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County remembers favorite son
on his 125th birthday

From simple roots in Oldham Co.,
D.W. Griffith left mark in film history

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer


LA GRANGE, Ky. - David Wark Griffith was considered a genius among filmmakers, a man far ahead of his time. He was a simple man, but also a visionary. He once stated his monumental goal as, ‹The task I am trying to achieve is above all to make you see.
Griffith was born on Jan. 22, 1875, on a farm near Centerfield, Ky., in southern Oldham County. He was the son of Jacob Wark Griffith and Mary Oglesby Griffith. ‹Roaring Jake,ž as Griffith's father was called, was somewhat of a drifter. He came to Kentucky from Maryland in 1840 at age 21. He apprenticed himself to two medical practitioners and soon established his own practice.
In 1846 he left Kentucky to fight in the Mexican War. Two years later, he returned to marry Oglesby. Two years later, he joined a wagon train headed for California. He returned to Kentucky in 1852 to re-establish his medical practice. He entered politics and was elected a representative of Oldham and Trimble counties by 1854.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, he joined the Confederacy. It is during this time that he received his nickname, ‹Roaring Jake.ž At the Battle of Corinth, Tenn., Roaring Jake was rendered unable to mount a horse due to a wound he had received a few months earlier. Frustrated by this, he commandeered a horse and bug-gy, leading a victorious charge upon the enemy.  
Jake had a gambling habit, spurred on by the thrill of winning large stakes. His wife had inherited a 264-acre farm in Kentucky. After Jake's death, the family learned that there were three mortgages on the farm, one of them part of a settlement for a gambling debt. His personal effects had to be sold at auction to settle his debts. 
His son's upbringing by a Confederate father and the love for history instilled in him by Roaring Jake's tales of war fostered in him a desire to transfer his thoughts and feelings onto the big screen. Griffith drew his ideas from his experiences of the simple pleasures of farm life and the goodness of the people who lived such a life. But he was not cut out to be one of them.
"The family couldn't get him to work on the farm. He was always sitting under a tree reading history books," said 
La Grange, Ky., resident Tommy Duncan, Griffith's great-nephew.
"Folks said he would never amount to anything."
Luckily for the rest of the world, the people who knew him best were proved wrong.
After Jacob's death, when Griffith was only 10, the family moved to Southville in southern Shelby County, Ky., to live with his older brother, Will, and his new bride, Ann Crutchers. By 1890, the family had moved once again, to First Street in Louisville.
Edmund Rucker was a boyhood friend of Griffith's around this time. He wrote in the Louisville Courier-Journal Magazine that the neighborhood kids regarded Griffith as ‹a hick." He was ‹tall for his age, loose-jointed and beak-nosed, he wore jeans that barely reached his ankles, red suspenders and rawhide shoes. He badly needed a haircut."
Rucker went on to declare, "I think I'm the only youngster who got to know Griffith well."
The time Griffith spent in Louisville was a time of transition for the young man. He quit school to work various odd jobs. Eventually, he made his stage debut around this time by acting, not directing. 
He had begun acting with the Meffert Stock Co., a Louisville-based stock company. His first role was that of a private's rear bearer for a wounded soldier, whom he helped carry onstage. Griffith was bitten by the acting bug and went on to perform in many road shows. He also wrote film scenarios.
By 1908, he had made his way to New York. The show he had been performing in closed, and he was broke. He spent the night on a bench in Central Park and "thanked God it was warm weather." The very next day Griffith went to work for the Biograph Studios as an extra. He earned $5 a day.
Movie officials on the set soon began taking notice of this young man's innovative suggestions. At the age of 33, Griffith seized an opportunity to direct in 1908. The director, Wallace McCutcheon, became ill, allowing Griffith to direct and improvise the filmmaking industry. He remained with Biograph until 1913.
During his early career with Biograph, Griffith invented such cinematic techniques as the fade out, flash back and diffused lighting. Griffith also developed on-location shooting, rehearsals, authentic sets and makeup, precise cutting and editing, and gave immaculate attention to details. Such detail in the overall picture enhanced the story he was trying to tell.
He was particular about having an actor's characterizations look realistic. He did away with the false, stiff movements that had been previously practiced by actors, replacing them with realistic emotional expressions.
His greatest hour came with the release of "The Birth of a Nation." The film opened at the Liberty Theatre in New York on Mar. 3, 1915 and was released as a 12-reel film. This was the first film to be shown at the White House, evoking the following comment from President Woodrow Wilson: "It is like writing history with lightning, and my one regret is that it's all so terribly true."
Griffith would churn out many more films until 1931. In his great-great-nephew Bruce Duncan's eyes, Griffith "is the one that made Mary Pickford." In fact, Griffith gave many great actors their start in Hollywood. Bruce added that while Hollywood eventually forgot Griffith, "Lillian Gish remained loyal to him."
During his directing career, Griffith would come home to Kentucky to visit relatives. When he did, it was "kind of like Christmas. He took us to sporting good stores and bought whatever we wanted," recalls Tommy. Griffith "would hire two or three people and have all of the family together."
Sometimes, Griffith would visit for as long as a month in his hometown."
Griffith was "very sophisticated; he was a dandy. His voice was really loud. You could hear him a long way off," Tommy added.
While Griffith would shower his relatives with gifts, Tommy "never once heard him say a word about his movies."
Griffith was as quiet about his personal life as well. He had married his first wife, Linda Arvidson, in Boston on May 14, 1906. The marriage lasted until 1936. Two days after divorcing her, Griffith married New York native Evelyn Baldwin at the Brown Hotel in Louisville. 
‹She was a beautiful woman,ž Tommy said. She was 26; he was 61.
Griffith continued to visit Kentucky over the years. He bought a house on Fourth Street in La Grange for his mother, and he and his wife lived there off and on until 1939. Although he didn't actually live in the house in La Grange until 1936, he called La Grange home and loved it. He signed hotel registers as "David Wark Griffith, La Grange, KY," regardless of where he lived at the time.
He was devoted to his family, although he had no children. He once said, "In Oldham County were to be found the finest people and the finest land in the world."
On one such extended visit to Kentucky before he remarried, people speculated that Griffith had left Hollywood for good, that Hollywood had turned its back on him for the last time. This was to mark the beginning of the last 17 years of his life in which he did not make a single film.
Griffith responded to such gossip by saying, "The chief reason for leaving Hollywood was that I wanted leisure to write. Another reason that I came home was to back off from the studio merry-go-round. I needed time to digest vast experiences and personalities."
Griffith died on July 23, 1948, in Hollywood, where he had returned for the last time. It was his wish that his body be returned to Kentucky for burial in his family plot. Tommy said that on that day, the throng of people just about filled the cemeteryž at Mt. Tabor United Methodist Church in Centerfield.
Griffith's grave, however, lay unmarked for two years. Arey Harris, a theatre owner in Eminence, Ky., saw to it that the Screen Directors Guild provided a seven-foot, white marble slab to mark Griffith's grave. When this honor was instituted, Griffith's grave was moved from the family plot to the other side of the cemetery where there was room to erect a rail fence around it.
Perhaps Gish best summed up Griffith's accomplishments, saying, "He was the father of film. He invented everything. The only new thing since him is Walt Disney."

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