Friday, December 19, 2008 12/19/08--D.W. Griffith

In today's excerpt--D.W. Griffith (1875-1948), Hollywood's first superstar director. He was best known for The Birth of a Nation, the iconic 1915 movie that made over $60 million on an investment of $100,000 at a time when selling $10,000 in tickets was considered a roaring success--emphatically demonstrating the earnings power of the new medium. In 1909, a time when the movie industry was still centered in New York, and movies lasted just a few minutes and were made in a few days, Griffith began to push the boundaries of filmmaking:

"Even as a fledgling director, he was determined to make movies his way. When D.W suggested consecutive scenes in [a new movie called] After Many Years showing the husband stranded on a deserted island, then a cut to the dutiful wife waiting in their home for his return, the actors and even Billy Bitzer, his cameraman, were incredulous.

" 'How can you tell a story jumping about like that? The people won't know what it's about.'

" 'Well,' said D.W, 'doesn't Dickens write that way?'

" 'Yes, but that's Dickens. That's novel writing. That's different.'

" 'Oh, not so much,' argued D.W. 'These are picture stories. Not so different.'

"D.W would not be deterred. His vision was intuitive and visceral, and his confidence in his ability to tell a story was unshakable. Besides, [his employer] Biograph was under contract to produce two films each week. Every day was a race to a new deadline, and there was little time for discussions. Moreover audiences liked what D.W was doing. People, as one early moviegoer observed, 'sensed Biograph pictures were 'different.' ' D.W's name was not on the screen, but on Mondays and Thursdays, the days when his films were released, nickelodeons and theaters put up signs reminding the public that it was 'Biograph day.' Nickels in hand, customers flocked to see the new story the studio had filmed.

"So D.W was allowed, as his wife Linda put it, 'to go his lonely way ... contrary to all the old established rules of the game.' At night in New York he would lie in bed in his tiny apartment in Murray Hill unable to sleep, excited by all the connections he was rapidly making, by all the possibilities he was envisioning. The studio had told him to shoot pictures so that full-sized figures appeared on the screen. This instruction troubled D.W. One afternoon he went uptown to the Metropolitan Museum and studied how Rembrandt and other great painters did it. 'All painted pictures,' he observed, 'show only the face.' D.W decided the day would come when he'd have close shots of the actors' faces in his films, too. He was like an explorer who had no map, only his instincts to lead him into this new territory."

Howard Blum, American Lightning, Crown, Copyright 2008 by Howard Blum, pp. 28-29


Post a Comment

<< Home