What Was The Great Man Like?

"D.W. Griffith's Personality In The Words of Those Who Knew Him"

by Tim Lussier

"D.W. Griffith was a very private man who rarely, if ever, told anyone his future plans or anything about his personal life said Miriam Cooper.

Oddly enough, even though Griffith was a very private man, we know a great deal about his personality - not because of his somewhat "loose" autobiography - but from several of the people who worked for him who have since written about their experiences with "the great man," as so many of them called him.

One of many traits on which all of those associated with him agree is his generosity. According to Lillian Gish, "Mr. Griffith was always a very generous man, but this quality was most conspicuous during the holidays. He was at his gayest when giving presents."

Dorothy Gish concurred with her sister. "He was so kind to elderly people. I know every Christmas he would want my mother to go down and find out what to get for all the character women, and she'd pick out pins and things they might want. He was very generous."

Cameraman Billy Bitzer said, "Giving was one of his deepest virtues. Not only would he give the applicant the first bill he extracted from his pocket, but if the case was more than trivial, he would detail one of his assistants to follow up and help someone in trouble. It was not show-off or ego."

Lillian Gish felt that his generosity was often taken advantage of, though. " . . . he would never admit that people used him. I suppose he needed to be needed - and he was, by literally hundreds of people.

"Mae Marsh told me that he once paid the funeral expenses for a deaf little Italian voice teacher, though he had never met the man."

Griffith's family benefited from his generosity, as well. "He had been deeply attached to his mother, whom he had supported until she died a short time after Dorothy and I came to work for him. . . He also helped support most of the other members of his family. Among his papers I found letters asking him for a new house or a new car . . . ," Gish said.

Unfortunately, Griffith was generous without being wise about his money. 'Mr. Griffith was less concerned about money than anyone I ever knew." said Bitzer. "Through the years when we worked side by side, and the few times he would mention money was when he needed it and found none in his trouser pocket. He never carried a billfold, just used to double bills up in his fist and cram them into his trousers like a handful of lettuce. If he were buttonholed with a sob story, which he might sense wasn't entirely true, he would fish in his pocket, separate a bill, and, without looking at its denomination, hand it to the person."

Griffith's attitude about money was not without its adverse effects in his business life, as well, as evidenced by a career that ranged from untold wealth to downright poverty. Cecil B. De Mille said of Griffith, "He was a brilliant artist but a poor businessman. Like many another fine artist of the stage or screen, he did not fully understand the truth of Sir Henry Irving's statement that the theatre 'must be carried on as a business or it will fail as an art.' Griffith could never adapt himself successfully to the commercial necessities of picture making."
Before generosity can exist, feelings of compassion and kindness toward one's fellow man must be evident, and all of the Griffith alumni describe him as a kind man, very understanding of one's feelings, and skilled in dealing with the emotions of his actors and actresses.

"David Wark Griffith could be compassionate, kind, considerate, and, above all, thoughtful," said Blanche Sweet. "I remember one incident that stands out in my mind. As usual, he didn't talk to the actors, but we were all well-rehearsed. This time when I was doing a scene, he said something, I don't know what, but it made me mad. I finished the scene, jerked off my jacket, and threw it at him. I stalked to my dressing room where I started to take my make-up off. I knew my job at Biograph was over when there was a knock at the door, and Griffith came in. He didn't refer to what he had said or to the jacket-throwing. He just patted my shoulder. He knew I was young and emotionally disturbed by the scene. In other words, he was kind, as I have said before, and I was sure of my job again."

According to Bitzer, "His kindly efforts to produce results were incredible. He might chide the one making the mistake in a gentle manner. 'What were you thinking of?' he would ask. 'You knew we had to have that article here.' Then a full stop, a pause long enough for the error to sink in, which would hurt more than if he had flown into a rage."

"What infinite patience he had," said Linda Arvidson who was his wife throughout the Biograph period. "If we got stuck in the mud when going out to location - we were stuck and would get out, so why worry? No cursing the driver or car or weather; no 'What the _______? Why the ____________ couldn't you have taken another road?' Instead would be suddenly heard baritone strains of 'Samson and Delilah' or some old plantation negro song while we waited for horses and another car to pull us out."

In spite of this infinite patience, Gish said he could be aroused to anger. "Although he as usually patient, he could get angry, and I learned to stay out of his way when an explosion took place.

"Once his temper was set off when a bit player wanted to leave the set on some trivial pretext. In that period, each scene was shot just once, and Mr. Griffith gave the fellow three minutes to change his mind and stay. Mr. Griffith took out his watch and timed him. The man charged at Mr. Griffith who defended himself and knocked the fellow out cold."

One incident recounted by Cooper seems somewhat contrary to the kind, compassionate nature painted of Griffith, although it serves to illustrate just how far he would go to illicit the necessary performance from his actors. According to Cooper, Griffith was trying to get her to cry for a scene but the tears were not forthcoming. "'This is your brother and you love him. He's going off to war,' he said. But he couldn't get one tear out of me . . .

"Mr. Griffith got up, walked away, then came back again. He cleared the set and drew his chair up close to me.

"'Miss Cooper, I wasn't going to tell you this until the day's shooting was over,' he said sadly. 'We received word this morning that your beloved mother is dead.'

"I started crying. Great tears rolled down my cheeks. Mr. Griffith gave the signal to Billy Bitzer to start the camera. It kept grinding until Mr. Griffith had al the tears he wanted. 'Cut!' he said, and walked off the set.

"I didn't find out for several minutes that no such word had been received. My mother was alive and well. But Mr. Griffith got his tears."

Griffith was also not above working one performer against another, creating a little jealousy and also making sure no one was too self-assured about his position in the company.
"He didn't give you any opportunity to get a swelled head," said Cooper. "In one picture you would be the lead, in the next little more than an extra."

Cameraman Karl Brown said, "But this was Griffith's way. Keep everybody in hot competition with any and all possible rivals."

He also never begged anyone to stay if they decided to leave. Griffith believed he could always find and create another star as he had so many.

"He didn't believe any actor was so good that he couldn't be replaced," said Cooper. "If anyone wanted to leave Biograph for another studio and more money and publicity, that was all right with him. He'd look around the studio and pick someone else for the part."

According to Brown, "Contracts were not only voided by mutual consent and with what seemed to be an alarming frequency, but Griffith himself would go to great lengths to make sure that whoever had sought and obtained a release was hired instantly by other companies at substantial increases in salary."

Griffith's compassion made it difficult for him to fire someone he didn't need, so he developed a different tactic to achieve the same end. "If you did not possess the ability he was searching for, you weren't fired, just demoted. He did it by easy stages until you realized for yourself you didn't fit and just let yourself out," Bitzer said.

This isn't to say that Griffith didn't love those who worked for him (and they loved him, too). Bitzer said he referred to his players as his "children."

"The character actresses all adored him, and he treated them with the courtesy of a southern gentleman," Lillian Gish said. "He kept some of them on the payroll simply to save them the humiliation of handouts." She went on to say that he enjoyed having members of his company join him for lunch or dinner or some after hours socializing. "He had a habit of moving around during a break in rehearsals and whispering to a select few, 'Let's have lunch at Luchow's' or 'Let's have dinner at the Astor.' He loved his little secrets, and he would quietly invite a few members of the cast to a meal with the air of a medieval conspirator. Occasionally he would gather a group who liked to dance and would take us all to the Ship's Cafe in Hollywood for an evening of fun," she said.

Cooper said he was "a Victorian father none of us had. He was very strict with us." She continued, "He changed companies many times, and when he left one for another, everyone considered it an honor to be asked to go with him; nobody ever wanted to be left behind.

Gish said Griffith "inspired absolute devotion in the members of his company."

Cooper said, ". . . we would have done anything to please him. I mean in the acting way - there were no casting couches in Mr. Griffith's office. He may have had some lady friends, but he treated all of us with great respect."

Those who worked with him remember Griffith always conducting himself in a dignified and gentlemanly manner. According to Gish, "He never saw a girl in his office without a third person present," adding, "In all the years that I worked with him, I never called him anything but Mr. Griffith and he called me Miss Lillian or Miss Gish."

Although he stole an uninvited kiss from her one time which was followed by a quick rebuff, Miriam Cooper nevertheless considered him a "perfect gentleman . . . he never gossiped. He was very patient and never spoke harshly to anyone . . ."

Brown expressed his high regard for Griffith by saying, "I had lived for five years in the shadow of that rarest of human beings, a dedicated gentleman whose simple word, witnessed or not, was to him a matter of honor, never to be broken."

Bessie Love simply referred to him as "that wonderful man."

Griffith's dress was in keeping with his character, too. Cooper said he dressed "like any successful businessman, conservatively and immaculately. He also looked like a general with his erect carriage."

Sweet remembered that "He was always dressed very well, even when we were climbing hills and on trails, and he and Billy Bitzer were trying to find a location. He always wore a suit, shoes and a hat."

Gish added, "He himself was always impeccably groomed, and he expected the young actresses on the lot to be equally immaculate."

This pride in his appearance carried over to his physical condition, as well. "He had a great regard for his body," Gish remembered, "and believed in keeping it healthy. He boxed every morning. Mack Sennett said that he also took a cold bath each morning, adding pails of chipped ice, delivered by the bellhop, to his bath water."

This iced bath story is corroborated by Arvidson. "The bellboys at the Alexandria Hotel called him 'the polar bear' because he bought a bucket of cracked ice every morning to make the Los Angeles morning bath more tonic-y."

Shadow boxing or sparring was his most common exercise. Each day, according to Arvidson, Griffith "did a daily dozen, and he sparred with our ex-lightweight, Spike Robinson."

Sweet remembers him taking part in this exercise whenever the opportunity presented itself. "In between scenes when we were waiting for something, he would face off and spar with Spike Robinson." Brown added, "When he wanted to exercise, he exercised, regardless of the size of the set or how many people, important or unimportant, were there."

Griffith's concern with exercise for a healthy body was coupled with a "mania," as Gish called it, about cleanliness. "He was very frightened of germs," she recalled. "He always worried about catching cold, perhaps because it was the only illness he seemed to know. The only times I remember his actually being ill were when he had colds. He took great precautions against them. If you had a cold, you weren't allowed near him. He always kept doors closed and avoided drafts, particularly in automobiles."

Although very committed to both his dress and physical condition, Griffith did not consider himself handsome. "In going through some of his papers," Gish said, "I discovered that he considered himself ugly. The truth is that he was striking and distinguished looking. But, apparently his failure as a leading man had confirmed his opinion of his looks."

Although Griffith possessed many admirable traits - generosity, kindness, compassion, patience and more - that is not why we remember him today. We remember him for his talent as a movie maker which has been described with as many superlatives as the dictionary will allow, not only by film historians looking back over the past 100 years, but by his contemporaries, those who were there and experienced his genius as it developed and molded the evolution of an art form.

No less than Charlie Chaplin said, "He undoubtedly was a genius of the silent cinema."

"Griffith did everything," Lionel Barrymore said. "He preceded Hollywood in everything that has been done since. It is an abiding mystery and a scandal to me that an ungrateful industry has not raised a statue to him ninety feet tall at the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. This statue should be of solid gold."

Mack Sennett concurred with Barrymore's opinion. "D.W. Griffith, when you come right down to it, invented motion pictures. As Lionel Barrymore says, there ought to be a statue to him at Hollywood and Vine, and it ought to be fifty feet high, solid gold, and floodlighted every night."

"David Wark Griffith was a great genius," said Cecil B. De Mille. "We were thought to be rivals. In a sense, we were, but we were never enemies; and in another sense, Griffith had no rivals. He was the teacher of us all. Not a picture has been made since his time that does not bear some trace of his influence. He did not invent the close-up or some of the other devices with which he has sometimes been credited, but he discovered and he taught everyone else how to use them for more beautiful effect and better story telling on the screen.

"But David Wark Griffith had other gifts, personal as well as artistic. When the history of the motion pictures is written a hundred years from now, Griffith will have his honored pages in it. I hope that De Mille may have a footnote."


Adventures With D.W. Griffith by Karl Brown, Da Capo Press, 1973.

Autobiography by Cecil B. DeMille, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1959.

Billy Bitzer: His Story by Billy Bitzer, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1973.

Dark Lady of the Silents by Miriam Cooper, Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1973.

From Hollywood With Love by Bessie Love, Elm Tree Books, Ltd., 1977.

King of Comedy by Mack Sennett as told to Cameron Shipp, Doubleday and Company, 1954.

The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me by Lillian Gish with Ann Pinchot, Mercury House, 1969.

My Autobiography by Charlie Chaplin, Simon and Schuster, 1964.

People Will Talk by John Kobal, Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.

Speaking of Silents: First Ladies of the Screen by William M. Drew, Vestal Press, Ltd., 1989.

We Barrymores by Lionel Barrymore, Grosset & Dunlap, 1951.

When the Movies Were Young by Linda Arvidson (Mrs. D.W. Griffith), Dover Publications, Inc., 1969.

copyright 1999 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.

Return to Articles and Essays page