Posts Tagged ‘D.W. Griffith’

“Pioneer, visionary, ‘father of film technique,’ primitive poet, social agitator, king of screen sentiment and melodrama—all are apt descriptions of David Wark Griffith, the first of the great film directors.”
Frank Beaver
On Film, A History of the Motion Picture 

“It is unfortunate that the reputation of pioneer filmmaker D.W. Griffith will forever be stained by virulent racism of his 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation. The controversy surrounding that film has blinded many viewers to the fact that Griffith made a number of films seeking to expose and oppose racial prejudices.”
William M. Drew 

Got a few hours to spare? Three to be exact. Here’s D.W. Griffith’s response to the negative feedback for making The Birth of a Nation, the epic Intolerance.

“In his next picture, Intolerance (1916), Griffith made an impassioned plea for peace and tolerance, cutting back and forth between two epochs. The structure was too demanding for contemporary audiences; the tone excessively preachy. Worse, it was released on the eve of America’s entry into the European war, which pacifists and dissenters were considered as traitors. Its failure was a setback for Griffith—and for movies of shaping history.”
Hollywood: Legend and Reality
Edited by Michael Webb

Other Griffith films pointed out as being empathetic to minorities are Ramona:A Story of the White Man’s Injustice (1910)—which was based on a book and true story—and The Red Man’s View (1909) both featuring Native Americans, and Broken Blossoms (also titled The Yellow Man and the Girl) was perhaps the first positive interracial (white-Asian) relationship captured on film. When the movie was released in 1919, interracial relationships were actually illegal.

Other defenders of Griffith point out that in his 1911 film The Rose of Kentucky  that the conflict actually centers around a man refusing to join the KKK and is critical of the modern-day version of the group. Still others say that Griffith merely chose to make The Birth of a Nation because of its large scale visual spectacle. Griffith is quoted as saying, “I could just see these Klansman in a movie with their white robes flying.” No doubt, visually stunning—but packed with deeper philosophical ramifications.

I’m certainly not an expert on the KKK, but in Melvyn Stokes’s book D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, he states that, “In 1869, (the KKK’s) Imperial Grand wizard, ex-Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest, formally disbanded it. Embers of the Klan still glowed, however, and those embers were finally extinguished by the Force Acts of 1870 and 1871, which provided that the Klansman could be tried for their crimes in federal court.”

Meaning that at the time of Griffith’s birth in 1875, the KKK for the most part was gone. There’s no doubt looking back on all of this almost 100 years after from the making of The Birth of a Nation, and over 150 years after the start of the Civil War (or “the War Between the States” as some of my Southern friends call it)—that we’re swimming in murky waters, and the truth is hidden in there somewhere. What we do know is there is a lot of ugliness in American History, and one thing The Birth of a Nation does is expose that ugliness.

What is clearer in 2008, is that Barack Obama was elected as the first African American president of the United States. And as I’ve said before, even if you stand across the aisle politically from the president, you have to marvel at the symbolism—and the journey. What an amazing history—scars and all—the United States has had in its 230+ years.

Griffith continued to make films into the ’20s and some historians believe that his Orphans of the Storm was his best film ever. Though he made the transition into making “talkies” his first, Abraham Lincoln (1930) was not a hit, and The Struggle (1931) also proved to be a box office and critical disappointment and was his last film. He was fifty-six years old.

“Having for several years suffered from a drinking problem, Griffith conceived of a film that, while opposing Prohibition, reflected his own torments. The Struggle relates the story of a good-natured but weak-willed working man who succumbs to the allure of the speakeasy, causing a personal decline that nearly destroys his family.”
William M. Drew 

In a show of that film last year at  The University of Chicago they started a description of The Struggle by saying, “By 1931, Griffith was dismissed by the industry he had created.”

The final year of D.W. Griffith’s life (1948) was lived in the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood where he lived alone and reportedly spent much time in the Renaissance Bar telling stories about the good ol’ days of Hollywood. In 1953, the Directors Guild of America instituted the D.W. Griffith Award—its highest honor, but in 1999 according to Wikipedia, “the DGA Board announced that the award would be renamed the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award because Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation ‘helped foster intolerable and racial stereotypes.'”

D.W. Griffith is buried at Mount Tabor Methodist Church Graveyard in Centerfield, Kentucky.

I traded a few emails with writer/director Brian McDonald, author of The Golden Theme and The Invisible Ink blog, screenwriting teacher, and Pixar consultant (and who just happens to be black) about how he handles talking/teaching about Griffith and The Birth of a Nation, and he replied;

“There is this myth that talking about racism somehow creates it, but it is in not talking about it that we keep it going. We must talk about these things or we will never be rid of them. When we teach Birth of a Nation we have to teach both the artistry and the bigotry…I think we can take the good with the bad with those old filmmakers,
but we do have to talk about the bad. If we don’t we condone the bad with our silence.”

And that’s what I’ve tried to do in these three posts about Griffith. And one thing I did learn from Brian yesterday is that throughout the South there were postcards mass-produced of lynching of black men. “Sometimes printed in the ten of thousands….and sold in drugstores and pharmacies,” according to a BBC documentary. I understand why some would rather forget this history, and also understand why others never want it to be forgotten.

Scott W. Smith

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“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.”
Scott Simmon
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).

Related posts:

The Founder of Hollywood

Scott W. Smith


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“One of the greatest tasks of my life has been to teach that the colored man can be anything,”
Filmmaker Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951)

On Tuesday, the United States Postal Service released a stamp of producer, director, screenwriter Oscar Micheaux. This is significant for several reasons. First it shows that long before Tyler Perry and Spike Lee, and before even Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks, there was Micheaux. Though probably less known than those other filmmakers, according to The Miami Herald, “Micheaux, who died in 1951, was the first African American to produce a feature-length film — The Homesteader, in 1920 — and a sound feature-length film — The Exile — in 1931.”

In all he is said to have made 40 films, though only all or part of 15 survive.

The USPS press release says, “Micheaux thrived at a time when African-American filmmakers were rare, venues for their work were scarce, and support from the industry did not exist. Micheaux’s entrepreneurial spirit and independent vision continue to inspire new generations of filmmakers and artists.”

On Wednesday, Film Life’s 14th Annual American Black Film Festival began (June 23-26, 2010) in Miami. (I’m not sure if honoring Oscar Micheaux is on the list this year, but if you’re in that area Spike Lee will be doing a Master Class on The Art of Filmmaking Saturday, June 26 at the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach.)

The second thing about Micheaux of significance to this Screenwriting from Iowa blog is that I like to point out writers and filmmakers who come from outside Los Angeles and Micheaux was born in 1884 in Metropolis, Illinois, grew up in Great Bend, Kansas and had a farm in South Dakota. It was in South Dakota when he began writing short stories. According to IMDB, “Micheaux lost his homestead in 1915 due to financial losses caused by a drought. He moved to Sioux City, Iowa, where he established the Western Book and Supply Co. He continued to write novels, selling them himself, door-to-door.”

In case you missed that, Micheaux lived in Iowa for spell. Wrote books and sold them himself.  (My new hero.) Micheaux moved to Chicago with hopes of making one of his novels a book. Again IMDB, fills in what happened;”Micheaux returned to the white businessmen and farmers around Sioux City, Iowa, where he still maintained an office, and sold them stock in his new company. In this way he was able to raise enough capital to begin filming his novel in Chicago, which was then a major film production center.” (I swear, I couldn’t make all this stuff up if I tried.)

His first feature, The Homesteader, was made in 1919. IMDB states, “His next film, Within Our Gates (1920), was his response to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), a film that had glorified the Ku Klux Klan.” These films were known as “Race Films” or “Race Movies” intended for black audiences. Wikipedia says, “During the height of their popularity, race films were shown in as many as 1,100 theaters around the country.”  It would not be until the 50s and the modern civil rights movement when Race Films were faded out.

And the third significance to Micheaux’s stamp is the artwork was created right here in Cedar Falls, Iowa by artist Gary Kelley. The same Gary Kelley I’ve mentioned many times on this blog and who I did a multi-media project with earlier this year (Kelley’s Blues).

Anyway to honor Oscar Micheaux, Gary Kelley, and my high school creative writing teacher Annye Refoe (who just happens to be black) I am going to give away one new copy of Seattle writer/teacher Brian McDonald’s screenwriting book Invisible Ink; A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate. I own way too many books on screenwriting than I’d like to admit, but I believe that Invisible Ink is the first and only screenwriting book I own written by an African-American. Perhaps not something that needs mentioning, but in the context of Micheaux, I thought it was worth pointing out.

Anyway, I’ll send the book via the USPS with Micheaux/Kelley stamps. But here’s how I’ll pick one winner. In the spirit of Micheaux, I am working on publishing parts of this blog as a book (or two or three) and what I need are some blurbs from people who can say two or three positive sentences about me and/or Screenwriting from Iowa. (Could be longer, but doesn’t need to be.)  Put them in the comment section or email to me at info@scottwsmith.com. I’ll print the names and put them in a hat and choose a winner on next Friday (July 2, 2010).

Related Posts:
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (tip #2)
Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C)
Off-Screen Quote #15 (Edgar Degas)

Scott W. Smith

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Once Upon a Time…between 1890-1927.

The history of movies did not begin in Hollywood, California. After decades of advances in photographic techniques in the nineteenth century an inventor born in Milan, Ohio and raised (and homeschooled) in Port Huron, Michigan developed the motion picture system as we know it today. Thomas Edison (and his assistant  William K.L. Dickson) worked together on the new invention that changed the way people viewed entertainment.

Work took Edison to Canada & Kentucky before he would eventually land in New Jersey and his inventions earned him the nickname “The Wizard of Menlo Park.” (Dickson is also known to film historians as the filmmaker Fred Ott’s Sneeze in 1894.)

Edison held patents on over 900 of his inventions including the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph and around 1890 the film camera as we know it. Dickson developed the kinetograph, a sprocket camera and George Eastman (of Eastman-Kodak fame) developed the 35mm film that would pass through the camera and capture multiple images quickly.  (A technique commonly used for the last 100+ years in the film industry.)

The main problem with the early camera was it was so large it had to be permanently housed in a studio built in West Orange, New Jersey specifically for it. The studio had a track in it that allowed them to rotate camera positions to capture light coming from an opening in a room.

It’s important to look back at the early developments in film history to how Hollywood became Hollywood as we know it and why recent inventions have shifted the direction for the future of the film industry.

In the years leading up to 1900 the popularity of film grew rapidly. First using machines that allowed people to individually watch short films and evolving to nickelodeons in 1905 that projected the film images in storefronts that allowed small groups of people to watch the same film together. Within two years there were close to 4,000 nickelodeon theaters in the U.S.

New films had to be made quickly as audiences grew. And film moved from showing vaudeville acts such as juggling to telling stories. These films were usually less than ten minutes in length and made in a couple days. In 1903 Edwin S. Porter made the 12-minute film The Great Train Robbery which was seen as groundbreaking for its use of indoor/outdoor shots and use of cross cutting.  The film toured the country for years.

This all set the stage for a stage actor and playwright named D.W. Griffith in 1908 to make the film The Adventures of Dollie. Films began to grow in length as well as artistic merdits—as well becoming more economically viable.

Griffith changed the direction of the film industry in 1915 with the release of the longest and most expensive film ever made, The Birth of a Nation. The $100,000 film made $50 million dollars at the box office.

Distribution rights and patent infringements all played a roll in this emerging and profitable new industry.  New Jersey, New York (as well as Chicago and Jacksonville) all played a roll in the early development of movies. The New York area and Chicago were a natural start because that’s where the stage talent was located and Jacksonville for its warmer weather and sunshine. But there would be a shift in the film industry. (A common theme we’ll see.)

The industry eventually landed in southern California because of its combination of sunshine, warm weather and the diversity of nearby locations such as mountains, deserts, oceans, cities, open ranch land—and cheap labor. Remember places like New York and Chicago had a long established theater and vaudeville companies that were very popular. Experienced talent does not come cheap. (But producers were just as interested in producing cost efficient films as producers today. So a new industry was born on the backs of those with little or no experience in the new industry. Sound familiar?)

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica by 1915 there were 15,000 people working in the film industry and 60% was located in southern California. During this time films were all black and white and silent. The format worked well for the antics of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the beauty and talent of Mary Pickford.

But that would all change as well in 1927 as talkies came on the scene as we’ll learn in Once Upon a Time… (part 3).

Scott W. Smith

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The movie The Greatest Story Every Told is not considered a great movie. Nor is it the greatest movie made on the life of Christ. Nor is it the biggest box office maker on the life of Christ. Nor is it the most viewed film on the life of Christ. But you have to agree it’s the boldest title ever given a film.

Easter Sunday seems like a fitting time to look at Christ in the movies.

From Christ as a character first appearing on film in 1898 in The Passion Play of Oberammergau, to D.W. Griffith’s epic Birth of a Nation in 1915, to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in 2004, to three films in ’09 that feature Christ there doesn’t seem to be any limit to the fascination over Jesus Christ. He has been the subject of many a film and has attracted some of top filmmakers including Scorsese, Pasolini, Zeffirelli, Goddard and George Stevens.

While there are 44 films with James Bond as a character, there are according to IMDB 276 films featuring Christ. (Though I should mention The Devil/Satan/Lucifer/etc. is featured 497 film and TV programs.) Here’s just a partial list of films with a Christ character: 

The Last Temptation of Christ
Jesus of Nazareth
The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ Superstar
The Gospel of John
The Miracles of Christ
The Miracle Maker
Hail Mary
Ben Hur
The King of Kings
The Robe
Monty Python’s Life of Brian
Jesus of Montreal
The Book of Life
The Passion of the Christ
Jesus (2000)
Jesus (1979)

That 1979 film version of Jesus according to the New York Times is the most viewed motion picture of all time. It’s estimated to have been viewed more than 5 billion times. Though the actual number who have seen the film is debated, but there isn’t any debate on it being the most viewed film ever. This is largely do the the efforts of The JESUS Film project, a Christian organization who has not only translated the film into over 300 languages but has teams of people that take the film into churches, cities, towns, and villages around the world showing the film everyday.

The film was written by Barnet Bain (based on the Gospel of Luke), directed by John Krish and Peter Sykes, and stars Brian Decon. Not exactly household names so something else must be drawing all those viewers. 

From a storytelling perspective, even if you don’t believe in the resurrection of Christ (or the existence of a historical Christ) you have to look at all the movies (and books, songs, videos, and TV programs) that have flowed from this figure and think there must be something to this being the greatest story ever told.   


Scott W. Smith

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