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Who Is D.W. Griffith?

By H. Lo
Updated May 23, 2024
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David Llewelyn Wark “D.W.” Griffith was an American film director whose film work mainly spanned the early to mid 1900s. He now often receives credit for developing innovative techniques that changed the way film making had been done up to that point in time. As a director, his list of works is extensive, with the majority of his early work being short films. In fact, he had directed over 400 short films before moving on to direct full-length films. His more notable works include the controversial film The Birth of a Nation (1915), as well as Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919) and Orphans of the Storm (1921).

Born on 22 January 1875 in La Grange, Kentucky in the US, D.W. Griffith lived on a farm with his family until his father, who had been a Confederate colonel during the Civil War, died. Afterwards, his family moved to Louisville where they struggled to get by. For his part, D.W. Griffith, who was still a young boy, was unable to continue his education; he liked to read though, and continued doing so, eventually aspiring to become a playwright. Around the time he was working as a bookstore clerk, he was exposed to others who loved literature and to actors of Louisville’s Temple Theatre. When he was a young man, he left home to pursue a career in theater.

D.W. Griffith traveled the country for many years, acting in touring companies. It was during his travels that he met and later married Linda Arvidson, an actress. In his attempt to become a playwright, D.W. Griffith wrote and sold a play called A Fool and a Girl, which was not well-received. He continued to write, and to make money in the meantime, he started selling scenarios to film companies. This ultimately led him to an opening at the Biograph Company, where he was hired to direct films.

After directing over 400 short films for the Biograph Company, D.W. Griffith brought his innovative film making techniques to Mutual Films and directed The Birth of a Nation. The film was profitable, but controversial, as many people viewed it as racist. With riots breaking out in theaters, some cities had to censor the film. The next year, as a partial response to the critics of The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith directed Intolerance.

D.W. Griffith found attention, acknowledgement and success with some of his works, though not all. He built his own studio and directed more films, some of them successful, but the studio did not make it past the 1920s because it suffered from other films that were failures. With the studio gone, he found work with other studios, but after directing The Struggle in 1931, he was unable to find regular employment in the film industry again. His marriage to Linda ended and he married Evelyn Baldwin, only to divorce again. He died on 23 July 1948 in Los Angeles, California.

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