), A Romance of the Western Hills (1910) and many others, and the Unseen Enemy (1912), a thriller that introduced Dorothy (1898–1968) and Lillian Gish to the screen. An innovator in the use of film technique, he is generally regarded as the first American film artist to make expressive use of dramatic devices like close-up flashbacks and cross-cutting that were to become standard elements in narrative construction. Influenced by the lavish scale and ornateness of the Italian epic production then being seen in America, he made the longer form Judith of Bethulia (1914) and then the revolutionary three-hour The Birth of a Nation (1915). A story of North and South during the Civil war that impressed with the panoramic sweep of its storytelling, tumultuous battle scenes and flowing narrative pace, it was marred by a racist perspective that rendered the Ku Klux Klan in a heroic light. He followed this with Intolerance (1916), another major advance in the art of American filmmaking that intercuts four stories from different historical periods to build a catalogue of injustice and iniquity through the ages. He subsequently worked with cinematographer Billy Bitzer (1874-1944) and actress Lillian Gish on simple, tenderly sentimental and luminously beautiful romantic stories of hardship, tragedy and self-Sacrifice like Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920). In 1919, together with Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, he formed United Artists, but his Victorian sensibility and tendency to preach sound moral attitudes were already becoming outmoded as audiences embraced the jazz age and the work of Cecil B. De Mille and Erich Von Stroheim. Such films as the epic America (1924) and Drums of Love (1928) were not successful and he made only two sound films Abraham Lincoln (1930) and his last, The Struggle (1931).He received a special Oscar in 1936 for his ‘lasting contribution to the progress of the motion picture arts’ but he was unable to secure backing for any projects during the last fifteen years of his life and his final involvement with the medium he had helped to maturity was as a consultant on One Million Years BC in 1939.


Griffith, D(avid) W(ark) (1875-1948), pioneering American motion-picture director, who established a new standard for motion-picture production. He is often called The Father of the Motion Picture.
Griffith was born in La Grange, Kentucky, and was educated in local schools. After working as an actor in stock and road theater companies, he became a motion-picture actor for the Biograph Film Company in 1908, later serving as a director for the studio in New York City and in California. For Biograph alone he made more than 450 short films. There, too, he assembled his own stock company of film professionals, including many of the era's most notable actors (such as Mary Pickford, the Gish sisters, Mabel Normand, Mae Marsh, and Wallace Reid) and directors (such as Mack Sennett and Erich von Stroheim). He also collaborated extensively with the legendary cameraman Billy Bitzer.
In 1913 Griffith left Biograph for Reliance-Majestic studios and later became an independent producer. His pictures Judith of Bethulia (1914), Birth of a Nation (1915), and Intolerance (1916) established him as the leading motion-picture producer of the time. Birth of a Nation is considered among the most important films ever made, for its success established not only the feature-length film but also the Hollywood star system. The motion picture demonstrates the disturbing power of film propaganda: Its racist elements provoked protests, riots, and other violence, and eventually a move toward film censorship laws. Intolerance, a grand-scaled film pursuing four story lines simultaneously, was not successful at the box office but has had a significant influence on the subsequent development of film art.
Until Griffith's time, motion pictures had been short, rarely exceeding one reel; episodic rather than dramatic; and poorly produced, acted, and edited. Griffith's films were frequently several hours in length, contained powerful dramatic situations and vivid characters, and were produced with technical virtuosity. He perfected some of the best-known devices in motion-picture production, such as the close-up, a close view of a character's face or figure or of an object, shown for dramatic emphasis; the fade-out, a transition from one scene to another by the gradual disappearance of the first scene from the screen; the cutback, or flashback, which for purposes of clarification of plot or characterization, introduces scenes antedating those already shown; and, most importantly, the use of parallel editing, the cross-cutting of footage of simultaneous action to achieve suspense.
In 1920, with film actors Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin, Griffith formed the United Artists Corporation for the production of feature pictures. Among the motion pictures he directed for that company were Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), The Orphans of the Storm (1922), America (1924), Battle of the Sexes (1928), and Lady of the Pavements (1929), all of them silent films except for Lady, which included some singing. Griffith made two talking pictures—Abraham Lincoln (1930) and The Struggle (1931)—but they were not as successful as his silent films.

Excellent Griffith Resource

Internet Movie Database on Griffith

Short List of Griffith Films

Outline of a Book on "Intolerance"

Some Points to Ponder While Watching "Birth of a Nation"

 


Visit the Integrative Arts home page at the Pennsylvania State University
Visit the
Integrative Arts 110 page
All content is intended for academic study.
Commercial use of material on any page displaying this notice is forbidden.
All copyrights controlled by specific artists, companies and authors.
Web page created by
Gregory J. Golda