D. W. Griffith Reference

D. W. Griffith

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: A genius in the exposition of complex plots through revolutionary filmmaking techniques, Griffith was the foremost figure in the development of the American film as an expression of American values and as a commercially successful medium.

Early Life

David Wark Griffith was born January 22, 1875, in the family farmhouse at Floydsfork in Oldham County, Kentucky, the second youngest of seven children. His mother, née Mary Oglesby, was the daughter of a wealthy Kentucky farmer who provided his daughter and her husband with a cottage and employment on his farm. David’s father, Jacob Griffith, who claimed descent from Virginia planter aristocracy, was a romantic ne’er-do-well who, although he died when David was only seven years old, had a profound influence on his young son. Jacob Griffith had a checkered career. He had left his home in Virginia as a young man and gone to Kentucky, where he studied medicine as an apprentice for two years and briefly practiced it in Floydsburg. Unsuccessful and easily bored, he went off to fight in the Mexican War. He then returned to Kentucky, married, and, in 1850, left his wife and three children to escort a wagon train from Missouri to California toward the end of the Gold Rush. After returning home, in 1853-1854, he served in the Kentucky legislature. His glory days, however, lay ahead. At the outbreak of the Civil War he became a colonel under General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. He was wounded on several occasions, and one of these wounds, improperly treated, contributed to his later semi-invalidism and death. His most unusual wartime experience was to lead a victorious cavalry charge from a buggy since his wounds prevented him from riding a horse.

After the war, the Griffith family lived in the genteel poverty common among many of their station at the time. Jacob Griffith dabbled again briefly in Kentucky politics but spent most of his time regaling his family with tales of his heroic experiences and of the Lost Cause. He also convinced the young and impressionable David of his descent from Welsh kings. He read to his family in his deeply resonant voice from Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Walter Scott, and William Shakespeare and took his children to a magic-lantern show which made a deep impression on the young David. By 1882, Jacob Griffith was dead, a victim of his wartime wounds and heavy drinking. It was during David’s childhood years that his outlook was to be developed: He became a romantic imbued with a sense of Southern gentility and convinced of his destiny to make his name in the literary and artistic world.

After the colonel’s death, the family eventually moved to Louisville, where the young Griffith’s mother opened a rooming and boarding house. Griffith took a variety of menial jobs to supplement the family’s income. Most significant, he worked in the bookstore run by Bernard and Washington Flexner, members of a remarkable family of Jewish intellectuals. The shop was a gathering place for many local writers, including James Whitcomb Riley. David’s literary appetite was further whetted by this experience. He also attended, as means would allow, this river town’s numerous theaters and developed that intense interest so characteristic of youth. He was soon convinced that his destiny was to become a playwright, an American Shakespeare. He also developed an interest in acting as the means by which he could best learn stagecraft. By his early twenties, he had a job as an actor in a touring group of amateur players, much to his mother’s dismay. In deference to his mother, he took the name Lawrence Griffith and began his theatrical career.

By the late 1890’s, when Griffith began his theatrical career, he had developed the physical appearance he was to retain for most of the remainder of his life. Tall and thin with an aquiline nose, high forehead, and a moderately wide, thin-lipped mouth, he conveyed an aristocratic mien well suited to the stage actor. Later in life, he always wore a wide-brimmed hat.

Acting then, as ever, was an insecure profession. There were always more actors than roles, and anticipating the changing tastes of a fickle public was difficult. Thus, although Griffith acted, he took numerous other jobs as well. He worked in a steel mill and on a ship that carried lumber along the West Coast. He rode a freight train across country and begged for food. These experiences were important, however, for they acquainted the son of Southern aristocrats with the variety and conditions of men. In 1905, in San Francisco, he met a young actress, Linda Arvidson, who was to become his first wife. After the marriage, a year later in Boston, the two continued to act intermittently and maintained a hand-to-mouth existence. Griffith continued to write plays and sold one, A Fool and a Girl, in 1907 for seven hundred dollars. He also sold a poem and a short story for considerably lesser amounts and got an occasional acting role. In his early thirties, however, he was essentially a failure as an actor and writer. Yet his passion for both did not abate, and a chance meeting in 1908 which enabled him to utilize his talents successfully ignited a spark that was to develop into an obsession: a career in the fledgling motion-picture industry.

Life’s Work

In the spring of 1908, in New York City, Griffith ran into an old friend, a fellow actor he had not seen for several years. As each recounted his experiences to the other, Griffith told his friend of the financial straits in which he and his wife then found themselves. The friend told Griffith that the motion-picture industry had been a lifesaver to him and suggested Griffith contact some of the numerous studios then operating in New York. Although Griffith knew little about this rapidly growing new industry, he took his friend’s suggestion and found employment at the Edison Company. In his only film for Edison, Griffith worked under cinematographer-director Edwin S. Porter, the creator of the famous “chase” film The Great Train Robbery (1903). Griffith was to use the device of the chase in many of his own films, including The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1922). Griffith also learned from Porter the rudiments of the trick-shot or special effect, which he later incorporated into his films. At that time interested primarily in scriptwriting, Griffith turned to American Biograph Studios, where he and his wife then found employment, she as an actress and he as a writer and actor. Within weeks, however, Griffith was given his first opportunity to direct. Having found what, in combination with writing, proved to be his calling, Griffith started to work, immediately choosing the cast and crew of his first...

(The entire section is 2802 words.)