D.W. Griffith

Filmmaker

Born: 22 January 1875
Died: 21 July 1948
Birthplace: La Grange, Kentucky
Best known as: Ground-breaking director of Birth of a Nation

Name at birth: David Wark Griffith

D.W. Griffith was an American filmmaker who is considered by many to be the most influential figure in the history of cinema. He began his career as a stage actor and writer in the first part of the 20th century. He took his stories to the early movie studios, landing at the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company in 1908. Until 1913 Griffith oversaw the production of almost all of Biograph's movies, more than 450 films. He joined Reliance-Majestic's studios, taking most of his regular actors and technicians, including his best cameraman, G.W. "Billy" Blitzer. The quality of Griffith's productions was generally considered superior to his contemporaries, and his projects became more ambitious than the standard one-reel films. His three-hour feature The Birth of a Nation (1915) was a stunning success and is considered the most important film in the development of cinema as an art. Its racism -- the protagonists are members of the Ku Klux Klan -- keeps it from being enjoyed as a cinematic experience, but as an item of historical interest it includes all of Griffith's innovations in the language of cinema: cross-cutting, close-ups, parallel narratives, camera movement and more restrained acting.

His next film, Intolerance (released in 1916), was equally ambitious but a financial disaster. In 1915 he joined with Mack Sennett and Thomas Ince to form the Triangle Corporation, but the venture failed and Griffith left in 1917. He continued making movies, having success especially with Way Down East (1920), but most of his films during the '20s lost money, including those he made with United Artists, the studio he co-founded with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin. As silent movies were replaced by talkies, Griffith's position in the film industry waned. His last feature, The Struggle (1931), was a failure. Although he was no longer making movies, he was honored in 1935 with a special Oscar. His other films include Broken Blossoms (1919), Orphans of the Storm (1922) and Abraham Lincoln (1930).

Extra credit: Griffith had a long working relationship with actress Lillian Gish.

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