David Wark (D.W.) Griffith is one of the most important film directors of all time. He directed five films that appear in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book.
Born ten years after the Civil War in the great commonwealth of Kentucky, Griffith was the son of a legislator and Confederate soldier who saw his life decline following the Confederacy’s loss. As such, Griffith developed a strong Southern identity that would permeate throughout his film career. When Griffith was ten years old his father died and Griffith and the rest of the family faced poverty. They moved to Louisville, where eventually Griffith would become involved in the entertainment industry.
At the age of 20 Griffith was touring the country in stock companies and working on writing plays. In 1907, James K. Hackett produced Griffith’s play, A Fool and a Girl. When this was a flop, Griffith decided, with the help of his actress wife, Linda Arvidson, to become involved in the new medium of motion pictures. His first role was in Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest, directed by Edwin S. Porter. Griffith eventually landed at Biograph and directed his first film, The Adventures of Dollie, in 1908. He would go on to make hundreds of shorts over the next five years. Through this period, Griffith and his cameraman, G. W. "Billy" Bitzer, would redefine the silent film industry, using close-ups, medium shots, panoramic long shots, parallel editing, and innovative lighting techniques. In addition, he put together his own stock company of actors, with future legends such as Mary Pickford, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, and Lionel Barrymore.
When Griffith wanted to branch out and make longer features, he and Biograph parted ways and Griffith formed a independent film company with Harry Aitken. This would eventually lead to his making Birth of a Nation in 1915, which was an adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s best-selling novel about Reconstruction, The Clansman. The film ran over three hours and was a huge hit. The NAACP protested and tried to have the film banned as racist propaganda. Griffith was shocked and angered at the attempts to suppress his film.
Griffith followed The Birth of a Nation with his epic Intolerance, which is comprised of four stories from different periods of history, illustrating the persistence of intolerance and inhumanity through the ages. The work he did on this film inspired countless other directors, most notably Cecil B. DeMille, Erich von Stroheim, and King Vidor.
In 1919, he joined with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Charlie Chaplin to form United Artists. His first big film with this new company was in Broken Blossoms, the story of an Asian man who falls in love with an abused child played by Lillian Gish. The following year he released Way Down East. Filmed on location in New England during winter, the film starred Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess. Some say the film was an attack on Puritanism and sexual double standards. He would go on to make Broken Blossoms
Griffith’s next great film, Orphans of the Storm (1921), was a spectacular recreation of the French Revolution with 18th century Paris virtually replicated at his studio. In it, sisters Lillian and Dorothy Gish are separated by the ancien regime and caught up in the storm of revolution.
Yet, something horrible happened to Griffith in 1927, the talkies began. He would only direct four sound films in his career. The most notable of the four was his 1930 biopic, Abraham Lincoln, starring Walter Huston. In 1931 he made his last film, The Struggle, a film that opposed Prohibition. The film was both a commercial and critical disaster that ended Griffith’s directorial career. He spent the remainder of his life fighting alcoholism. He died in 1948 at the age of 73.