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5— D. W. Griffith and the Biograph Company
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Director Griffith

During the spring of 1908, the Biograph front office, facing a shortage of directors, offered Griffith the chance to make a film. Though Griffith had by this time been writing scenarios and acting in films for six months, he still felt less than sure of his directorial abilities and agreed only with the assurance that he be retained as an actor should his directorial debut fail. Originally hired as director simply to rehearse the actors, Griffith soon found himself, as Bitzer tells us, involved in all aspects of the films' production:

Before his [Griffith's] arrival, I, as cameraman, was responsible for everything except the immediate hiring and handling of the actor. Soon it was his say whether the lights were bright enough or if the make-up was right. . . . A cameraman had enough to do watching the rapidity of the action and keeping the hand-cranked camera going at a steady pace to prevent the film from buckling.[19]

The evolution of studio organization remains a disputed point among film historians. Bitzer's comment may be taken to lend support to Staiger's chronology, set forth in The Classical Hollywood Cinema . Prior to 1907, according to Staiger, one person, the cameraman, had control of all aspects of film production, from the selection of the subject to the final editing. As distributors and exhibitors clamored for more film, the studios instituted division of labor, switching from a "cameraman" system of production to a "director" system. Under this system, the cameraman retained control over technical matters such as lighting, but a variety of workers such as outside scriptwriters, stage managers, property men, and wardrobe mistresses took over his former jobs. The director, at this time often called the producer, oversaw the whole production and became recognized as the chief authority. By 1909 the film studios began to institute the "director-unit" system to meet the exhibitors' need for twenty to thirty new reels a week. Under this system the studios employed several directors, giving each his own cast and crew and requiring him to turn out one reel a week.[20]


According to Tom Gunning, "It is not certain how relations between cameraman and director had evolved at Biograph prior to Griffith's first films," though "it seems that Biograph had employed a director-cameraman team for dramatic films . . . for several years before Griffith appeared."[21] At any rate, Griffith was the sole director from June 1908 through December 1909, when the first non-Griffith unit began operation. By the time Griffith left in the fall of 1913, six directors were shooting Biograph films under Griffith's supervision.[22]

Charles Musser, who proposes a modification of Staiger's chronology, believes that Griffith may have had more authority at Biograph than did most directors at the time. Musser asserts that a collaborative system, in which films were codirected by cameramen and/or producers, and/or directors, "dominated American cinema until 1907 or 1908."[23] Around these years, a shift occurred to a hierarchically organized central-producer system, which Musser dates several years earlier than does Staiger.[24] Staiger's intermediary "director-unit" system, according to Musser, "simply never existed."[25] Musser argues that Griffith at Biograph is a unique case from which historians have drawn inaccurate generalizations.

Griffith's role at Biograph represented a somewhat unusual variation of the central producer system, not some distinct interim category. This was a conjunction of at least two factors. First the subordination of Bitzer or Marvin to Griffith conformed more readily to preexisting practices at Biograph than at some studios. Secondly . . . his ability to work efficiently . . . meant that he could produce and direct two reels of film per week. . . . Soon he produced and directed some Biograph films while supervising the direction of others. Biograph thus allowed for a concentration of titles and responsibilities in one person.[26]

What precise responsibilities did Griffith have with regard to "the hiring and handling of actors" and other matters impinging on performance? What restrictions did the front office impose, and what input might other Biograph employees have had? Let us examine these issues by proceeding step by step through the production process, beginning with the matter of personnel. The front office seems to have granted carte blanche with respect to hiring, and Griffith established his own personal stock company, which remained remarkably stable over the years, given the mobile nature of the acting profession. The stock company began to be developed almost as soon as Griffith began directing. When Florence Lawrence started at Biograph in July 1908 there were only "three or four regularly employed actors and actresses who were paid on a weekly guarantee." But four or five months later Griffith had established a company[27] and continued to seek new talent throughout his Biograph years. One of his first acquisitions was a leading man for The Adventures of Dollie . Making the rounds of the theatrical agencies (with which he must have been all to familiar), Griffith encountered Arthur Johnson and entered into a


two-year working relationship over a couple of drinks.[28] After this successful experience, Griffith made a habit of looking for new (to film) talent. He found Frank Powell at a theatrical agency. Meeting James Kirkwood at the Lamb's Club, he persuaded him to visit the studio and then persuaded him to accept employment.[29] Shortly after this, Kirkwood's fellow Lamb, Henry Walthall, came visiting and found himself acting in his first film. When the Gishes came to visit Mary Pickford they also made their cinematic debut at Griffith's behest, appearing in An Unseen Enemy (1912).[30] During the Biograph years, Griffith had an unerring instinct for acting talent and the requisite charm to convince the actors to enter the new medium. After a few years at the Fourteenth Street studio, many of Griffith's discoveries went on to great success in the film industry, and the Biograph Company boasted an impressive array of talent amongst its alumni.

Griffith had less freedom with respect to stories than he did with personnel. When Griffith arrived at Biograph, the studio already had a story department, in the person of Lee Dougherty and an inhouse writer, Stanner E. V. Taylor, Griffith's immediate predecessor as director. Even though the director was authorized to purchase story ideas, Griffith never had sole control over the subject matter of Biograph films but always consulted one or both of these men. Linda Arvidson recalled that Dougherty would read story submissions first, then go over them with Griffith to make the final selections.[31] According to Taylor, he, Dougherty, and Griffith would go to a rathskeller (probably Luchow's near the studio on 14th Street) every Sunday afternoon and "go over possible stories . . . scene by scene and what actors. Dougherty always sat in on story conferences for selection of stories."[32]

Whether or not these story ideas were turned into formal scripts that guided Griffith during the filming remains subject to debate. It was, during the nickelodeon era, standard industry practice for staff writers to prepare the script, often without consulting the director. Lawrence McCloskey, writer for the Lubin studios, said in 1913, "Now the director does not see the scenario until it is handed to him for production, complete in every detail. Should he disagree with the idea or about anything in the script, the point is agreed and settled before the play is begun."[33] But Griffith's associates have always adamantly denied that Griffith ever used a written script, or even notes, asserting that he kept complicated shot structures entirely in his head. "David never used a script," his wife flatly stated.[34] Even Mary Pickford, not the most enthusiastic of Griffith boosters, said, "D. W. Griffith never adhered to a script. In most cases, at least in the old Biograph days, I don't think such a luxury had even made its appearance in the studios."[35]

But scripts seem to have appeared at the Biograph studios before Griffith did. Taylor said, "Scripts at Biograph we always had. . . . There was always a script, 12, 15, 18 scenes."[36] Patrick Loughney has substantiated Taylor's claim by discovering five pre-1908 Biograph scripts in the Library of Congress


archives. The scripts were deposited for copyright protection, but Loughney believes that they predated the films rather than being written after production. With a film such as Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son , logistics alone would have necessitated a script, given the involvement of twenty-two actors, rapid shifts between interiors and exteriors, and a shooting time of just one day. Moreover, the script contains material that is missing from the released film, the differences resulting not from someone writing a script based on the completed film but from someone encountering difficulties in filming the script. As further evidence, after the time of the earliest script discovered (Personal , 1904), the Biograph Bulletins get longer, perhaps as a result of the preexisting scenarios making the promotional writers' task easier.[37] Loughney has concluded that "the Edison and Biograph companies may have been using rudimentary screenplays as early as 1902."[38] Gunning believes that the logistical complexities of discontinuous shooting would have required Griffith to use "some form of shooting script."[39] On the evidence, it seems that scripts existed at Biograph both before and after Griffith's arrival and that Griffith deliberately kept the actors from seeing the scripts, suggesting to them that no scripts existed. That Griffith would deny he ever used a script is consistent with his penchant for self-promotion, lack of a prewritten script emphasizing his artistic autonomy and contributing to his construction of the myth of the great director.[40]

But why does it matter whether or not scripts existed and whether or not Griffith used them? First, the early Biograph scripts contain stage directions, including specific movements. In The Nihilists (1905), a man is "flung half dead upon a table, from which he falls, writhing in his agony to the floor." Later in the film, actors "stagger and stumble in their weakness," and at the denouement, the heroine, "with arms raised to heaven . . . gives thanks for the success of her efforts."[41] These directions clearly call for histrionically coded performances, but might not writers who submitted narratives of psychological causality have included suggestions for verisimilarly coded acting in their scripts? Frank Woods, who wrote as "The Spectator" of The New York Dramatic Mirror and was a vocal advocate of the verisimilar code, authored several scenarios for Biograph, beginning with After Many Years . If Woods had been involved in the development of scripts, one would expect that his firm convictions about appropriate cinematic acting would have found their way into the stage directions. Were this the case, Woods and many other writers may have significantly contributed to the transition to the verisimilar code. However, resolution of all this speculation must await further archival discoveries.

Second, it was customary at most studios to provide at least the principal players with scripts in advance of rehearsal and shooting. "The principals have probably read the play, and have done some rehearsing before a mirror but minor people depend upon instruction and rehearsal to learn their move-


ments and expressions and to interpret a story they may never know."[42] Making the minor players totally dependent upon the director was standard operating procedure. "Only the leading members of a company prepare for their roles in advance. . . . The minor members . . . know nothing of the story until called for rehearsal. . . . The director explains the story, and tells the players how he wants to proceed."[43] But without scripts, Griffith's leading players would have been as ignorant of the story as the merest spear carrier. Griffith's withholding of scripts from his actors may be interpreted as a desire for absolute control over their performances. Because only Griffith knew the entire story, which he would disclose slowly during rehearsals, his actors would have been entirely dependent on him, even the leads lacking sufficient information to mount a convincing argument for their own interpretations.

While all directors rehearsed their actors, the time allocated to rehearsal seems to have depended upon the studio. In 1909 a studio visitor noted that the players sometimes received only one or two hours of rehearsal.[44] In 1911 Moving Picture World columnist E. W. Sergent commented that "the number of times that a scene is rehearsed varies with the director and with the intricacy of the action, five to ten times being an average."[45] At the time Griffith acted at Biograph one gets the impression that the studio did not encourage lengthy preparations. Arvidson describes the rehearsal that preceded Griffith's first Biograph screen appearance as a rather perfunctory matter, unduly hasty even for readying a very minor extra such as Griffith: "After a short rehearsal, an explanation of 'foreground' and instructions about keeping 'inside the lines' and 'outside the lines,' the camera opened up."[46]

By mid-1909, Griffith was already willing to devote half a day or more to rehearsal,[47] a good idea since the cost of film prohibited more than one take.[48] By 1911, "Griffith would rehearse six or even seven stories months ahead with various people doing the same parts."[49] He took up to a week to rehearse a one-reeler before production and rehearsed Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) for ten days.[50] Bitzer spoke of Griffith "repeatedly rehearsing, sticking to it for hours, until he had the effect or some semblance of what he desired."[51]

Griffith became increasingly concerned with rehearsals during his Biograph years, and Biograph actors' reminiscences of the actual production process tend to center on rehearsals. We have more information about the company's preparation for shooting than we do about any other aspect of the production process. This is fortunate, for the rehearsals were a crucial factor in the transition from the histrionic to the verisimilar codes, giving Griffith a place to try out his ideas, to learn from his more experienced actors, and to train his neophytes. In 1911, when the verisimilar code became dominant, Griffith and his actors were using rehearsals to work out bits of business, to experiment with props, and to develop the psychologized, individuated characters associated with the new acting style.[52]


But when Griffith first began directing, rehearsals did not concentrate on the development of characterization, for the Biograph front office demanded quickly paced performances using the unchecked histrionic code. "Deliberation and repose would have been out . . . in the early days of the Biograph pictures as the films were sold for fourteen cents a foot and Mr. Griffith was told that the buyers would positively not pay for a foot of film that did not have action in it."[53] The actors objected in vain to this economic exigency, and Florence Lawrence devoted a section of her Photoplay memoirs to this issue, worth quoting at length for their valuable insight—running counter to Griffith's carefully constructed image—into Griffith's early career.

What seemed to annoy us . . . and to hold us back from achieving greater artistic success was the speed and rapidity with which we had to work before the camera. Mr. Griffith always answered our complaint by stating that the exchanges and exhibitors who bought our pictures wanted action, and insisted that they get plenty for their money. . . . There was no chance for slow or "stage" acting. The moment we started to do a bit of acting in the proper tempo we would be startled by the cry of the director. "Faster! Faster! For God's sake hurry up! We must do the scene in forty feet. . . ." In real life it would have taken four minutes to enact the same scene. . . . The buyers of the films saw their money being wasted if there was a quiet bit of business being portrayed. They didn't want, as Mr. Griffith had said, "illustrated song slides. . . ." Following the appearance of the Film d'Art pictures, nearly all of the Biograph players asked Mr. Griffith to be allowed to do slow acting, only to be refused. He told us it was impossible since the buyers would not pay for a foot of film that did not have action in it.[54]

Mary Pickford's report of arguing with Griffith over performance style corroborates Lawrence's. Pickford states, with an annoying self-satisfaction, that she had sworn never to overact, a "revolutionary" concept at this time. Her declaration that she would not "exaggerate" precipitated, she says, one of many squabbles between actor and director, presumably because Griffith insisted on a rapid tempo.[55]

Both Lawrence's and Pickford's memoirs indicate that Griffith by no means began directing fully committed to the holy cause of bringing a new performance style to the screen. Indeed, at the start, Griffith seems to have been prohistrionic and anti-verisimilar, a position in accord with his theatrical training, his own film acting, and his economic situation. As we have seen, Griffith's stage career had exposed him mainly to actors of the old school. As for his own film acting, despite Bitzer's remonstrations the front office kept him on, giving him no reason to think they found his style unacceptable. One imagines that the front office's opinions played a large part in Griffith's calculations at this time. So uncertain of himself that he agreed to direct only after being assured of job security, he was unlikely to confront the money men on issues


of artistry at such a tenuous point in his career. Not until later did Griffith feel confident enough to risk challenging not only the front office, but the exchanges, exhibitors and, possibly, the audience:

The Biograph's first experiments along this line [deliberation and repose] were undertaken with no little hesitation and fearsome doubt. Those having the responsibility for the change felt that they were treading on thin ice. So deeply rooted was the opinion that speed was the thing, that the experimenters were fearful that their attempts to introduce real acting into the films would be met with derisive laughter.[56]

When rehearsals became an integral part of Biograph productions, they were a multistep process, which a variety of sources enables us to reconstruct. At the "first reading," Griffith would assemble his troupe and outline the story to them. Mary Pickford reported that "we were taken aside and intelligently explained the theme of the story and the dramatic possibilities of it." This would be followed by tentative role assignments and preliminary rehearsals, during which players "walked through the scenes to get our positions." Not until after the first "few rough rehearsals" did Griffith make final decisions about casting.[57]

At most times during the Biograph years, Griffith had available several actors capable of playing the leads, and "no one had a cinch on a line of good parts."[58] An actor might play the lead in one film and appear as an extra at a garden party in the next. Preventing any one or two actors from becoming the "stars" of the company may have been part of the front office's economically motivated resistance to the impending star system, but such a strategy also fit well with Griffith's methods. Griffith constantly created jealousy and competition among his employees and somewhat capriciously handed out the plum assignments as a technique for controlling his actors, for punishing and rewarding them: "In their eagerness to get a good part in a movie, the actors behaved like hungry chickens being fed nice, yellow corn, knocking and trampling each other in their mad scramble for the best bits."[59] When making Man's Genesis in 1912, Griffith went to each of his ingenues and asked her to play the part of the young cave girl. Because the girl was to wear a grass skirt, showing her bare legs and feet, Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, Dorothy Bernard, and Mable Normand all refused. Griffith assigned the role to Mae Marsh, announcing at the same time that she would play the lead in The Sands of Dee , a part that all the other young women coveted.[60] For the same film, Griffith chose Joe Greybill over Edwin August for the male lead, having had a disagreement with the latter. The front office intervened, demanding that August be cast, and saying that he was to be in every romantic and society drama.[61] This is the only recorded instance of front office interference in Griffith's casting decisions.

After the final casting, rehearsals began in earnest. At first, the actors


walked through their parts on a bare stage with nothing but wooden kitchen chairs, going through the action again and again while Griffith decided about lighting, editing, camera positions, and the placement of props.[62] By the time Griffith had satisfied himself with respect to these technical matters the actors' blocking would be automatic, and both they and the director would be ready to concentrate on characterization and emotions.[63]

This was the stage of the rehearsals in which players and director constructed the characters we see in the Biographs. What did Griffith actually do during these rehearsals? The answer depends to some extent on the source, but the general impression is that Griffith possessed the ability to obtain the best performances from his people, varying his tactics to suit the actor. Mary Pickford said, "Griffith knew the strengths and weaknesses of all his players and devised ways and means of bringing the actors out of themselves by his clever psychological handling. He could make an actor express himself in dramatic performances."[64]

Having explained the story and described the characters' actions and emotions, Griffith started rehearsals by trusting his performers' instincts. "You understand the situation. Now let us see what you would do with it. After giving the matter careful consideration, she [the actor] plays the scene after her own ideas. Mr. Griffith gives the actress a chance."[65] Allowing the actor some latitude of interpretation, Griffith at first offered only praise or gentle corrections: "He was your audience . . . he'd cry, laugh—he'd simply draw it out of you—his enthusiasm was infectious: 'That's fine, that's dandy—do it some more. . . .' He had the faculty of getting it out of you—He was magnetic."[66] Sometimes he would offer more specific suggestions in an attempt to make the performer feel her character's emotions. Gish tells of rehearsing for The Mothering Heart:

As I rehearsed the scene, Mr. Griffith fed me the reactions of the injured wife: "You feel that you've been humiliated by your husband in public. You think that he doesn't love you any longer because you're carrying his child. You're afraid that he wants to get rid of you."

With his intense voice coaching me, I felt the heroine's agony.[67]

Griffith would more actively intervene if the performers failed to meet his expectations: "if you weren't getting the scene as he felt you should, he would show you how it should be done."[68] Again and again, actors speak of Griffith acting out the parts, regardless of age and sex, showing his players the specific gestures and facial expressions with which to externalize thoughts and emotions. Given Griffith's limitations as a thespian, one may wonder at the efficacy of these performances, but his actors apparently found them inspiring. Blanche Sweet said that, "He'd show you so beautifully that you felt, 'Oh, I'd never be able to do it that way.'"[69] Others offer a more realistic assess-


ment: "He was not very good, I am afraid what we call 'hammy.'"[70] Though Griffith had apparently not rid himself of his excessive theatricality, he did have an excuse for his performance style. "Griffith was hammy in showing what to do. . . . He said he exaggerated to show what he meant."[71] Having shown the players what he wanted, he then worked with them until he reached the desired effect: "he would act out the scene himself with exaggerated gestures that he would later modify in us."[72]

When praise, gentle criticism, and example all failed to elicit an acceptable performance, Griffith resorted to rougher tactics, willing to use any means to produce the necessary emotion. Thinking that Mary Pickford was giving a less than spirited performance, he began to badmouth her lover, Owen Moore. "As her eyes filled with angry tears, Griffith looked away, grimly satisfied. This was the look he wanted in the scene we were going to film. 'Camera,' he called."[73] Griffith even resorted to physical intimidation of a sort. When he tried out the Gish sisters for An Unseen Enemy (1912) he "pulled a real gun from his pocket and began chasing us around the room, shooting it off."[74] Desiring a frightened reaction from Mae Marsh, he would have a shotgun fired off a few feet away.[75]

As most of the above suggests, it would seem that Griffith paid most of his attention to his female actors, the "child-women" to whose thespian training he devoted himself. Claire McDowell, an older member of the troupe, contrasted Griffith's direction of her with his handling of the "girls": "I was a good dependable actress. He used to say I was a rest for him as he did not have to work so hard directing me. All the other girls were younger and without stage experience and he had to teach them every mood and move."[76] Anita Loos suggests that Griffith deliberately sought inexperienced youngsters to whom he could teach the "Griffith style": "Blanche Sweet seemed rather unsure of herself, as did all Griffith's young actresses; he wanted no positive traits to prevent them from being passive instruments on whom he could improvise."[77] Christy Cabanne, a Biograph actor/director, asserted that Griffith "showed Mary [Pickford] every move she made, same as with the others."[78] Pickford herself worried that Griffith was totally dominating her: "I was getting to be a machine under Mr. Griffith. I got to be an automatic doll. If he told me to move my left foot, I moved it. When he said, 'Look up' I did that just as unquestioningly."[79] According to Mae Marsh's description of Griffith's direction of her in Man's Genesis (1912), he did indeed treat her like an automatic doll, telling her exactly what to do and when to do it. On the first day's shooting he told her to go sit next to Bobby Harron and look at him as if she were very much in love. "He said, 'Just think that you're terribly in love and look up at him shy-like.' So I did, and he said, 'Look up at him again and then put your head down,' which I did. Then he said, 'Now get up and run away.' So I got up and ran away."[80]

Anyone wishing to mount an argument for Griffith as the "auteur" of the


Biograph verisimilar code would do well to concentrate upon the "Griffith actresses," but even here one must exercise caution. Remember that Mary Pickford in her autobiography claims to have argued with Griffith over performance style. It would be a mistake to paint Griffith as a directorial Svengali with a cast full of compliant Trilbys. On this point, let Griffith speak for himself: "I did not 'teach' the players with whom my name has been linked. We developed together, we found ourselves in a new art and as we discovered the possibilities of that art we learned together."[81] There is evidence that Griffith actually encouraged his casts' participation in the construction of their performances. Many of the actors recalling their Biograph years mentioned that Griffith willingly accepted suggestions and actively solicited their advice, sometimes calling the company from the dressing room and asking for their input.[82] Often, when a scene was not jelling properly, he left the studio, instructing the actors to solve the problem. On one occasion he told them that if they succeeded, he would ask the front office for a five-dollar pay raise. In the scene, the actors played guests at a bachelor party who were to toast the prospective bridegroom, Owen Moore. When Griffith returned, they lifted Moore up, set him on a table, raised their glasses, turned to Griffith and shouted, "Biograph! Hah! Hah! Hah! Ten Dollars, Ten Dollars, Rah! Rah! Rah!" They got the raise.[83]

The rehearsal process permitted the actors to devise bits of business that would flesh out their characters: "He couldn't bother with asking why you did this or that, or telling you about your character—what kind of walk you should use, what kind of clothes. It was up to you. You had to be creative. . . . We tried things out in rehearsal. If it was good, Griffith said 'Keep it in.'"[84] One of the most famous shots in a Griffith film originated in this fashion. During the rehearsal of the courtroom scene in Intolerance , Mae Marsh unconsciously twisted her handkerchief, and Griffith said "Keep it in"[85] The next chapter more fully investigates the contribution of the actor to Biograph performance style.

By the time of the actual shooting, little remained to be done. The cameraman's assistant put down the "lines," using nails and cord to surround the area that would be in the frame, and there would be a quick, final rehearsal for positioning.[86] When the camera began to crank, the actors were expected to do exactly what had been agreed upon in rehearsals. Improvisations were forbidden.[87] Griffith himself watched quietly, occasionally offering suggestions. "Not so much, not so much. Less, less—simple, simple, true. Don't act it, feel it; feel it, don't act it." And then, "More, more, we need more!"[88]

Sometimes after the day's filming, Griffith and certain members of the company screened the rushes from previously shot films.[89] While watching, Griffith talked to cast and crew offering his views on acting,[90] providing, one imagines, valuable opportunities to evaluate and reconsider performance style for all concerned. Only one of these sessions has been described, by Mary


Pickford, who reports that Griffith complained about her makeup in the final close-up of Friends . Pickford responded that "there's too much eyebrow pencil and shadowing around my eyes."[91] Griffith agreed, and presumably retook the shot. Griffith not only watched his own films but kept an eye on the competition, making the rounds of the nickelodeons every Sunday.[92] During one of these excursions, in the summer of 1908, he saw a Vitagraph film starring Florence Lawrence and decided to hire her.[93] When Griffith met his new actor, he told her, "You were very good in that—it was a good picture"[94] Griffith's filmgoing might also have had another purpose. Lillian Gish tells us that Griffith told his actors to go to movie houses and observe audience reactions. "You may be crying or having hysterics, but if you're not making the audience feel that way, you're not any use to my story. Go to a movie house and watch the audience. If they're held by what you're doing, you've succeeded as an actress."[95]

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