"This magnificent and important biography...is the best ever written on the man." -The New Republic "Mr. Schickel's excellent and important biography makes it clear that when the movers of our century are tallied, D.W. Griffith, flawed genius that he was, can never lose his eminent position." -Peter Bogdanovich, The New York Times Book Review ... Read more
Customer Reviews (6)
He lost it at the movies
Believe it or not, in five yearsD W Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" will be a century old. Griffith's remarkable career, his successes and his failures, are closely described in Richard Schickel's long biography "D W Griffith: An American Life", published by Simon and Schuster in 1984. Schickel, author and film critic of Time, obviously admires Griffith, that "paragon of energy", but he sees the faults that even Griffith's most ardent film-school admirers must acknowledge. The adjective in that subtitle is not arbitrary: Griffith was born and raised in Kentucky, the son of a CSA veteran, and he was nurtured on Civil War stories and a worship of "the South's best friend" Abraham Lincoln. He wandered into show business almost by accident, starting off as an actor (with the stage name Lawrence Griffith), first on the stage and then in the very early silents. He also fancied himself a poet, and one of his effusions, published in Leslie's Weekly, is presented by Schickel in toto, leaving the astonished reader to wonder how such drivel ever got into print. It must have been much easier to get published in 1907. At any rate, it was as both writer and actor that he entered Biograph, casually located on 14th Street, not far from Union Square, and soon he became one of the studio's primary directors, introducing the technical innovations which some historians say were not entirely his, handling literally dozens of one-reelers and in the process discovering personalities like Mary Pickford and the Gish sisters. Incidently, I have to say I never cease to be amazed at the rapidity with which the studio and star systems developed, not only in the United States but in Europe and even in Japan, where Griffith's films have been admired and re-made. (Amazon.com readers who are interested in Japanese movie history should check out "The Japanese Film: Art and Industry" by Joseph L Anderson and Donald Richie, a fascinating volume packed with stills and information.) Eventually Griffith had such trust from executives he could demand the control of a 12-reel Civil War epic, America's answer to European spectacles such as Italy's pre-Metro "Quo Vadis". Griffith had moved operations to California by then, and "The Birth of a Nation" was partially filmed in what is now Universal City. Upon release it was an enormous hit, but almost immediately the claims of racism began to be leveled against Griffith. Most of the Negroes in "The Birth of a Nation" (played by whites in black-face) are presented as arrogant and dangerous, but in retrospect it can be understood that Griffith saw them not as villainous but as ignorant and misguided. Griffith, like so many Southern aristocrats, claimed to have a special fondness for Negroes; but that fondness was tempered by his seeing them as simple souls, the "good ones" honest and easily frightened by the idea of ghosts. It was supposedly in answer to the accusations of prejudice that Griffith filmed "Intolerance", which really has little to do with the title attribute. In the years that followed Griffith made successful films like "Broken Blossoms" and "Way Down East", but also put out duds. Soon the duds began to outnumber the hits, and Griffith began losing his power. One of his problems in the '20s was his difficulty with talking pictures, odd for a man who foresaw the importance of color and widescreen. A few years before the release of "The Jazz Singer" he was quoted as saying: "We don't want now and we never shall want the human voice with our films." Later when he gushed "I am nutty over talking pictures!" it seems forced. It wasn't just the technology of talking pictures he had a problem with, it was the talk itself.As Schickel points out, the tough smart dialogue of the screwball comedy and the film noir would be completely at odds with Griffith's quaint sentimentality. Soon he was not working at all. His last film, a demon-rum diatribe, was released in 1931; he lived 17 more years. Compare that with some directors who virtually directed from their death beds. Displaced Romantic that he was, he turned to alcohol, and soon he was often behaving badly in public. "In all the long years of wandering and confusion ..." Schickel writes, "he had lost touch with his best self."But Schickel ends his big strong book (which only gets a little dry when Schickel is dealing with Griffith's incredibly complicated financial affairs) with the observation that, because of Griffith's accomplishments, we "have new ways of seeing ... the world through fresh eyes, in a new light". Finally in the biography is a "checklist" of Griffith's films, including (after 1914) the dates of release and the New York theaters where they were first shown. Sadly, most of those theaters are long gone.
More about Schickel Than Griffith, Sometimes
When I started reading this book, I was advised by a friend that while it is the best book on Griffith thusfar, it is still somewhat superficial. Another friend referred to it as "ponderous."While I gathered my own thoughts during the reading of this 600-page tome, I have to agree with both assessments.
Richard Schickel did meticulous research in the years that he worked on this biography (which was released in 1984).He was blessed to have access to people who actually knew and worked with Griffith, all of whom are now gone.Schickel is also a well-known film critic, so he had his "street cred" before the book was ever released.There is a lengthy sections of notes, a filmography and bibliography.The research, and the film criticism, are both blessings and curses from a reading standpoint.
An abundance of research without a light hand in the sharing of what's learned can lead to a dry, heavy-handed read.Schickel has moments when he tries to be entertaining as well as education, but we are still treated to long passages regarding stock options and contract clauses.For all his digging however, the information he provides can be frustrating.Clarine Seymour is barely mentioned, while Carol Dempster is discussing in exhausting, annoying detail.
Given that Schickel is never able to shed his critic's hat as he writes, the biography is not an objective look at Griffith's work or life.Previous biographers who were sympathetic to Griffith are universally referred to as "apologists," and the reader often feels that the author is viewing Griffith's films by looking down his nose at them.We are treated to opinion offered as fact, such as "so-and-so says, correctly, that ...."Asides regarding silent film in general reflect Schickel's biases about the genre, disappointingly.
All in all, I learned a bit about D.W. Griffith in the book.I only wish that it had been presented a bit more objectively.
Griffith: The real man.
D.W. Griffith is by far a fascinating and confusing character in film history.He gets the obligatory nod though Im still sad to say I meet many an aspiring director/writer/actor who doesnt even know the name (dang youth.)If he is known hes 'that old guy who made that racist movie and was in the Klan'.A heavy, and somewhat inaccurate statement (he wasnt aware of his racisim, he wasnt in the Klan, true he was older when he got into film).
Many books have been written about Griffith, and many of them took ancedotes at their word.What Griffith said was truth.In fact they overlooked the fact that he was a showman first, and tended to cast history and his legacy as he saw fit.This biography (at a weighty 800 some pages) painstakingly sorts through all this.For instance Griffith didnt go broke on Intolerance (it didnt sell well but he did turn a modest profit), he didnt make Intolerance to recitify Birth (in fact he made it as a dig at the 'moralizers' and busy bodies), he barely made any films involving race, and he wasnt ever really broke (though given his risky business dealings it was always possible).
In Whitfield's "Pickford a Woman who Made Hollywood" she says everything Griffith did he did with style.Thats true of how he portrayed his life, how he really lived his life, and even how he died (under the big chandelier of the Knickerbocker Hotel).You can debate Griffith and his work to death, but there is no more authentic, well researched, and well written biography out there then "Griffith: an American Life".
I'd like to add despite how dry such a big meaty book could be Schickel tells it an in entertaining way (after rationalizing various reasons Griffith's brother may have turned down a independence saving business move Schickel says of the brother, "Or he may just have been an idiot.")Shickel tries to dig beyond the myth and piece together the real man.I suspect hes succeeded better than anyone ever has and probably ever will.
A Masterful Biography of a Film Pioneer -- Marred by Presentism
This is a lavishly detailed biography of the pioneering film director David Wark Griffith (following the prevailing custom of the time, Griffith typically was referred to by his initials and his last name, hence D. W. Griffith). Griffith is a controversial figure on account of his groundbreaking feature film success, "The Birth of a Nation." The film was set during the Civil War and Reconstruction and revolutionized movie making.
Griffith was the son of a last ditch Confederate veteran who served until Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox. As a small child, Griffith idealized his father, a gentle ne'er do well, for whom the War for the Confederacy was the singular highlight of his entire existence. When his father died, Griffith was still a child of tender years and this separation only served to romanticize Griffith's memory of his beloved father to a greater degree. The significance of these vivid memories of his parent's storytelling are to be found in Griffith's landmark film "The Birth of a Nation."
Key battle sequences in the film are precise recreations of events that Griffith's own father experienced firsthand such as subsisting on parched corn when the Confederates were unable to supply their dwindling army with daily rations. Likewise, Colonel Griffith participated in a heroic battlefield charge quite like the one shown in the film.
Ostensibly an adaptation of Thomas Dixon's sensational bestselling novel and the subsequent stage play, "The Clansman," Griffith kept the billing for publicity purposes, but freely reworked the scenario to suit his own preferences. One testimonial to the effectiveness of the drama, to my mind at least, is to see how much of Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" simply built upon the structure of Griffith's film. The original was an overwhelming financial success and fixed innumerable cliches about the Civil War in the consciousness of a generation who had only read about the fighting.
The movie radically changed the nascent film industry and soon the public demanded more feature length films and exhibitors needed to erect large theaters as the flickers were no longer a novelty to be watched solely in nickle and dime arcades. Theater owner Louis B. Mayer, the future leader of the powerful Metro Goldwyn Mayer studio, financed his entry into Hollywood by underreporting the total box office receipts from "The Birth of a Nation" and shortchanging Griffith of his rightful share of the profits.
Griffith was such a seminal figure during the development of the film industry that many of his assistants became celebrated directors after apprenticing under the master. Raoul Walsh, John Ford, Tod Browning, Erich von Stroheim, W. S. Van Dyke and William Beaudine all worked for Griffith. Following the success of "The Birth of a Nation," Griffith staged a lavish four part film entitled "Intolerance" in partial response to efforts to boycott, censor or enjoin the showing of his previous film. The film was not profitable, but Griffith became increasingly interested in staging epic spectacles and lost his way when he was unable to bring pictures in on time and on budget. Frequently, he courted financial disaster. Studio executives wanted immediate profits while Griffith was engrossed in the art of cinema. Soon he was deemed to be unreliable.
Changing public tastes also were a factor in his decline. Griffith produced melodramas that could have been staged in the limelight era. Once audiences had become more sophisticated and other movie makers had mastered his techniques, there was a greater demand for more modern and realistic stories than Griffith's homespun rural romances. After the production of the biopic "Abraham Lincoln," in 1930, Griffith was effectively finished in Hollywood. Although he had filmed the crime drama "The Musketeers of Pig Alley" on the streets of New York, employing actual gang members, no less, Griffith was considered politely old fashioned not twenty years later.
There is one major fault that must be mentioned with respect to this biography. Schickel's seems utterly nable to come to terms with Griffith's racial attitudes and his oftentimes patronizing depictions of Negroes in his films (African Americans was not the accepted term in Griffith's era). As such, the book becomes Exhibit "A" as a definitive example of the historical error of "presentism." Presentism occurs when historical figures are judged not according to the prevailing attitudes and standards of their own era, but according to contemporary and, oftentimes, politically correct standards. Using these criteria, many past persons are found guilty of having failed to conform to the societal expectations of an enlightened future era in which they did not live.
In fairness, men such as Griffith are entitled to be judged based upon their own generations, not ours. While it is valid to compare and contrast differences in opinions and standards by way of explanation, it is unjust to condemn Griffith for failing to join the civil rights movement decades before such a movement came into existence.
The racist sentiments contained in Griffith's films are an accurate reflection of the biased opinions that were widespread in 1915. It should be remembered that President Woodrow Wilson was instrumental in segregating the District of Columbia at the same approximate time that "The Birth of a Nation" was being filmed. The newly established NAACP attempted to have the film suppressed and numerous lawsuits were filed seeking to enjoin its exhibition. In certain cities, their efforts were successful.
To Schickel's credit, he summarizes virtually all of Griffith's many films, including many short subjects and feature films that no longer exist. Griffith was a largely forgotten man when he died in a nondescript Los Angeles hotel. Hollywood's leading hypocrites belatedly staged a fitting memorial service to honor Griffith after neglecting him for more than a decade and a half. Not quite thirty years earlier, Griffith had founded United Artist Studios.
There is a wealth of information to be found in this book, but the biographer's liberal biases detracted from my overall enjoyment of the book.
a few points of correction.
because this book has been so obsessively researched --&, largely, that shows-- it is discomfitting to find easily fixed errors in it.
i refer, spefically, to the years the author thinks antia loos & lillian gish were born-- not a big deal, perhaps, if the errors were off by a single year, but they are off by closer to 10.
lillian gish, terribly important (obviously) in this biography, was around *30*, not 23, when she played the 15-year-old in "broken blossoms."
similar mistake as concerns the age of anita loos: she was NOT a teenager when she sold her first script ("the new york hat" or no) to biograph.
again, simple & seemingly somewhat insignificant errors, but when this information is so easily checked, & has not been bothered w/, it makes one wonder about the other facts in this book.
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