D. W. Griffith

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D. W. Griffith
David Llewelyn Wark Griffith
BirthplaceLaGrange, Kentucky, United States
film director, film producer

Griffith, D. W.

Griffith, D. W. (David Llewelyn Wark Griffith), 1875–1948, American movie director and producer, b. La Grange, Ky. Griffith was the first major American film director. He began his film career as an actor and a scenario writer in 1908 with the Biograph Company. He soon began to direct and at once began to explore the full potential of camerawork, editing (or montage), and acting. He introduced the fade-in, fade-out, long shot, full shot, close-up, moving-camera shot, and flashback. He initiated scene rehearsals before shooting and was extremely meticulous about lighting arrangements. In 1913, taking his cue from the longer “spectacle” films produced in Italy, Griffith made the first American film of four reels, Judith of Bethulia (1913), and followed with the then-immense ten-reel Birth of a Nation (1915), an anthology of film technique and a landmark in the history of cinema. Stung by criticism of his negative portrayal of mulattos, he responded with a more audacious work. Intolerance (1916) sought to demonstrate the persistence of racial and social prejudice through the ages. In 1919, with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford, he founded United Artists. Among his films, frequently alternating between historical spectacles and modest domestic dramas, are Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms (1918), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1922). Griffith had experimented with sound as early as 1921, but his movies with full sound were not commercially successful.


See Mrs. D. W. Griffith, When the Movies Were Young (1925); Lillian Gish's autobiography (1969); K. Brown, Adventures with D. W. Griffith (1973); R. Schickel, D. W. Griffith: An American Life (1984).

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Griffith, D. W. (b. David Lewelyn Wark Griffith)

(1875–1948) film director; born in La Grange, Ky. The son of a Confederate cavalry hero, he grew up in poverty in Louisville, Ky., and in 1897 began a stage career. He wrote poetry and dramas, then found work with the Edison film company in New York, where he starred in a short film, Rescued from an Eagle's Nest (1907). He then became a writer and actor at Biograph; his first directorial effort was The Adventures of Dollie (1908). By 1909 he was the general director of Biograph. While there he developed undercutting, crosscutting, parallel action, mobile cameras, close-ups, and other techniques now common in filmmaking. He also assembled a "stock company" that was to include Mary Pickford, the Gish Sisters, and others. Feeling restricted, he left Biograph in 1913 to join Reliance-Majestic, where he began work on The Birth of a Nation (1915). Still regarded as one of the most influential movies ever made, it was also criticized for its bias in favor of the South in the Civil War. Griffith's next work was the epic Intolerance (1916), four separate stories about inhumanity throughout history. A founder of United Artists (1919), he continued directing until 1931 but nothing went right after 1924. Although he received a special Academy Award in 1935, he died alone and almost forgotten.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.