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D.W. Griffith The Birth of a Nation Director: Q&A

D.W. Griffith book
Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

D.W. Griffith Father of Film, controversial figure. To say that the movies wouldn’t be what they are today without D.W. Griffith is probably inaccurate. I mean, someone – or “someones” – would have received credit for turning filmmaking into a major art form.

Either way, Griffith, a movie director since the early 1900s, was a key player in cinema’s maturation, as the movies evolved from the rudimentary “flickers” at the dawn of the 20th century to, well, just about every commercial, narrative effort released in the last century, from The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Ben-Hur to The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises.

D.W. Griffith star maker, controversial figure

D.W. Griffith was also an active co-creator of what would become the Star System. Among the movie celebrities who either began or advanced their careers by appearing in Griffith’s films were future Best Actress Academy Award winner Mary Pickford; Bessie Love, one of the stars in the first talkie to win the Best Picture Academy Award; Elmo Lincoln, cinema’s first feature-film Tarzan; late ’10s and early ’20s matinee idol Wallace Reid; popular light comedienne Constance Talmadge; renowned dramatic actress Mae Marsh; Richard Barthelmess, a Best Actor nominee in the first year of the Academy Awards; future Honorary Oscar winner Lillian Gish and her sister, Dorothy Gish; future Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Donald Crisp; and dozens more.

Now, the controversial element stems from Griffith’s most famous epic, the 1915 Civil War melodrama The Birth of a Nation. Accused of being racist and factually inaccurate, the first major US-made (two-hour) feature film was a phenomenal critical and box office success upon its release. Not only that, it helped to change the course of film history, as features became the norm for “high-end” screen entertainment.

D.W. Griffith Interviews

Film historian Anthony Slide has been an admirer of D.W. Griffith’s cinema contributions for quite some time. Among Slide’s dozens of movie books are The Films of D.W. Griffith (co-written with Edward Wagenknecht), which came out in 1975, and The Griffith Actresses, published in 1973. And now comes Slide’s compilation book D.W. Griffith Interviews (link here; University Press of Mississippi, 2012).

As per the D.W. Griffith Interviews press release, the book includes every single (English-language) Griffith interview from 1914 to 1948. If that doesn’t sound like a must-read for every true-blooded film lover – whether you admire or despise The Birth of a Nation – I don’t know what is.

Here are a few interview titles: “A Poet Who Writes on Motion Picture Films” (Theatre Magazine, 1914); “D.W. Griffith Producer of the World’s Biggest Picture” (New York American, 1915), which discusses The Birth of a Nation; “Griffith Films Stirs Anger of Parisians” (New York Times, 1922), referring to the French Revolution drama Orphans of the Storm; and “Five Dollar Movies Prophesied” – back in 1915, when the average movie cost about a nickel.

Anthony Slide has kindly agreed to answer a few questions (via email) about D.W. Griffith Interviews and D.W. Griffith himself. Please click on the link below for part 1 of the (three-page) q&a.

Wrapping up this D.W. Griffith Interviews intro, here’s a revealing (though quite succinct) quote from the 1915 New York American interview:

“Why call it The Birth of a Nation?” asks the interviewer.

“Because it is,” replies Griffith.

D.W. Griffith Anthony SlideD.W. Griffith Interviews: Q&A with Film Historian Anthony Slide. Photo: Anthony Slide at D.W. Griffith’s burial site at Mt. Tabor Cemetery, just outside of Louisville, Kentucky, in 1975, the 100th anniversary of Griffith’s birth.]

D.W. Griffith Interviews is supposed to include nearly every Griffith interview from 1914 to 1948. How did you find those?

In large part, I was already familiar with many of them. Don’t forget that my enthusiasm for D.W. Griffith goes back decades. My second book was The Griffith Actresses, published in 1973, and, in 1975, Edward Wagenknecht and I published The Films of D.W. Griffith.

In searching out interviews with which I was not familiar, I used ProQuest to access the archives of the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times; I went through the bibliographies of every book on Griffith; I checked the various indices at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; and I also checked out the microfilm of the D.W. Griffith papers at the Museum of Modern Art.

Within a decade or so, D.W. Griffith went from Revered Father of the American Film Industry to unemployable alcoholic. Does his rapid downfall come across in the interviews? Did he sound bitter or disheartened in his later conversations with journalists?

Only in the final interview is there a hint of bitterness. Griffith was always looking forward to the next project even if, deep down inside, he knew it would not materialize. I think in a way he understood that after Abraham Lincoln [1930], he really was not that capable of making another film.

Yes, he made one last, great film, The Struggle, which Griffith’s last interviewer, Ezra Goodman, quite rightly compares to The Lost Weekend. But aside from The Struggle, all the efforts by others to get him work proved abortive, with Griffith himself often sabotaging the project through his alcoholism.

What do those D.W. Griffith interviews cover? Surely he discussed his movies, but what else? Was there any talk of, say, politics or personal beliefs / worldviews / lifestyle? Did Griffith ever openly discuss his private life?

In the interviews, there is a surprising amount of discussion regarding exhibition. Griffith was somewhat obsessed with the manner in which films were presented.

Today, of course, we are all familiar with theaters presenting films with specific show times and tickets. In Griffith’s day (and in much of mine), films were screened throughout the day, and one could purchase a ticket to go into a show in the middle of the film, leave when it reached the part you came in with, or, for that matter, stay all day and watch the film over and over again.

Griffith found this offensive. He considered his films and those of other serious filmmakers too important to be viewed in this cavalier fashion. His idea was that there should be separate shows, with audiences admitted only at the start. Those who arrived late would be “housed” in a smaller, supplemental theater in which comedies and the like (which presumably didn’t require any intelligence in the audience) would be screened.

In a series of pieces by Henry Stephen Gordon published in Photoplay in the mid-1910s, Griffith does discuss his early life in detail, but generally he did not discuss his personal life. He did denounce the House Un-American Activities Committee [in the late ’40s], and often appears fairly liberal in his comments, despite his being (like his star Lillian Gish) a lifelong Republican.

D.W. Griffith The Birth of a NationD.W. Griffith THE BIRTH OF A NATION, accusations of racism. Photo: Walter Long in black make-up as the “renegade negro” Gus in The Birth of a Nation.]

Nowadays, chiefly because of The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith has the reputation of having been a raging racist. Is that an accurate perception of the man? Was he ever apologetic about The Birth of a Nation and its portrayal of American blacks?

What does he have to apologize for? He was telling the story of the Civil War and its terrible aftermath as he had heard it from his father, as Thomas Dixon [author of The Clansman, on which The Birth of a Nation was based] had recorded it, and as reference sources at the time documented it.

In the Walter Huston interview, included here, Griffith points out that the Klan served a purpose “then.” The crucial word is then. In the three years of its existence after the Civil War, The Ku Klux Klan was revered in the South. Once it had served its purpose, it was abolished. [Huston starred in Griffith’s 1930 biopic Abraham Lincoln.]

I suppose one might blame D.W. Griffith and The Birth of a Nation for giving birth to the modern Klan (which it certainly did), but neither Griffith nor Thomas Dixon supported or were members of that shameful organization. In the interviews, in fact, Griffith hardly makes reference to negative responses to The Birth of a Nation.

Perhaps I’ve got the wrong impression, but from what I’ve read, D.W. Griffith seems to have been a sort of megalomaniac. Is that a true or false impression? Reading his interviews, does he come across that way, or…?

I have not really thought of Griffith as being a megalomaniac, but I suppose in a way he was. Certainly, he never undervalued his contribution to the motion picture. Always, he was the “star” of his films and the players – well, they were merely players.

What kind of interview subject was D.W. Griffith? Was he open and straightforward, or was he someone clearly conscious of his image and place in film history?

Griffith was most certainly aware of his place in history. At the same time, I do not believe that he ever deliberately lied in an interview. He was in a way lucky that so many of his interviewers were in awe of him and could barely ask a question without concern that it might offend.

Also, don’t forget that back then, there were no interviews similar to the one we are conducting today. There was no question and answer formula. Interviews were what I might describe as narrative in style. Most of the interviews are heavy on the author’s impression of the man and light on his actual comments.

Anything you could share with us regarding what D.W. Griffith had to say about United Artists, and his partnership with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charles Chaplin?

The simple answer is No. D.W. Griffith doesn’t make reference to the forming of United Artists in his interviews. I do know that he was unhappy with the corporation in later years, and in my collection, I have a letter from him in the early ’30s to Samuel Goldwyn, complaining that he is receiving insufficient monies from his shares in United Artists. But then, Griffith was always complaining about being short of money – he does that in a couple of interviews from the ’20s – and yet I am sure he was pretty well off for most of his life.

D.W. Griffith Donald Crisp Evelyn BaldwinD.W. Griffith quotes. Photo: Griffith and his bride, Evelyn Baldwin (the second female lead in his last film, The Struggle), arriving in Pasadena after a four-year absence from Los Angeles. Meeting them is Griffith player and future Oscar winner Donald Crisp.]

Was there ever one (or more) controversial D.W. Griffith interview(s)? If so, why?

As far as I am concerned, the most open and at times controversial interview with D.W. Griffith is his last, with reporter Ezra Goodman, first published in the liberal newspaper PM in May 1948.

Is there any particular D.W. Griffith interview that is a revealing “must-read”?

Again, I repeat the answer to the last question. It is fascinating to have Griffith announce that he can say whatever he wants, that nobody cares, that nobody gives “a hoot” about him. His comments on contemporary cinema are fascinating, his likes and dislikes, and, above all, his devastating final comment: “What the modern movie lacks is beauty … In my arrogant belief … we have lost beauty.”

I feel a strong empathy with the Griffith of this last interview. Just as he sits with a double gin at his side, I sit with my gin and tonic. I feel much the same about my life and work as he does about his. No, I’m not suggesting that I am in any way comparable to Mr. Griffith. I am not qualified to clean his shoes, let alone discuss myself in the same sentence.

Did D.W. Griffith ever speak candidly about his leading men and women? Anything of interest you might tell us?

In his early interviews, Griffith always speak with great respect for the stage actress Mrs. Minnie Maddern Fiske, who made a film version of her greatest theatrical success, Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

In a 1926 interview, he is asked by Frederick James Smith to name the greatest actor he had directed. One expects that the reply might be Henry B. Walthall, Robert Harron, or Richard Barthelmess. But no: he replies Arthur Johnson, whom he directed at American Biograph. When pressed as to his favorite leading lady, Lillian Gish or Carol Dempster, he responds disingenuously “Who is greater?” [Arthur Johnson was a handsome leading man who died of tuberculosis in 1916, shortly before his 40th birthday. Carol Dempster was Griffith’s leading lady in the ’20s and reportedly his lover as well.]

Your personal impressions of D.W. Griffith, the director and the man, if you please.

There are a handful of great filmmakers, and none of them, with the possible exception of Terence Davies, are active today. Griffith is the motion picture. He created the art of movie-making. He understood how to use the medium as nobody before him and few after him have done.

I will never agree with those who choose to denigrate his memory or his contribution to cinema. I am sure there are those who will criticize this book for the manner in which I honor the man. I have no time for them or their arguments. My view of D.W. Griffith is the truth. But then, as the man himself often remarked, quoting Pontius Pilate, “The truth … What is the truth?”

D.W. Griffith tomb

Photos: All images in this four-part article are courtesy of Anthony Slide and/or University Press of Mississippi.

More Anthony Slide Q&As at Alt Film Guide:

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