Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The First Ever Hollywood Film

Recognized as one of the founding fathers of the American film industry, David Wark Griffith, known as D. W. Griffith, was born 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, 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
Around this time, Griffith began taking advantage of Louisville's rich theatrical life, saving a few cents each week for a cheap seat at one of the city's many playhouses. After failing to establish himself as a playwright, he decided to pursue a career on the stage, making his acting debut in an amateur production of The District School. He subsequently left home and joined a travelling theatre company, performing under the name of Lawrence Griffith. The first record of Griffith the actor appeared in a few lines of small type in the New York Dramatic Mirror for May 23, 1896. It said simply that an actor named Robert Haight produced and starred in a production of Richard Edwards' 16th-century Greek fable Damon and Pythias for «a small but well-please audience» at the Opera House in New Albany, Indiana, adding that Carroll Hyde as Lucullus and Lawrence Griffith as Dyonisius «were excellent.» Griffith spent the next ten years acting whenever he could and, when he could not, toiling on a lumber schooner along the west coast, picking hops in California and working as an iron puddler in an upstate New York foundry.

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, 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
In early 1908, Griffith began working as a writer and actor for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, which would soon change its name to simply Biograph Company. The first corporation in the United States devoted entirely to motion picture production and exhibition, Biograph had been founded in 1895 by William Kennedy Dickson, an inventor at Thomas Edison's laboratory who helped develop the technology of capturing moving images on film. Biograph's first studio was located on the roof of 841 Broadway at 13th Street in Manhattan, before the company moved in 1906 to a converted brownstone mansion at 11 East 14th Street near Union Square, a building that was demolished in the 1960s.

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 decided to sign Griffith to direct or supervise all of the company's films. Before the year's end, Griffith would helm another 48 short features 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
In January 1910, Griffith took the Biograph acting company — along with Frank Powell (as co-manager and assistant director), two cameramen (including Billy Bitzer) and a prop boy — to California to finish filming scenes for The Newlyweds (1910), a 16-minute comedy starring Mary Pickford and Arthur V. Johnson. The story, about a girl who falls in love and then runs away with a Native American boy, took place on a California ranch. The rough New York winter was not quite the atmosphere he was looking for, so Griffith chose to complete the picture in Los Angeles, where the outdoor scenery would be more authentic. He also wanted to determine the suitability of the area for a permanent Biograph studio in California. Although Broadway was the center for the American entertainment industry in 1910, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce was trying to entice the motion picture companies to come to the sunny west coast, where filming on location was possible all year round.

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 were forced to 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)
In 1910, the village of Los Angeles was linked to the small suburb of Hollywood by a dirt road called Sunset Boulevard, which would inspire the iconic Billy Wilder film of the same name four decades later. The streets of Hollywood were unpaved, the gardens spilled right on the roadway and the landscape was made of sagebush, swaying palms and fields filled with tall grass and wildflowers.

After Griffith and his players finished production on The Newlyweds, they decided to travel to Hollywood, which they had heard was a rather friendly community. While there, Griffith shot In Old California (1910), the first picture to be entirely filmed in Hollywood. This 17-minute costume melodrama was photographed by Billy Bitzer and starred Marion Leonard, Frank Powell, Arthur V. Johnson and Henry B. Walthall. Apparently, it was during the making of In Old California that Griffith uttered the now famous catchphrase «Lights, camera, action!» for the first time in history.

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.

Premiering on March 10, 1910, In Old California was considered lost for many decades until it was finally found in 2004 and screened at the Beverly Hills Film Festival, marking the first time the film had been seen by the public in 94 years. On May 6, 2004, a monument built by the Hollywood Forever Cemetery to honor the film was erected at 1713 Vine Street, just north of Hollywood Boulevard, close to the site on which In Old California was shot. In April 2005, the 2.8-ton monument was stolen over night under mysterious circumstances, but it was recovered almost a year later near a garbage bin not far from where it used to stand on Vine Street. For a long time, the first film thought shot in Hollywood was Cecil B. DeMille's western drama The Squaw Man (1914), starring Dustin Farnum, which indeed holds the record of the first feature-lenght picture produced there. However, the discovery of In Old California made it the first movie of any lenght ever filmed in Hollywood.

Bringing Up Oscar: The Story of the Men and Women Who Founded the Academy by Debra Ann Pawlak (Pegasus, 2012)
D. W. Griffith: An American Life by Richard Schickel (Limelight Editions, 1996)
D. W. Griffith: Master of Cinema by Ira H. Gallen (Friesen Press, 2015)
Mary Pickford: Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart by Peggy Dymond Leavey (Dundurn, 2011)
The Films of D. W. Griffith by Scott Simon (Cambridge University Press, 1993) 
In Old California film ad 

1 comment:

  1. I'm reading a really great book at the moment, Silent Movies: The Birth of Film an the Triumph of Movies by Peter Kobel, and the history of film really is FASCINATING. I've only recently delved into silent films (it took me a long, LONG, LONG time) but I'm glad I did. Great post :)