Griffith, the southern racist who reinvented cinema

His great-grandfather was a landowner who participated in the American War of Independence. His grandfather, a Western explorer who fought against the Indians. His father, a Confederate Army officer who fought in the Civil War. With these ancestors, it is no wonder that David Wark Griffith became what he was: a southern gentleman, a man marked by traditions and the southern way of life, with all the burden of racism (his family had slaves), conservatism and resentment against the north that it entailed.

Griffith was born in Crestwood, Kentucky on January 22, 1875. He was the sixth of seven children. Before the war, his father was a prosperous farmer. But after the defeat, he began to have financial difficulties. His death in 1885 was traumatic for the family. Griffith’s mother was forced to sell the farm and emigrate to the city of Louisville. There he opened a guest house, but it did not work.

Griffith had to drop out of school to help support the family. He was fourteen years old. He was an elevator operator, newspaper salesman and, thanks to his love of reading, clerk in a bookstore. This last job allowed him to strengthen ties with the cultural life of the city. He became fond of the theater. He wrote reviews and even tried to write, without much success, his own works. Determined to succeed in that world, he tried his luck as an actor.

Portrait of DW Griffith in 1922.

Public domain

Started in a company amateur and, little by little, he was making a dent as a professional. To keep your mother from feeling ashamed, he acted under a pseudonym. During those years he met actress Linda Arvidson, whom he married in 1906. A year later, beset by lack of work, Griffith came into contact with the cinematographer, considered at that time as mere entertainment.

He tried it as a writer, but was rejected. In exchange they offered him a job as an actor. Resigned, he accepted it. We are in 1908. Griffith is 33 years old, he is a mediocre actor and a frustrated playwright. Months later, his luck would change.

Innovative and classist

Of a persevering nature, Griffith kept trying to sell his stories. Finally, a company, the Biograph, bet on him. From that moment on everything went smoothly. He worked as an actor and storyteller until one day they offered him to try as a director. His first movie, The Adventures of Dollie (1908), it was a success. In the following not only did he learn the trade, but he perfected it.

Still from 'Intolerance', a Griffith film that turned out to be a cinematic prodigy, but a box office flop.

Still from ‘Intolerance’, a Griffith film that turned out to be a cinematic prodigy, but a box office flop.

Public domain

He was discovering and using technical and narrative resources that today seem normal to us: the close-up, the flashback, the alternate montage, the fades… The synthesis of all this was the monumental The birth of a nation (1915), a film of unusual length for the time (more than three hours) that broke all records at the box office and marked a milestone in the history of cinema.

But the film also became famous for other reasons: its message against the liberation of slaves and in favor of the Ku Klux Klan. Griffith, as a man raised in the south, I saw that racism as something natural. So when the film sparked backlash (including altercations in northern cinemas), defended himself by appealing to freedom of expression.

His answer was Intolerance (1916), a great artistic achievement, but a huge financial fiasco. Suspicious of megalomania in the eyes of the big studios, in 1919 Griffith joined Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford – three of the most sought-after artists of the moment. to found United Artists. The goal was to achieve more creative and financial independence.

Griffith, Pickford, Chaplin, y Fairbanks, fundadores de la United Artists.

In the foreground, Griffith, Pickford, Chaplin and Fairbanks, founders of United Artists.

Public domain

Unlike his partners, the box office began to turn its back on him, so he ended up leaving the company. He considered one of the fathers of cinema I was starting to make movies that were too outdated. As with many others, the arrival of sound precipitated his downfall.

Forgotten by the industry he helped create, Griffith lived his last years between Hollywood and Kentucky accompanied by his new wife, a 26-year-old actress. After divorcing her, he took refuge in drinking.

On July 23, 1948, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage, after being found unconscious in a hotel lobby. Few personalities attended his funeral. Among them, her friend and muse, Lillian Gish, y Chaplin, who did not hesitate to qualify him as the “master of us all.”

This article was published in issue 562 of the magazine History and Life. Do you have something to contribute? Write to us at [email protected]