D. W. Griffith

D. W. Griffith

David Walk Griffith was born in Oldham County, Kentucky, on 22nd January, 1875. Griffith attempted to become a writer but only managed to have one of his plays performed.

In 1907 Griffith moved to Hollywood and tried to sell a script to a movie producer, Edwin S. Porter. He rejected the script but gave him a part in a film he was making. After appearing in Rescued from an Eagle's Nest (1907) Griffith managed to find work as a director with the Biograph Company.

Over the next six years Griffith made over 400 films. During this period he discovered Mary Pickford and gave her the leading role in his picture The Little Teacher (1910). This established Pickford in Hollywood and she made a series of highly successful films including The Temptress (1911), A Child's Remorse (1912), The One She Loved (1912), In the Bishop's Carriage (1913), Caprice (1913), A Good Little Devil (1914) and Such a Little Queen (1914).

The film critic, David Thompson, has argued that Griffith therefore launched "the greatest star there has ever been". He added that Pickford "became the industry's chief focus and biggest asset... she played her heroines with idealism and spunk, with subtle suggestions of the nymphet... Mary's expressions were restrained, her gestures small and drawn-out, and therefore all the more expressive." D.W. Griffith said that "she never stopped listening and learning."

Griffith wanted to make feature-length films but when this idea was rejected he left the Biograph Company. He immediately began work on Birth of a Nation (1915). The film created a sensation. Griffith's use of intricate editing and film techniques such as alternating close-ups and long-shots from varying camera angles, were revolutionary and inspired a generation of directors.

The film's portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan and African Americans, resulted in Griffith being accused of racism. Despite attempts by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to have the film banned, it was highly successful at the box office.

Deeply hurt by the accusations of racism, Griffith's next film, Intolerance (1916), was a quartet of stories of man's inhumanity to man. Griffith's attempt to compensate for the politics of the Birth of a Nation was a commercial flop. The film left him heavily in debt and over the next few years desperately attempted to make films that would enable him to pay off his creditors.

In 1919 Griffith joined with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks to form the United Artists, a company that enabled the stars to distribute their films without studio interference. It is also argued that it was in response to a rumour that the film companies intended to put a ceiling on the star salaries. Films made by Griffith during this period included Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921), The White Rose (1923) and Isn't Life Wonderful (1924).

Griffith made two sound films, Abraham Lincoln (1930) and The Struggle (1931), a film about alcoholism. The films were not successful and Griffith retired from the cinema, spending the last ten years of his life living alone in Hollywood's Knickerbocker Hotel.

David Walk Griffith died on 23rd July, 1948.

Primary Sources

(1) D. W. Griffith, The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America (1916)

Today the censorship of moving pictures throughout the entire country is seriously hampering the growth of the art. Had intelligent opposition to censorship been employed when it first made itself manifest, it could easily have been overcome. But the Pygmy child of that day has grown to be, not merely a man but a giant, and I tell you who read this, whether you will or no, he is a giant whose forces of evil are so strong that he threatens that priceless heritage of our nation - freedom of expression.

The right of free speech has cost centuries upon centuries of untold sufferings and agonies; it has cost rivers of blood; it has taken as its toll uncounted fields littered with the carcasses of human beings - all this that there might come to live and survive that wonderful thing, the power of free speech. In our country it has taken some of the best blood of our forefathers. The Revolution itself was a fight in this direction - for the God-given, beautiful idea of free speech.

Afterwards the first assault on the right of free speech, guaranteed by the Constitution, occurred in 1798, when Congress passed the Sedition Law, which made it a crime for any newspaper or other printed publication to criticize the government. Partisan prosecution of editors and publishers took place at the instance of the party in power, and popular indignation was aroused against this abridgment of liberty to such an extent that Thomas Jefferson, the candidate of the opposition party for President, was triumphantly elected. And after that, nothing more was heard of the Sedition Law, which expired by limitation in 1801.

The integrity of free speech and publication was not again attacked seriously in this country until the arrival of the motion picture, when this new art was seized by the powers of intolerance as an excuse for an assault on our liberties.

The motion picture is a medium of expression as clean and decent as any mankind has ever discovered. A people that would allow the suppression of this form of speech would unquestionably submit to the suppression of that which we all consider so highly, the printing press. And yet we find all through the country, among all classes of people, the idea that the motion picture should be censored.

When the first small Board of Censorship was established six years ago, we who took it seriously then expected exactly what has come to pass - that a man of the mental caliber of the captain of police of Chicago can tell 2 million American people what they shall and shall not go to see in the way of a moving picture.

They tell us we must not show crime in a motion picture. We cannot listen to such nonsense. These people would not have us show the glories and beauties of the most wonderful moral lesson the world has ever known - the life of Christ - because in that story we must show the vice of the traitor Judas Iscariot. Had the modern censors existed in past ages and followed out their theories to a logical conclusion, there would have been written no Iliad of Homer; there would not have been written for the glory of the human race that grand cadence of uplift called the Bible; there would have been no Goethe. There would have been no thrilling, beautiful dramas given us as the grandest heritage of the English-speaking race - the plays of Shakespeare. And even today, none of these creations would these worthy censors leave in our possession had they their way.

(2) Ida Wells, a members of the NAACP, was involved in the protests about Birth of a Nation. In her In her autobiography, Crusade for Justice (1928), she described how D. W. Griffith defended his film in court.

Mr. D. W. Griffith, the creator of the film, took the stand and denied that there was anything in The Birth of a Nation which could be objected to. D. W. Griffith was a great artist and one of the leading geniuses in presenting photo plays. That he should prostitute his talents in what would otherwise have had the finest picture presented, in an effort to misrepresent a helpless race, has always been a wonder to me. I have often wondered if his failure to establish himself as a moving picture magnate is not because he chose to prostitute his magnificent talents by an unjust and unworthy portrayal of the Negro race.