Icons of American Popular Culture [D.W. Griffith] – Robert C. Cottrell (2010)


Icons of American Popular Culture [D.W. Griffith] – Robert C. Cottrell (2010)

  • Icons of American popular culture : from P.T. Barnum to Jennifer Lopez
  • Icons of American Popular Culture
  • Robert C. Cottrell
  • Copyright © 2010 by M.E. Sharpe, Inc.

A nation’s story can be captured in numerous ways. Historical accounts of economic developments, military conflicts, domestic debates, and natural disasters all help to shape images of a land and its people; but so too does an appreciation of the sublime and the ridiculous, the heroes and heroines, and fads and frivolities that make up the popular culture of a mass society. Popular culture in an advanced, industrialized country such as the United States reflects the intellectual, social, cultural, political, and demographic currents of the time. Using popular culture as a lens on history is enlivening and illuminating and recaptures something of the “lightning in the bottle” effect that characterizes particular individuals, events, and happenings. This is especially so with regard to the remarkable pantheon of American popular cultural figures, whose life stories, accomplishments, and difficulties often mirror those of the nation they represent. What follows is an admittedly abbreviated, subjective presentation of several of the most iconic individuals in American popular cultural history. Another historian undoubtedly would have chosen at least some other figures. This author reluctantly left out many personal favorites, including Mark Twain, Babe Ruth, Humphrey Bogart, Lucille Ball, Bob Dylan, Jane Fonda, Richard Pryor, Angelina Jolie, and Tiger Woods, to name a few.

D.W. Griffith

Lillian Gish termed him “the father of film” and stated he “was the movie industry. It had been born in his head.” Charlie Chaplin considered Griffith “the teacher of us all.” Cecil B. DeMille declared that Griffith “taught us how to photograph thought,” while Orson Welles praised Griffith as “the premier genius of our medium.”

As American cinema flourished in the early twentieth century, its pace, style, and tenor increasingly influenced other popular cultural venues, including literature. The director of The Birth of a Nation offered techniques that authors soon emphasized, including fade-ins, fade-outs, close-ups, and flashbacks, all of which, of course, were not entirely new literary devices.

On January 22, 1875, David Wark Griffith was born in Crestwood, Kentucky, the fourth son of Mary Perkins Oglesby Griffith and Jacob Wark Griffith, a former colonel in the Confederate army. Jacob practiced medicine, fought in the Mexican War, joined the Kentucky legislature, and became a hero to Confederate forces. Griffith began to refine American cinema, assisted by cameraman G.W. Bitzer. Following the lead of Porter, notwithstanding claims to the contrary, the director began offering close-ups, camera movements, switchbacks (later called flashbacks), and fade-outs, while presenting a smooth, extended story line. Social messages crept into several of his films in keeping with the era’s progressive movement, which sought to address some of the worst injustices associated with industrial capitalism. Griffith offered films like A Corner in Wheat, which, drawing from Frank Norris’s novel The Pit, dealt with class divisions in American society, and The Musketeers of Pig Alley, an examination of the Lower East Side. He also directed films such as The Redman and the Child and The Battle at Elderbush Gulch that cast Native Americans in a favorable light. But those films were the exception, as Robert Skylar notes, with other Griffith works celebrating the rich and vilifying Indians. Lillian Griffith, Blanche Sweet, Lionel Barrymore, Robert Harron, and Henry B. Walthall appeared in his Biograph films, along with the previously undiscovered Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, and Dorothy Gish. While Griffith employed a star system, Biograph proved unwilling to feature those performers or the director himself, to his mounting dismay. Partially shot in Biograph’s new studio on 175th Street in the Bronx, Judith of Bethulia, Griffith’s final film for the motion picture company, starred Sweet, Lillian Gish, and 2,000 actors or extras, and required four reels.

Movies in America – Judith of Bethulia (Her Condoned Sin)

Griffith was envisioning a new film that would transform American cinema by its scope, grandeur, and ability to appeal to Americans of all classes. The storyline hearkened back to the Civil War and Reconstruction, times of glory and ruin for the Griffith family. In conjunction with childhood memories of stories spun by his father, Griffith drew on a pair of novels by the Reverend Thomas E. Dixon from North Carolina, which focused on those traumatic developments. The books. The Clansman and The Leopard s Spots, afforded Griffith the plot line for his projected film, which was obviously intended as an affirmation of his father’s life and beliefs. Although Mutual appeared unlikely to provide the $50,000 financing Griffith considered necessary, Aitken guaranteed that level of support for the director’s newly formed Epoch Film Corporation. Griffith’s new film, featuring Henry B. Walthall, Lillian Gish, George Siegmann, and seemingly innumerable extras and horses, cost over $100,000 and netted $5 million in profits. One-quarter of the actors were African-Americans, and Griffith, employing “military discipline, set up “a camp for the whites and a camp for the black,” along with a pair of commissaries.

Requiring twelve reels and running for an unprecedented two and a half hours. The Clansman opened in Los Angeles on February 8, 1915. Appearing in New York at the Rose Garden, located on Fifty-third Street, it soon boasted a new title. The Birth of a Nation. The ticket price was two dollars, the cost of admission to many Broadway shows. After the film opened at the Liberty in early March, the New York Times called Griffith’s effort “elaborate” and “ambitious,” offering “an impressive new illustration of the scope of the motion picture camera.” Griffith employed many of his now standard techniques, including crosscutting, flashbacks, close-ups, and fade-outs, but the film itself was a standard melodrama, complete with blackface. Reflecting on film as a whole following the completion of his latest masterwork, Griffith believed “there are no limits to its possibilities in artistic work. This is only child’s play.” Purportedly drawn from interviews with Civil War historians, the narrative centers on the trials endured by a Southern family and a Northern family as the nation divided. Griffith strove for authenticity in producing battle scenes, employing artillery, cavalry, and foot soldiers, and he erected a handful of Southern communities. The director presented burning towns, dying soldiers, mobs, and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

Much of the film highlights cross-sectional romances that suffered when the war broke out, while the conclusion resulted in the unfortunate developments associated with Reconstruction, as presented by Griffith. The New York Times review bemoaned the film’s inclusion of “inflammatory material” from Dixon’s novel and “the sorry story rendered by its plucking at old wounds.” Stock figures were aplenty, including uppity blacks, conniving carpetbaggers from the North, and Southern scalawags ready to sell out their home region. All but inevitably, innocent white womanhood in the film became imperiled, with rape looming, while determined Southerners began to fight back, led by the noble figures that joined the Ku Klux Klan. Writing in The New Republic, Harold Stearns discussed the film’s denouement when silhouetted Klansmen galloped on horseback. As that scene appeared on screen, “every audience spontaneously applauds.” After President Woodrow Wilson watched a special screening of The Birth of a Nation at the White House, he allegedly exclaimed, “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Thomas Dixon, a classmate of Wilson’s at Princeton, acknowledged that his purpose in supporting the film adaptation of his novel “was to revolutionize Northern audiences . . . [to] transform every man into a Southern partisan for life.”.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman in Birth of a Nation

The highly favorable treatment of the Klan, the denigrating depiction of African-Americans, and the casting of wooden images of the Reconstruction South enraged many, leading to riots in Boston and Philadelphia among other locales. Public officials in New York City insisted that various controversial scenes be removed. Jane Addams of Hull House fame proved “painfully exercised over the exhibition.” The Nation’s Oswald Garrison Villard decried the film’s “deliberate attempt to humiliate 10,000,000 American citizens and portray them as nothing but beasts.” The Illinois state legislature considered a measure to ban artwork that “tends to incite race riot, or race hatred.” The recently established National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sought injunctions to prevent the showing of The Birth of a Nation, which the organization decried as “vicious.” The Boston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) put out a lengthy pamphlet, Fighting a Vicious Film: Protest Against The Birth of a Nation, condemning “the foul and loathsome misrepresentations of colored people and the glorification of the hideous and murderous band of the Ku Klux Klan.” The pamphlet underscored Thomas Dixon’s admission that he had hoped “to create a feeling of abhorrence in white people, especially white women, against colored men” and “to have all Negroes removed from the United States.” When asked if complaints might lead to the film’s suppression, Griffith responded, “I hope to God they stop it! Then you won’t be able to keep audiences away with clubs!”

Theatres advertising “The Birth of a Nation”

Griffith, who believed his presentation of The Birth of a Nation was “the truth,” was beset by considerable anxiety, $300,000 in legal fees, and numerous attacks on his reputation. He insisted that the film’s true villains were the carpetbaggers, not blacks, and pointed to the fact that he had grown up with African-Americans and been “nursed by a Negro mammy.” Griffith defended his movie during interviews, insisting that it offered a historical lesson. Then in a pamphlet, The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America, he blasted calls for censorship, which confronted cinema in the United States from the outset. Institutions of higher learning opened their doors to only “the limited few,” Griffith wrote. Motion pictures by contrast could impart lessons about “mistakes of the past … to the entire world” at little cost while entertaining the masses. Consequently, efforts to censor cinema were wrongheaded, in addition to violating First Amendment rights regarding freedom of speech and the press. Censorship, that “malignant pygmy,” endangered “the growth of the art.” This had occurred although film afforded “a medium of expression as clean and decent as any mankind has ever discovered,” Griffith wrote.

Intolerance – Babylon

Responding to continued criticisms that came his way, Griffith abandoned his original intention to produce a film about labor relations and chose to make another epic that he called Intolerance. Determined to present a panoramic look at bigotry and prejudice over the generations, Griffith initially intended this to be his final motion picture. He worried that “the story for Truth … has become barred from” movies, in contrast to the theater, where “freedom of expression” might still be found. Griffith maintained sixteen-to twenty-hour workdays in making Intolerance. Many critics thought he succeeded spectacularly with his latest offering. Current Opinion indicated that “the superman of the American movies” had pulled off his “greatest achievement.” Writing in Life, James S. Metcalfe claimed, “He has carried the picture play to the limit of its possibilities so far as doing everything that can be done with the motion picture.” Film Daily affirmed that “as a spectacle Intolerance is the greatest offering ever staged.” In viewing the three-hour-long epic—which demanded the construction of elaborate sets, featured thousands of extras along with stars Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, and Robert Harron, required thirteen reels, and cost $1.9 million—critics appeared particularly taken with Griffith’s depiction of ancient Babylon.


They were somewhat less impressed with his presentation of the life and death of Jesus and the massacre of French Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Eve, which occurred late in the sixteenth century. The film opened at the Liberty Theatre in Manhattan on September 5, 1916, and led to a decidedly mixed review from the New York Times. The paper termed Griffith “a real wizard of lens and screen” but pointed to his latest film’s “utter incoherence, the questionable taste of some of its scenes, and the cheap banalities into which it sometimes lapses.” The Times did applaud “the stupendousness of its panoramas, the grouping and handling of its great masses of players,” which “make it an impressive spectacle.” Audiences responded in an equally ambivalent fashion to Intolerance, undoubtedly wowed by its glorious sweep but confused by the separate episodes, which hardly presented a seamless thread. The scenes of nudity or near-nudity, along with the condemnations of both battlefields and prisons, proved disturbing to many viewers. Despite experiencing early record attendance figures, the film soon bottomed out, to Griffith’s chagrin. The result was a commercial failure that subsumed even the large profits earned by The Birth of a Nation. It also led to the dissolving of his business relationship with Aitken and Griffith’s moving over to Artcraft Pictures (later, Paramount Studios).

DW Griffith with war correspondents 1918 – France

Hoping that Intolerance would receive a better reception abroad, Griffith sailed to London in mid-March 1917 as the third full year of hostilities in Europe approached. Griffith also was responding to a request that he produce a propaganda film for the British government. On the very day Intolerance premiered in London, Griffith received word that the United States had entered the war. He proceeded to offer a showing of Intolerance for the royal family and met Prime Minister Lloyd George, who repeated the call for Griffith to deliver a film for propaganda purposes. In preparation for his latest work, the director toured battlefields in France where he witnessed actual combat for the first time. Griffith later revealed that he experienced “something of the stir and thrill of the movie battle. Artillery is in motion, ambulances come tearing down the roads with the dying screaming as they take their last ride. Streams of prisoners are marching in tatters and dejection back to the bases; wounded soldiers are making their own way. Motor-cyclists are speeding to and from.” At the same time he realized that the trenches contained “nothing but filth and dirt and the most soul-sickening smells. The soldiers are sometimes almost up to their hips in ice-cold mud. The dash and thrill of wars of other days are no longer there.”

Griffith and the Great War 2

The returning soldiers would recall trenches, replete with lice and “reeking vile odors . . . horrible with filth and mud,” Griffith predicted. First appearing in New York on April 4, 1918, Hearts of the World starred Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Robert Harron, and Erich von Stroheim. The New York Times indicated that the film—three-quarters of which was shot back in Hollywood—strove “to make the war a big reality” and apparently succeeded in that regard, as evidenced by the audience reaction. The Times declared, “Sometimes one does not know whether what he is seeing is a real war or screen make-believe” thanks to “the pictures of hand to hand fighting in the trenches, the bursting of shells from big guns, and demolition of buildings, the scouting trips and raids into enemy trenches.” Elected to head the Motion Picture War Service Association, Griffith also called for the purchase of Liberty bonds to support the Allied cause.

DW Griffith shooting a scene from The Great Love 1918

Griffith presented a series of films in 1918 and 1919, including The Great Love, The Greatest Thing in Life, A Romance ofHappy Valley, The Girl Who Stayed at Home, True Heart Susie, Scarlet Days, Broken Blossoms, and The Greatest Question. Particularly celebrated was Broken Blossoms, the first Griffith film to appear under the auspices of United Artists. A relatively low- budget affair costing less than $90,000, Broken Blossoms presents the story of a Chinese Buddhist who in the midst of World War I ventures to London to foster support for nonviolence. Played by Richard Barthelmess, Cheng Huan falls in love with the Lillian Gish character, Lucy Burrows, who has been abused by her father. The film’s dark quality turned off Adolph Zukor of Artcraft. After viewing Broken Blossoms, Zukor exploded: “You bring me a picture like this and want money for it? You may as well put your hand in my pocket and steal it. Everybody in it dies. It isn’t commercial.” Zukor proved wrongheaded about that. He allowed Griffith to purchase the film back from Artcraft for $250,000, and eventually Broken Blossoms resulted in profits of $700,000 for United Artists. It also received glowing reviews, with Film Daily offering, “This film is a poetic tragedy given a masterly production; it is a masterpiece of its kind.”

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – Broken Blossoms

His battles with movie moguls convinced Griffith of the need for greater artistic freedom, which he believed required commercial independence. That sensibility had led Griffith to join with three of the greatest stars in Hollywood’s early days—Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks—in creating their own production company: United Artists. Demanding still more autonomy, Griffith left Hollywood for Mamaroneck, New York, where he set up his new studio. There he completed The Idol Dancer and The Love Flower, in addition to filming Way Down East, which came out in 1920, cost just over $1 million, and proved highly profitable. Again starring Barthelmess and Lillian Gish, the melodramatic Way Down East features an ill-treated young woman who gives birth to an illegitimate child who dies. Played by Gish, Anna meets a stolid farmer who loves her and saves her from an ice storm.

Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scenne from the movie “Way Down East” (Photo by Donaldson Collection) – cover

Griffith had received international acclaim in the period since the release of The Birth of a Nation. Erich von Stroheim, Raoul Walsh, and Sergei M. Einstein were among the many filmmakers who drew from his work. The April 1921 issue of The American Magazine delivered a lengthy article titled “The Greatest Moving Picture Producer in the World,” in which the master director indicated that “making a moving picture is like painting with lights.” He remained a workaholic, even toiling around the clock on occasion. In The Mentor, Griffith wrote a piece called “Motion Pictures: The Miracle of Modern Photography,” recalling that he had directed 500 pictures during a thirteen-year period. He indicated that “great motion pictures” required “good audiences, too.”

Orphans of the Storm – Filming team on the set

Griffith followed up Way Down East with the well-liked Orphans of the Storm (1921), One Exciting Night (1922), The White Rose (1923), America (1924), the acclaimed Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924), and The Joyless Street (1925), the last film that he produced independently. Over the course of the next several years, Griffith made a series of motion pictures for United Artists but had seemingly lost his touch. Still, according to an article in the May 1928 issue of Overland, Griffith’s associates considered him “their ‘Master,’” one who possessed “almost hypnotic power.” In 1930 Griffith sought to produce another epic, Abraham Lincoln, a talkie starring Walter Huston. The reviews by critics proved mixed, at best, and audiences also responded tepidly.

A future president confronts the evils of slavery in a lost scene from “Abraham Lincoln” (1930)

A harsher fate still awaited his final film, The Struggle, which came out in 1931. Griffith was soon reduced to a weekly radio program that lasted less than a year. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences delivered an honorary Oscar to Griffith in 1936, with the citation stating, “For his distinguished creative achievements as director and producer and his invaluable initiative and lasting contributions to the progress of the motion picture arts.” That same year he showed up at the set where his former assistant W.S. Van Dyke was shooting in San Francisco. Van Dyke asserted, “All I know I learned from you, Mr. Griffith.” In 1936 Griffith married Evelyn Baldwin, a young woman who had appeared in his movie The Struggle, although that marriage also would end in divorce. In 1938 he became an Honorary Life Member of the Directors Guild of America (DGA). He spent much of his time at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. The Museum of Modern Art published D. W. Griffith: American Film Master in 1940; the volume proclaimed Griffith “one of the greatest and most original artists of our time.”

The Struggle – D.W. Griffith

Notwithstanding some aborted efforts, Griffith’s name never again appeared on the silver screen as director of a motion picture. On July 23, 1948, the day after suffering a massive cerebral hemorrhage, he died. Actor Lionel Barrymore referred to Griffith as “Hollywood’s greatest,” while others bemoaned the fact that the film industry had closed its doors to him. Griffith received accolades from James Agee, the author, screenwriter, and film critic who wrote, “He achieved what no other known man has ever achieved. To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel, the emergence, coordination, and first eloquence of language, the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man.” The French film director Rene Clair asserted, “Nothing essential has been added to the art of the motion picture since Griffith.” The famed Austrian director and actor Erich von Stroheim claimed that Griffith “fully realized the education values of the film and felt personally responsible for the authenticity of everything in them.” In addition “it was Griffith who … put the motion picture on the same level with the best productions of the legitimate stage.” Von Stroheim termed Griffith “the greatest man the cinema had, or will ever have,” praised his generosity, and deemed him the master. Five years after Griffith’s death, the Directors Guild of America established the D.W. Griffith Award, its most prestigious honor. Honorees included Cecil B. DeMille, John Huston, John Ford, and Stanley Kubrick. In late 1999 the DGA discarded Griffith’s name, with its president explaining, “There is no question that D.W. Griffith was a brilliant pioneer filmmaker whose innovations as a visionary film artist led the way for generations of directors. However, it is also true that he helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes.”

DW Griffith in 1943

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