D. W. Griffith—Independent Profile
The Birth of a Nation, producer Harry Aitken, and the rise and fall of
Excerpt from Hollywood Renegades by J. A. Aberdeen
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
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
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
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
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.
H. Ince - portrait by Witzel.
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.
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.