In This Article D.W. Griffith

  • Introduction
  • Archival Sources
  • Memoirs
  • Griffith on Stage
  • The Birth of a Nation (1915)
  • Intolerance (1916)
  • Pastoral Features (1919–1923)

Cinema and Media Studies D.W. Griffith
by
Russell Merritt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0022

Introduction

David Wark Griffith (b. 1875–d. 1948) continues to generate a broad range of critical reaction. Although acknowledged as America’s seminal director of narrative film (and certainly the most influential), he is also perceived as being among the most limited. Praise for his mastery of film technique is matched by repeated indictments of his moral, artistic, and intellectual inadequacies. At one extreme he is hailed as a modernist who, especially in his early films, redefined melodrama and the way we perceive time and space; at the other he is attacked for his fervid moralizing and vulgarity. As one critic says of him, “He was an explorer, and he was lost.” Griffith became a famous filmmaker before anyone knew his name. As the anonymous director for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company (later called the Biograph Company), he made over 450 one- and two-reelers in five years and won both critical and popular acclaim. Griffith was best known for pioneering and refining the mechanics of film form, especially those related to editing, mise-en-scène, and camera composition. His Biographs also became the original showcase for actors like Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, and other Hollywood film stars. He reached the peak of his popularity and influence in features. Between 1915 and 1920, he released The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, and Way Down East. He also directed Hearts of the World, a World War I propaganda epic, alone among his early spectacles ignored today. But in 1918 it was the country’s most popular war film, and it rivaled The Birth of a Nation and Way Down East as the most profitable of all Griffith’s features. Griffith also made a much different sort of movie—the pastoral romance. Made on small budgets, Griffith’s pastorals have also received serious critical attention, especially among modern critics. Set in rural towns, Romance of Happy Valley, True Heart Susie, and The Greatest Question are notable for a near-absence of action sequences and overt physical struggles. The main figures (played by Lillian Gish and Bobby Harron) appeared to emerge independent of story line. Even his final rural drama, The White Rose, made with Mae Marsh and set in the Louisiana bayous, has attracted latter-day admirers. He lost his audiences in the mid-1920s and never regained them, although several of his late films—especially “Isn’t Life Wonderful?” Battle of the Sexes, and The Struggle—have been used to argue against the conventional notion of Griffith’s “decline.” Filmmakers ranging from Eisenstein and Abel Gance to Renoir, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and Akira Kurosawa have acknowledged their debt to Griffith, but characteristic of his topsy-turvy reputation, in 1999 the Directors Guild of America removed Griffith’s name from their D. W. Griffith Award for fear of offending recipients.

General Overviews

Griffith, a master showman, promoted himself and his work from the moment he emerged from anonymity in 1914. Highly stylized studio accounts of his life and work became the basis of most career articles, which formed an echo chamber of critical reaction and chatter. Although serious criticism of individual films were published both in the United States and abroad while Griffith was active, serious attempts at assessing his career were limited to general film histories that started appearing in the 1930s. Several attempts at biographies were also started in this period, but none were ever completed.

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