D. W. Griffith, the director of Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, is widely recognized as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, film director of the silent era. His legacy is complicated, of course, because of the overt racism of Birth of a Nation (which, even for its time, was pretty offensive). But his skill as a director is unquestioned. This post is not about his skill or talent, but rather about the myth of D.W. Griffith, and how he contributed to that myth with one of the most self-aggrandizing ads of all time.
Griffith began his directing career at Biograph in 1908, and left because of a disagreement with the Biograph management in 1913 (this disagreement is the genesis of the famous ad, as you will see below). In 1908, most films were one-reelers, lasting less than 15 minutes, but longer films were beginning to get made. Biograph eventually allowed Griffith to make some two-reelers, but Griffith was too ambitious to stop there. In 1913, he began making Judith of Beluthia. While the management of Biograph knew he was making the movie, they assumed he was making a standard two-reeler. When the final costs for the movie came in greatly over budget at $36,000 (approximately $900,000 in today’s dollars), and the Biograph management realized they had a four-reeler on hand, which would cause issues with their exhibitors, they parted ways with Griffith.
In October of that year, Griffith was hired by the Mutual Film Corporation. Mutual placed an ad in Variety on October 31, touting the hire. The Mutual ad is not the famous ad. But some of the language in the ad is over-the-top: “the greatest of all movie producers”; “Mr. Griffith has already planned the production of several great masterpieces.” The myth-making machinery is running.
The famous ad.
Around one month after beginning at Mutual, Griffith placed his famous ad in a two-page spread. While most sources cite the ad’s placement in the New York Dramatic Mirror in December of 1913, I also found the ad in the November 29, 1913 edition of Moving Picture World and the December 6, 1913 edition of Motion Picture News. In addition, I found a one-page version of the ad in the November 28, 1913 edition of Variety.
So this was no ordinary ad. And the more you think about the ad, the stranger it gets. Griffith was now employed at Mutual, but if anything the ad is a promotion for Biograph films. Nothing in the ad even alludes to Mutual. So something odd is going on here.
I count exactly 150 movies mentioned in the ad, and every single movie is a Biograph movie. In particular, the films in bold were supposedly yet to be released (though my research indicates that The Massacre was released in 1912, and The Battle of Elderbusch Gulch had a limited release a few months prior). These are films that would be competing with films from his current employer, Mutual. So clearly these ads are not about his current employment. They are about promoting Griffith’s legacy. But I guess that’s obvious.
But I think the ads have another purpose. Griffith has left what he probably considers his greatest film, the four-reeler Judith of Bethulia, in the hands of Biograph’s management. The film had yet to be released, and Griffith knew of the problems that Biograph thought they would have with their exhibitors in distributing a four-reeler. So I think another purpose of the ad was to pressure the Biograph management to release Judith of Bethulia in its four-reel format.
So what about D.W. Griffith’s claims in the ad?
The box on the first page of the ad lays out Griffith’s claims for immortality:
Included in the innovations which he introduced, and which are now generally followed by the most advanced producers, are: The large or close-up figures, distant views as represented first in Ramona, the “switchback”, sustained suspense, the “fade out”, and restraint in expression, raising motion picture acting to the higher plane which has won for it recognition as a genuine art.
An article from the January 1917 edition of Picture Play Magazine describes some of these techniques (which I guess are mostly self-explanatory, but I think it’s interesting and somewhat illuminating to read how these techniques were described at that time):
- Close Up and Close Range: Both of these are used to bring the camera close to the action. The former applies to actors, while the latter refers to objects.
- Switchback or Cut-back: The system used in shifting the action from one place to
another, thus allowing several threads of the plot to work out simultaneously. The scenes are short, as a rule, and the suspense runs high.
- Fade out, or Diaphragm Out: A fade may disappear from a screen in any fashion, the light of the picture gradually disappearing until the screen is blank. A diaphragm causes the picture to fade from the screen in a circle which grows smaller until it disappears.
Griffith refers to the “distant views as represented first in Ramona.” Here is an example from that film. Notice the wagons in the background, which are important to the action in the foreground.
An example of the “switchback” from Birth of a Nation is shown below. The bugler is signaling the start of the War for Southern Independence,
Most historians agree that Griffith’s claims are exaggerated. Griffith may have been the best director at using these techniques to advance the narrative and heighten the emotions in films, but he did not “introduce” all or perhaps any of these techniques. Earlier examples of these techniques have been found from other filmmakers.
Additional Sources: D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film: The Early Years at Biograph, by Tom Gunning; and Sense of Cinema biography of D.W. Griffith