“No town, no industry, no profession, no art form owes so much to a single man.”
Orson Welles on D.W. Griffith & Griffith’s relationship to Hollywood
The Father of Film was born in Kentucky. Surprised? Don’t be.
After all, Johnny Depp—recently named by GQ as the world’s coolest actor—is from Owensboro, Kentucky. And in a 2010 post, I pointed out how not only Depp, but George Clooney, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Tom Cruise all have roots in the Bluegrass State. That’s some serious box-office mojo.*
The story of D.W. Griffith is a quintessential Hollywood story—and it all started before Hollywood was really Hollywood.
Back in 1875 motion pictures as we know them had not even been invented when D. W. Griffith was born on a family farm near La Grange/Crestwood, Kentucky. The silent movie star Lillian Gish is the one who called Griffith “the father of film,” and Charlie Chaplin called him “the teacher of us all,” so who are we to disagree? And just because he’s the father of film doesn’t mean that he was universally liked then or now.
Griffith’s own tragedy began early when the family farm never recovered the downward spiral that occurred after the Civil War (1861-1865) His father, who was a colonel in the Confederate Army, died when Griffith was seven years old. When Griffith was 14, his family was forced to sell the farm and he went to live in Louisville. (No surprise that Griffith was a fan of the writings of Charles Dickens.)
At the age of 20 he joined a traveling theater group and eventually went to New York in hopes of becoming a playwright and then a screenwriter, but instead got work as an actor. His first film was in 1907 when he played the Woodsman in Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest—a five minute short where the cameraman was Edwin S. Porter— famous for his work on The Great Train Robbery.
The next year Griffith made his own film with the Biograph Company, The Adventures Of Dollie (1908)—a 12-minute black and white silent film. (It’s interesting to note that both Dollie and Rescued from the Eagles Nest center around a child being abducted. Meaningful conflict right out of the gate. Never forget when writing your script the important question “What’s at Stake? Also, a good example of emotional filmmaking.)
Griffith made 29 films in 1908, and that was just a warm up for 1909 when he would make 141 films. Albeit one and two-reelers, but still 141 films in one year is stunning. Here’s one of Griffith’s most famous films of 1909—basically the equivalent of “no cell phones/texting” commercial in theaters today (and a good example of a film done with one shot—embrace your limitations).
Another well-known Griffith film from 1909 was the more ambitious A Corner of Wheat.
Griffith would go on to make over 400 film in five years including this landmark 17-minute film Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), which was not only one of the first gangster films, but united him with two talented people who would help Griffith with his greatest successes—actress Lillian Gish and cameraman Billy Bitzer.
How was Griffith able to make so many pictures?
“The records of the Biograph Company, (Griffith’s) employer from 1908 through 1913, give some sense of his early pace. On Tuesday, July 21, 1908—to take one random date—he managed to shoot all For Love of Gold (adapted from a Jack London story), with time left over for interiors on the more complexly The Fatal Hour. The astonishing fact about this output, however, is its survival rate. From an era in which no more than perhaps a fifth of the films produced survive, Griffith’s work comes down to us essentially complete. Currently only 10 of those 495 titles are lost.”
The Films of D. W. Griffith
So if Griffith really is the Father of Film, a good deal of that is due to so many of his babies are still alive.
Feature films in the early days were said to be over 40 minutes long and were made in Europe beginning in 1906. And though Griffith make the first film in Hollywood, In Old California (1910), it was Cecil B. DeMille who made the the first feature The Squaw Man (1912). Griffith not to be outdone shot Judith of Bethulia in 1913 and it was released in 1914. (Though the film was 100 percent over budget and ended Griffith’s relationship with Biograph.)
Before he would be laid to rest in Kentucky after he died in 1948, Griffith was credited with not only film phrases such as “Lights, camera, action!” but a whole lexicon of filmmaking that is used today. In his lifetime he would be exalted, forgotten, struggle with alcoholism, and fight claims of racism, but his landmark work that can not be disputed was the 1915 epic, Birth of a Nation, which we’ll look at in Part 2.
P.S. My grandmother was from Cynthiana, Kentucky where her father was a horse trainer, so I have a soft spot in my heart for Kentucky. (Cynthiana also happens to be where most of the Post-It Notes in the world are made.)
* Part of Kentucky’s legacy is the famous Hatfield and McCoys family field. (Like a mountain version of Bloods and Crips.) The story has been told many times (or at least inspired other stories) including A Kentucky Feud (1905) and the Buster Keaton film Our Hospitality (1923), and more recently there has been talk of Scott Cooper (Get Low) directing Brad Pitt and Robert Duvall in The Hatfields and the McCoys from a script written by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump).