David Wark Griffith (January 22, 1875 – July 23, 1948) was an American director, writer, and producer who pioneered modern cinematic techniques. He is most remembered for The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). The Birth of a Nation made use of advanced camera and narrative techniques, and its popularity set the stage for the dominance of the feature-length film in the United States. The film has sparked significant controversy surrounding racism in the United States, focusing on its negative depiction of black people and the glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. Today, it is both acclaimed for its radical technique and condemned for its inherently racist philosophy. The film was subject to boycotts by the NAACP; screenings caused riots at several theaters and it was censored in many cities, including New York City. Intolerance was an answer to his critics.
Several of Griffith's later films were also successful, including Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1921), but his high costs for production, promotion, and roadshow often made his ventures commercial failures. He made roughly 500 films by the time of his final feature The Struggle (1931).
Griffith was born on a farm in Oldham County, Kentucky, the son of Mary Perkins (née Oglesby) and Jacob Wark "Roaring Jake" Griffith a Confederate Army colonel in the American Civil War who was elected as a Kentucky state legislator. Griffith was raised a Methodist, and he attended a one-room schoolhouse where he was taught by his older sister Mattie. His father died when he was ten, and the family struggled with poverty.
When Griffith was 14, his mother abandoned the farm and moved the family to Louisville, Kentucky, where she opened a boarding house. It failed shortly after. Griffith then left high school to help support the family, taking a job in a dry goods store and later in a bookstore. He began his creative career as an actor in touring companies. Meanwhile, he was learning how to become a playwright, but had little success—only one of his plays was accepted for a performance. He traveled to New York City in 1907 in an attempt to sell a script to Edison Studios producer Edwin Porter; Porter rejected the script but gave him an acting part in Rescued from an Eagle's Nest instead. He then decided to become an actor and appeared in many films as an extra.
In 1908, Griffith accepted a role as a stage extra in Professional Jealousy for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, where he met cameraman Billy Bitzer, and his career in the film industry changed forever. In 1908, Biograph's main director Wallace McCutcheon, Sr. grew ill, and his son Wallace McCutcheon, Jr. took his place. McCutcheon, Jr. did not bring the studio success; Biograph co-founder Harry Marvin gave Griffith the position, and he made the short The Adventures of Dollie. He directed a total of 48 shorts for the company that year.
His short In Old California (1910) was the first film shot in Hollywood, California. Four years later, he produced and directed his first feature film Judith of Bethulia (1914), one of the earliest to be produced in the US. Biograph believed that longer features were not viable at that point. According to Lillian Gish, the company thought that "a movie that long would hurt [the audience's] eyes".
Griffith left Biograph because of company resistance to his goals and his cost overruns on the film. He took his company of actors with him and joined the Mutual Film Corporation. He formed a studio with Majestic Studio manager Harry Aitken which became known as Reliance-Majestic Studios and was later renamed Fine Arts Studio. His new production company became an autonomous production unit partner in Triangle Film Corporation along with Thomas H. Ince and Keystone Studios' Mack Sennett. The Triangle Film Corporation was headed by Aitken, who was released from the Mutual Film Corporation, and his brother Roy.
Griffith directed and produced The Clansman through Reliance-Majestic Studios in 1915, which became known as The Birth of a Nation and is considered one of the first feature length American films. The film was a success, but it aroused much controversy due to its depiction of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, and race relations in the American Civil War and the reconstruction era of the United States. It was based on Thomas Dixon, Jr.'s 1905 novel The Clansman; it depicts Southern slavery as benign, the enfranchisement of freedmen as a corrupt plot by the Republican party, and the Ku Klux Klan as a band of heroes restoring the rightful order. This view of the era was popular at the time and was endorsed for decades by historians of the Dunning School, although it met with strong criticism from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other groups.
The NAACP attempted to stop showings of the film. They were successful in some cities, but it was shown widely and became the most successful box office attraction of its time. It is considered among the first "blockbuster" motion pictures and broke all box office records that had been established until then. "They lost track of the money it made", Lillian Gish remarked in a Kevin Brownlow interview.
Audiences in some major northern cities rioted over the film's racial content, which was filled with action and violence. Griffith responded to his critics in his next film Intolerance. 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. Intolerance was not a financial success, although it had good box office turn-outs; it did not bring in enough profits to cover the lavish road show that accompanied it. Griffith put a huge budget into the film's production which could not be recovered in its box office. He mostly financed Intolerance himself, contributing to his financial ruin for the rest of his life.
Griffith's production partnership was dissolved in 1917 and he went to Artcraft, part of Paramount Pictures, and then to First National Pictures (1919–1920). At the same time, he founded United Artists together with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. He continued to make films, but he never achieved box office grosses as high as either The Birth of a Nation or Intolerance.
Though United Artists survived as a company, Griffith's association with it was short-lived. While some of his later films did well at the box office, commercial success often eluded him. Griffith features from this period include Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921), Dream Street (1921), One Exciting Night (1922) and America (1924). Of these, the first three were successes at the box office. Griffith was forced to leave United Artists after Isn't Life Wonderful (1924) failed at the box office.
He made a part-talkie, Lady of the Pavements (1929), and only two full-sound films, Abraham Lincoln (1930) and The Struggle (1931). Neither was successful, and after The Struggle he never made another film.
In 1936, director Woody Van Dyke, who had worked as Griffith's apprentice on Intolerance, asked Griffith to help him shoot the famous earthquake sequence for San Francisco, but did not give him any film credit. Starring Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy, it was the top-grossing film of the year.
In 1939, the producer Hal Roach hired Griffith to produce Of Mice and Men (1939) and One Million B.C. (1940). He wrote to Griffith: "I need help from the production side to select the proper writers, cast, etc. and to help me generally in the supervision of these pictures."
Although Griffith eventually disagreed with Roach over the production and parted, Roach later insisted that some of the scenes in the completed film were directed by Griffith. This would make the film the final production in which Griffith was actively involved. But, cast members' accounts recall Griffith directing only the screen tests and costume tests. When Roach advertised the film in late 1939 with Griffith listed as producer, Griffith asked that his name be removed.
Although mostly forgotten by movie-goers of the time, Griffith was held in awe by many in the film industry. In the mid-1930s, he was given a special Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In 1946, he made an impromptu visit to the film location of David O. Selznick's epic western Duel in the Sun, where some of his veteran actors, Lillian Gish, Lionel Barrymore and Harry Carey, were cast members. Gish and Barrymore found their old mentor's presence distracting and became self-conscious. While the two were filming their scenes, Griffith hid behind set scenery.
On the morning of July 23, 1948, Griffith was discovered unconscious in the lobby at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles, California, where he had been living alone. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage at 3:42 PM on the way to a Hollywood hospital. A large public service was held in his honor at the Hollywood Masonic Temple, but few stars came to pay their last respects. He is buried at Mount Tabor Methodist Church Graveyard in Centerfield, Kentucky. In 1950, The Directors Guild of America provided a stone and bronze monument for his gravesite.
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Performer and director Charlie Chaplin called Griffith "The Teacher of us All". Filmmakers such as John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Lev Kuleshov, Jean Renoir, Cecil B. DeMille, King Vidor, Victor Fleming, Raoul Walsh, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Sergei Eisenstein, and Stanley Kubrick have spoken of their respect for the director of Intolerance. Welles said "I have never really hated Hollywood except for its treatment of D. W. Griffith. No town, no industry, no profession, no art form owes so much to a single man."
Griffith seems to have been the first to understand how certain film techniques could be used to create an expressive language; it gained popular recognition with the release of his The Birth of a Nation (1915). His early shorts—such as Biograph's The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), the first "gangster film"—show that Griffith's attention to camera placement and lighting heightened mood and tension. In making Intolerance, the director opened up new possibilities for the medium, creating a form that seems to owe more to music than to traditional narrative.
Griffith has five films preserved in the United States National Film Registry deemed as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." These are Lady Helen's Escapade (1909), A Corner in Wheat (1909), The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916), and Broken Blossoms (1919).
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