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The Moving Image
Three Americans created the art of the motion picture, and made it the universal language of the twentieth century
April 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 3
The irony of Griffith is that in bringing the Moving Image to the form it is in today, he relegated his true love, the theater, to the status of a less popular art. Griffith never valued his eminent position as first master of the art of motion pictures. His typical remark after a projection-room screening was, “Well, it’s a helluva way to earn a living.”
What was the essence of Griffith’s genius? His contribution came precisely from being a poet (frustrated in print) who saw in terms of images, and an actor (frustrated on the boards) who made the camera a participant. His improvements on the work of Porter and others, and his own innovations or rediscoveries, sprang from this double advantage.
A stage director is oriented to the audience, but an actor is oriented to his fellow actors. Griffith’s viewpoint tended to be, whenever possible, in the midst of the action. He first broke with stage direction while directing For Love of Gold, which he adapted in 1908 from Jack London’s Just Meat. In a scene in which two men seated at a table become distrustful of each other, Griffith asked himself, “How can I show what they are thinking?” His answer: Bring the camera closer to the actors. So, figuratively speaking, he took the audience from their seats and moved them onto the stage. This had been done before, but not—as Griffith did it—in the very middle of a scene.
He was to elaborate on this technique throughout his career, so much so that his name became associated with short, rapid editing in an exciting style, leading to a last-minute rescue. Griffith was called a “dangerous influence” by a number of critics simply because, as an artist, he evoked the passions of audiences to a degree previously unknown. He did so primarily by taking his intimate shots and editing them, not only in the narrative progression of Porter, but also for their emotional, descriptive, and ideological values.
Griffith’s first editing for emotion appears to have been his adaptation of Tennyson’s Enoch Arden, called After Many Years (October, 1908). To show Annie Lee lonely, as she waits for her husband’s appearance, he moved the camera from an establishing shot of Annie Lee to a close-up of her brooding face. But how could anyone tell what she was brooding about? So the third shot showed the subject of her concern, her husband cast away on a desert island.
During the next year the poet in Griffith came forward, and he added descriptive editing—the cutting from one shot to another purely for visual or aesthetic effect. In Edgar Allan Poe, produced in January, 1909, and based on The Raven, he used light and shade, a klieg light striking the brow of Poe as he declaimed. In that film Henry “Walt” Walthall, later to become famous as the Little Colonel in The Birth of a Nation, recited a line from “To One In Paradise”—“And all my days are trances.” All his days, Griffith had an affinity for Poe. His own poems, nakedly sentimental, make his title inserts embarrassing to read, and explain in part why he failed to keep abreast of postWorld War I sophistication.
Lighting to convey mood was further advanced in The Drunkard’s Reformation (March, 1909), when Griffith illuminated his actors’ faces by the glow of firelight from simulated flames. The cameramen, Bitzer and Marvin, protested: the players would scarcely be seen in the flickering shadows; but Griffith had a proud and vocal disdain for obstacles. Controlled lighting was extended to narrative as well as description in Pippa Passes (October, 1909, adapted from Browning): the sun’s first rays awaken Pippa as she sleeps; then soft lights usher in the morning, and full, the bright day. In his later work Griffith often employed descriptive editing to indicate the setting—the carefully composed long shots lend atmosphere in Ramona (May, 1910); and to depict characters—in Intolerance (1916) he juxtaposed people with symbolic birds: the close-up of a pair of doves drawing a toy chariot and its flowers between Belshazzar and the Princess Beloved, the close-ups of Dear One and baby chicks, of Tesus and the doves, and so on.