D.W. Griffith (born today in 1875) is probably (with the possible exception of Chaplin) my favorite film director. I say this in full knowledge of his unfortunate racial attitudes, which were widely shared in his time (and which I obviously condemn). Shakespeare shared these attitudes too and many people call Shakespeare their favorite playwright. Griffith’s contributions to cinema are easily on a par with Shakespeare’s contributions to the drama or the English language. Neither artist is unique in their being superb craftsmen who possessed moral failings.
Griffith had been an aspiring playwright, with scanty success, until he was cast as an actor in 1907 in Edwin S. Porter’s Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest. When he lucked into his first directing assignment, he poured all that frustrated playwright energy into creating a new narrative art form, very nearly all by himself. The added bonus (for me, anyway) is that he arrives so early that he carried the entire basket of 19th century aesthetics with him (even as he also brings his 19th century morals).
I find his movies, from the very first to the very last, unspeakably gorgeous to watch (even though the later ones tend to come along with some unintentional comedy.) Most people only know The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), but there were hundreds before those two (because they were short) and almost two dozen after. Favorites of mine include A Corner in Wheat (1909, based on a Frank Norris novel), Enoch Arden (1911, based on a Tennyson poem), Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), Judith of Bethulia (1914), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), Sally of the Sawdust (starring W.C. Fields, 1925) and Abraham Lincoln (1930). In later years, Griffith, to whom Hollywood owed just about everything — couldn’t even get arrested as a director. He passed away in 1948.
Don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc