In a world where LeBron James can play basketball onscreen with cartoon characters, it’s hard to imagine a time when movie basics we now take for granted like close-ups, long shots, editing and lighting hadn’t yet been perfected.
Film historians credit the development of “film grammar” to pioneer Hollywood director D. W. Griffith, who died July 23, 1948 of a cerebral hemorrhage at 73. Griffith’s funeral brought over a thousand gawkers to Hollywood Boulevard, eager to see the 600+ stars, filmmakers and studio heads there to pay their last respects.
David Wark Griffith started out as an actor called Lawrence Griffith, touring in stage productions, one of which brought him to New York in 1907. Hoping to sell a silent movie scenario he’d written based on the opera LA TOSCA, Griffith rode the 3rd Avenue “L” train to the Edison studio in The Bronx. Edwin S. Porter, who directed the classic 1903 drama THE LIFE OF AN AMERICAN FIREMAN, didn’t buy the script, but as luck had it needed an actor right away for a new action film. Griffith didn’t look like a woodsman, but convinced Porter he could “pad up for it a bit” with the right costume. Griffith’s film career was underway. Before long, fate had him acting at Biograph’s East 14th Street studio in Manhattan. His good ideas on set caught the attention of a cameraman, who recommended him for a directing opportunity.
That’s how movie careers started in those days. By June 1909, Griffith was Biograph’s top director and was constantly besieged by actors looking for work. With that in mind,
16 year old Gladys Smith visited Biograph. As the receptionist delivered her usual speech about how busy Mr. Griffith was, she noticed the girl’s blonde curls and added, “but he might take the time to see you, my dear.” Fate intervened here, too, having Griffith walk by just then and stop to see who’d so impressed the tough-as-nails receptionist. He hired Gladys for a film already shooting. Before long, she was, herself, a movie star — now called Mary Pickford.
Ten years later, Griffith joined Pickford, her husband Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin to launch a new studio, United Artists, designed to let filmmakers control their movies’ distribution. By then, Griffith was famous for making big budget epics like the highly controversial post-Civil War drama THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) and the historical drama about social injustice INTOLERANCE (1916).
“The task I’m trying to achieve, above all, is to make you see.” – D.W. Griffith