W.D. Griffith, ‘The Great Director.’ Now here is a difficult subject. Hailed as a genius in his lifetime, he is now looked at in a slightly different light. Firstly, many of his ‘firsts’ were not firsts at all, but repeats of things done by other American and European directors. Secondly, he was not the amiable father figure that many of the early silent stars said he was. Throughout her book, When the Movies were Young the ex-Mrs Griffith has us reading between the lines, when she calls Griffith ‘The Great Director’ or ‘The Great Man.’ In other places she details his bad temper, telling how, as an actor, he would get so wound up that, when he got home, he’d punch holes in the doors. On one occasion his wife had gone out and picked bunches of wild flowers to brighten up their dingy apartment. Griffith threw them out of the window, saying “We don’t need flowers, we need money!”
So who was D.W. Griffith?
Griffith was a Kentuckian born in 1875, and partially raised on a farm. His family had fought on the Confederate side during the Civil War, and it is useful to remember that he never forgot that the South had lost the war. However, the idea that his father was a war hero known as ‘Roaring Jake’ has been disproved. He was, in fact, a hopeless alcoholic. His claim that he was descended from the Kings of Wales, can neither be proved nor disproved, as the last claimant to that title had died 500 years before Griffith’s time. D.W. ended up working the theater in San Francisco, and, when things were slack he went hop-picking. His other occupation, writing plays, was relatively unsuccessful. He left San Francisco in 1906 for Boston, but was soon followed by his fiancé, Linda Arvidson, who had been made homeless in the famous earthquake. They were married in New York, where they eventually found work in the theater. Around 1908, Griffith, and wife, found acting work at Biograph studios, 11 14th Street for $5 a day. Importantly, Griffith was able to sell stories to the studio at $15 a shot. By sheer fluke, the then director became ill, and was replaced by Griffith. His director’s pay was $45 a week, and his royalties reached $500 a month by the year’s end.
The Great Director
Over the following few years virtually all the early stars of the silent era passed through the doors of Biograph. The first ‘Biograph Girl’ was Florence Lawrence, who was replaced by Mary Pickford, when Lawrence left the studio. Mary was already at Biograph, when a model by the name of Mabel Normand wandered in. Mary saw her sitting alone in the dressing room, awaiting an audience with the Great Griffith. Thinking Mabel was about to make a run for it, Mary ran for Griffith, and told him there was a new girl in the studio. “Oh, what another boring blond?”, he said.”No, no she’s got shiny black hair and eyelashes two inches long!” ‘Are you sure they’re two inches long?” asked Griffith. ‘Well, perhaps half-an-inch” she said, pulling Griffith towards the dressing room. The rest is history, and Mabel, after one abortive start, began her astonishing career.
One thing we have to say about Griffith was that he treated his people as though they were imbeciles. Rather than see how an actor or actress could carry a part, he would mold them into the shape he wanted. Mary Pickford tells how he would grab her by the shoulders, and try to shake some acting ability into her. On one occasion, while in a great rage, Griffith threw her bodily across the set, almost breaking her arm. He would also verbally abuse actresses, calling Mary Pickford “too fat” and Blanche Sweet, “too skinny.” Any reluctance by a member of the company to play a particular part, was punished by loss of a leading part in the next one or two pictures. This happened to Mary, Mabel and Blanche, when all refused to bare their legs for Man’s Genesis. Griffith made sure they lost good parts in several succeeding films. Mabel, however, was one actress Griffith could not tame. Mabel could never be serious, and would often laugh at Griffith’s attempts to ‘mold’ her. Griffith would try to torture the recalcitrant ex-model by forcing
her to do super-fast changes of expression. However, Mabel was a natural ‘woman of a thousand faces’, and, however hard Griffith tried, he could not beat Mabel’s lightning reflexes. Nonetheless, she later gave Griffith the credit for developing her trademark plastic face. Griffith was to leave Mabel behind on the first Biograph trip to the west coast, supposedly as punishment for mocking him behind his back, while distracting the actress he was trying to direct. Unfortunately, some of the young actresses had come to worship at the altar of the goddess Mabel. In Los Angeles, on the 2nd west coast trip, Dorothy Gish and Gertrude Bambrick decided to be Mabel Normand, and slipped their chaperones for the purpose of hitting both the town and the booze. Griffith and Dell Henderson spent almost a day searching for them, eventually capturing them before they could carry out their plan. Dorothy Gish, it should be said, was as insolent as Mabel towards Griffith, on one occasion calling him “a hook-nosed Kike”. Unsurprisingly, Dorothy never got on as well as less talented sibling Lilian Gish. As for Mabel, she never gave up tormenting ‘The Master’. During the 1920s a reporter noticed a huge diamond on her finger. “Oh that” said Mabel mockingly” It was given to me by Griffith, for being such a great actress.” Griffith got his comeuppance in 1916, when he looked out from his Reliance-Majestic studio and saw Mabel’s name, in 8 feet high letters, go up on her own newly-built studio, not two blocks away.
The West Coast Beckons Again
On the Griffith company’s return to New York, many of the actors that had been left behind were re-engaged. Mabel had spent time at Vitagraph, learning comedy with veterans Flora Finch and John Bunny, although it was reported that she’d had a try-out at the Kessell and Baumann film company, Reliance. Apparently, the director found her to be ‘unacceptable’ and dismissed her [Endnote]. She returned to Biograph at a time when the company was considering setting up a comedy unit. However, Griffith mocked Mabel’s attempts at comedy, saying she was a dyed- in-the-wool tragedian. He would say that, as he utilized Mabel for tragic roles in which she usually died. Mabel was no fool, and realized that if she wanted to survive into the last reel, she would need to develop a different persona. With the onset of winter the company again set out for the land of the orange groves, where Mabel was again put into the tragic roles in which she excelled. It was soon noted by the other actors that Mabel was also a proficient comedienne, although Griffith remained unconvinced.
Griffith, probably to his bitter regret, never realized the ability Mabel possessed. When Mack Sennett took over as director of the comedy unit in 1912, Griffith gladly handed her over to the Irishman. Mabel later said she would never forgive Griffith for palming her off, but it was clearly a good move for her professionally. Mabel soon left for the new Keystone studio, leaving Griffith to his fast disappearing dramatic stars. Griffith himself was to depart by the end of that year.
Griffith left Biograph over disagreements about the escalating costs of his films.He now signed with Mutual, where he created his own studio within the company. The great director had many ideas, which involved very costly feature films. It was at the new studio that he finally produced his 1915 masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation (formerly a stage play called The Clansman). This film was undoubtedly a masterpiece, and it grossed $15 million dollars at the box office. The picture, however, caused chaos wherever it was shown, due to its portrayal of black people. In many towns riots ensued, due to Griffith’s attempt bring back the beliefs of the past, all supposedly terminated by the Civil War. The Ku Klux Klan, thought to have been extinct, rode in again on the back of Griffith’s film. The man himself wanted to show the absurdity and cruelty of the North’s
putting down of the white population of the South following the Civil War. Black savages in the State Legislature, armed black men forcing whites from their home – all had a very small grain of truth. Fortunately, according to Griffith, the Ku Klux Klan intervened, and rescued the white folks from destruction. It does appear that Griffith intended not only to draw attention to the past, but to warn of what could happen in the future. This touched a nerve with some Americans, who began to take white supremacy to heart, and even create the KKK all over again. The present day KKK dates from this time.
Following the intense criticism of the racism of The Birth of a Nation, Griffith and his company, made moves to salvage the situation. His next film, Intolerance, set out to document the intolerance of the past, and reject all forms of racial supremacy. A difficult, and even painful, film to watch it was accepted as recompense for Griffith’s previous prejudiced views, and various new ways to use a camera were tried out in its production. The huge Babylonian set used for the film was a great wonder, but due to Griffith running out of money the crumbling set remained for several years, until the fire authorities ordered its demolition. In fact, Griffith was forced to buy out the film for $1-million, something that crippled him financially for the rest of his life.
In 1919, Griffith set up the distribution company United Artists, along with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. Some of the films Griffith made for United Artists were successful, such as Way Down East, but others were not, prompting Griffith to leave United Artists. Griffith continued making films up until 1931, after which he only contributed to other people’s pictures. His downward spiral had begun in 1925, when Lillian Gish finally left his studio. Except, of course, she didn’t leave – he forced her out, by starring Carole Dempster in his films. The man’s ego was so big, he thought he could force a plain-looking, mediocre actress on the public, and get away with it. He never had a successful picture again. Griffith was awarded a special Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences during the mid-1930s. Griffith died from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1948, while in the lobby of the Knickerbocker Hotel in L.A. A large public service was held in his honor at the Hollywood Masonic Temple, which was attended by a few stars. He was buried at Mount Tabor Methodist Church Graveyard in Centerfield, Kentucky. In 1950, The Directors Guild of America provided a stone and bronze monument for his grave site. A floral tribute was laid by Mary Pickford.
Characterizing the Great Director.
Trying to sum up D.W. Griffith is like trying to describe Alexander The Great. Either you think him a genius, or you think he was an evil tyrant, who stole his greatness from somebody else. Undoubtedly, he brought new techniques to the American film industry, and was brave enough to produce multi-reel films. On the negative side, it is apparent that Griffith was a foul-tempered sort, who abused his performers both mentally and physically, and festered bad will within those, like Dorothy Gish and Mabel Normand, who stood up to him. A small number of these refused to have their names changed by the great man, and they suffered at Biograph as a result. One thing Griffith loved to do was set off a gun close a young actress’ head. He thought it great fun to do this to little Mae Marsh. Another time he chased the Gish sisters around the set firing a pistol into the ceiling.
Although Mary Pickford claimed to have stood firm against Griffith, it does seem that she was acquiescent to his demands, and only protested by leaving Biograph. As a result, she fared better than anyone, but this fact has led to suspicions that Griffith ran a casting couch. Pickford appears to have had a back-street abortion, which resulted in sterility, while at Biograph, and it has been said the pregnancy had nothing to do with later husband Owen Moore. Griffith’s wife, Linda Arvidson separated from him in 1911, for reasons never explained. As for Mabel, it seems she never truly regarded him as a friend. In all probability she saw Griffith as a necessary acquaintance, to whom she paid reluctant lip service. In old Hollywood there was a saying about Griffith that went like this “First he got rid of Mary Pickford, then he got rid of Lillian Gish, then he got rid of himself.” As an epilogue, we can ponder the strange fact that Lillian Gish spent her later years praising Griffith, and raising his status to legendary heights.
In conclusion, then, we can say that Griffith was a director of genius status, but one whose character was essentially flawed.
Endnote: Photoplay, January 1924
King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).
Love, Laughter and tears: My Hollywood Story by Adela Rogers St. Johns (1978).
Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).
When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1924).
Mabel Normand’s Own Life Story by Chandler Sprague. Los Angeles Examiner February 17, 1924