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L.A. Then and Now / Cecilia Rasmussen

Film Pioneer Griffith Rode History to Fame

August 01, 1999|CECILIA RASMUSSEN

Today the intersection of Hollywood, Sunset and Hillcrest is one of the city's busiest, but few motorists navigating the Silver Lake junction are aware that they are traversing one of the crossroads of cinematic history.

For it was on the site now occupied by the restored and historic Vista Theater that D.W. Griffith, the "Father of Film," rebuilt ancient Babylon as the immense and spectacular set for his 1916 film "Intolerance."

Supervised by three Italian artisans skilled at conjuring fantasy, workers created a 3/8-mile-long, 140-foot-high set that instantly became a tourist attraction.

Visitors in search of the silver screen's excitement were later attracted to other, less glitzy movie sets, including a rocking replica of the Mayflower, the 180-ton vessel in "The Courtship of Miles Standish" (1920) at the Charles Ray Studio just down Sunset, where KCET-TV now is located; the Witch's Cottage, built in 1921 at the Irvin V. Willat Movie Studio in Culver City; and the massive castle set for "Robin Hood" (1922)--refaced for "The Thief of Baghdad" (1924)--near the intersection of La Brea Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard.

Griffith was a poor, Southern farm boy born in 1875 who rose to fame with his controversial Civil War epic "The Birth of a Nation," a film masterpiece and a landmark of racist propaganda that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan. His father was a former Confederate officer who died an early death from alcoholism. The self-educated Griffith worked as a clerk in a bookstore, wrote stories for the local newspaper and spent late evenings reading books out loud, cultivating his voice for the stage.

At 33, he was a failed playwright and wandering actor whose energy and persistence caught the eye of a Biograph Studio executive. A quick learner at five bucks a day, Griffith, backed by skilled cameramen, soon revolutionized film techniques by developing the longshots, close-ups, camera angles and intercutting that brought 456 one- and two-reelers to life in his five-year career with the company.

Repeatedly breaking the conventions of filmmaking, he was fired three times, once for shooting a hazy background and another time for cutting away from a young girl in a barrel floating down a river, to the terrorized faces of the crowd gathered on the bank.

Directing most of his films from memory, without a script, he launched the careers of several child actresses, including Lillian Gish, Bessie Love, Mae Marsh, Carol Dempster and Mary Pickford. Relishing his image as the strong, confident and faintly aloof father figure, Griffith encouraged professional rivalry for his attentions among his leading ladies.

Heading west for a warmer climate in 1910, Griffith arrived with an entourage of 30 and began working on the first real Hollywood film, "In Old California," shot near Argyle and Franklin avenues. Two years later he purchased a 200-acre Sylmar ranch near Foothill Boulevard and Vaughn Avenue that inspired him to make several Western classics. Later, he made the historical epics on which his fame would rest.

On Feb. 8, 1915, as World War I was devastating Europe, "The Clansman," later renamed "Birth of a Nation," opened at Clune's Auditorium on the northeast corner of 5th and Olive streets, with 17 police officers guarding the entrance as 3,000 people jammed into high-priced $2 seats and actors garbed in full Ku Klux Klan regalia--an advertising ploy--sat on horseback outside, surrounded by shouting African American protesters.

Despite such protests, the film made Griffith a rich man, because he was one of the first directors to get a percentage of the profit. "Birth of a Nation" earned more than $50 million over the next 15 years.

His next project was "Intolerance," a grand-scale plea for understanding that interwove four stories dealing with differing attitudes, values and beliefs. It was set in Babylon, ancient Judea, Paris and contemporary times. (Four years later, after talk of preserving the extravagant movie set as a public landmark, Los Angeles city officials ordered it dismantled, claiming it had become a danger to the public.)

Two years in the making, with an unheard-of $2.5-million budget, 45 stars and 10,000 extras--many of them shipped by trolley from downtown's skid row--the movie was a box office bomb.

Desiring more creative freedom--and more money to pay off nearly $400,000 he sank into "Intolerance"--Griffith pooled what little resources he had left with heavyweights Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in 1919 and founded United Artists. Rocking Hollywood, the "dream team" became the most powerful creative executives to combine forces, despite a movie mogul's announcement that "the lunatics have taken charge of the asylum."

Lunatic or not, workaholic Griffith had entered the Jazz Age humming the wrong tune and made his last film in 1931. Although film producers paid him as a consultant, he was largely ignored. Isolating himself, he soon became an outsider in an industry he had forever changed.

In 1936 he divorced actress Linda Avidson--whom he had lavishly supported through nearly three decades of separation--and married Evelyn Baldwin, 35 years his junior.

Swinging his cane jauntily, often striding down Hollywood Boulevard unrecognized and nearly forgotten, the man who once said, "Movies are written in sand, applauded today, forgotten tomorrow," lived his last few months alone at the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel after a second divorce. Far from impoverished, as rumors went, he lived well off a trust fund.

In 1948, at age 73, not far from where cinematic history began, he dropped dead from a cerebral hemorrhage under the hotel lobby chandelier.

Almost a half-century after Griffith put the intersection of Sunset and Hollywood boulevards on history's map with his splendidly decadent Babylon set, hundreds of spectators again jammed the streets, this time to see Griffith's old studio go up in flames while it was being demolished in 1962.

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