What Made a Griffith Girl?

David Wark Griffith was born in Crestwood, Kentucky, on January 22, 1875; he was the fourth son of Jacob Wark Griffith, a onetime Confederate colonel. In 1908 he joined the American Biograph Company as an actor, after having been previously employed in the same capacity by the Edison Company. On July 14, 1908, his first film as a director, The Adventures of Dollie, was released. His last production, The Struggle, was released on December 10, 1931. He died in Hollywood on July 23, 1948.

That, in one cold precise paragraph, sums up the career of D. W. Griffith, the man who not only invented screen syntax, but also--and more importantly--gave the cinema the most precious gift of all, beauty. That beauty he presented to film audiences to a large extent through the actresses whom he used in his productions, actresses who studied individually might appear to have little in common but who together had one major common denominator: they were all Griffith Girls.

What made a Griffith girl? Physically, they were all small, slim, and young, the last attribute perhaps being the most important. "We pick the little women because the world loves youth, and all its wistful sweetness. . . . Youth with its dreams and sweetness, youth with its romance and adventure! For in the theater, as in our families, we look to youth for beauty and often for example. We sit in the twilight of the theater and in terms of youth, upon faces enlarged, we see thoughts that are personal to us, with the privilege of supplying our own words and messages as they may fit our individual experiences in life."

All the Griffith girls (excluding, of course, the character actresses) were less than twenty years of age when they came under his direction; Blanche Sweet was not yet fourteen when she joined Biograph, and Carol Dempster was eighteen when she made True Heart Susie, as was Miriam Cooper when she made Intolerance.

It is often said, foolishly, that the Griffith heroine was always ethereal. Which other Griffith actress, aside from Lillian Gish, can be described as ethereal? Certainly not Blanche Sweet or Mae Marsh or Clarine Seymour. As "The Little Disturber" in Hearts of the World, Dorothy Gish was anything but ethereal, and Carol Dempster was only ethereal in as much as she was trying to emulate Lillian Gish. If anything a Griffith heroine had many masculine traits, in that she would fight for what she desired, and if she did not get it, it was not through want of trying.
The quality which made these actresses so special, the quality which Griffith saw in each of them--perhaps not instantly, but very soon after the first meeting--was, I believe, "soul." By "soul" I mean emotion, an inner quality that could be brought to the surface and exposed before the camera: an inner quality that might remain dormant until its possessor came into contact with a mesmerist, a Svengali, a D. W. Griffith.

"Soul" was an expression Griffith often referred to when discussing film acting: "The actor with the Soul enters into the work with all the ardor there is in him. He feels his part, he is living his part, and the result is a good picture. . . . For principals I must have people with souls, people who know and feel their parts, and who express every single feeling in the entire gamut of emotions with their muscles. . . . It isn't what you do with your face or your hands, it's the light within. If you have that light, it doesn't matter just what you do before the camera."

Griffith's choice of actresses seldom faltered. He always seemed to know who had that "light within," although it wasn't always apparent the first time he worked with a particular actress. Linda Arvidson comments, regarding Blanche Sweet, that when she first applied for work at American Biograph, he was "as yet unwilling to grant that she had any soul or feeling in her work." Occasionally he failed to spot that light at all, as with Florence Lawrence, whom he allowed without demur to leave American Biograph and join Carl Laemmle.

All these players remained loyal to Griffith; their devotion was absolute. Lillian Gish has shown her devotion not only in the title of her autobiography, but in one of her acknowledgements therein: "To D. W. Griffith who taught me it was more fun to work than to play." Lionel Barrymore wrote, "Bless him, he always tried to make one feel his contribution was great even though it might have been piffle." All of his players have protected his good name throughout the years. It is almost impossible to find anyone who has ever worked for Griffith who has one word of criticism of him. (One almost feels obligated to use a capital "H" for his or him.) The general feeling about the man by all who knew him was summed up by Blanche Sweet, when we discussed his funeral.

"I did go to his funeral, although I don't believe in funerals. But I did go there, and felt very badly about it, because there were quite a lot of people there, but on the other hand, all of Hollywood should have been there--standing. All of Hollywood, because without him, maybe someone else would have come along and done it, maybe, but maybe not. Anyway, he did it. And he contributed more, actually, to making motion pictures than anybody else. There have been a lot of people, men and women, who had done a great deal for films, contributed a lot, but nobody did quite as much as he did. And I really felt that everybody who ever worked in the films should have been there. Well, that's one reason why I don't believe in funerals."

This volume chronicles lives and careers of several of the Griffith girls. Without him most, maybe all, would be unknown today, but I also like to think that his success owed much to their presence in his films. He brought out the best in them, and they responded by assuring his films--through their acting--a place in the history of the cinema.

In 1928, D. W. Griffith addressed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with the following words: "When motion pictures have created something to compare with the plays of Euripides, that have lasted two thousand years, or the works of Homer, or the plays of Shakespeare, or Ibsen, or Keats 'Ode to a Nightingale,' the music of Handel, Bach, and Wagner, then let us call our form of entertainment an art, but not before." Griffith was not a modest man; I believe he knew when he made that speech that his films had equalled the works of Homer, Shakespeare, or Handel, that Broken Blossoms was comparable in beauty to "Ode to a Nightingale." But, as in any great man's work, it was the collaborators, the interpreters, who played their part as well. The Griffith girls were the Sarah Bernhardt and the Julia Marlowe to his Shakespeare, the Kirsten Flagsted to his Wagner. To them also should be given the praise and the glory. We shall not see David Wark Griffith's like again; nor, I fear, shall we see theirs--the Griffith Girls'.

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