From The Kentucky Encyclopedia -
The motion picture producer D.W. Griffith was born on January 22, 1875, on a 264-acre farm in Oldham County , Kentucky, some twenty miles from Louisville. His mother, the former Mary Oglesby, came from a prosperous Oldham County family. His father, Jacob Wark Griffith, commanded a Confederate cavalry company as part of the Kentucky Brigade throughout the Civil War. Griffith was ten years old when his father died, leaving the family in debt. In 1889 Mary Griffith moved with her children to Louisville, where she took in boarders. Griffith quit school in 1890 and worked as a clerk until 1896, when he signed on as an actor with a touring stock company. For the next ten years, Griffith had only very modest success as an actor. He moved from Louisville in 1899, living first in New York City and then in San Francisco, where he met Linda Arvidson Johnson, an actress whom he married on May 14, 1906.
Griffith and his wife settled in New York City, where he completed writing the play The Fool and the Girl, which closed after a brief run. To tide him over while he pursued his career as a playwright, Griffith sought employment in the fledgling motion picture industry. His first role as a film actor was in the Edison Company's Rescued from the Eagle's Nest (1908). Soon after, he was hired by the Biograph Company, where acting led to work as a writer of scenarios and then as a director, beginning with The Adventures of Dolly, released in July 1908. Griffith's tenure at Biograph from 1908 to 1913 was extraordinary; working with soon-to-be-famous performers like Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, Griffith directed more than 450 short films, specializing in melodramas, literary adaptations, historical dramas, and films about contemporary social problems. More important, Griffith contributed much to the development of film as a narrative art through his ability to orchestrate actors, sets, camera movement, and lighting in the staging of individual scenes. Through his experiments with editing, he greatly refined the techniques of closeups, for example, and suspenseful cross-cutting. Griffith also made films of unusual length, and the culmination of his career at Biograph was the four-reel Judith of Bethulia (1913), a biblical-era spectacle.
The following year Griffith left Biograph and began work on his most famous film, The Birth of a Nation (1915). Based on Thomas Dixon's The Clansman, a novel glorifying the heroic exploits of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction, the twelve-reel Birth cost more than $100,000 to produce. It epitomizes Griffith's technical virtuosity as well as his preoccupation with the melodramatic struggle between good and evil. Birth also perpetuates the worst nineteenth century racist stereotypes, and at the time of its initial release was the subject of vigorous protest by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). This controversy, however, only added to its box office revenues, which are estimated to have been at least $60 million.
Buoyed by the success of Birth, Griffith began an even more ambitious epic, Intolerance (1916), which combines stories from four historical periods. For all its spectacular sets and lavish attention to detail, Intolerance did not fare as well as Birth, nor did any of the subsequent twenty-six films Griffith directed between 1917 and 1931, although several of these films are noteworthy, especially Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921), and America (1924). In 1919 Griffith formed the United Artists company with the three major stars of American film, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford. He also invested (and lost) much of his personal fortune in building his own studio in Mamaroneck, New York. After the motion picture industry adopted sound in the late 1920s, Griffith produced only two talkies, Abraham Lincoln (1930) and The Struggle (1931). The failure of The Struggle for all purposes ended Griffith's career in the movies, though he continued to write and to plan various projects.
Griffith retained an attachment to his Kentucky roots, and during the later 1930s he spent much of his time in his home state. Griffith died on July 23, 1948, and was buried at Mt. Tabor Christian Church in Oldham County, where he had worshipped as a child.
GREGORY A. WALLER, Entry Author
Selected Sources from UK Libraries:
Brown, K. (1973). Adventures with D. W. Griffith. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
PN1998.A3 G7216, Young Library - 5th Floor
Henderson, R. (1972). D. W. Griffith: His life and work. New York: Oxford University Press.
PN1998.A3 G748, Young Library - 5th Floor
Gunning, T. (1991). D.W. Griffith and the origins of American narrative film : The early years at Biograph. Urbana: University of Illinois Press
PN1998.3.G76 G8 1991, Young Library - 5th Floor