David Wark Griffith was born in Kentucky on January 22, 1875.
He came from a middle-income level family. Growing up in the southern part of America, Griffith is thought to have developed strong anti-imperialist sentiments (Schicke, 1984). He began working on the stage at the age of 20. His ambitions of becoming a formidable playwright contributed significantly towards the decision to tour the country searching through stock companies. The actualization of this dream came in 1907 when James Hackett adopted and produced one of Griffith’s plays.
D. W. Griffith remains one of the earliest renown film directors.
Credit is given to this man as being the pioneer of film directing in the American society. He came to the limelight following the directing of a controversial film called The Birth of a Nation. During the production of this film, advanced camera and narration techniques first appeared in the cinema industry (Robinson, 1968). Before 1915, technology employed in film production was extremely limited resulting in numerous, difficult experiences to the directors.
Griffith became the first director to produce a feature film in America. The films he made experienced minimal growth in the years preceding 1915. There was a common stereotype among directors that these movies could not be financially viable. The career of Griffith in the production industry developed immensely with his appointment to replace the chief director of Biograph. The company’s director became ill in 1908, and Griffith was appointed to the position. The first film produced by Griffith for the company was The Adventures of Dollie.
Most of the films that he produced under the company could not be attributed to Griffith as they were done in anonymity (Henderson, 1972). The company did not want to publicize its talent to the industry; hence, all the actors and film crew remained anonymous. During this time, the utilization of narration in the cinema industry remained limited. The company can be accredited to the development of coordinating cinematic techniques under the stewardship of Griffith. This feature can be defined as what gave the cinema industry its transformation into an art form. In the development of the film industry, Griffith also takes credit for laying foundations for Hollywood production. He seemed to place immense value to the utilization of location shooting, thus the development of the Hollywood film shooting. Under the directorship of Griffith, Biograph extensively shot numerous features in the Hollywood setting.
The development of feature films began during the period that Griffith worked for Biograph. Several of his first films were feature-based. The editing style employed in the early films created significant excitement among the audience. Several years after coming into directorship of Biograph, Griffith began the production of western movies (Schicke, 1984). He utilized shorter scenes in these films than those previously used.
This feature enabled the creation of immense suspense in the movies. In the years that followed, he produced films of different genres from the feature-based films. Griffith passed his social vision through the subjects of the films he produced. He left the production company following unwillingness by the company to produce long and ambitious features. The films he directed after this could be attributed to him. The Birth of a Nation was the first of those films.
The Birth of Nation can be defined as the first film fully attributed to Griffith. Produced in 1915, the motion picture became the first film he produced after leaving Biograph.
The original title of the film was the Clansman from the book where the storyline was adopted from. The film dramatizes the lifestyles of different families during the American Civil War and reconstruction era. The presentation of the film occurs in two parts and vividly dramatizes Abraham Lincoln’s assassination (Schicke, 1984). The first part setting occurs during the pre-civil war era of the American history. The two families depicted in the film fall in the wealthy class of the American society. The Stoneman’s and Cameron’s are the families discussed within the film. The Stoneman family visits Cameron and love develops between the children of the two families.
All young men join the forces of their respective nations when the Civil War breaks out. When one of the Cameron sons becomes a hero during the war and sustains serious injuries, he gets handed a death sentence for suspicion of being a guerrilla militia. Following the sentence, the Cameron’s mother travels to Washington to seek pardon for the charge from the President Lincoln. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln does not help the Camerons. Griffith depicts this as an intended punishment by the northern forces to the southern people. Within the scope of the film, this marks the beginning of the reconstruction era. In the reconstruction era, the film depicts a situation where black people take-over governance and start revenging on the white people. The first election sees black soldiers locking out white people from voting leading to the election of black officers.
The fighting between the black and white communities continued throughout the reconstruction period (Everson, 1978). Numerous unwarranted events occur complicating the previous plans. During this time, the Stoneman and Cameron’s relationship gets stretched to the limit. The formation of the Ku Klux Klan under the leadership of Ben makes Elsie break their relationship. After the reconstruction, the movie ends with a double honeymoon between members of the two families. The film shows Phil Stoneman with Margaret Cameron and Ben Cameron with Elsie Stoneman. After all the struggles in the film, prosperity of the relationships between the family members eventually becomes a reality. The film achieved significant success commercially although it was immensely criticized.
A lot of criticism for the movie came from the setting of the film, with the selection of the actors being the most criticized element (Gish, 1969). Though the film contained numerous black personalities, the director utilized white actors painted in black playing the roles of black people. The film does not contain a single black actor or actress. The biggest controversy within the film remains how black people are portrayed. The film portrays black people as unintelligent. It also continues to display an intense sexual aggressiveness within the black people towards white women.
Numerous controversies also arise from the blatant racism displayed by the film. Despite all the controversies surrounding the film, it became the first motion picture that was showed in the White House. The President Woodrow Wilson described the events shown within the film as “terribly true”, an attribution that continued to be disputed within the industry.
The movies produced by Griffith throughout his career continue to be recognized from the impacts they made on the industry. Though limited by technology at the production period, Griffith directed high quality movies during the period. His contributions to the industry continue to give him global credibility even within the 21st century. There exist numerous similarities in the films produced and directed by Griffith.
These are as discussed below.
Many of the films Griffith produced under his name were lengthy. The desire to produce lengthy motion pictures can be identified as the cause for his departure from the Biograph Company. While The Birth of a Nation sets the record of a feature film being over one hour long, the trend continued through the rest of his movies.
Intolerance, which followed, contained four epic parallel stories and was over three-and-half hours long. The films that followed the first production were all lengthy. Many movies produced during the period contained short clips and would rarely be more than an hour long. Lengthy movies were thought to tire the individuals visiting cinema halls to watch them (Robinson, 1968). This is a stereotype that created difficulty for producers in allowing lengthy motion pictures. The revolution to this stereotype came through Griffith’s extensive production of long motion pictures.
He broke the stereotype through his courageous and ambitious production style. Contrary to what people thought, these movies achieved significantly high rankings in the box-office.
Griffith showed immense passion for feature films. Several of the movies which followed his first production contained similar elements. Though feature films were rarely produced during the period, Griffith chose to produce numerous films of this nature. The sentiments shared by Griffith regarding production of feature based motion pictures transformed the production of these films. After the first production, he continued to produce several other feature motion pictures with the most notable feature productions including Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm among others. These feature films succeeded immensely within the box-office rankings (Henderson, 1972).
Feature-based motion pictures continued to achieve low levels of audience before 1910. Griffith continually produced successful feature films following his first production and broke the jinx of these motion pictures. Griffith introduced creative technologies within the feature motion pictures, thus improving their appeal to the public and ranking at the box-office. Feature film production seems a common characteristic among the movies produced by Griffith.
A lot of the films produced by this director fell under the genre of silent films.
Though this can be attributed to the era of production, production of motion pictures with sound was an available technology during the period. Throughout his production career, Griffith produced only two full-sound films. The full-sound movies he directed were Abraham Lincoln and The Struggle. The production of these films in his later years may have contributed towards his retirement from the industry.
Termed as failures in the box-office and commercially, Griffith never produced another film after these two. The specialty displayed throughout his career was silent films (Everson, 1978). Though they were silent, Griffith managed to integrate narration into most of his motion pictures. A considerable appeal to the audience emanated from this feature in the motion pictures. The reception of the movies within the box-office could not be better than how it was following the inclusion of narration.
Several of the movies directed and produced by Griffith leaned towards true stories.
The setting for his films was based on true occurrences. While the first film featured the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Intolerance featured events like the fall of the Babylonian empire among others. Basing films on true events appear severally within Griffith’s movies. The full-sound picture on Abraham Lincoln also followed this common characteristic. Griffith identified himself as a socialist passing his ideologies through the films he produced (Gish, 1969). Basing most of them on the real occurrences assisted him in passing the message across to the public. These motion pictures also contained an element of historical value. The real-life events from which they were based could be known by the future generation after watching the motion pictures.
During this production era though, many motion pictures produced were based on the true events. This could be attributed to the minimal creativity among the playwrights and directors. Many producers also feared that fiction motion pictures would receive minimal audience levels. This drove numerous producers of the era into producing films based on events their audience knew.
Griffith utilized similar actors in most of the films he made. Lillian Gish, for example, features in all the first three movies by Griffith. This can be attributed to the number of actors available during the period. When leaving Biograph, Griffith is thought to have been accompanied by numerous actors working under him in the company.
During that period, commercialization of acting activities was yet to intensify. Most actors preferred to work with the directors getting acquainted with the actors (Gish, 1969). Though this cannot be substantiated, the repetition of actors playing different roles in different movies continues to be evident. Several of the motion pictures produced by Griffith contained at least one common actor. This can be identified as a common characteristic for the motion pictures following The Birth of a Nation. The director extensively worked with actors acquainting with him through the production of several other motion pictures.
Upon retiring, Griffith continued to be sought, by these individuals, to offer assistance concerning motion picture production.
Adoption can be termed as the use of a script written by another individual. Several of the films produced by Griffith were adopted from other works. Although his works were also adopted by other directors, Griffith adopted many works from other writers. During the period of Griffith, adoption was a common trend within the film industry. Directors of the period did not want to be bothered by the script writing and other related activities; hence, an adoption of scripts was a common feature in the motion pictures produced in this era.
The production costs of the movies directed by Griffith were relatively high.
Though several of them received surmountable accolades from the critics, the commercial viability of the movies continued to be questioned. The movie production, as directed by Griffith, cost a lot and in various cases, the movies could not achieve profitable levels after they went on sale (Drew, 1986). The employment of different technology by Griffith in producing the movies contributed significantly to the high levels of financial requirements.
The director sought to invent the utilization of high technology without worrying about the escalating production costs. The technology utilized contributed immensely to the box-office rating for the movies. Despite this, however, the commercial aspect of the movies, continued to deepen. Most, if not all of Griffith’s movies were considered commercial failures. Though the Birth of a Nation remained a top selling movie for over a decade, information regarding the profitability of the movie failed to indicate the profits generated. Through his career, Griffith never achieved commercial success in his movies.
The movies directed by Griffith also contain several differences. Though they seem to display many similarities, notable discrepancies exist within the motion pictures produced. The movies following The Birth of a Nation display numerous discrepancies from the first film. Many of these differences were changes implemented following the criticisms received from the release of the movie.
The first film created a lot of controversies regarding how people were portrayed in the film. Critics reviewed the film terming the characters as displaying blatant racism. Black people were also portrayed as lacking intelligence in their conduct.
These negative attributes to the motion picture could not be ignored. Upon producing the second film, Griffith sought to achieve minimal negative criticism towards his motion pictures. The production of Intolerance followed a less controversial storyline than The Birth of a Nation (Drew, 1986). The other movies produced by Griffith contained minimal controversies. Though the accolades for the first motion picture surpassed the rest, this cannot be attributed to the controversial issues raised by the movie. The prominence of Griffith following the first film could be attributed to the creation of the controversial motion picture. The emanating controversy could be identified as what led to the film possessing surmountable levels of influence in the feature-based motion pictures.
While Griffith used motion pictures to pass popular messages to the Americans, many of the films that followed discussed topics far beyond the American culture.
The setting for the Broken Blossoms does not contain an American element. The love story occurs between a Chinese native and a foreign maiden in the city of London. Following the first film, the director started to diversify his storylines focusing on the general world.
This trend contributed immensely to the impressive reception of Intolerance outside the American nation. The movie is said to have remained in the cinemas for over a decade in the Soviet Union. It continues to be identified as having immensely influenced the soviet movie makers from its launch (Drew, 1986). The diversification of covered topics continued after the first motion picture. This immensely increased Griffith’s recognition internationally.
Within the motion picture production industry, unique features can be identified from movies directed by the same director. A lot of similarities seem eminent in such movies. This can be attributed to the sentiments carried by the person regarding various issues within the society. Griffith, one of the greatest movie directors of the 20th century, displayed numerous similar characteristics in his movies (Robinson, 1968). All of his movies were box-office hits but commercial failures. Though he achieved high rankings in the box-office, profitability could not be achieved in his movies. This was attributed to his personality of seeking innovation without considering the business perspective for the motion pictures produced. Although most of his films contain various similarities, differences also exist within the films.
The most notable difference can be identified to be the the diverse topics of his films coming after The Birth of a Nation.
Drew, W. M.
(1986). D. W. Griffith’s “Intolerance:” Its Genesis and Its Vision.
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Gish, L. (1969). The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me. Englewood, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Henderson, R. M. (1972). D. W. Griffith: His Life and Work.
New York: Oxford University Press. Robinson, D. (1968). Hollywood in the Twenties.
New York: A. S. Barnes & Co, Inc. Schicke, R. (1984). D. W. Griffith: An American Life.
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