The Biograph Connection, 1907–1911

They Would Elope
(1909), directed by D.W. Griffith and camera by G.W. Bitzer, with Mary Pickford; Girl $9.98 (1907); The Voice of the Violin (1909), directed by D.W. Griffith and camera by G.W. Bitzer, with Arthur Johnson and Marion Leonard; The Trick That Failed (1909), directed by D.W. Griffith and camera by G.W. Bitzer, with Mary Pickford; Getting Even (1909), directed by D.W. Griffith and camera by G.W. Bitzer, with Mary Pickford; Fate’s Turning (1911), directed by D.W. Griffith and camera by G.W. Bitzer, with Dorothy Bernard and Charles West; Their First Divorce Case (1911), directed by Mack Sennett, with Mack Sennett and Fred Mace; The Barber’s Queer Customer (1911), camera by Arthur Marvin; The Lesser Evil (1912), directed by D. W. Griffith and camera by G.W. Bitzer, with Blanche Sweet.

Prints Courtesy of Library of Congress, George Eastman House

Essay by David Kiehn

The Edison Company exhibited the first motion pictures in the United States at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences on May 9, 1893. Others tried to profit from his breakthrough in the next few years, but it was the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, popularly known as Biograph, that became Edison’s most formidable rival. Although Thomas Edison owned several key motion picture patents that prevented most competitors from developing their own systems, he was powerless to stop Biograph because its hardware simply did not use his technology. The two systems did share one significant connection. They were both invented by the same man, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson.

Dickson began by developing Edison’s Kinetograph camera in 1889 and completed the Kinetoscope viewing device in 1894. He became dissatisfied with his position at Edison’s lab and designed the non-infringing Mutoscope camera and viewer, co-founding the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company with Harry Marvin, Elias Koopman, and Herman Casler. When Edison premiered the Vitascope film projector at Koster & Bial’s Music Hall on April 23, 1896, American Mutoscope countered with its own projector, the Biograph. The projector’s 70mm image, superior to Edison’s 35mm system, became standard for first-class vaudeville houses, the principal outlet for films.

After the novelty of film exhibition died down in 1900, the industry didn’t begin to revive until after the success of Edison’s The Great Train Robbery (1903). When Biograph also found success with story films such as The Suburbanite and The Moonshiner (both from 1904), Edison raided their technical staff, causing serious damage to Biograph’s creativity and output. As theaters began springing up across the country, spurring the demand for new films, Biograph was unable to find experienced people to help profit from the booming market.
By 1907, Biograph was so seriously troubled its board of directors recommended liquidation. Instead, the new president, Jeremiah Kennedy, began to reorganize, firing several employees and hiring Wallace McCutcheon, an old hand at Biograph who had recently been working for Edison. McCutcheon became Biograph’s only film director, until he was taken ill. In a desperate move, anyone at Biograph who seemed remotely capable of directing was given a chance. They were all dismal failures, until actor David Wark Griffith was asked to try out.
D. W. Griffith had been making a marginal living for eleven years as a stage actor, but for the last five months he had a regular income at Biograph and was reluctant to direct films for fear of getting fired. Assured he could retain his job, Griffith took the script he was given for The Adventures of Dollie (1908) and began casting it. He was disappointed by his choices for a leading man from within the company and went in search of someone outside to fill the part. He found Arthur Johnson, a stage actor “at liberty,” and launched the career of this movie matinee idol, the first of many men and women who would find success under Griffith’s direction.

Griffith’s first effort was highly praised, and he soon became Biograph’s sole director, marking an upswing in the company’s fortunes. Biograph became recognized for their outstanding films and exhibitor demand boosted print orders from 40 copies for each film when Griffith started to an average of 90 prints by the next year.
After ten months, Griffith was directing his 114th film, Her First Biscuits (1909), when a young actress, Mary Pickford, joined the cast. Although only 16, Pickford was already a veteran, having begun her stage career at five years old. She used her real name, Gladys Smith, in a series of plays on the road with her widowed mother Charlotte Smith and siblings Lottie and Jack. The turning point for Pickford came at age 13, when she managed to arrange an audition with the famous Broadway producer David Belasco. He was impressed by her spunk and ability, but not her name. He renamed her Mary Pickford and cast her in his next play The Warrens of Virginia. After two years on Broadway and on tour, she came back to New York in the spring of 1909 and was reunited with her family. As the theatrical season was over and they were all unemployed, her mother suggested she try for a job at Biograph.

Pickford entered the Biograph studio alone, determined to get hired and keep her family together. When Griffith saw her he was unimpressed, saying: “You are too little and too fat, but I may give you a chance.” Pickford was not impressed with him either, thinking him “pompous and insufferable,” but their immediate dislike of each other didn’t prevent them from seeing something of value in collaborating. She played a ten-year-old girl that first day. The next day she played the leading lady in The Violin Maker of Cremona (1909).

Although the strong-willed Griffith and unabashedly blunt Pickford fought from the start, they also had respect for each other’s abilities. Griffith later wrote about her: “One thing set Mary apart from all the other girls I was engaging at Biograph at the same time. Work. I soon began to notice that instead of running off as soon as her set was over, she’d stay to watch the others on theirs. She never stopped listening and looking. She was determined to learn everything she could about the business.” Cameraman Billy Bitzer agreed, recalling in his autobiography: “It has been said that all she had were two dimples, curls, and a lot of luck. Don’t you believe it, for there were many girls who had all that, but they were drab personalities beside Mary. Mary would have succeeded in any career she wished to follow.”

Unlike theater performers, movie actors were not yet publicized by film studios, which were fearful of salary demands. So the public identified their favorites in other ways. Florence Lawrence was known as “The Biograph Girl” until she was hired away by the Independent Motion Picture (IMP) Company for more money and name recognition. The star system was born, but Biograph still refused to identify their players. Nevertheless, its actors remained loyal because Griffith’s talent as a filmmaker helped to hone their skills.
Pickford handled some difficult parts for a 17-year old in the 80 films she made in 1909 and 1910. The public responded and she became the new “Biograph Girl.” By the time Wilful Peggy [sic] was released in August 1910, with Pickford in the title role, 250 prints were required for distribution.

Pickford left Biograph in December 1910 for the IMP Company but came to realize their films were inferior to those made by Griffith. She eventually broke her contract, returning to Griffith at a reduction in her IMP salary, which was still higher than her old rate at Biograph. Just a few months later she introduced her two friends Lillian and Dorothy Gish to Griffith, launching their movie careers. She also did some of her best work to date, but the battles between her and Griffith became untenable. Griffith convinced Pickford to work in one last film, The New York Hat (1912), which brought out the best in their stormy relationship. He then wished her well in future endeavors, just as he would the many others who went on to worldwide acclaim. He, too, achieved greater success after he left Biograph in September 1913, and the company went into decline.