D.W. Griffith

D.W. Griffith is the father of modern film language. Most famous for his explorations in editing and crosscutting, his refinements include attention to screen composition, the development of a more sophisticated acting style, the use of rhythmic editing to build a scene and create tension and evocative use of long shots, medium shots and close-ups. He built the conventions of cinematic storytelling by adapting the conventions of literature to the visual medium.

Born in 1875 in Oldham County, Kentucky, the son of a former Confederate soldier whose death left the family struggling, David Llewelyn Wark Griffith aspired to be a playwright and took a job as an actor in the fledgling film industry only as a temporary measure; his debut, RESCUED FROM THE EAGLE'S NEST (1908), was directed by pioneer Edwin S. Porter. He soon began writing and directing films for the Biograph Company, averaging two and a half films a week between 1908 and 1913. The result is quite literally hundreds of one- and two-reel films where he refined his ideas for visual storytelling in such productions as A CORNER IN WHEAT (1909), THE GIRL AND HER TRUST(1912) and the sweeping proto-western THE BATTLE OF ELDERBUSH GULCH (1913), which anticipates the climactic rush of landmark feature film, BIRTH OF A NATION (1915). Although controversial for its racist and demeaning portrayals of African Americans, BIRTH OF A NATION is arguably the single most influential film in the history of cinema for its narrative ambition, inventive techniques and sophisticated storytelling. It was also a smash hit that gave Griffith carte blanche for his next project, the even more ambitious INTOLERANCE (1916), a massive production that proved to be a financial failure. He returned to projects of lesser ambition but managed to make a few more grand-scale films throughout the next decade.

Despite a number of successes, such as the epic WAY DOWN EAST (1920) and the intimate TRUE HEART SUSIE (1919), he developed a reputation for extravagance and sentimentality and found work harder to obtain. After the financial failure of ORPHANS OF THE STORM (1921), his French Revolution epic, and ISN'T LIFE WONDERFUL (1924) along with problems caused by his own financial mismanagement, he finished out the decade with smaller films, such as the circus romance SALLY OF THE SAWDUST (1925). During the transition to sound, he was only able to complete ABRAHAM LINCOLN (1930) and THE STRUGGLE (1931) before he was branded old-fashioned and unemployable. Griffith was awarded an honorary Academy Award® in 1935 for his contributions to the motion picture arts but he was unable to use this opportunity to generate a comeback. He died in 1948 at Hollywood's Knickerbocker Hotel.
- Sean Axmaker


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