Reviewing the Films of D.W. Griffith

Who is D.W. Griffith?
Forever tainted by the legacy of The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith (1875-1948) is nevertheless an extraordinary pioneer and technical master of early cinema. His narrative language of film-making and remarkable editing experiments remain with us to this day in everything from grand battle sequences, to intimate moments of romance, as well as simple scenes that inspire contemplation (such as wind blowing through the trees). Lillian Gish called him “the father of film” and Charlie Chaplin dubbed him “the teacher of us all.”

David Wark Griffith was born on January 22, 1875 in Kentucky. He was one of seven children raised by his father, a poor farmer and Confederate veteran who died while D.W. Griffith was still just a child. As a young man, Griffith worked odd jobs but had dreams of joining the theatre. Griffith also plied his trade as a writer and sold his first play “The Fool and the Girl” in 1906, but when he tried to sell a story to giant of early film-making Edwin S. Porter, Griffith was signed on to the producer’s Edison Company as an actor instead.

While working with Porter at Edison, Griffith learned a great deal about the craft of making films. Griffith made his lead acting debut in Porter’s Rescued From an Eagle’s Nest (1907), in which the young actor was so carelessly filmed that he was obscured by the edge of the frame – an experience that served him well later when he began directing his own films for the Biograph Company. Later that year, Griffith did get his chance to begin directing films and he showed an immediate talent for creative use of the frame, as well as developing rhythmic editing to build dramatic tension with short movies like The Adventures of Dollie (1908), A Corner in Wheat (1909) and The House with Closed Shutters (1910) to name but a few. From 1908 to 1913, Griffith was averaging almost three films a week, his choice actresses were Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet and Mae Marsh.

In 1913, Biograph refused Griffith’s request to make “Judith of Bethulia” (1914) a four-reel movie, but Griffith ignored their demand and went ahead and made the film anyway. In response, Biograph held onto the film’s release until the following year and in frustration, the director quit the company and took his stock company of actors with him to producer Harry Aitken’s Mutual Film Company. There he began making the movie for which he would become infamous, The Birth of a Nation (1915), simultaneously one of the most important and also revisionist, reviled films ever made. In response to the outcry, Griffith responded with a massive epic Intolerance (1916), a quartet of stories about intolerance throughout the ages, though the film was a massive box office flop. From this point on, Griffith found himself perpetually in debt, always hoping to achieve his former glory. He formed United Artists with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, which allowed him to Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921), One Exciting Night (1922), The White Rose (1923), and Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924). Some were minor financial hits, but, none achieved the financial success of The Birth of a Nation and Griffith departed United Artists in 1924.

Griffith made a string of later films like The Sorrows of Satan (1926) for Paramount, and some films for United Artists like Drums of Love (1928), often considered one of his worst films, The Battle of the Sexes (1928) and Lady of the Pavements (1929). By the end of the silent era, Griffith’s career was in decline, his heyday long had long passed. Griffith entered the sound era with Abraham Lincoln (1930) starring Walter Huston in the first talkie film about his life, and. then he self-financed and directed The Struggle (1931), a films about a marriage that is collapsing due to a husband’s resurgent alcoholism. The Struggle failed miserably at the box office and left him in serious financial straights. It wound up be the last movie he ever made. Throughout his career he made over 500 movies.

Ignored by the industry that he played such a critical role in developing, Griffith retreated to the Hollywood’s Knickerbocker Hotel for over a decade. There he died alone from a cerebral hemorrhage on July 23, 1948 at the age of 73. A small ceremony was held in Hollywood but few stars attended. Griffith was forgotten for many decades until a reappraisal of his work came in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1953, the Directors Guild of America instituted the D.W. Griffith Award, the highest honor bestowed upon a deserving member for technical prowess. Later recipients would include Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean and even Griffith’s old friend Cecil B. DeMille. But in 1999, the DGA discontinued the award due to the disgraceful legacy of The Birth of a Nation. The name of the award was changed to the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award.

D.W. Griffith’s Essential Filmography

D.W. Griffith made an incredible amount of films during his lifetime. I limited myself only to his essential films below, listed in order of release date:

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The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Director: D.W. Griffith
Studio: Biograph
The Birth of a Nation is one of the most important and controversial films ever to hit the silver screen. It was the first massive blockbuster epic in history, and its despicable portrayal of black Americans as evil and inept has led to numerous controversies that linger to this day. It tells a story of tragic loss as the old Confederacy collapses following the American Civil War, coupled with the lawlessness of southern reconstruction, that ultimately calls a heroic organization called the Ku Klux Klan to defend order and honor. If one can look past the degrading message of the film, much like we would for a Soviet or Nazi propaganda film, we can focus on the more enduring questions of the film -such as its editing, cinematography, and special effects. The story is based on the novel The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr. and has continued to be used as a propaganda tool of the Ku Klux Klan for many decades.

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Intolerance (1916)
Director: D.W. Griffith
Studio: Biograph
Intolerance is Griffith’s massive response to his previous riot-inducing film, The Birth of a Nation. It was inspired by the Italian epic, Cabiria. Intolerance tells four separate narrative stories, each taking place in different time periods. Griffith once claimed his purpose in making this movie was to showcase the role that human intolerance has played throughout history. It was made largely in response to the public outcry against The Birth of a Nation.

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Broken Blossoms (1919)
Director: D.W. Griffith
Studio: United Artists
In contrast to Griffith’s huge budget epic films, like The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, Broken Blossoms is a more subtle, muted film about a tragic romance between a Chinese man and the girl he loves in London. There is surely room to criticize the film from a sociological perspective, namely for its role in the “Yellow Peril” racist paranoia toward Asians in America, but Broken Blossoms is by far my favorite D.W. Griffith film.

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Way Down East (1920)
Release Date: September 3, 1920
Director: D.W. Griffith
Studio: United Artists
Starring Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess, this melodrama is one of Griffith’s great silent masterpieces. The film is about a pitiable young country girl, who is treated poorly and births a child to an unjust man who leaves her and then the baby dies. When rumors circulate, she is cast out and left for dead in a dangerous scene of ice and snow, only to be rescued and reunited with the love of her life in the end.

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Orphans of the Storm (1921)
Release Date: December 28, 1921
Director: D.W. Griffith
Studio: United Artists
Featuring the famous Gish sisters, Lillian and Dorothy, Orphans of the Storm is the last of Griffith’s great silent films. The film depicts the story of two poor French sisters who travel to Paris during the French Revolution to cure one sister of her blindness. They become caught up in the chaos only to find love and happiness in the end.

Ranking My Favorite of D.W. Griffith’s Films

#1 Broken Blossoms (1919)

#2 Way Down East (1920)

#3 The Birth of a Nation (1915) (not for its narrative)

#4 Intolerance (1916)

#5 Orphans of the Storm (1921)

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