Donald Crisp: The Surprising Backstory


Today is the birthday of Donald Crisp (1882-1974).

For ages I’ve had difficulty reconciling two divergent facts. One is the one most classic film fans know — Donald Crisp was a popular Hollywood character actor who appeared in films like How Green Was My Valley (1941), National Velvet (1944), and Spencer’s Mountain (1963). Two is the fact that he co-directed The Navgiator with Buster Keaton. 

Wha-? Does not compute! Does not compute!

So, this morning, the explanation, the missing piece of the puzzle. The short answer is that during the silent era he was a protege of D.W. Griffith, and was not just an actor but a director (and throughout his career he worked as an uncredited producer as well).

A native of London, young Crisp served in the Boer War and studied at Oxford before his brother-in-law gave him passage to America at age 24. On the trip over opera impresario John C. Fisher heard him singing and offered him a job with his company, which led to a career in the theatre. For a time he worked as stage manager to George M. Cohan. He was already friends with Griffith when he began to make his first films for Biograph; Crisp’s acting credits at the studio start in 1908 (the same time as Griffith’s). Some of his notable roles during the silent era included Ulysses S. Grant in The Birth of a Nation (1914) and Battling Burrows in Broken Blossoms (1919), both by Griffith. At the same time, Crisp began directing his own pictures in 1914. He directed around 80 films during the silent era. Notables ones beyond The Navigator included a 1916 remake of Griffith’s Ramona and Don Q Son of Zorro (1925) with Douglas Fairbanks, in which Crisp also appeared as an actor.  He retired from directing when talkies came in, becoming the prolific character actor most people know him as today.

To learn more about silent and early film please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


  1. “He directed around 80 films during the silent era. Notables ones beyond The Navigator included a 1916 remake of Griffith’s Ramona and Don Q Son of Zorro (1925) with Douglas Fairbanks, in which Crisp also appeared as a director.” You mean ‘Crisp also appeared as an actor.’ Thanks.


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