Griffith is one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and widely considered among the most important figures in the history of cinema. He is credited with popularizing the use of the close-up shot.
Griffith was born on a farm in Oldham County, Kentucky, the son of Mary Perkins (née Oglesby) and Jacob Wark "Roaring Jake" Griffith. Jacob was a Confederate Army colonel in the American Civil War and was elected as a Kentucky state legislator. Griffith was raised a Methodist. He attended a one-room schoolhouse where he was taught by his older sister, Mattie. After his father died when he was ten, the family struggled with poverty.
When Griffith was 14, his mother abandoned the farm and moved the family to Louisville, where she opened a boarding house. It failed shortly after. Griffith then left high school to help support the family, taking a job in a dry goods store and later in a bookstore. Griffith began his creative career as an actor in touring companies. Meanwhile, he was learning how to become a playwright, but had little success—only one of his plays was accepted for a performance. Griffith then decided to become an actor, and appeared in many films as an extra.
Griffith began making short films in 1908, and released his first feature film, Judith of Bethulia, in 1914. A few years earlier, in 1907, Griffith, still struggling as a playwright, traveled to New York in an attempt to sell a script to Edison Studios producer Edwin Porter. Porter rejected Griffith's script, but gave him an acting part in Rescued from an Eagle's Nest instead.
Finding this attractive, Griffith began exploring a career as a motion picture actor.
In 1908, Griffith accepted a role as a stage extra in Professional Jealousy for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, commonly known as Biograph, where he met his future, favorite cameraman, G. W. "Billy" Bitzer. At Biograph, Griffith's career in the film industry changed forever. In 1908, Biograph's main director Wallace McCutcheon grew ill, and his son, Wallace McCutcheon, Jr., took his place. McCutcheon, Jr. did not bring the studio success. As a result, Biograph co-founder, Henry "Harry" Marvin, gave Griffith the position and the young man made his first short movie for the company, The Adventures of Dollie. Griffith directed 48 shorts for the company that year.
His short In Old California (1910) was the first film shot in Hollywood, California. Four years later he produced and directed his first feature film Judith of Bethulia (1914), one of the earliest to be produced in the US. At the time, Biograph believed that longer features were not viable. According to actress Lillian Gish, the company thought that "a movie that long would hurt [the audience's] eyes".
Because of company resistance to his goals, and his cost overruns on the film (it cost $30,000 to produce), Griffith left Biograph. He took his company of actors with him and joined the Mutual Film Corporation. He formed a studio with the Majestic Studio manager Harry Aitken; it became known as Reliance-Majestic Studios (and was later renamed Fine Arts Studio). His new production company became an autonomous production unit partner in Triangle Film Corporation along with Thomas Ince and Keystone Studios' Mack Sennett; the Triangle Film Corporation was headed by Griffith's partner Harry Aitken, who was released from the Mutual Film Corporation, and his brother Roy.
Through Reliance-Majestic Studios, Griffith directed and produced The Clansman (1915), which would later be known as The Birth of a Nation. Historically, The Birth of a Nation is considered important by film historians as one of the first feature length American films (most previous films were less than one hour), and it changed the industry's standard in a way influential today. Although the film was a success it aroused much controversy due to its depiction of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, and race relations in both the Civil War and the Reconstruction era.
Like its source material, Thomas Dixon, Jr.'s 1905 novel The Clansman, it depicts Southern pre-Civil War slavery as benign, the enfranchisement of freedmen as a corrupt Republican plot, and the Klan as a band of heroes restoring the rightful order. This view of the era was popular at the time, and was endorsed by historians of the Dunning School for decades, although it met with strong criticism from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other groups.
The NAACP attempted to stop showings of the film. While they were successful in some cities, it was shown widely and became the most successful box office attraction of its time. Considered among the first "blockbuster" motion pictures, it broke virtually all box office records that had been established until then. "They lost track of the money it made", Lillian Gish once remarked in a Kevin Brownlow interview. Some have speculated that an adjustment of box office earnings for inflation would confirm it as the most profitable movie of all time.
Among the people who profited by the film was Louis B. Mayer, who bought the rights to distribute The Birth of a Nation in New England. With the money he made, he was able to begin his career as a producer that culminated in the creation of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios.
After seeing the film, which was filled with action and violence, audiences in some major northern cities rioted over the film's racial content. In his next film, Intolerance, Griffith believed he was responding to critics. He portrayed the effects of intolerance in four different historical periods: the Fall of Babylon; the Crucifixion of Jesus; the events surrounding the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre (during religious persecution of French Huguenots); and a modern story. During its release Intolerance was not a financial success. Although it had good box office turn-outs, the film did not bring in enough profits to cover the lavish road show that accompanied it. Griffith put a huge budget into the film's production, which could not be recovered in its box office. He mostly financed Intolerence, contributing to his financial ruin for the rest of his life.
When his production partnership was dissolved in 1917, Griffith went to Artcraft (part of Paramount), then to First National (1919–1920). At the same time he founded United Artists, together with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. At United Artists, Griffith continued to make films, but never achieved box office grosses as high as either The Birth of a Nation or Intolerance. He was also a producer on the 1915 film Martyrs of the Alamo.
Though United Artists survived as a company, Griffith's association with it was short-lived. While some of his later films did well at the box office, commercial success often eluded him. Griffith features from this period include Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921), Dream Street (1921), One Exciting Night (1922) and America (1924). Of these, the first three were successes at the box office. Griffith was forced to leave United Artists after Isn't Life Wonderful (1924) failed at the box office.
He made a part-talkie, Lady of the Pavements (1929), and only two full-sound films, Abraham Lincoln (1930) and The Struggle (1931). Neither was successful, and after The Struggle he never made another film.
In 1936, director Woody Van Dyke, who had worked as Griffith's apprentice on Intolerance, asked Griffith to help him shoot the famous earthquake sequence for San Francisco, but did not give him any film credit. Starring Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy, it was the top-grossing film of the year.
In 1939, the producer Hal Roach hired Griffith to produce Of Mice and Men (1939) and One Million B.C. (1940). He wrote to Griffith: "I need help from the production side to select the proper writers, cast, etc. and to help me generally in the supervision of these pictures."
Although Griffith eventually disagreed with Roach over the production and parted, Roach later insisted that some of the scenes in the completed film were directed by Griffith. This would make the film the final production in which Griffith was actively involved. But, cast members' accounts recall Griffith directing only the screen tests and costume tests. When Roach advertised the film in late 1939 with Griffith listed as producer, Griffith asked that his name be removed.
Mostly forgotten by movie-goers of the time, Griffith was held in awe by many in the film industry. In the mid-1930s, he was given a special Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In 1946, he made an impromptu visit to the film location of David O. Selznick's epic western Duel in the Sun, where some of his veteran actors, Lillian Gish, Lionel Barrymore and Harry Carey, were cast members. Gish and Barrymore found their old mentor's presence distracting and became self-conscious. While the two were filming their scenes, Griffith hid behind set scenery.
On the morning of July 23, 1948, Griffith was discovered unconscious in the lobby at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles, California, where he had been living alone. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage at 3:42 PM on the way to a Hollywood hospital. A large public service was held in his honor at the Hollywood Masonic Temple, but few stars came to pay their last respects. He is buried at Mount Tabor Methodist Church Graveyard in Centerfield, Kentucky. In 1950, The Directors Guild of America provided a stone and bronze monument for his gravesite.
Performer and director Charlie Chaplin called Griffith "The Teacher of us All". Filmmakers such as John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Lev Kuleshov, Jean Renoir, Cecil B. DeMille, King Vidor, Victor Fleming, Raoul Walsh, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Sergei Eisenstein, and Stanley Kubrick have spoken of their respect for the director of Intolerance. Welles said "I have never really hated Hollywood except for its treatment of D. W. Griffith. No town, no industry, no profession, no art form owes so much to a single man."
Griffith seems to have been the first to understand how certain film techniques could be used to create an expressive language; it gained popular recognition with the release of his The Birth of a Nation (1915). His early shorts—such as Biograph's The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), the first "gangster film"—show that Griffith's attention to camera placement and lighting heightened mood and tension. In making Intolerance, the director opened up new possibilities for the medium, creating a form that seems to owe more to music than to traditional narrative.In the 1951 Philco Television Playhouse episode "The Birth of the Movies", events from Griffith's film career were depicted. Griffith was played by John Newland.
In 1953, the Directors Guild of America (DGA) instituted the D. W. Griffith Award, its highest honor. On December 15, 1999, DGA President Jack Shea and the DGA National Board announced that the award would be renamed as the "DGA Lifetime Achievement Award". They stated that, although Griffith was extremely talented, they felt his film The Birth of a Nation had "helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes", and that it was thus better not to have the top award in his name.
In 1975, Griffith was honored on a ten-cent postage stamp by the United States.
D.W. Griffith Middle School in Los Angeles is named after Griffith. Because of the association of Griffith and the racist nature of The Birth of a Nation, attempts have been made to rename the 100% minority-enrolled school.
In 2008 the Hollywood Heritage Museum hosted a screening of Griffith's earliest films, to commemorate the centennial of his start in film.
On January 22, 2009 the Oldham History Center in La Grange, Kentucky opened a 15-seat theatre in Griffith's honor. The theatre features a library of available Griffith films.
Griffith has five films preserved in the United States National Film Registry deemed as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." These are Lady Helen's Escapade (1909), A Corner in Wheat (1909), The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916), and Broken Blossoms (1919).