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D.W. Griffith: An American Life Paperback – July 1, 2004
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From Library Journal
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From the Back Cover
Top Customer Reviews
Many books have been written about Griffith, and many of them took ancedotes at their word. What Griffith said was truth. In fact they overlooked the fact that he was a showman first, and tended to cast history and his legacy as he saw fit. This biography (at a weighty 800 some pages) painstakingly sorts through all this. For instance Griffith didnt go broke on Intolerance (it didnt sell well but he did turn a modest profit), he didnt make Intolerance to recitify Birth (in fact he made it as a dig at the 'moralizers' and busy bodies), he barely made any films involving race, and he wasnt ever really broke (though given his risky business dealings it was always possible).
In Whitfield's "Pickford a Woman who Made Hollywood" she says everything Griffith did he did with style. Thats true of how he portrayed his life, how he really lived his life, and even how he died (under the big chandelier of the Knickerbocker Hotel). You can debate Griffith and his work to death, but there is no more authentic, well researched, and well written biography out there then "Griffith: an American Life".
I'd like to add despite how dry such a big meaty book could be Schickel tells it an in entertaining way (after rationalizing various reasons Griffith's brother may have turned down a independence saving business move Schickel says of the brother, "Or he may just have been an idiot.") Shickel tries to dig beyond the myth and piece together the real man. I suspect hes succeeded better than anyone ever has and probably ever will.
Richard Schickel did meticulous research in the years that he worked on this biography (which was released in 1984). He was blessed to have access to people who actually knew and worked with Griffith, all of whom are now gone. Schickel is also a well-known film critic, so he had his "street cred" before the book was ever released. There is a lengthy sections of notes, a filmography and bibliography. The research, and the film criticism, are both blessings and curses from a reading standpoint.
An abundance of research without a light hand in the sharing of what's learned can lead to a dry, heavy-handed read. Schickel has moments when he tries to be entertaining as well as education, but we are still treated to long passages regarding stock options and contract clauses. For all his digging however, the information he provides can be frustrating. Clarine Seymour is barely mentioned, while Carol Dempster is discussing in exhausting, annoying detail.
Given that Schickel is never able to shed his critic's hat as he writes, the biography is not an objective look at Griffith's work or life. Previous biographers who were sympathetic to Griffith are universally referred to as "apologists," and the reader often feels that the author is viewing Griffith's films by looking down his nose at them. We are treated to opinion offered as fact, such as "so-and-so says, correctly, that ...." Asides regarding silent film in general reflect Schickel's biases about the genre, disappointingly.
All in all, I learned a bit about D.W. Griffith in the book. I only wish that it had been presented a bit more objectively.
Much of the lapses in biographical information can be attributed to D. W. Griffith's fondness for personal myth making and the lack of verifiable facts surrounding parts of his life. There simply isn't any kind of record as to where he was or what he was doing during certain times in his early life and career.
The author tends to intersperse the biographical material with loads of encyclopedic information on various productions -- work records, props, camera setups, and other details more aptly suited for a filmography index than a biography -- as though he were so happy to have found any information at all after coming up empty for other less documented periods of Griffth's life that he just couldn't bear to leave out the slightest detail. It becomes tedious.
If you're a huge fan of Griffith's work or you are extremely interested in the minutia of early film making then this is the book for you. If you're looking for a casual experience of reading enjoyment then I wouldn't recommend it.