D. W. Griffith — The Star Maker Whose Dreams Turned to Dust (1934) 🇺🇸

January 17, 2022

What price has Griffith got for so much glory? He denies he is “broke”.

by Mildred Mastin

At the window of a tall Manhattan hotel, a man stood looking down at Broadway. From the window, twenty-two stories above the street, he watched hundreds of dancing, burning electric signs, screaming the names of movies and their stars.

For twenty years the man had been the outstanding creative genius in motion pictures. He was idle now. Out of the game.

“Movies,” he commented slowly, “are written in sand. Applauded today, forgotten tomorrow. Last week the names on the signs were different. Next week they will be changed again.”

It was a theatrical statement, made by a man who has a talent for expressing simple truths in a melodramatic way.

The man was David Wark Griffith. Recently, a columnist wrote that the director is broke, in need. If that is true, Griffith does not admit it. He points with pride to several rare pieces of antique furniture in his apartment; to his library, its walls lined with finely bound books. He speaks casually of a winter vacation in Florida, of the pleasant, leisurely hours he is spending now, rewriting some plays. Thus, subtly, he denies rumors that he needs financial help. For he is intensely proud. Griffith should be wealthy today. He is not, because, like most artists, he lacks good business sense. Many major improvements in picture making were invented or initiated by David Wark Griffith. A clever business man would be collecting royalties. Griffith collects nothing — except occasional praise, when someone is feeling sentimental. There was a time when motion pictures were jerky, jumping awkwardly from one scene to another.

Griffith strove to find a way to smooth them out. He made a little gadget with the top of a cigar-box. And the “fade-out*’ was born.

Griffith was delighted. Sequences could be ended artistically now, fading out merging smoothly into the next scene.

“It improved pictures tremendously says enthusiastically. Then adds, “ I never thought of patenting it.”

If he had, the royalties would be running into millions. For the fade-out is used in every picture that is filmed today.

It was Griffith who first conceived the idea of taking close-up. His rivals and associates thought them very funny — filling the screen with a single face or detail. But they couldn’t laugh Griffith down. Perfecting the idea took time and money. Only Griffith believed that the close-up would permit dramatic expression, a still kind of beauty, that movies must have, if they were to exist as an important medium entertainment. And Griffith was right.

It was Griffith who first gambled on lengthening pictures. In the early days, all pictures were one-reelers. Quick, flashy, too short to tell a story. Griffith decided to make a two-reeler. People thought he was mad! The two-reeler was made.

Exhibitors refused to show it. Finally they put it on — one reel one night, the second reel the next night. That, incidentally, was also the beginning of the serial. The first picture that night properly be called of epic dimensions was a Griffith gamble — “The Birth of a Nation.” Griffith did not produce that picture because he thought it would make money. (And, of course, he got little money out of it. He doesn’t even own the film today.) He planned it because, he says, he wanted to tell the North the truth about the South. As a child he had sat in a Kentucky schoolhouse and read, with bitter resentment, the story of the Civil War, always written by a Northerner. Some day, he promised himself, he, a Southerner, would tell the story.

Every important picture that Griffith made was born of a great human impulse. If it was expensive to express the thing he had to say. Griffith did not economize. But he was never extravagant in the spectacular, superficial way that some others have been.

He produced over four hundred films. And the total cost of making them was approximately twelve million dollars. The gross profits from the pictures were five times that — slightly over sixty millions. Only a small part of these profits ever found their way back to Griffith. When they did, he usually tossed the money, with reckless courage, into another picture.

The only picture he ever “cleaned up on” was “Way Down East.” It made money, not because it had been cheap to produce, but because it was phenomenally popular. He put tremendous sums of money into the making of it, went heavily into debt. He paid $175,000 for the story, in the first place. Then, with customary care, he insisted on filming it in New England, and waiting for each of the four seasons to roll around so that none of the scenery would need to be faked. The company started to work in the fall. Production continued during the bitter cold New England winter, through spring, and into the summer.

Griffith was rewarded by seeing his pic run for over a year in a Broadway theater at a five dollar top!

In part, his screen glory was due to his canny ability to spot talent.

Two girls came knocking at the door of the old Biograph studio one day to see Gladys Smith — Mary Pickford, of course. Griffith answered the door. The girls were Lillian and Dorothy Gish.

Griffith approached a young man in a theater lobby one night and urged him to go into pictures. The man was Doug Fairbanks.

Once a freckle-faced youngster sneaked into the studio to watch her sister play an extra bit. Griffith saw the girl — plain, unattractively dressed. Her name was Mae Marsh.

Griffith gave Wallace Reid his first chance in “The Birth of a Nation.” He launched Constance Talmadge on her movie career in “Intolerance.”

He noticed an electrician on the set one day, took him off the job and gave him a featured role in a movie. The man was Charles Emmett Mack.

Henry B. Walthall, Miriam Cooper, Carol Dempster, Ralph Graves, Blanche Sweet, Seena Owen, Erich von Stroheim, Richard Barthelmess, Robert Harron, Mildred Harris, Gladys Brockwell — all were Griffith-made stars.

But Griffith never grew rich on these “finds.” And the stars, incidentally, rarely found happiness in the success that Griffith gave them. Tragic deaths cut short the careers of four of them — Wallace Reid, Mack, Gladys Brockwell and Bobby Harron. And sorrows and misfortunes accompanied the others.

”Today, a number of the famous people once associated with Griffith have slipped into oblivion or, like the director himself, are living in comparative obscurity, hoping they may still be given a chance to “come back.” The exceptional Richard Barthelmess alone among the erstwhile protégées of Griffith has enjoyed uninterrupted movie stardom. The Gish sisters are much better known to the New York stage than to pictures now. Fairbanks and Pickford still are prominent names, of course, but they have been in retirement for lengthy periods in recent years.

For himself, Griffith says he doesn’t want to “come back.”

“I am tired of movies! To suggest my making another film is like asking a pensioned bricklayer to build another wall.”

But his dreams belie his words.

And, finally, he admits that he does think of yet another movie — another picture of the South. It would be a story of the great Southwest, with romantic, adventurous Sam Houston as the central character.

A pioneer in introducing startling ideas, new developments in picture making, Griffith now has only one plan for improving pictures. And that, strangely enough, has nothing to do with the producing of movies, but rather with exhibiting them. He wants, by some means, to make sure that everyone who sees a picture, observes it from the very beginning. He feels that good feature pictures are carefully built, and that the artistic and dramatic effect is lost when the latter part of the picture is seen first.

In large theaters, Griffith would have a second auditorium where shorts and news reels would be shown to late-comers, while they waited for the next feature showing to begin. The plan is expensive, but Griffith, as usual, is thinking of the artistic effect — not of the moneybags!

Griffith is not bitter because others reaped the fortunes that his pictures made. He laughs when he tells you that he worked at Biograph for only fifty dollars a week, because he thought his pictures weren’t making money, and afterward discovered that a few men there were cleaning up on his productions. For him the weeks of toil without salary on “The Birth of a Nation” were filled with adventure. And the debt he plunged into to make “Intolerance” was well worth while, because the picture was an outstanding example of cinematic technique.

So now a columnist has written that David Wark Griffith is broke, in need. Certainly, many of the brilliant names, once associated with his. are forgotten. And his old movie masterpieces, when run off on the new and faster modern projectors, jump and flicker foolishly.

His glory is in the past.

Griffith knows that. He wishes they wouldn’t revive his pictures. He wishes editors wouldn’t speak grandly of his past productions as “works of art.”

“They aren’t!’ he says. And adds, dramatically, “When motion pictures have created something to compare with the plays of Euripides, or the work of Homer or Shakespeare or Ibsen, or the music of Händel or Bach, then let us call motion picture entertainment an art — but not before then.”

When David Wark Griffith was a great man in movies. This rare picture reveals him directing a scene for “Hearts of the World,” in 1918. Billy Bitzer is on the camera stoop.

Remember when these outstanding celebrities organized the United Artists Association? Left to right: Doug Fairbanks, Oscar A. Price (Association president), Mary Pickford, Griffith, Chaplin.

Another English beauty, loaned to the American screen. Madeleine Carroll’s first picture here is “The World Moves On.”

Cliff Edwards (Ukelele Ike), is all dressed up in plumes and whiskers for his role of King Henry VIII, in the Fox movie version of “George White’s Scandals,” just released.

Source: Photoplay, May 1934