Recognized as one of the founding fathers of the American film industry, David Wark Griffith, known as D. W. Griffith, was born on a farm in Crestwood, Kentucky on January 22, 1875. He was the fourth son of Mary Perkins Oglesby, a devout Methodist who came from a prominent Southern family; and Jacob Wark Griffith, a Confederate States Army colonel who had fought in the American Civil War. When Jacob died suddenly in 1885, the Griffith family was left in debt-ridden poverty. Four years later, David moved with his mother and siblings to nearby Louisville, where they were forced to take in boarders to make ends meet. After school, David would help the family by working as a newspaper boy and selling vinegar on commission to local grocers. In 1890, he abandoned high school to seek full-employment. He briefly worked as a cash boy at the J. C. Lewis Dry Goods store, before his boss promoted him to running the elevator. In 1893, he took a job as a clerk at Flexner's Book Store, Louisville's leading book shop at the time, as well as one of the city's centers of intellectual and artistic life. The atmosphere around the Flexner shop not only refined Griffith's literary tastes, but also encouraged his ambition for a career in art.
|D. W. Griffith ca. late 1890s|
During play rehearsals when he was not needed on stage, Griffith continued to write, still wishing to become a great playwright. In 1907, James K. Hackett finally agreed to produce a play he had written entitled A Fool and a Girl. Unfortunately, the show was a failure, leaving Griffith and his young actress wife Linda Arvidson, whom he had married in May 1906, in serious need of money. Hoping to change their precarious financial situation, the couple travelled to New York, where Griffith tried to sell a script to Edwin S. Porter, a director, producer and cinematographer with the Edison Manufacturing Company, a pioneer motion picture organization. Four years earlier, Porter had co-written, directed, produced, photographed and edited The Great Train Robbery (1903), an innovative 12-minute Western now considered a milestone in filmmaking. Porter rejected Griffith's script, but he gave him instead a starring role in Rescued from an Eagle's Nest (1908), which also marked the screen debut of Henry B. Walthall, Griffith's frequent collaborator in later years. Attracted to the idea of acting in films, Griffith decided to explore a career in the new medium.
|The Biograph studio entrance at 11|
East 14th Street in Manhattan
When Biograph's most regular director, Wallace McCutcheon Sr., became ill in June 1908, studio head Henry "Harry" Marvin asked Griffith to replace him. Following a tutorial by cinematographer G. W. "Billy" Bitzer — his future favorite cameraman — and two days of nearby location shooting in New Jersey and Connecticut, Griffith delivered The Adventures of Dollie (1908), a 10-minute tale about a young girl who is abducted by vengeful gypsies (Griffith's wife played the girl's mother). Pleased with his work, Biograph signed Griffith to direct or supervise all of the company's films. Before the year's end, Griffith would helm another 48 shorts for Biograph.
With his privileged position at the studio, Griffith began recruiting a large and talented group of performers, including Mary Pickford and her first husband Owen Moore, Billy Quirk, Blanche Sweet, Robert Harron, Florence Auer, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Lionel Barrymore, Mabel Normand and Florence Lawrence, known at the height of her fame as "The Biograph Girl." Mack Sennett, who would later found Keystone Studios in California, also honed his craft as a comedy actor and director at Biograph. During his five years with the company, Griffith would make nearly 500 films, many of them offering nostalgic and racist visions of the Old South. He culminated his work at Biograph with his first feature-lenght picture, Judith of Bethulia (1914), an epic dramatization of the Biblical story of the Jewish heroine who saved her community from the invading Assyrians.
|D. W. Griffith at his desk in the Biograph office|
Once in Los Angeles, Griffith rented a vacant lot on the corner of Grand Avenue and Washington Street to be used for filming. Pickford later described their working studio: "Our stage consisted on an acre of ground, fenced in, and a large wooden platform, hung with cotton shades that were pulled on wires overhead. On a windy day our clothes and curtains on the set would flap loudly in the breeze. Studios were all on open lots — roofless and without walls, which explains the origin of the term 'on the lot.'" Without the luxury of dressing rooms, the actors put their costumes on before leaving their hotel each morning. Rehearsals took place in the loft of an old rented building on Main Street, where the company also stored its props and developed its films. In the evening, they would gather in the loft to watch the dailies and prepare for the next day's filming.
|View looking southeast from Franklin Avenue toward|
the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard (then
Prospect Avenue) and Orchid Avenue (1905)
An ad published by Biograph in the trade journal Moving Picture World in March 1910 called In Old California as "a romance of the Spanish dominion," adding a short description of its storyline:
The story told in this Biograph subject is of the early days of Southern California before and after Mexican independence was proclaimed. A young Mexican girl rejects her Spanish suitor in favor of a handsome young Mexican troubadour, only to rue it, for her husband proves to be a disreputable wretch. Twenty years later we find her in profound distress as to the future of her young son. The father's conduct being anything but exemplary, she intercedes with her former sweetheart, who is now Governor, and he takes him into his army. Here the blood of the father is evident in the son, for he is a born profligate. Still, the Governor keeps this from the mother, who dis believing her son a hero.
Bringing Up Oscar: The Story of the Men and Women Who Founded the Academy by Debra Ann Pawlak (2012) | D. W. Griffith: An American Life by Richard Schickel (1996) | D. W. Griffith: Master of Cinema by Ira H. Gallen (2015) | Mary Pickford: Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart by Peggy Dymond Leavey (2011) | The Films of D. W. Griffith by Scott Simon (1993) | In Old California film ad | IMDb