David W. Griffith Reshaped Filmmaking History

Author's Note: I think David W. Griffith was a fascinating person. Like Griffith, I grew up in Oldham County, Kentucky, and people there are proud of the fact that he was from their county.

By Helen E. McKinney - 2001

Some consider David Wark Griffith a genius, a man far ahead of his time. He was a simple man with a vision. He once stated his monumental goal as "the task I am trying to achieve is, above all, to make you see."

Griffith was born on January 22, 1875, on a farm near Centerfield, Oldham County, Kentucky. He was the son of Jacob Wark Griffith (1819-1885) and Mary Oglesby (1829-1915). David was number six of the seven children, who lived to adulthood.

"Roaring Jake," as Griffith's father was called, was somewhat of a drifter, disliking the boredom of a daily routine. He came to Kentucky from Maryland in 1840, at the age of 21, and apprenticed himself to two medical practitioners and soon established his own practice.

This existence evidently became too mundane for Jacob, for in 1846, he left Kentucky to fight in the Mexican War. Two years later, he returned to marry Mary Oglesby, on September 18, 1848. Another two years went by and he joined a 40-mule-team wagon train headed for California. He returned to Kentucky in 1852 to reestablish his medical practice and entered politics, being elected a representative of Oldham and Trimble counties, by 1854.

Jacob had a habit of consistently gambling, spurred on by the thrill of winning very large stakes. In 1856 his wife, Mary, inherited a 264-acre farm in Crestwood from her father, Thomas Oglesby. It was known as "Lofty Green," a one-story frame house, built around 1850. It was here that David W. Griffith was born.

After Jake's death, the family learned that there were three mortgages on "Lofty Green." One mortgage had been made as a settlement for a gambling debt.

Before the Civil War, "Lofty Green" contained a very splendid house, as judged by the standards of the time. Shortly after the war, it burned to the ground in a fire of unexplained origin. Jacob was never able to rebuild the prominent home for his family, and his personal effects had to be sold at auction to settle his debts.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Jacob joined the Confederacy, where, during this time, he received the nickname, "Roaring Jake." At the Battle of Cor-inth, Tennessee, "Roaring Jake" was rendered unable to mount a horse, due to a wound he received a few months earlier. Frustrated by this hindrance, he commandeered a horse and buggy, leading a victorious charge upon the enemy.

Griffith's upbringing by a Confederate father and his love for history instilled by the tales his father told combined in him a desire to transfer these feelings to the big screen. Griffith drew his ideas from his experiences of the simple pleasures of farm life and the goodness of the people who lived such a life. But he was not cut out to be one of them. Fate held a different card for Griffith.

La Grange resident, Tommy Duncan, is Griffith's great-nephew. Of Griffith's farm life, Tommy said, "The family couldn't get him to work on the farm. He was always sitting under a tree reading history books. Folks said he would never amount to anything."

Luckily for the rest of the world, the people who knew him best were proved wrong.

After "Roaring Jake's" death, when Griffith was only ten, the family moved to Southville in southern Shelby County, Kentucky, to live with his older brother, Will, and his new bride, Ann Crutchers. As a wedding gift, the newlyweds received a 130-acre farm containing a five-room house. However, by 1890 the family had moved once again to First Street in Louisville.

Edmund Rucker was a boyhood friend of Griffith's around this time. He wrote in the Courier-Journal Magazine that the neighborhood kids regarded Griffith as "a hick. He was tall for his age, loose-jointed, and beak-nosed. He wore jeans that barely reached his ankles, red suspenders, and rawhide shoes. He badly needed a haircut."

Rucker went on to declare, "I think I'm the only youngster who got to know Griffith well."

The time Griffith spent in Louisville was a time of transition for the young man. He quit school to work various odd jobs. Eventually, he made his stage debut by acting with The Meffert Stock Company, a Louisville-based stock company. He also wrote film scenarios, but his directing talent wouldn't surface until years later.

By 1908 he had made his way to New York. Just when things were looking up, the show he had been performing in closed. He was broke. He spent the night on a bench in Central Park and thanked God it was warm weather.

The very next day Griffith went to work for the Biograph Studios as an extra. He earned $5.00 a day on the days that he worked.

The big whigs on the movie set soon began taking notice of this young man's innovative suggestions. At the age of 33, Griffith seized opportunity by the hands, when in 1908, he got the chance to direct a film. The director, Wallace McCutcheon, became ill.

This set the stage for Griffith to improvise the filmmaking industry.

He remained with Biograph until 1913. During his early career with Biograph, Griffith invented such cinematic techniques as fade out, flashback, and diffused lighting. He also developed on-location shooting, rehearsals, authentic sets, makeup, precise cutting and editing, and gave immaculate attention to details. Such detail, in the overall picture, enhanced the story he was trying to tell.

He was very particular about having an actor's characterizations look realistic. He did away with the false, stiff movements that had been previously practiced by actors, replacing them with realistic, emotional expressions.

His greatest hour came with the release of the 12-reel film, Birth of a Nation. The film opened at the Liberty Theatre in New York on March 3, 1915. It was the first film to be shown at the White House and evoked the following comment from President Woodrow Wilson: "It is like writing history with lightning, and my one regret is that it's all so terribly true."

Griffith would churn out many more films until 1931. In his great-great-nephew's (Bruce Duncan) eyes, Griffith "is the one who made Mary Pickford." In fact, Griffith gave many great actors their start in Hollywood.

Bruce went on to say that, while Hollywood eventually forgot Griffith, "Lillian Gish remained loyal to him."

During his directing career, Griffith would come home to Kentucky to visit relatives. When he did, it was "kind of like Christmas. He took us to sporting goods stores and bought whatever we wanted," recalls Tommy Duncan. Griffith "would hire two or three people and have all of the family together." These get-togethers were often held at the Sealbach Hotel in Louisville. Griffith would visit for as long as a month in his hometown, showering relatives with gifts. But Tommy never once heard him say a word about his movies.

Griffith was as quiet about his personal life as well. He married his first wife, actress Linda Arvidson, in Boston on May 14, 1906, and they remained married until 1936. Two days after divorcing Linda, he married New York native, Evelyn Baldwin, at the Brown Hotel in Louisville. She was 26 and Griffith was 61.

They were separated at the time of his death, but still married. She received nothing from his will, the bulk of his $25,000 to $50,000 estate being divided between his nephews, nieces, and grandnieces.

"She was a beautiful woman," Tommy said.

Griffith continued to return home to Kentucky over the years. He bought a house on Fourth Street in La Grange for his mother, and he and Evelyn lived there, off and on, until 1939. Although he didn't actually live in the house at La Grange until 1936, he called La Grange home and loved it. He signed hotel registers as "David Wark Griffith, La Grange, Kentucky," regardless of where he lived at the time.

Every morning Griffith would walk the five or six blocks to the Sweet Shoppe, located in the center of La Grange, and treat everyone there to coffee. Every afternoon, at 4:00 pm, he would visit the law office of J. Ballard Clark. Griffith liked to discuss his father with Clark, particularly the Shakespearean readings "Roaring Jake" used to give in his deep, booming voice. Griffith remembered sitting on his father's knees as a child, listening to these stories.

Perhaps the happy years spent in La Grange brought him close to his father's memory once again.
His nephew, Tommy, said of Griffith, "He was very sophisticated; he was a dandy. His voice was really loud. You could hear him a long way off."

It may have been this magnanimous personality that stuck in the mind of Margaret M. Bridwell, who had known Griffith's family from her childhood days in La Grange. She gave a personal account of Griffith in 1959 to the Courier-Journal Magazine. Mrs. Bridwell recalled Griffith arriving at Churchill Downs on Derby Day in a purple Mercedes, wearing a dapper gray suit, a purple tie, and a purple hat that sat rakishly on his head. This getup would have appeared odd on any other man. But on him, she said, "with his air of arrogance and greatness, it somehow looked just right."

Griffith was devoted to his family, although he had no children of his own. He once said, "In Oldham County, you'll find the finest people and the finest land in the world."

On one such extended visit to Kentucky, before he remarried, people speculated that Griffith had left Hollywood for good, that Hollywood had turned its back on him for the last time.

This was to mark the beginning of the last 17 years of his life, during which he did not make a single film.
Griffith responded to such gossip by saying, "The chief reason for leaving Hollywood was that I wanted leisure to write. Another reason that I came home was to back off from the studio merry-go-round. I needed time to digest past experiences and personalities."

Griffith died on July 23, 1948, in Hollywood, California, where he had returned for the last time. He suffered a brain hemorrhage in his room at the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel. He died the next day in Temple Hospital, at age 73.

It was Griffith's wish that his body be returned to Kentucky for burial in the family plot. Tommy said the throng of people "just about filled the cemetery" at Mt. Tabor United Methodist Church in Centerfield, Kentucky. Griffith's parents and siblings were buried at the church, which dates back to 1835, although the original log structure is no longer standing.

Griffith's grave, however, lay unmarked for two years. Arey Harris, a theatre owner in Eminence, Kentucky, saw to it that the Screen Directors Guild provided a seven-foot white marble slab to mark Griffith's grave. When this honor was instituted, the grave was moved from the family plot to the other side of the cemetery, where there was more room to put a rail fence around it.

Lillian Gish remained a true and loyal friend to Griffith until the end. She best summed up Griffith's accomplishments when she said, "He was the father of film. He invented everything. The only new thing, since him, is Walt Disney."

Three years before his death, Griffith wrote a letter to the University of Louisville to accept an honorary degree he had been awarded. In this letter, he summed up his feelings for his Kentucky roots:

They say, in later years, the place where we were born and spent our childhood holds the tenderest place in our memories. I do not know how true this is for others, but for me, after traveling through a great part of the world, I returned to Kentucky some few years ago and found it even more beautiful and dear than my memories of it. I have sincere affection for the old town of Louisville and feel more pride in having this honor conferred upon me in my own hometown.

Helen E. McKinney, 1191 Southville Pike, Shelbyville, KY 40065, e-mail: [email protected], shares this story and photos with our readers. She writes for several newspapers in the Shelbyville area.