remembers favorite son
on his 125th birthday
simple roots in Oldham Co.,
D.W. Griffith left mark in film history
Helen E. McKinney
LA GRANGE, Ky. - David Wark Griffith was considered a genius among filmmakers,
a man far ahead of his time. He was a simple man, but also a visionary.
He once stated his monumental goal as, ‹The task I am trying to achieve
is above all to make you see.
Griffith was born on Jan. 22, 1875, on a farm near Centerfield, Ky.,
in southern Oldham County. He was the son of Jacob Wark Griffith and
Mary Oglesby Griffith. ‹Roaring Jake,ž as Griffith's father was called,
was somewhat of a drifter. He came to Kentucky from Maryland in 1840
at age 21. He apprenticed himself to two medical practitioners and soon
established his own practice.
In 1846 he left Kentucky to fight in the Mexican War. Two years later,
he returned to marry Oglesby. Two years later, he joined a wagon train
headed for California. He returned to Kentucky in 1852 to re-establish
his medical practice. He entered politics and was elected a representative
of Oldham and Trimble counties by 1854.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, he joined the Confederacy. It is during
this time that he received his nickname, ‹Roaring Jake.ž At the Battle
of Corinth, Tenn., Roaring Jake was rendered unable to mount a horse
due to a wound he had received a few months earlier. Frustrated by this,
he commandeered a horse and bug-gy, leading a victorious charge upon
Jake had a gambling habit, spurred on by the thrill of winning large
stakes. His wife had inherited a 264-acre farm in Kentucky. After Jake's
death, the family learned that there were three mortgages on the farm,
one of them part of a settlement for a gambling debt. His personal effects
had to be sold at auction to settle his debts.
His son's upbringing by a Confederate father and the love for history
instilled in him by Roaring Jake's tales of war fostered in him a desire
to transfer his thoughts and feelings onto the big screen. Griffith
drew his ideas from his experiences of the simple pleasures of farm
life and the goodness of the people who lived such a life. But he was
not cut out to be one of them.
"The family couldn't get him to work on the farm. He was always
sitting under a tree reading history books," said
La Grange, Ky., resident Tommy Duncan, Griffith's great-nephew.
"Folks said he would never amount to anything."
Luckily for the rest of the world, the people who knew him best were
After Jacob's death, when Griffith was only 10, the family moved to
Southville in southern Shelby County, Ky., to live with his older brother,
Will, and his new bride, Ann Crutchers. By 1890, the family had moved
once again, to First Street in Louisville.
Edmund Rucker was a boyhood friend of Griffith's around this time. He
wrote in the Louisville Courier-Journal Magazine that the neighborhood
kids regarded Griffith as ‹a hick." He was ‹tall for his age, loose-jointed
and beak-nosed, he wore jeans that barely reached his ankles, red suspenders
and rawhide shoes. He badly needed a haircut."
Rucker went on to declare, "I think I'm the only youngster who
got to know Griffith well."
The time Griffith spent in Louisville was a time of transition for the
young man. He quit school to work various odd jobs. Eventually, he made
his stage debut around this time by acting, not directing.
He had begun acting with the Meffert Stock Co., a Louisville-based stock
company. His first role was that of a private's rear bearer for a wounded
soldier, whom he helped carry onstage. Griffith was bitten by the acting
bug and went on to perform in many road shows. He also wrote film scenarios.
By 1908, he had made his way to New York. The show he had been performing
in closed, and he was broke. He spent the night on a bench in Central
Park and "thanked God it was warm weather." The very next
day Griffith went to work for the Biograph Studios as an extra. He earned
$5 a day.
Movie officials on the set soon began taking notice of this young man's
innovative suggestions. At the age of 33, Griffith seized an opportunity
to direct in 1908. The director, Wallace McCutcheon, became ill, allowing
Griffith to direct and improvise the filmmaking industry. He remained
with Biograph until 1913.
During his early career with Biograph, Griffith invented such cinematic
techniques as the fade out, flash back and diffused lighting. Griffith
also developed on-location shooting, rehearsals, authentic sets and
makeup, precise cutting and editing, and gave immaculate attention to
details. Such detail in the overall picture enhanced the story he was
trying to tell.
He was particular about having an actor's characterizations look realistic.
He did away with the false, stiff movements that had been previously
practiced by actors, replacing them with realistic emotional expressions.
His greatest hour came with the release of "The Birth of a Nation."
The film opened at the Liberty Theatre in New York on Mar. 3, 1915 and
was released as a 12-reel film. This was the first film to be shown
at the White House, evoking the following comment from President Woodrow
Wilson: "It is like writing history with lightning, and my one
regret is that it's all so terribly true."
Griffith would churn out many more films until 1931. In his great-great-nephew
Bruce Duncan's eyes, Griffith "is the one that made Mary Pickford."
In fact, Griffith gave many great actors their start in Hollywood. Bruce
added that while Hollywood eventually forgot Griffith, "Lillian
Gish remained loyal to him."
During his directing career, Griffith would come home to Kentucky to
visit relatives. When he did, it was "kind of like Christmas. He
took us to sporting good stores and bought whatever we wanted,"
recalls Tommy. Griffith "would hire two or three people and have
all of the family together."
Sometimes, Griffith would visit for as long as a month in his hometown."
Griffith was "very sophisticated; he was a dandy. His voice was
really loud. You could hear him a long way off," Tommy added.
While Griffith would shower his relatives with gifts, Tommy "never
once heard him say a word about his movies."
Griffith was as quiet about his personal life as well. He had married
his first wife, Linda Arvidson, in Boston on May 14, 1906. The marriage
lasted until 1936. Two days after divorcing her, Griffith married New
York native Evelyn Baldwin at the Brown Hotel in Louisville.
‹She was a beautiful woman,ž Tommy said. She was 26; he was 61.
Griffith continued to visit Kentucky over the years. He bought a house
on Fourth Street in La Grange for his mother, and he and his wife lived
there off and on until 1939. Although he didn't actually live in the
house in La Grange until 1936, he called La Grange home and loved it.
He signed hotel registers as "David Wark Griffith, La Grange, KY,"
regardless of where he lived at the time.
He was devoted to his family, although he had no children. He once said,
"In Oldham County were to be found the finest people and the finest
land in the world."
On one such extended visit to Kentucky before he remarried, people speculated
that Griffith had left Hollywood for good, that Hollywood had turned
its back on him for the last time. This was to mark the beginning of
the last 17 years of his life in which he did not make a single film.
Griffith responded to such gossip by saying, "The chief reason
for leaving Hollywood was that I wanted leisure to write. Another reason
that I came home was to back off from the studio merry-go-round. I needed
time to digest vast experiences and personalities."
Griffith died on July 23, 1948, in Hollywood, where he had returned
for the last time. It was his wish that his body be returned to Kentucky
for burial in his family plot. Tommy said that on that day, the throng
of people just about filled the cemeteryž at Mt. Tabor United Methodist
Church in Centerfield.
Griffith's grave, however, lay unmarked for two years. Arey Harris,
a theatre owner in Eminence, Ky., saw to it that the Screen Directors
Guild provided a seven-foot, white marble slab to mark Griffith's grave.
When this honor was instituted, Griffith's grave was moved from the
family plot to the other side of the cemetery where there was room to
erect a rail fence around it.
Perhaps Gish best summed up Griffith's accomplishments, saying, "He
was the father of film. He invented everything. The only new thing since
him is Walt Disney."
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