Cinema: Last Dissolve

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Hollywood Was his invention. Charlie Chaplin said, "The whole industry owes its existence to him." Yet of late years he could not find a job in the town he had invented. He clung to the shadows, a bald, eagle-beaked man, sardonic and alone. At parties, he sat drinking quietly, his sharp eyes panning the room for a glimpse of familiar faces, most of them long gone. David Wark Griffith had been The Master, and there was nobody quite like him afterwards.

The Shameful Profession. It was a long stretch from the genteel poverty of the Kentucky farm where D. W. Griffith was born in 1875 to the international renown he achieved. He had wanted to be a writer, but all that he wrote floundered and failed. In the beginning he was ashamed to be an entertainer: he toured with road shows as Lawrence Griffith. He was stranded in tank towns, fired, overworked and underfed. Between roles, he did slob labor.

Griffith tried writing for pictures, but the Edison Co. rejected his scenarios. When (in 1907) they hired him as an actor, to wrestle with a stuffed eagle in an old-fashioned cliffhanger, he attached himself to the movies and never, voluntarily, left them again. But until his third contract as a director with Biograph, his pride would not permit him to sign himself David Griffith.

As a director, Griffith hit the picture business like a tornado. Before he walked on the set, motion pictures had been, in actuality, static. At a respectful distance, the camera snapped a series of whole scenes, clustered in the groupings of the stage play. Griffith broke up the pose. He rammed his camera into the middle of the action. He took closeups, crosscuts, angle shots and dissolves. His camera was alive, picking off shots; then he built the shots into sequences, the sequences into tense, swift narrative. For the first time the movies had a man who realized that while a theater audience listened a movie audience watched. "Above all. . . I am trying to make you see," Griffith said.

The First "Colossal." Griffith brought a strange, yet significant, heritage to his work. His father was Colonel Jacob Wark ("Roaring Jake") Griffith, a Confederate cavalry officer given to florid readings of Shakespeare. Like him, young D. W. had a stentorian voice, a tough physical frame, and a character that mixed moral austerity with poetic sentiment. He absorbed the attitude of the post-bellum Southerner to the Nouhern carpetbagger and the problems of the new freed men. When his talents and his viewpoint merged in The Birth of a Nation, a story of the Civil War, the Reconstruction and the first Ku Klux Klan, the cinema had its first "colossal." But on the heels of the picture came race riots and cries of racial bigotry.

Griffith was hurt and astonished at the cries. By way of answer, he sank all the money he had in another super. Intolerance. The film ran 20 hours, before cutting, and undertook to prove, in four parallel stories from history, that intolerance and injustice never pay. Intolerance itself was a failure at the box office. Like his later successes (Broken Blossoms, Orphans of the Storm and Way Down East), it perhaps only proved that Griffith would never again match The Birth of a Nation.

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