American Film: A Brief History

American Film: A Brief History

Although several inventors from America, Britain, France and Germany were working on the idea of simultaneously, credit for the invention of the motion pictures camera is often given to the Thomas Edison laboratories. By 1889, Edison’s assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, had synthesized Edison’s ideas into a workable motion picture camera, which he called a Kinetograph. He followed the Kinetograph with a device for viewing his short films called the Kinetoscope, a peep-show box with a scope on top. One person at a time looked into the scope to watch the film.

Edison did not believe motion pictures would grow beyond a parlor amusement, so he did not bother to pay the extra $150 for an international patent to prevent European inventors from developing their own versions of the Kinetograph or Kinetoscope. Two such entrepreneurs were the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, from the Lyons, France, who produced their own version of the motion picture camera. Instead of being powered by electricity, the Lumières’ Cinématographe was hand cranked and weighed 16 pounds. On December 28, 1895, they had the first paid public showing of projected motion pictures in the Salon Indien in the basement of the Grand Café in Paris. Projection quickly became the format of choice for commercial showings of motion pictures around the world, since it allowed many viewers to watch the same film at the same time. The Lumière films recorded ordinary happenings and used simple titles that telegraphed the subjects of their 30-second films such as Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, Baby’s Lunch, and Train Arriving at the Station.

Georges Méliès, who was already in show business when he began making motion pictures in 1896, produced films that were fairy tales or fantasy stories, such as his 1902 adventure A Trip to the Moon. In expanding the storytelling possibilities of the new medium, Méliès gradually increased the average length of a film to one reel—a little less than 1,000 feet, or 12-14 minutes at 16 feet per second (fps)—the standard length for a decade.

-Americans Take the Lead The first permanent movie theater in the United States was Thomas H. Tally’s Electric Theater, which opened in Los Angeles in 1902. The Nickelodeon, whose name became generic for early storefront theaters, opened in Pittsburgh in 1905.

The first important American film director was Edwin S. Porter, who while working for the Edison Company, stumbled across the fundamentals of editing when he made Life of an American Fireman in 1903. HE combined stock footage of a fire engine racing to a fire with staged shots of a mother and child trapped in a burning house, cutting back and forth between the two scenes in a way that suggested they were happening simultaneously, a technique later called parallel editing. Later that year, Porter made his masterwork, The Great Train Robbery, which contained simple but effective cinematic techniques, including cutting on motion, moving the camera to keep the action centered in the frame, and using diagonal compositions to exploit the depth that only the cinema offers.

Over the next decade movies became more and more popular and soon attracted serious investors to help expand the audience and filmmakers to create a new art form. David War (D.W.) Griffith directed his first film, The Adventures of Dollie, in 1908. Between 1908 and 1913 he developed and mastered the techniques that would become the basic language of film. Working in collaboration with his cameraman, Billy Bitzer, Griffith varied his scenes by distance from the camera, carefully dividing them into long, medium, and close-up shots. Each type of shot had a specific function, with close-ups carrying the most emotional weight because they could suggest what a character was thinking or feeling. In addition, Griffith added a deliberate rhythm to his edits, adjusting pace for the content of the scene. He also used a range of optical effects for transitions between shots, including the cut, the dissolve, the fade, and the iris, and he gave each effect a consistently specific function.

In 1915, Griffith directed The Birth of a Nation, a three-hour historical epic about the Civil War and Reconstruction. It was the culmination of his innovations in film, an exciting artistic use of his techniques that represented his complete control of the medium on a grand scale. The script was an adaptation of two explicitly racist pieces of literature by Thomas Dixon, so in addition to its important places in film history it reveals the dismal state of race relations in the United States at that time. Griffith’s film offered indefensible stereotypes of African Americans while depicting the Ku Klux Klan as the heroic saviors of a defeated South.

-The Rise of the American Film Industry European moviemaking was severely inhibited by World War I, and the American film industry soon dominated the world market. The first commercial production companies, such as American Biograph, Vitagraph, and Selig, had establishe din New York, New Jersey, and Chicago. The nine most powerful of these companies attempted to monopolize the production, distribution, and exhibition of motion pictures by forming a trust, the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPCC), in 1909. To establish the MPPC’s oppressive business tactics, independent filmmakers moved west as early as 1911. Most of them settled in a sleepy community just outside of Los Angeles called Hollywood.

The move coincided with the development of more organized business practices, including the studio system, which was first implemented by independent producer. Thomas Ince in 1912. Ince’s studio near Holly was dubbed “Inceville.” I included administrative offices, shooting stages, permanent outdoor sets, photo labs, and wardrobe warehouses—a method of operations that facilitated the efficient mass production of movies. Instead of writing, directing, and editing himself, Ince, hired others who were talented in those areas to execute the tasks. He then oversaw the production of the films, retaining financial and creative control.

During this period, silent movies began to tell the standard types of stories familiar to readers of books and magazines, including westerns, slapstick comedies melodramas and historical and biblical epics. The actors quickly became movie “stars” and the industry built large audiences for movies with the most popular ones, among them Charlie, Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

A star’s image was a consistent persona or archetype that an actor played repeatedly until the audience associated the actor with it. The stars were under contract to the studios, which used publicity and promotion to showcase the actors’ images to attract audiences to their films. The star system became so successful that often a film’s narrative, camerawork, lighting, and editing was designed around its stars. The great stars of the 1920s included swashbuckling adventurer Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Latin lover Rudolph Valentino, America’s sweetheart, Mary Pickford, and sophisticated lady Gloria Swanson.

A truly revolutionary moment in film history occurred when sound was introduced in the late 1920s. The Hollywood industry was the first to successfully add synchronized sound to film. Warner Brothers studio produced several synch-sound musical shorts in the mid-1920s before adding a soundtrack to a feature-length film titled Don Juan in 1926, consisting of sound effects and orchestrated music but no spoken dialogue. The next step was to add musical performances to a feature film, which Warner Brothers did for The Jazz Singer (1927), starring Al Jolson. Most of the movie stars from the silent era were unable to make the transition to sound films because their voices were unsuitable to the new demands of talking and acting. Only the great comic actor Charlie Chaplin successfully resisted performing in “talkies;” City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) contain synchronized sound effects but no dialogue. When Chaplin finally did speak, it was to ridicule Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940).

-The Studio Era After problems related to the introduction of sound were resolved, eight studios emerged to dominate the Hollywood film industry. Five of them –Warner, RKO, Twentieth Century-Fox, Paramount, and MGM-controlled the means of production, distribution, and exhibition. Together, these eight studios produced around 80 percent of the feature films released during the 1930s and 1940s, and they took in roughly 85 percent of the total income. Each studio produced about 50 feature films per year.

Despite dependence on systems, standards, conventions, and formulas—and perhaps because of them—this period produced a wide variety of highly regarded films such as It Happened One Night (1934), Gone with the Wind (1939), The Philadelphia Story (1940), and Casablanca (1942) which epitomized the glamour, craft and appeal of Hollywood. Unfortunately, the system that perfected generic formulae discouraged formal experimentation. An exception is Citizen Kane (1941), co-written (with Herman J. Mankiewics) and directed by the iconoclastic Orson Welles. With its deep-focus photography  (by Gregg Toland), chiaroscuro lighting, and expressive camera angles, Citizen Kane looked decidedly unlike any other American Film. Welles offered a dark, complex fable of American capitalism and enterprise that featured no big stars and no happy ending. The film failed at the box office and garnered little support from the industry, save the Academy Award for the best original screenplay.

In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled the certain practices utilized by the eight major studios, including vertical control and block booking, violated American antitrust laws. The ruling made filmmaking riskier for the major studies, because they no longer had a guaranteed outlet for every film. As a result, studios began making fewer films and cuttings costs. The studios also let go of directors and producers, some of whom formed independent production companies, which were not under long-term contract to a studio nor directly involved with distribution. An independent producer or director found a book, play, or story to turn into a script, and then looked for interested stars, thereby putting the project and star together into one deal. This package-unit system, or independent production system, dominated Hollywood production by the mid 1950s, replacing the studio system. The major studios were still a force in the industry, but their role became that of financiers and distributors rather than producers.

A New Audience Television and suburbanization altered the nature of the movie audience. In 1956, young adults and teens bought 87 percent of all movie tickets. For the first time, the industry began to seriously target the youth market, rather than focusing all of their attention on the mainstream.

Color and wide-screen technologies had been around since the silent era, but were used mainly for experiments, curiosities, and blockbusters. Now, in order to draw spectators back into the theaters, Hollywood embraced technology that offered visual experiences with audiences could not get on small black-and-white television screens. In the 1930s and after, 20 percent of films were in color, during the 1950s, 50 percent were.

Screens grew and changed shape between 1952 and 1955, when wide-screen processes were adopted by the studios. Cinerama, a widescreen system that required three electronically synchronized cameras, was introduced in 1952. CinemaScope, introduced in The Robe (1953), became the wide-screen process of choice because it used conventional 35 mm film and required only a change in lens.

During the 1960s, movie attendance continued to decline; studios released fewer films per year, leading the industry to accept, even embrace, a corporate mentality. The studios no longer had a system to foster new talent, increasing the uncertainty of their future.

Hollywood’s dire financial situation made it open to new ideas, even more so after the release of Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and Cool Hand Luke in 1967. The critical and financial success of these films signaled the arrival of a “new wave” of American filmmakers. The so-called Film School Generation would follow, producing many outstanding films such as In the Heat of the Night (1967), Easy Rider (1969), The Godfather (1972), Dog Day Afternoon, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Both 1975, Taxi Driver (1976) and Days of Heaven (1978). These were innovative, entertaining, and daring in form and content.

-The Blockbuster Era Many of the industry practices that define contemporary cinema began with Jaws (1975), directed by Steven Spielberg, and were cemented by Star Wars (1977), directed by George Lucas. Both films were action-driven narratives fueled by mechanical and special effects, which became blockbusters that attracted youth audiences and set box office records.

In the 1980s and 1990s, studios reclaimed control of the industry. While studios continued to solicit films for small production companies and produce films in conjunction with them, they exerted more creative control over script preparation, casting and editing. Studios continued to be absorbed by large corporations. Unlike the movie moguls of the early years, contemporary studio executives were recruited from talent agencies, the television industry, or business and marketing programs. They preferred familiar stories, formulaic genres, and projects that showcase popular stars, because those films appeal to mass audiences and inspire repeated viewings.

Independent Filmmakers The recent emergence of a large independent filmmaking community has become the main source of artistically-driven films in the United States. The success of some independent filmmakers has allowed them to straddle both independent and studio worlds. Some talented directors, such as Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction 1994; Kill Bill 2003; Inglorious Bastards, 2009), the Coen Brothers (Fargo, 1996; No Country for Old Men, 2008), Spike Lee (Do the Right Things, 1989; Inside Man, 2006) and Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, 2000; The Informant!, 2009), began as independents and then gradually moved to big Hollywood studios, where they enjoy more creative control than most directors.

Great American Film Directors

In 1968, the film critic Andrew Sarris published American Cinema. Directors and Directions, that put forth what earlier French critics called the auteur theory. The central idea behind the theory was that the director was the single most important person in the making of a film. Essentially it was the director’s vision that stood behind the making of those films we have come to regard as essential, classic, brilliant. Several film historians have shown the flaws in this argument (notably Thomas Schatz in The Genius of the System, 1989) and demonstrated that the studios produced fine films, often under the guidance of the producer and that some highly regarded directors worked very well under the studio system’s restrictions. After all, Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, All About Eve and many others were produced by the studios and have achieved iconic status in the history of American film.

Still, the auteur theory has helped serious moviegoers understand that a director’s body of work, when taken as a whole, can reveal a personal style and sensibility that accounts for their long-term success and the high standing of their films. Below is a short list (in alphabetical order) of 10 men with their best-known films highlighted. Anyone who takes the time to see this pictures will have a solid introduction to the most important aspects of American film.

-Frank Capra Born in Sicily in 1897 and raised in California, Capra started working in movies after serving in World War I. he started directing in 1926 and made dozens of movies over the next decade. In 1934, the cheeky comedy It Happened One Night made stars of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, and won an Oscar for them as well as Capra. Capra would soon produce and direct a string of idealistic stories that featured the common man (played either by Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart) as hero and dupe to the rich and powerful, including Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Oscar for Best Director, 1936); You Can’t Take it With You Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director, 1938); My Smith Goes to Washington (1939); Meet John Doe (1941), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). In these films Capra stood up for the traditional values of honesty, loyalty and patriotism that some regard as corny, but which won the public’s attention and affection. During World War II, he made a series of powerful propaganda films for the government, Why We Fight (1942, 1943).

-Francis Ford Coppola Born in 1939 he attended film school at U.C.L.A. in the mid-1960s. Coppola started as a screenwriter and by the time he was in his early 30s he had written or collaborated on more than a dozen screenplays including the smash hit, Patton (1970). In 1972 he directed the first of three films based on the novel, The Godfather, about Italian mafia families in New York. The first two won multiple Oscars and gave Coppola the clout to make his most ambitious film, Apocalypse Now (1979), a Vietnam war story on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. A controversial film from the outset, it has attained a large following over the years because of Coppola’s outstanding storytelling ability.

-John Ford Born Sean Aloysius O’Fearna to Irish immigrants in Main in 1895, he went to Hollywood when he was 19 and three years later, in 1917, became a contract director at Universal Studios making westerns. At the age of 29 he directed his first western epic, The Iron Horse (1924). During the Depression years he made several comedies but won his first Oscar for The Informer (1935), a bitter story of betrayal set in Ireland; a second Oscar followed in 1940 for The Grapes of Wrath, based on the bestselling novel by John Steinbeck. His third Oscar-winning film was also set in Ireland, The Quiet Man (1952).

Ford is best known for the westerns he made beginning with Stagecoach (1939), which featured John Wayne. After World War II, he directed a string of extraordinary films that together forged a history of American expansion and the civilizing of the western frontier: My Darling Clementine (1946), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Wagonmaster (1950), The Searchers (1956), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

-Alfred Hitchcock Born in England in 1899, he was first educated by the Jesuits, an experience he later claimed caused him to make movies designed to frighten people. Hitchcock started working in film when he was 20 and five years later directed his first film in Germany where he was introduced to the techniques of Expressionism that stayed with him for his entire career. His two most famous British films, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The 39 Steps (1935 were commercial and critical success in which Hitchcock used his trademark technique of providing the audience with information the characters do not have.

By 1940, he was working in Hollywood where he directed nine films, among them the powerful Shadow of a Doubt (1941) and the frightening espionage story Notorious (1946). During the 1950s, Hitchcock made three of his best films, Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), and North by Northwest (1959). But his most well known film was to be Psycho (1960), which featured a famous murder scene in a motel shower that is a masterpiece of film editing.

-Elia Kazan A Greek immigrant from Turkey, he arrived in New York in 1913 at the age of four. Kazan was well-educated at Williams College and Yale Drama School and in the 1940s became established stage director of major American plays by such writers as Arthur Miller and Tennsee Williams. Hollywood soon lured him west where he directed several powerful films including the first to deal with antisemitism, Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947), which won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, and Pinky (1949), a realistic view of race and racial prejudice in America that still resonates with audiences today.

In April 1952, Kazan testified before the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities and admitted being a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s, but he responded by making one of the great films of all time, On the Waterfront (1954), the story of union corruption on the Brooklyn docks, and how a former boxer, played by Marlon Brando, broke the union’s power by testifying against them. It won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Kazan followed up with a string of highly regarded films, including East of Eden (1955), based on John Steinbeck’s novel and starring a young James Dean; Baby Doll (1956); A Face in the Crowd (1957), and Splendor in the Grass (1961), which marked the film debut of Warren Beatty.

-David Lean Born in England in 1908 he began working as a film editor for newsreels in 1930s, a job he would later say taught him how to tell a story cinematically. In 1942 he worked with Noël Coward on the wartime film, In Which We Serve, which told a moving story about family sacrifice. After the war his directing talents developed quickly and within three years he had successfully made Coward’s Blithe Spirit, and two films based on Dickens’s classics, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. But Brief Encounter (1945), the story of two married people falling in love in a train station café, would emerge as his most memorable film of this period.

Beginning in 1957, Lean worked with American as well as British studios to produce several extraordinary epics that would come to define his career. Most important were the two that won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), which told the story of British troops imprisoned by the Japanese in World War II, led by a strictly by-the-book commander who had them build a bridge to supply Japanese troops; and Lawrence of Arabia (1957), a three-hour-plus spectacular about T.E. Lawrence’s role in the Arab revolution. Other lush and long films followed: Dr. Zhivago (1965), Ryan’s Daughter (1970), and 1984, the magnificent film version of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, produced when Lean was 76. In 1990, he was awarded the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the only non-American to be so honored.

George Stevens California born and bred, Stevens was 17 when he started in film as a cameraman. He joined RKO in 1934 and the following year directed a young Katharine Hepburn in the highly successful Alice Adams, a painful story about the cruelties of class relations, a theme Stevens would revive later in two of his famous works, A Place in the Sun (1951) and Giant (1956), both of which won him the Academy Award for Best Director.

Stevens directed films in a wide range of categories including the Astair-Rogers musical, Swing Time (1936), the war film, Gunga Din (1939), the sophisticated comedy of the first Tracy-Hepburn movie, Woman of the Year (1942), the classic western drama, Shane (1953), the tragic The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), and the biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). All together Stevens made 40 feature films, 15 in the silent era.

-Billy Wilder Born Samuel Wilder in Vienna in 1906, he graduated from law school and in 1929 drifted into screenwriting for several German filmmakers. In 1933 he went to Hollywood and together with Charles Brackett forged a successful screenwriting career over the next decade. Their most well-known script was Ninotchka (1939), starring Greta Garbo. By 1942 his long career as a director began but always continued working as a screenwriter.

By 1950 he had written and directed seven films, three of them considered classics today: Double Indemnity (1944), a bitter and cynical story of infidelity, lust, greed and murder; The Lost Weekend (1945), which chronicles the painful descent into alcoholism of a struggling writer, won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor (Ray Milland); and Sunset Boulevard (1950), a hard-bitten look at the movie business and its forgotten older stars and ambitious young men.

During the 1950s Wilder wrote, directed and occasionally produced a string of major films that showed his extraordinary creative talent, but now in sophisticated comedies: Stalag 17 (1953); Sabrina (1954); The Seven Year Itch (1955); and Some Like it Hot (1959). In 1960, Wilder won the Academy Award for The Apartment, a typical Wilder film that included elements of love, sex and money, all mingled together with humor and a healthy dollop of cynicism about human species. This was followed by four more films including two highly regarded comedies, Irma La Douce (1963) and Fortune Cookie (1966).

Over his long career Wilder was nominated eight times for the Academy Award for directing, but also 12 times for screenwriting (he won three: The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, and The Apartment). In 1986 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute.

-William Wyler Like several other famous American directors, Wyler was born in Germany and came to the United States to work in the movie business. In Wyler’s case it was his mother’s cousin, Carl Laemmle, head of Universal Studios, who convinced the 18-year-old Wyler to start in the publicity department in New York in 1920. In 1925 he was given a chance to direct low-budget westerns and when sound arrived he began a stellar career that would last until 1970.

Over 40 years Wyler would be nominated for an Academy Award 11 times and would win three times: Mrs. Miniver (1942), which tells the story of an English family’s struggles during World War II; The Beset Years of Our Lives (1946, the moving account of three G.I.’s returning from the war and the emotional upheaval they experience; and Ben-Hur (1959), the epic story of how a Jewish nobleman is persecuted by the Romans and find hope and salvation in the Christian message. Ben-Hur won 11 Academy Awards.

Other well-known and critically acclaimed films were several based on famous literary works including the Brontë classic, Wuthering Heights (1939), Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (1941), and The Heiress (1949), based on a play derived from a novel by Henry James. Wyler was awarded the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1976.

– Fred Zinnemann Another Viennese-born (1907) giant of American film, he studied law but became very interested in moves and left for the United States to study film. By the early 1940s he had learned enough tot direct several nondescript feature films. Over the next 40 years he would direct 20 more features, almost all of them highly regarded no matter what genre they represented: musical (Oklahoma!, 1955), drama (The Nun’s Story, 1959), thriller (The Day of the Jackal, 1973).

Zinnemann’s most famous film is undoubtedly High Noon (1952), a western starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. It tells the story of a town threatened by a violent gang and defended only by a sheriff who believes his duty requires that he might fight them. Famous for its attempts to tell the entire story in real time (about 80 minutes), High Noon was among the first 25 films chosen for the National Film Registry in 1989.

Two of Zinnemann’s films would win both Best Picture and Best Director, From Here to Eternity (1953), a story about illicit love, adulterous love, loyalty and friendship on the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor; and A Man for All Seasons (1966), based on the play about St. Thomas More whose refusal to violate his beliefs cost him his life at the hands of Henry VIII