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D.W. Griffith

November 25, 1996

David Wark Griffith could be considered the founder of film art. That is to say that he was the first person to change movie making from cheap novelty to expressive art form. Born in Oldham County, Kentucky on January 22, 1875, he didn't start out very successfuly. A failure as a playwright, he had only one of his plays produced. When he moved into film, he didn't expect to last long at the job. That gave him time to experiment with the medium, testing the boundaries and limits of his time and finding new ways to tell stories. Legendary filmaker Edwin S. Porter first introduced Griffith to the film world as an actor, not long after Griffith had tried to pitch one of his stories to Porter. When he got his first chance to direct in 1907, he proved himself quite capable of handling the job. Between 1907 and 1913, he worked mainly for Biograph studios, drilling out two-and-a-half short films a week on average.

Among the young actresses whom he worked with and whose careers he helped boost during this time were Mary Pickford and the Gish sisters (Lillian and Dorothy). In 1913, he left Biograph to make feature-length films. In 1915, a new era began. That was the year that Griffith's classic Civil War-Reconstruction Epic, The Birth of a Nation, was released. It brought Griffith huge critical and public acclaim and establishing his name in the history books. It was also infamous because of the riots that took place at theatres screening the picture. The main reason for the riots seemed to be because of Griffith's whitewashing of the Ku Klux Klan and his harsh vision of black people as brutes and lazy oafs. Yet despite such huge problems as this, the movie also dazzled audiences with the brilliant new technical achievements and sweeping epic frame.

Griffith's follow-ups are also great classics, though nowhere near as popular and notorious as Birth was. His next epic, Intolerance (1916), was a box-office failure when first released, but is now regarded as one of Griffith's and filmdom's best cinema works. After making dozens of films during the silent era, he made only two sound films. They were Abraham Lincoln (1930) and The Struggle (1931), which were partially hampered by Griffith's excessive drinking during the production of the two films. Many years later, after a long bout with alcoholism and having been rejected by the industry that he helped to create, he died on July 23, 1948. It was not until much later that his name was finally put up with the ranks of such directors as John Ford, Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Sergei Eisenstein and Otto Preminger. Most of the directors mentioned above were heavily influenced by Griffith and his beautifully unique style of filmaking.

My rating on a scale of 1 to 10:9


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