Among the filmmakers all over the world David Wark Griffith is called a “Father of cinema”, or, according to Charlie Chaplin, “our common teacher” by virtue of his two greatest achievements . He pursued one of them through whole his life and he had never sought another. As original cinema pioneer Griffith wanted to make a movie the one of the greatest and most accessible forms of art and accomplished this through the creation of a “language of the cinema” - the one which is used today when talking about the cinema art. As a byproduct of this unidirectional search, Griffith created Hollywood with its system of stars and blockbusters, turning a small Californian town into the American version of Babylon. Although Griffith has specialized mainly in melodrama he also directed comedy, historical films, thrillers, Westerns, screen version of the Bible, various literary works, as well as a number of films of social direction. In his works, David Wark Griffith managed to connect the attraction to early cinema aesthetics and specific features of future classical Hollywood style.

Period of Biograph Studio

David Griffith is a man whose name is associated not only with the stage of development of Biograph Studio but also with the development of the American film art in general. In 1908, Griffith and his wife, actress Linda Arvidson began acting in films of Biograph Studio.  Later, he had writtenscripts which were sold to the same company. The same year, he received a proposal to replace a director Mack Kitsch. From this moment the activity of Griffith as a film director in “Biograph” began. Given that in those years Biograph Studio released 3-4 film per week, Griffith immediately got a wide field of activity. Besides him only two directors were working at the studio. Consequently, Griffith had to make approximately one movie a week. Griffith not only directed, but also experimented with different techniques. Compared with those artists who worked before him in this company he was a man of broad vision, much more cultural, creative, and gifted. Unfortunately, from a large number of films made by Griffith during his time at the Biograph Studio from 1908 to 1914 only a few survived to nowadays. 

The works of the Biograph Studio period brought a considerable contribution to the emergence of the film as a powerful form of cultural expression. It is possible to trace the development of the coarse humor and melodramatic techniques in “The Adventures of Dollie” (1908) through a remarkably dynamic scenes in “The Battle at Elderbush Gulch” (1913).


The Adventures of Dollie, 1908

The Adventures of Dollie is short feature film which was the directorial debut of David Griffith. He made this first film in 1908. At the studio, the scenario given to Griffith was considered as an absolute fiasco.  At that time, its story had already been used a dozens of times in the variety of movies. Nice common bourgeois family arranges a picnic at the countryside. A five-year-old girl from this family is kidnapped by the Roma people. They hide her in the cask, which is placed in the covered wagon. The wagon moves across the river and the cask falls into the water. Further, the attention is focused on the movement of the cask. In the end, the girl is saved.

The story of a little girl kidnapped by the Roma people lasted nine minutes on the screen. However, during this time the author carried his characters through the valley, gorge, and waterfall. The tape was filmed on location that gave a more realistic attitude to the describing events. However, in this primitive plot two basic features which later became a canon of Hollywood film were laid: 

  • a dynamic plot (high density of events);
  • happy end (saved at the last moment).

Griffith showed a real direction, the ability to work even with the most primitive scenario and the ability to control the viewer's attention. In this elementary plot, Griffith invented a stunning directorial move, which allowed to cause the viewer's tension with the minimum means and converted the story of the kidnapping into a real thriller. The audience knew that the girl was in the cask. Griffith let the cask flow over the waves by a terrifying section of the river. The cask bumped against all the stones, it was thrown from shore to shore, and the audience was engaged, strained, shocked and shuddered every time the cask jumped. Mentioned technique, based on the installation, forced the viewer to empathize. Thus, the film of the summer season of 1908 had a certain inclination to modern Hollywood “blockbuster” movie style of filmmaking and controlled the viewer's perception. 

In addition, based on the achievements of his predecessors, the pioneers of the cinema art, Griffith began to divide the scenes on the set of shooting frames, varying the distance and the shooting angle to create an effect of a great drama. Moreover, he gradually increased the pace of the cross-cut until the action reaches its emotional peak for the creation of a maximal tension. This method was especially effectively used in order to show the “miraculous” salvation which later became the trademark of The Adventures of Dolly. Audience success of this film is largely determined by the strained plot and a happy ending of exciting events.

After Many Years, 1908

Another tool for revealing the human psychology, which will be inherent for future dramatic films in Hollywood, is the cross-cut or “cut-back”. Griffith used it in the same  year, in 1908. However, cross-cut as the technique has formed even before Griffith. In early 1906-1907 years, the French studio “Pathe” used this technique in comedies, exclusively in narrative order to indicate different activities that occured simultaneously at different points.  However, Griffith opened the installation as a creative process. He started to use large, long, medium shot, shooting motion, and sharp approach. Thus, Griffith brought to the cinema culture system which determined the further formation of the entire film industry. 

Griffith introduced a cross-cut for the first time in the film After Many Years filmed according to Alfred Tennyson's poem “Enoch Arden”. This poem is a classic of English literature. It tells about a sailor who returns from a voyage. He has long been presumed dead, but his wife still comes every day to the beach and waits for her husband. Only after many years, the sailor returned. He lived on some uninhabited island and changed greatly. Nobody remembered him, his wife and friends had a completely different lives. Thus, he tried not to reveal who he was and intruded into this completely different life.

This film has the scene when the wife of a sailor, Annie Lee, is standing on the beach and looking afar thinking about her husband. In Alfred Tennyson's poem the story about the memories of missing husband takes several pages. In order to explain to the audience what the woman was thinking about, Griffith decided to cut the longest overall scene with his wife and insert the close-up of Enoch Arden who was on the uninhabited island. The use of cross-cut had not a narrative aim. It was an attempt to get closer to the inner thoughts and feelings of the characterand to focus on a person.

After Many Years became a work in which  the own style of Griffith was fully expressed for the first time. The chase had not played a significant role in this film; however, the director has kept the method used in the chase - the mounting juxtaposition of short scenes occurring simultaneously in different places. The connection between these scenes was achieved not by moving the hero in space and sequence in time, but with a combination of thought and dramatic action. Hence a spectator has seen alternately Enoch Arden on the uninhabited island and his wife Annie Lee, who was waiting for him. A quick change of the close-ups emphasizes the longing and impatience of the separated loving hearts.

The value of the famous “cut-back” of After Many Years which was so important for the director as this was the first attempt to create a cinematic analog of the poetic text, and also the first bold attempt of visual reconstruction language on the basis of marine correspondence. Thus, Griffith first used a psychologically motivated close-up, introduced it to the installation in the context of the film After Many Years. In addition, the director created many cinematic techniques which in turn, led to the creation of more complex elements of film language.

After Many Years was one of the first films which were looking forward to the classical Hollywood style. At the time when After Many Years was filmed the young film art had not its own language yet, it was just formed. The stories were simple, linear, and Griffith first used psychologically motivated close-up and introduced it to the installation context. As a permanent and meaningful technique, he used a cross-cut and close-up that previously served only for incidental tricks. In addition, he rebuilt the filming technique (the usage of moving cameras, overcoming of a static character of the frame), as well as dimming, influxes, double exposition, and many other.  Griffith built the scene of several frames taken from different perspectives. He first realized that the installation is an art mean: the meaning, rhythm, mood, and atmosphere of the scene depend on the order of connections of the frames, the length of the pieces, and, consequently, on the rate and the rapidity of alternation. Thus, After Many Years explored a variety of approaches which form the current Hollywood filmmaking style.

Enoch Arden, 1911

Milestones of Griffith’s works should be reviewed in the context of world cinema. By 1915, the movie was presented in all genres in almost all major countries. However, the films, which, at first, were built compositionally and told the story from the beginning to the end, and secondly, in which this story was told not by the language of theater but by cinema means of expression, have not yet been created.  Griffith, working at the period of nucleation of new art, besides attraction to methods that would later become the basis classical Hollywood style. Moreover, he was inclined to the aesthetics of early silent cinema. This tendency manifested in the appeal to theater classic and literature, as alongside with a colossal influence of Film d’Art esthetics. The tradition of so-called “art film” or “a film d'Art” originated in 1908 year in France.  Griffith's interest to person has been warmed by the emergence of this entirely new cinema aesthetics. “Le Film d'Art” was the society of the theatrical figures who gathered in order to transform cinema into art. Before cinema was a way of entertainment for the lower class. Guided by the principles of theatrical performance of the role, the actors of Film d'Art demonstrated on the screen completely different play than before. During the trade fair cinema actors just ran across the screen. Film d'Art has changed the setting. The actors stiffened in static poses, used stressed-theatrical, bright gestures.

Film d'Art has had a significant impact on Griffith filmmaking style. The first real psychological drama of Griffith can be regarded to his first half-hour film, which the director made during his work for Biograph Studio in 1911It was a remake of the film After Many Years which was called Enoch Arden.  A short story-diagram, presented in the first film, raised for half an hour and appeared in its highest possible development. The close-ups, and static postures, and a cross-cut began to operate on the revealing of the psychology of the character. In Enoch Arden, the actors also showed the desire for a static posture, bright gestures, and fading on the screen. However, film Enoch Arden did not set the task to reveal human psychology, rather it was a kind of poetic generalization. A static posture and bright gestures allowed to show not so much internal as external, purely visual image of experience and feelings of the hero. However, attention shifted to human.

Griffith realized that the short format is not enough neither for providing a detailed analysis of the nature of the character and its change, nor for the psychological development of the actor or the story. It resulted in an interesting relationship - the shorterthe timeframe of the moviewas the more it tended to generalization, to some succinct and concise, sometimes brought up to the state of the parable form. Therefore, Griffith focused on this form - the form of the film d'Art, appropriate for one part short movie and focused the attention on a human. In Enoch Arden details are amazing and on the wholey and they became the key to the further psychological development. Moreover, the actors were already eager to play in a more psychological way than in the previous films. 

The outcome of the attraction to the cinema aesthetics resulted in Griffith abandoning the painted backdrops in favor of the hard decorations, such as those used in the theater. In addition to creating a realistic atmosphere, such decorations allowed the camera to move more freely and to increase the degree of involvement of the audience in the action.

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David Wark Griffith is one of the most prominent film directors in the history of cinema. He was able to look into the future of cinema and transform filmmaking into the art. He began his career as a screenwriter and became a “father” of the cinema. He was one of the first who understood that a movie can be an art, not just a fair play. Moreover, Griffith created the  “language” of the movie and its “dictionary”. From film to film, he explored the possibility of installation of the perspectives and the camera filling his work with intellectual component and causing the audience to reflect on what they saw. Among the first the director praised the strong emotional impact created with the use of close-ups, cross-cuts and by shots with motion. Due to his imagination and ingenuity, Griffith’s movies are characterized by the dramatic tension, the complexity of the novelistic narrative and scenic elegance. Griffith expanded borders of cinema and significantly filled up the arsenal of expressive means. He contributed to the development of film language more than any of his contemporaries releasing the film from the theatrical conventions, making the camera mobile and developing the principle of film editing. Thus, Griffith’s creative contribution to the development of the art of cinema is determined by four main factors:

  • introduction to the cinema narrative drama, novel design;
  • reform of the system of acting;
  • a movie camera transformation an active participant in the action;
  • cross-cut.

By 1913, Griffith became a mature artist with his own creative method and left Biograph Studio. 


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