Picks and Pans Review: D.w. Griffith: An American Life

updated 06/18/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/18/1984 01:00AM

by Richard Schickel

The author writes of his subject that "the history of his life was the history of the movies in America," and that is what Schickel set out to produce in this massive, hugely detailed biography of the legendary and controversial early director. In Kentucky, Griffith's family suffered abject poverty in the aftermath of the Civil War. The deathbed scene of his father, a Civil War veteran turned unlicensed medical practitioner, is worthy of an early Griffith silent film. The children were called in one at a time for farewells, and the father's last words to David were "Be brave, son, be brave." Like many in the beginning days of movies, Griffith came from the theater. Desperate for a job, he found work in New York first as an actor and then as a director. Movies were then little more than nickelodeon fare, and he ground out two a week for the Biograph company. Many of those who were to become stars started with him in those days—Mary Pickford, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Lionel Barrymore. By the time he quit Biograph and, with different producers, set out making his famous The Birth of a Nation, he had put together a company of loyal players. Schickel, a TIME magazine film critic and author, is certain that Griffith was a genius. But the master's racism has made Schickel defensive; Griffith is portrayed as a man who couldn't help himself. (Griffith also had a strange penchant for innocent teenage girls, and Schickel does the best he can to deal with the secretive man's sex life.) The result is an engrossing book that reads like a novel, peopled with lively eccentrics, vain actors, sinister moneymen and, of course, a cast of thousands. (Simon and Schuster, $24.95)

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