Hollywood Renegades Archive

The Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers

Book Cover


D. W. Griffith—Independent Profile

The Birth of a Nation, producer Harry Aitken, and the rise and fall of Triangle Pictures.

Excerpt from Hollywood Renegades by J. A. Aberdeen

D. W. Griffith, Hollywood independent, 1920s. (Aberdeen Collection). To purchase Aberdeen photos for reprint purposes click here.

Many of the SIMPP producers traced their independent filmmaking roots to director D. W. Griffith. During the time before the development of the studio system—a time known for its powerful directors who acted autonomously—D. W. Griffith became the leading artistic and commercial filmmaker, and embodied the independent spirit of movie production.

Born David Wark Griffith on January 22, 1875, Griffith was a stage actor and playwright who entered the fledgling film industry during the era of the Edison patents monopoly. D. W. Griffith transitioned from actor to director at the American Biograph Company, one of the member studios of the Motion Picture Patents Company (aka The Edison Trust). Between June 1908 and August 1913 he directed over 450 shorts before leaving Biograph to make feature-length movies without the hostility that characterized the retrogressive attitude of the Trust.

Harry A. Aitken in 1916.

D. W. Griffith partnered with Harry E. Aitken, a film pioneer who had formed Majestic films independent of the Trust. Aitken had also been one of the founding members of the Motion Picture Sales and Distirbution Company (commonly called the Sales Company) along with several of the other "outlaw" defectors from the Trust such as Carl Laemmle. In 1912 Aitken removed Majestic from the Sales Company to form the Mutual Film Company. After Aitken's departure, Laemmle renamed the Sales Company—the Universal Film Manufacturing Company.

The Birth of a Nation

D. W. Griffith, photo taken while operating as an independent producer for the Mutual Film Corp. (Aberdeen Collection). To purchase Aberdeen photos for reprint purposes click here.

Harry Aitken lured the famed director away from Biograph in December 1913, and brought D. W. Griffith to Mutual to make some of his early features. Unfortunately, Aitken and Griffith encountered hostile conditions among their other independent peers. Harry Aitken ran into problems with Mutual when cost overruns on Griffith's Civil War epic alarmed the studio. Aitken was forced to reimburse the company, taking his and Griffith's production independent from the studio. As it turned out, the film The Birth of a Nation (1915) became one of the most profitable blockbusters in film history.

The move also showed that filmmakers could protect their creative vision by going independent, and insure a hefty box office reward without having to put up with studio interference. We can see that even though the Edison Trust was not yet dismantled, the independent-spirited filmmakers were beginning to feel opposition from the rise of the new studio regime. This also serves as another illustration of how independents (in this case the studios who defected from the Trust) as soon as they reached a point a relative stability, began to persecute other independents.

Despite the success of The Birth of a Nation (or perhaps in retaliation due to its unexpected success), Mutual subsequently ousted Aitken. Later the studio lured Charlie Chaplin away from Essanay, another one of the Patents Trust companies, to make two-reel comedies under the Lone Star Mutual banner. Fourteen months and 12 films later in 1917, Chaplin left Mutual to become an independent producer and start making feature films.

Thomas H. Ince - portrait by Witzel.

Triangle Pictures

Meanwhile Harry Aitken, who accumulated a personal fortune from The Birth of a Nation, masterminded the July 1915 agreement to organize the illustrious Triangle Pictures Corporation. Auspicious but ill-fated, Triangle was envisioned as a prestige studio based on the producing abilities of ace filmmakers D. W. Griffith, Thomas Ince, and Mack Sennett. The studio suffered from bloat, and lost all three of its principle producers in 1917. Triangle gradually dwindled, and was swallowed by the emerging Hollywood studios. The triangle-shaped Culver City lot was sold to Goldwyn Pictures, later to become the home of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Triangle's high-profile contracts were absorbed in the rise of Paramount, and Aitken became a forgotten would-be mogul.



Triangle Pictures' three founders with SIMPP's Charlie Chaplin. From left to right: Thomas Ince, Chaplin, Mack Sennett, and D. W. Griffith.


Information on the Motion Picture Patents Company, General Film Company, and Motion Picture Distributing and Sales Company from Bowser, pp. 27-36, 79-85, 221; Lahue, Dreams for Sale, pp. 19-22; Stanley, The Celluloid Empire, pp. 12-18; Hampton, History of the American Film Industry, pp. 64-82; Jacobs, The Rise of the American Film, pp. 81-94, and Ramsaye, A Million and One Nights, pp. 526-527.

Collapse of Triangle—Zukor outlines his plans for the former Triangle contract talent: Adolph Zukor to Jesse L. Lasky, telegram, June 26, 1917, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

See Bibliography


SIMPP archiveSIMPP historyHollywood antitrust case | the authorsite map
the publisherpress room | contact usorder information

Copyright © 2005 Cobblestone Entertainment.
All rights reserved.