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'The Birth of a Nation' Creator Used This Westchester Town in His Films

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Sisters Lillian and Dorothy Gish as depicted in a publicity still for D.W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm.

Photos via Wikipedia

 

One hundred years ago, the heart of American moviemaking wasn’t so much Hollywood as it was Mamaroneck. Fresh off the success of his landmark film The Birth of a Nation — which is roundly considered to have been masterfully filmed despite also being abhorrently racist — filmmaker D.W. Griffith purchased the 28-acre Flagler estate in Mamaroneck’s Edgewater Point in 1919. Griffith wanted to be closer to the banks that funded his pictures, and Mamaroneck was attractive for its access to New York City and its sizeable community of actors.

Griffith’s Mamaroneck films include Way Down East, starring Lillian Gish as a troubled unwed mother, and Orphans of the Storm, a costume drama that saw Griffith build an ersatz Paris on the spit of land colloquially known as Satan’s Toe. When he needed a rainstorm for that picture, Mamaroneck’s Columbia Fire Company turned up with hoses. Revolutionary War film America saw a Paul Revere character ride alongside the Sheldrake River toward Mamaroneck Village.

Griffith spent five years in Mamaroneck. No sign or marker in wealthy Edgewater Point today notes the area’s filmmaking past. “It’s a very private community,” said John Pritts, Mamaroneck Village historian. “It’s not something that’s easily accessible.”

A historical mural project going on in Mamaroneck Village will tip a cap to its filmmaking past. Says Pritts, “It will be the artist’s idea of what artistry was like in Mamaroneck back in the day.” One particular mural showcases Lillian Gish, Ethel Barrymore, and Matt Dillon, as a representation of all the artists who have lived in Westchester.