Jan 222016
 

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Today is the birthday (1875) of David Llewelyn Wark “D. W.” Griffith, so-called “Inventor of Hollywood” who not only pioneered modern film-making techniques, but was the first director to film in southern California. He is mostly remembered for the groundbreaking but extremely controversial 1915 film The Birth of a Nation.

Griffith was born in Crestwood, Kentucky to Mary Perkins and Jacob “Roaring Jake” Griffith, who were of Anglo-Welsh ancestry. Jacob Griffith was a Confederate Army colonel in the American Civil War and was elected as a Kentucky state legislator. Griffith attended a one-room schoolhouse where he was taught by his older sister, Mattie Griffith. After his father died when he was ten, the family struggled with poverty. When Griffith was 14, his mother abandoned their farm and moved the family to Louisville, where she opened a boarding house. It failed shortly after. Griffith then left high school to help support the family, taking a job in a dry goods store and later in a bookstore.

He began his creative career as a playwright but met with little success with only one of his plays being accepted for a performance. Griffith then decided to become an actor, and appeared in many plays as an extra. In 1907, still struggling as a playwright, he traveled to New York in an attempt to sell a script to Edison Studios producer Edwin Porter. Porter rejected Griffith’s script, but gave him an acting part in Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest instead. Finding this attractive, Griffith began to explore a career as an actor in the fledgling motion picture business. In 1908, he accepted a role as a stage extra in Professional Jealousy for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, commonly known as Biograph, where he met his future, favorite cameraman, G. W. “Billy” Bitzer. In 1908, Biograph’s main director Wallace McCutcheon grew ill, and his son, Wallace McCutcheon, Jr., took his place. McCutcheon, Jr., however, was not able to bring the studio any success. As a result, Biograph co-founder, Henry “Harry” Marvin, decided to give Griffith the position. He made his first short movie for the company, The Adventures of Dollie, subsequently directing 48 shorts for the company that year.

In 1910 Griffith whilst scouting for suitable outdoor locations with good weather and natural light came across the little village of Hollywood where he shot In Old California, a short melodrama set in Mexican times. The success of the movie prompted the Biograph company to leave New York for Hollywood, and other companies followed. Thus Hollywood was born. But it is the period between Griffith first becoming a director and moving to California that interests me because during that time he made dozens of shorts in Cuddebackville, NY, where I owned a house for nearly 30 years. Some of the history of this period is documented in this post on Mary Pickford — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/mary-pickford/

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Cuddebackville is on the Neversink river, tributary of the Delaware, clustered on the banks of the river near an aqueduct that was built to carry the Delaware and Hudson canal over the river. Griffith knew one of the owners of the, now-defunct, canal and had journeyed there with him before becoming a film director. At the time there were, and still are, large river and mountain views without signs of human habitation. So they were ideal as site locations for Griffith’s movies about Native Americans, of which he made many. It is extremely telling that while he was roundly condemned for his racist portrayal of African-Americans in Birth of a Nation, his depictions of Native Americans are always sympathetic, and condemn only white settlers for their brutal ways.

Many of his pioneering film techniques such as soft focus and slow fade, were developed in Cuddebackville. In fact, the iris he used on his camera lens for slow fade was made by the Cuddebackville blacksmith whose house and forge still stand directly across the river from my old house.

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Griffith took the whole crew to Cuddebackville in 1908-1909 filming dozens of shorts there on Native American and contemporary issues. Both interiors and exteriors of local houses were used as locations, and most of them still exist and are easily recognizable. My colleague Tom Gunning who wrote a monograph on Griffith’s 1908-09 movies (http://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/87gbw5tr9780252063664.html), came out to stay with me in Cuddebackville in the early 1980s and showed a number of Griffith’s shorts that were shot in Cuddebackville, to a local audience. Older viewers remembered Griffith’s visits and could name some of the extras in the films. One man in the audience even named the horse in The Modern Prodigal, saying it belonged to his uncle !!

Here’s a typical Cuddebackville short called The Little Darling, shot mostly inside the Caudebec Inn where the crew stayed, and at Otisville rail station, the nearest stop on the Hudson line from New York. It’s only about 3 minutes long and cost virtually nothing to make. It’s essentially a one-joke movie made more or less on the spur of the moment when the crew was idle. The owner of a boarding house receives a letter saying that her niece is coming for a visit. She assumes that her niece is a little girl, and the boarders, delighted at the prospect, rush out and buy toys for her. When she arrives they are shocked to discover that the niece is a young lady (Mary Pickford).

This movie gives an excellent idea of the crew’s living conditions in Cuddebackville, and the inn and store are still there.

The Modern Prodigal is more typical of Griffith’s Cuddebackville shorts. For both contemporary and Native American films he used the Neversink river a great deal. The river shots here were taken right below my house.

In my post on Mary Pickford I gave a recipe for brook trout which was once plentiful in the Neversink. The Modern Prodigal features a local pig farm. Pig farming was a major business in the region in the early 20th century, and was still surviving when I lived there. Every October I had a pig roast for all my neighbors and friends – my biggest party of the year, probably rivaling gatherings in the Caudebec Inn when Griffith stayed. I usually had more than 100 guests from all over – artists, musicians, family, friends. Here’s my fire pit and smoker.

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I can’t really give you a recipe as such for whole roast pig. Everyone I know who has a pig roast learns from someone else, or else just figures it out. The principles are simple; experience comes over time. I used to get a 150 lb young pig delivered on a Friday afternoon in late October when nights were chilly. A neighbor had constructed a turnable spit which I wired the pig to that night and kept it in my potting shed overnight. Around 3 am I built a fire of seasoned hard wood which I got started using hot coals from my wood stove. After about an hour there were enough coals ready to start the pig roasting. I set the spit over the coals with a hood over it to keep the heat contained a little, and a marquee over the whole affair in case of rain. In fact it never did rain, October being a very dry month in that area. Then it was simply a matter of time and patience. I turned the spit a quarter turn every 15 minutes, so that the pig turned one revolution per hour. I kept a fire going beside the pit, and fed hot coals under the pig as needed. Pricking the skin with a large fork periodically, basted it and eventually crisped it.

I would stay beside the pig faithfully for about 14 hours, serving dinner around 6 pm. By that time I was black with soot, thoroughly smelling of smoke, and utterly exhausted. But it was always a whale of a party. We served the pork, which was unbelievably succulent – best ever – with potatoes baked in the coals, cole slaw, and whatever else anyone cared to bring. A 150 lb pig served 100+ people well, with plenty of leftovers.