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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Born This Day In 1875 --- D.W. Griffith

D.W. Griffith occupied a strange and unique position in the Hollywood community of the thirties and forties. No one was respected more, nor wanted less. The spectre of Griffith parked outside a studio gate aroused such feelings of pity, guilt, and general discomfort among all those on the inside that no door could be closed against him. Most of the power-players had learned their business from Griffith. The creative giant and father figure to an entire generation of producers and directors could no longer find a place in the industry he’d helped create. Nevertheless, work would always stop when Mr. Griffith arrived on a set. Just a visit and friendly reunion with an old associate who’d made it big, now shooting the important pictures Griffith used to direct. For men like C.B. DeMille and W.S. Van Dyke, those drop-ins had to be excruciating. They knew the sad old veteran wanted back in to resume his own career, but knew it was utterly impossible. Norma Desmond’s visit to DeMille’s Samson and Delilah set in Sunset Boulevard came closest to capturing the reality of those encounters. When someone once asked Irving Thalberg about giving Griffith a job at MGM, he merely shook his head, and said, "Impossible." Hollywood was anxious to give D.W. Griffith the grandest funeral tribute its money and shared guilt could buy, but even at that, they failed him. When the day finally came, on July 21, 1948, eulogist Donald Crisp delivered a stinging address before a half-filled chapel (fans were let in to swell attendance) in which he denounced an ungrateful industry for its shabby treatment of the great pioneer. Of course, they’d heard all that before, and now wanted only to get back to work and forget the whole thing.

These images do not represent D.W. Griffith at his peak. They show a man struggling to hang on in an industry that preferred he be confined to places like The Museum Of Modern Art, where they liked to keep relics. Griffith looks natty here with Cecil B. DeMille in a late twenties set pose. The man dressed sharp in those days. Good taste in hats, too. Griffith still had Abraham Lincoln and The Struggle ahead of him when this pic was made, so we shouldn’t count him out just yet. This next still, in which he appears to be directing a scene from San Francisco, was taken on the Metro lot in March 1936, and that’s D.W.’s old clapper boy W.S. Van Dyke standing behind the Master with his foot on the ladder. Van Dyke was another director who could never say no to Griffith, and by all accounts, the two were pals till the end (and Van Dyke’s would come sooner when he died young in 1943). I’d really like to know if Griffith actually called action on any of what made the final cut in San Francisco. This still is the only reference I've seen to his presence on the set, and the idea he might have directed a shot or two is a tantilizing one. Anyone got any dope on this? These last two are of Griffith in obvious decline. Note the tatty sport jacket he's chosen for a One Million B.C. publicity foray with producer Hal Roach. It's not a good fit, and that plaid is all wrong for him (still like the hat, though). I'm also a little miffed with Hal for using this great oracle of the silent cinema to shill for a dumb caveman movie with iguanas and other real-life critters standing in for prehistoric beasts (and for being so promiscuous in selling stock footage of self-same critters for every threadbare sci-fi pic to come along for the next twenty years!). At least Hal was offering D.W. some sort of a real job, as the original studio caption suggests ---

"Absent from films for eight years, David Wark Griffith, pioneer motion picture director and producer, arrived in Hollywood today. Griffith stopped in at the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City to pay a personal visit to his friend Hal Roach, a friend of a quarter century’s standing. Before the visit was over, Griffith was prevailed upon to return to picture making as an associate in the Roach organization, his only contract a firm hand clasp."

According to our information, the deal never came to much, but Griffith did hang around the lot for a month or so, offering some casting suggestions (was Carole Landis the Great Man's last discovery?). This shot of Hal pointing something or other out to D.W. reflects pleasure in having Griffith on the lot, but also determination in letting the old-timer know who’s in charge there.


Anonymous Crystal said...

I have enjoyed stumbling across your blog--it is knowledgeable and entertaining to read. I look forward to your subsequent postings.

4:02 PM  
Blogger ira gallen said...

I own the estate rights of Griffith biographer Seymour yourself to any griffith pics at

we have over 60 Griffith Biographs on line at
(will have all the links soon
allso over a dozen DVD titles with Griffith films. Keep up the good work

1:38 PM  
Blogger Daniel Kinske said...

Love the photo of Hal Roach and David Wark Griffith--very cool, and rare.

5:25 PM  

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