David Wark Griffith

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David Wark Griffith (1907)

David Llewelyn Wark Griffith , often just DW Griffith (born January 22, 1875 in Crestwood , Oldham County , Kentucky , † July 23, 1948 in Hollywood , California ) was an American director , screenwriter , producer and actor . Between 1908 and the early 1930s he made a total of 535 films, more than 400 of which are still extant, and is considered one of the most influential directors in film history.

Griffith is often referred to as the founder of narrative cinema and the creator of "cinematic grammar". In fact, he systematized rather than invented himself. During his time at the Biograph film company (1908 to 1913) , he was one of the first to consistently use elements such as close-ups , parallel montages and many others and later perfected them in his trend-setting feature films. In particular, his film epics The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916) became milestones in film history. He was one of the founders of the United Artists film studio and the Hollywood film industry in general.


David W. Griffith and Kathryn Osterman in the play Miss Petticoats , 1903

Youth, first professional experience

David Wark Griffith was born on January 22, 1875 in rural Oldham County , Kentucky, to the farmer Jacob Griffith and his wife Mary Perkins. His father had as an officer ( Colonel ) in the American Civil War in the Confederate Army served and died, was when his son only ten years old. He received his education in a one-room school from his older sister Mattie Griffith, the family grew up Methodist . When Griffith was fourteen years old, the mother gave up her farm and moved with him to Louisville . There the mother opened a boarding house , which she had to close after a short time due to failure. To help his family, Griffith dropped out of high school and subsequently worked in a dry goods store and later in a bookstore.

Griffith began his creative career as a playwright, but only one of his many plays was accepted and performed, and it met with only moderate success. He decided to become a stage actor, but initially only got extra roles. However, he continued to try to sell his pieces and came across the film producer Edwin S. Porter . He turned down Griffith's play, but gave him a small role as an actor in Rescued from an Eagle's Nest by James Searle Dawley , which marked his film debut.

Film career

DW Griffith (1919)

After his positive experience with Rescued from an Eagle's Nest , Griffith felt drawn to the film business and accepted an actor contract with American Biograph . As biographs principal director Wallace McCutcheon sr. fell ill and his son McCutcheon jr. as a substitute brought only a poor performance, the acting Griffith was used as a director. The film, entitled The Adventures of Dollie , was released in 1908. The producers were so satisfied with the result that they let Griffith direct other films.

In 1910, Griffith directed In Old California , probably the first film to be shot in Hollywood . He discovered the then rural Hollywood on his travels through California and shot there because of the beautiful scenery and the friendly people. His numerous short films at Biograph already testified to cinematic innovations, and Griffith quickly built a good reputation in the young film industry. His biographical film Judith von Bethulien (1914) with Blanche Sweet , a film adaptation of the book Judit , was one of the first feature films in the United States of America and received good reviews. However, he was also criticized because of the involvement of an orgy scene .

For his three-hour film The Birth of a Nation about the American Civil War , completed in 1915 , in which he clearly takes sides for the southern states and glorifies the Ku Klux Klan , Griffith was already recognized when it was released because of the open racism against African-Americans in the film and a certain distortion criticized the "facts" of the American Civil War. The film is based on the novel The Clansman (1905) by Thomas Dixon (1864-1946), which is also influenced by contemporary racism . The Birth of a Nation was the most expensive, but also the most successful work in the still short film history. With a record length of three hours, numerous crowd scenes and many cinematic innovations, The Birth of a Nation is, according to film historians, "the most important single work in American film history and a key work in the entire history of film: It contains many technical innovations and improvements, technical effects and artistic achievements, including a color sequence at the end. He had a formative influence on future films and has a recognizable effect on film history and the development of film as an art form. "

The work Intoleranz , published the following year , however, turned out to be a financial disaster . With this even more ambitious and even more expensive film, Griffith wanted to show how intolerance has always determined human fate. Using parallel and contrasting montages , Griffith described four episodes - the fall of Babylon, the Passion of Christ, St. Bartholomew's Night and the contemporary story “The Mother and the Law”. The film, in which Griffith also shares pacifist and humanist views, is now considered a masterpiece in film history.

Left to Right: Griffith, Pickford, Chaplin and Fairbanks; the founders of United Artists

In 1919, Griffith founded the film company United Artists together with Mary Pickford , Douglas Fairbanks senior and Charlie Chaplin .

His acting tour in Broken Blossoms (1919) was again highly praised by the critics after a few financially unsuccessful works. The main actress of the film was Lillian Gish , who played Griffiths in many other films. Also because she worked intensively on the cinematic legacy of Griffiths until her death in 1992, their names are often associated with one another in the American public. Other films such as Far in the East (1920) and Two Orphans in the Storm were also hits for Griffith. Afterwards, Griffith's films often had box office problems: the lavish productions had to become big box office hits almost automatically in order to make a profit at all. So he had to leave the United Artists in 1924 after several failures.

David Wark Griffith made other films of varying quality in the late 1920s, but they no longer quite achieved the response of his earlier films. In 1930 he shot the biopic Abraham Lincoln , in which Walter Huston played the leading role, his first complete sound film (his Lady of the Pavements from 1929 had some sound film sequences). But despite good reviews, Abraham Lincoln was a failure at the box office, as was his next film The Fight (1931) about an alcoholic husband. Griffith then withdrew from the film business.

Retirement and personal life

In 1936 Griffith was awarded the Honorary Oscar for his life's work. In 1940 he attempted a comeback directing the adventure film Tumak, The Lord of the Jungle (One Million BC) , but left the director's chair after an argument with producer Hal Roach . The film was completed by Roach himself. Griffith was married twice: from 1906 to 1936 with the actress Linda Arvidson (1884-1949), then from 1936 to 1947 with the actress Evelyn Baldwin (1910-2004). Both marriages ended in divorce. He spent the last part of his life in the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles . He died of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1948 at the age of 73 and was buried in the Centerfield, Kentucky cemetery.


American postage stamp commemorating Griffith's 100th birthday in 1975

In addition, numerous directors 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 bowed to Griffith or certain of his works . Charlie Chaplin called him " The Teacher of Us All " and noted that the entire film industry owes its existence to Griffith. Orson Welles said, “I never really hated Hollywood except for treating DW Griffith. No city, no industry, no profession, no art owes so much to one man. "

Filmography (selection)

Cinema poster The birth of a nation


Web links

Commons : David Wark Griffith  - Collection of Images, Videos and Audio Files

Individual evidence

  1. Brockhaus20, Vol. 9, p. 146 & Britannica online.
  2. David Wark Griffith at Prisma
  3. ^ The Birth of a Nation (1915). At www.filmsite.org. Accessed March 6, 2014.
  4. Charlie Chaplin at IMDb - Quotes
  5. ^ DW Griffith