Just like Charlie Chaplin D.W. Griffith too was inspired by Georges Méliès.
D.W. Griffith, short for David Lewelyn Wark Griffith, was born a son of a southern, confederate colonel of the civil war in 1875 and lost his father at the age of 10. His father’s background also showed in Griffith’s most controversial film called The Birth of a Nation, which was labeled as a very racist film. Here’s a film synopsis:
“The Stoneman family finds its friendship with the Camerons affected by the Civil War, both fighting in opposite armies. The development of the war in their lives plays through to Lincoln’s assassination and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan.” –Written by GTH on IMDb
But it took a while for him to be able to create such long films (this one reaches about 165 minutes, in contrary to Méliès short films that never really crossed the 20 minute mark).
Firstly Griffith wanted to become a playwright, which didn’t really pay off. Only one of his plays was accepted. He also travelled to New York to sell some of his plays, but they got rejected. Instead of selling his plays he got offered a role as an actor, which payed of more. He has starred in numerous films as an actor, or just as an extra. In 1908 he pursued his dream and made his own short films and six years later also his first full-length motion-picture called Judith of Bethulia. Before this film however he made the first film to be ever shot in Hollywood. It wasn’t a full feature film, but it was a short film called In Old California, which was released in 1910.
Griffith was slowly climbing up the ladder of fame, and started his own company, after he left the one with whom he made Judith of Bethulia, called Reliance-Majestic Studios. He left the previous studio, because they found that a one hour film was too long, with which Griffith disagreed. With his new studio he made one of the most controversial, but also innovative films of the century, which is the previously named The Birth of a Nation. The film cost around 100 thousand dollars to make. Compared to today’s multi-million blockbusters this doesn’t seem much, but at the time (1915) it was a lot of money. Just a little comparison: a movie ticket then cost around seven cents and one now, around 10 dollars. The ticket to that film cost quite a lot at that time; they were 2 dollars each.
The Birth of a Nation is also often seen as the first real feature length film, because the duration was longer than an hour, this one was near
ly three hours long!
The film contains one of the first uses of flashbacks, to which D.W. Griffith refers as “switchbacks”, and the film also used several of film techniques that weren’t really used that often back then, like close-ups, panning camera, night photography… The film also used a technique by which they made a hundred extras look like a thousand during battle sequences. The film was the first film ever to be shown in the White House. It was shown to the president at the time, Woodrow Wilson. But because of the controversial topic, it was banned in several cities, like Los Angeles and Chicago. It’s also highest grossing film ever in proportion to how much it cost. The Birth of a Nation was seen by 200 000 000 people by 1946 and has earned around 60 million dollars.
D.W. Griffith himself was surprised by the backlash and the offence, because he didn’t see by what the audience could’ve been offended. This is probably due to the way he was raised by someone who was for the slavery of black people. So to apologize for this film, he created Intolerance, which flopped. This one even had a bigger budget than The Birth of a Nation namely 300 thousand dollars. The film did get good reviews, but never really earned its budget back, until many years later.
After these two films he still kept on making them, but never was he able to earn as much money. In the thirties he went on to make his first film with sound (the others too did contain sound, but that was only a soundtrack. In this one contains dialogue etc. In his previous films he often helped composing the music), called Abraham Lincoln. This one was released in 1930 and a year later he made his last film, The Struggle, also containing sound.
In 1948 he died. D.W. Griffith was found unconscious in the lobby of a hotel. They tried to bring him to the hospital, but on the way he passed away.
A lot of directors have praised D.W. Griffith. Hitchcock, Kubrick, Welles are just examples of people who’ve praised him. Nowadays Griffith is seen as one of the first directors who payed attention to lighting, camera placement, tension and the importance of the soundtrack.