Course: American Film History lecture Instructor

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American Film History lecture


Professor Christopher Garbowski

Grade requirements:

American Film History lecture/class test

In order to receive a grade for the “American Film History” lecture, the following requirements must be met. During the second-last film lecture period an approximately thirty minute test will be given. The lecture-participant shall select three films from among those presented in the course of the lectures and match them with appropriate aspects of the period to which the films belong. The films should approximately span film history (at least a sixty year span or more, with twenty or more years in between each selected film). In the test, each film will introduce a ten point series of characteristics of an approximately twenty year period. The characteristics can be points from the lecture or the supplementary text “American Film History Outline [in lieu of a textbook for the lecture] found below (thus the maximum points for the test will be 30).

The test will be on: January 25, 2016.

American Film History Outline


Early Cinematic Origins and the Infancy of Film

The work of Etienne-Jules Marey and others laid the groundwork for the development of motion picture cameras, projectors and transparent celluloid film. American inventor George Eastman, who had first manufactured photographic dry plates in 1878, provided a more stable type of celluloid film with his concurrent developments in 1888 of sensitized paper roll photographic film (instead of glass plates) and a convenient "Kodak" small box camera that used the roll film. He improved upon the paper roll film with another invention in 1889 - perforated celluloid roll-film with photographic emulsion.

The Birth of US Cinema: Thomas Edison and William K.L. Dickson

In the late 1880s, famed American inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) and his young British assistant William Kennedy Laurie Dickson (1860-1935)) in his laboratories in West Orange, New Jersey, borrowed from the earlier work of Eastman. Their goal was to construct a device for recording movement on film, and another device for viewing the film. Although Edison is often credited with the development of early motion picture cameras and projectors, it was Dickson, in November 1890, who devised a crude, motor-powered camera that could photograph motion pictures - called a Kinetograph. This was one of the major reasons for the emergence of motion pictures in the 1890s.

In 1891, Dickson also designed an early version of a movie-picture projector (an optical lantern viewing machine) based on the Zoetrope - called the Kinetoscope. In 1889 or 1890, Dickson filmed his first experimental Kinetoscope trial film. It featured the movement of a laboratory assistant filmed with a system using tiny images that rotated around the cylinder. The first public demonstration of motion pictures in the US using the Kinetoscope occurred at the Edison Laboratories to the Federation of Women's Clubs on May 20, 1891. The very short film's subject in the test footage was William K.L. Dickson himself, bowing, smiling and ceremoniously taking off his hat.

On Saturday, April 14, 1894, a refined version of Edison's Kinetoscope began commercial operation. The floor-standing, box-like viewing device was basically a bulky, coin-operated, movie "peep show" cabinet for a single customer (in which the images on a continuous film loop-belt were viewed in motion as they were rotated in front of a shutter and an electric lamp-light). The Kinetoscope, the forerunner of the motion picture film projector, was finally patented on August 31, 1897. The viewing device quickly became popular in carnivals, amusement arcades, and sideshows for a number of years.

The world's first film production studio - or "America's first movie studio," the Black Maria, or the Kinetographic Theater, was built on the grounds of Edison's laboratories at West Orange, New Jersey. Construction began in December 1892, and it was completed by February 1, 1893. It was constructed for the purpose of making film strips for the Kinetoscope..

Thomas Edison displayed 'his' Kinetoscope projector at the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago and received patents for his movie camera, the Kinetograph, and his electrically-driven peepshow device - the Kinetoscope.

The first motion pictures made in the Black Maria were deposited for copyright by Dickson at the Library of Congress in August, 1893. Most of the first films shot at the Black Maria included segments of magic shows, plays, vaudeville performances, acts from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, various boxing matches and cockfights, and scantily-clad women. Most of the earliest moving images, however, were non-fictional, unedited, crude documentary, "home movie" views of ordinary slices of life - street scenes, the activities of police or firemen, or shots of a passing train.

Kinetoscope Parlors and Films Flourish:

On April 14, 1894, the Holland Brothers opened the first Kinetoscope Parlor in New York City and for the first time, they commercially exhibited movies, as we know them today. Each film cost 5 cents to view. The first commercial presentation of a motion picture took place here. The mostly male audience was entertained by a single loop reel depicting clothed female dancers, sparring boxers and body builders, animal acts and everyday scenes. Early spectators in Kinetoscope parlors were amazed by even the most mundane moving images in very short films (between 30 and 60 seconds) - an approaching train or a parade, women dancing, dogs terrorizing rats, and twisting contortionists.

Soon, peep show Kinetoscope parlors quickly opened across the country, set up in penny arcades, hotel lobbies, and phonograph parlors in major cities across the US. One of the companies formed to market Edison's Kinetoscopes and the films was called the Kinetoscope Exhibition Company. In the summer of 1894 in downtown New York City, it set up a series of large-capacity Kinetoscopes, each one showing one, one–minute round of the six round Michael Leonard-Jack Cushing Prize Fight film.

In June of 1894, pioneering inventor Charles Francis Jenkins became the first person to project a filmed motion picture onto a screen for an audience, in Richmond, Indiana. The motion picture was of a vaudeville dancer doing a butterfly dance. Male audiences were enthralled watching these early depictions of a clothed female dancer on a Kinetoscope.

The American Mutoscope Company: Dickson's Split From Edison

Disgruntled and a disenchanted inventor, William K.L. Dickson left Edison to form his own company in 1895, called the American Mutoscope Company, the first and the oldest movie company in America. A nickelodeon film producer who had been working with Thomas Edison for a number of years, Dickson left following a disagreement. The company was set up in New York - its sole focus was to produce and distribute moving pictures. Superior alternatives to the Kinetoscope were the company's invention of the Mutoscope and the Biograph projector, released in the summer of 1896. The Biograph soon became the chief US competitor to Edison's Kinetoscope and Vitascope. By the 1897 patent date of the Kinetoscope, both the camera (kinetograph) and the method of viewing films (kinetoscope) were on the decline with the advent of more modern screen projectors for larger audiences.

The 1920s
Foundations of the Prolific Film Industry:

Films really blossomed in the 1920s, expanding upon the foundations of film from earlier years. Most US film production at the start of the decade occurred in or near Hollywood on the West Coast, although some films were still being made in New Jersey and in Astoria on Long Island (Paramount). By the mid-20s, movies were big business with some theatres offering double features. By the end of the decade, there were 20 Hollywood studios, and the demand for films was greater than ever. Most people are unaware that the greatest output of feature films in the US occurred in the 1920s and 1930s (averaging about 800 film releases in a year).

Throughout most of the decade, silent films were the predominant product of the film industry, having evolved from vaudevillian roots. But the films were becoming bigger (or longer), costlier, and more polished. They were being manufactured, assembly-line style, in Hollywood's 'entertainment factories,' in which production was broken down and organized into its various components (writing, costuming, makeup, directing, etc.).

Even the earliest films were organized into genres or types, with instantly-recognizable storylines, settings, costumes, and characters. The major genre emphasis was on swashbucklers, historical extravaganzas, and melodramas, although all kinds of films were being produced throughout the decade. Films varied from sexy melodramas and biblical epics by Cecil B. DeMille, to westerns, horror films, gangster/crime films, war films, the first feature documentary film (Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922)), romances, mysteries, and comedies.

The Major and Minor Film Studios:

1920-1930 was the decade between the end of the Great War and the Depression following the Stock Market Crash. Film theaters and studios were not initially affected in this decade by the Crash in late 1929. The basic patterns and foundations of the film industry were established in the 1920s. The studio system was essentially born with long-term contracts for stars, lavish production values, and increasingly rigid control of directors and stars by the studio's production chief and in-house publicity departments. After World War I and into the early 1920s, America was the leading producer of films in the world. Production was in the hands of the major studios (that really flourished after 1927 for almost 20 years), and the star system was burgeoning.

Originally, in the earliest years of the motion picture industry, production, distribution, and exhibition were separately controlled. When the industry rapidly grew, these functions became integrated under one directorship to maximize profits, something called vertical integration. There were eight major (and minor) studios (see below) that dominated the industry. They were the ones that had most successfully consolidated and integrated all aspects of a film's development. By 1929, the film-making firms that were to rule and monopolize Hollywood for the next half-century were the giants or the majors, sometimes dubbed The Big Five. They produced more than 90 percent of the fiction films in America and distributed their films both nationally and internationally. Each studio somewhat differentiated its products from other studios.

The Big-Five studios had vast studios with elaborate sets for film production. They owned their own film-exhibiting theatres (about 50% of the seating capacity in the US in mostly first-run houses in major cities), as well as production and distribution facilities. They distributed their films to this network of studio-owned, first-run theaters, mostly in urban areas, which charged high ticket prices and drew huge audiences. They required blind or block bookings of films, whereby theatre owners were required to rent a block of films in order for the studio to agree to distribute the one prestige A-level picture that the theatre owner wanted to exhibit. This technique set the terms for a film's release and patterns of exhibition and guaranteed success for the studio's productions.

Three smaller, minor studios were dubbed The Little Three, because each of them lacked one of the three elements required in vertical integration - owning their own theaters.

Other studios or independents also existed in a shabby area in Hollywood dubbed "Poverty Row" where cheap, independent pictures were made with low budgets, stock footage, and second-tier actors. Many of the films of the independents were horror films, westerns, science-fiction, or thrillers.

  • Disney Studios - specializing in animation; Walt and Roy Disney originally opened their first studio in 1923 in Los Angeles and called it Disney Bros. Studio; in the late 30s, they relocated to a 51-acre lot in Burbank, and changed their name to Walt Disney Productions

  • Selznick International Pictures / David O. Selznick - it was formed in 1935 and headed up by David O. Selznick (previously the head of production at RKO)

German Expressionism and Its Influence:

An artistic movement termed Expressionism was established in the prolific European film-making industry following World War I. It flourished in the 1920s, especially in Germany in a 'golden age' of cinema (often termed 'Weimar Cinema'), due to fewer restrictions and less strict production schedules.

Expressionism was marked by stylization, dark shadows and dramatic chiaroscuro lighting, visual story-telling, grotesque characters, distorted or slanted angular shots (of streets, buildings, etc.) and abstract sets. Leading directors utilizing these new unconventional, atmospheric and surrealistic dramatic styles included G.W. Pabst, Paul Leni, F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang.

In the early 1920s, three nightmarish, German expressionistic films were to have a strong and significant influence on the coming development of U.S. films in the 30s-40s - notably the horror film cycle of Universal Studios in the 30s, and the advent of film noir in the 1940s:

Imports From Abroad:

Some of the best artists, directors, and stars (such as Pola Negri, Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre and Greta Garbo) from European film-making circles were imported to Hollywood and assimilated there as emigrants. A number of early directors in Hollywood were hired artists from abroad - including successful German directors F. W. Murnau (invited to Hollywood by William Fox for his first Fox film - the critically-acclaimed Sunrise (1927)), Fritz Lang, Josef von Sternberg and Ernst Lubitsch, Austrian-born director Erich von Stroheim, producer Alexander Korda, director Michael Curtiz,

Later in Germany, Fritz Lang's last major silent film was the futuristic drama Metropolis (1927) - the expensive film enriched cinema in years to come with its innovative techniques, futuristic sets and Expressionistic production design, and allegorical study of the class system.

Legendary Russian auteur director Sergei Eisenstein's classic landmark and visionary film, Battleship Potemkin (1925) was released in the US in 1926, advancing the art of cinematic storytelling with the technique of montage (or film editing). Its most celebrated film scene, with superb editing combining wide, newsreel-like sequences inter-cut with close-ups of harrowing details - to increase tension, was the Odessa Steps episode. It was based upon the incident in 1905 when civilians and rioters were ruthlessly massacred. In the scene, the Czarist soldiers fired on the crowds thronging on the Odessa steps with the indelible, kinetic image of a baby carriage careening down the marble steps leading to the harbor, and the symbolism of a stone lion coming awake.

Comedy Flourished:

It was a great era for light-hearted silent comedy, with the triumvirate of humorists: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, and the early popularity of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle until a scandal destroyed his career in 1921.

The popularity of Charlie Chaplin as the Tramp soared in movies after his initial films with Keystone, Essanay, and Mutual. He co-founded United Artists studios in 1919 with Mary Pickford, D. W. Griffith, and Douglas Fairbanks. His first silent feature film was First National's 6-reel The Kid (1921), in which he portrayed the Tramp in an attempt to save an abandoned and orphaned child. Chaplin also appeared in the classic The Gold Rush (1925), a story with pathos and wild comedy about a Lone Prospector in Alaska.

There was also the inspired comedic work of passively-unsmiling, sardonic Buster Keaton (The Great Stone Face) in the Civil War epic The General (1927) about a runaway train with spectacular sight gags, Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) - his last independent film, and The Cameraman (1928), Keaton's first film for MGM that also marked the beginning of his decline.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy appeared in their first film as a slapstick comedy team - a Hal Roach studio comedy Duck Soup (1927), and then performed in Putting Pants on Philip (1927). The Marx Brothers debuted in their first film together in 1929, The Cocoanuts (1929).

Griffith, Vidor, and Gish:

In 1919, the population of Hollywood was 35,000, but by 1925, had swelled to 130,000. The Hollywood sign was built above the Hollywood Hills in 1923 by a real estate developer. It was not an advertisement to promote the major film studios, but was actually put up to advertise a local real estate development - and was only supposed to be installed for 18 months.

D. W. Griffith continued to be successful (his earlier Birth of a Nation (1915) remained the most popular film until another war saga Gone with the Wind (1939) was filmed at the end of the 30s. One of Griffith's last commercial blockbusters, his classic melodrama of a morally-ostracized young woman, Way Down East (1920), was famous for its daring sequence of Lillian Gish in a blizzard and on a floating ice, rescued at the last minute by Richard Barthelmess.

The largest grossing silent film up to its time was King Vidor's WWI tale - an epic, anti-war film and romance story from MGM The Big Parade (1925). Lillian Gish collaborated with Swedish director Victor Seastrom for two films: Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928), one of the last great silent films.

Westerns and Prototypes of Other Genres:

The western film genre was uniquely American and became popular in the early days of the cinema. The first major Western, a landmark film, was an epic pioneer saga filmed on-location, The Covered Wagon (1923), an authentic-looking 83 minute film advertised as "the biggest thing the screen has had since The Birth of a Nation." Legendary director John Ford directed his first major film, a seminal Western titled The Iron Horse (1924), the sweeping tale of the construction of the first transcontinental railroad.

Other prototypical films were also released in the 1920s. The first science-fiction film (with early examples of stop-motion special effects) about prehistoric dinosaurs in a remote South American jungle The Lost World (1925), adapted from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's tale, premiered during the silent era. Willis O'Brien came of age as a stop-motion animator for this film.

The Birth of the Talkies:

By the late 1920s, the art of silent film had become remarkably mature. Although called silents, they were never really silent but accompanied by gramophone discs, musicians, sound effects specialists, live actors who delivered dialogue, and even full-scale orchestras.

In 1925-26, America technologically revolutionized the entire industry. Warner Bros. launched sound and talking pictures by developing a revolutionary synchronized sound system called Vitaphone. This process allowed sound to be recorded on a phonograph record that was electronically linked and synchronized with the film projector - but it was destined to be faulty due to inherent synchronization problems. Originally, Warner Bros. intended to use the system to record only music and sound effects - not dialogue.

The Jazz Singer: The World's First 'Talkie'

In April, 1927, Warners built the first sound studio to produce a feature film with sound. Another sound feature released on October 6, 1927, and directed by Alan Crosland for Warner Bros. revolutionized motion pictures forever. It was the first feature-length talkie (and first musical), The Jazz Singer (1927), adapted from Samson Raphaelson's successful 1925-26 musical stage play. Here was a revolutionary film that was mostly silent - with only about 350 'spontaneously spoken' words, but with six songs. The film was about an aspiring Jewish cantor's son who wanted to become a jazz singer rather than a cantor in the synagogue.

The other major film studios realized the expensive and challenging ramifications of the sound revolution that was dawning, and that talkie films would be the wave of the future. In May 1928, to avoid an inevitable patent war, they signed an agreement with Western Electric to analyze the competing sound systems within the next year and jointly choose a single, standardized sound system.

Other "Firsts":

The first speaking cartoon with synchronized sound was Walt Disney's Steamboat Willie (1928), debuting the cute character of Mickey Mouse. In 1929, Disney started his Silly Symphony animated cartoon series, first with the memorable The Skeleton Dance (1929).

Influential Organization Formed To Self-Regulate the Industry: The MPPDA

In 1922, the Hollywood studios formed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) - a trade organization to lobby politicians, self-regulate the industry, and to counter negative publicity from a rash of scandals, and other mysterious events. The MPPDA's main purpose was to re-shape the industry's public image, to settle issues or common problems, and to keep the industry afloat amidst growing concern to shut it down.

Producers appointed conservative Will H. Hays to be the head of the MPPDA, to begin efforts to clean up the motion picture industry before the public's anger at declining morality depicted in films hurt the movie business. Hays later set up the Hays Production Code in March, 1930 to monitor acceptable behavior and keep films wholesome by enforcing a standards code, to further control the conduct of actors and regulate film content.

The 1930s

The Golden Age of Hollywood: From 1930 to 1948

The 1930s decade (and most of the 1940s as well) has been nostalgically labeled "The Golden Age of Hollywood" (although most of the output of the decade was black-and-white). The 30s was also the decade of the sound and color revolutions and the advance of the 'talkies', and the further development of film genres (gangster films, musicals, newspaper-reporting films, historical biopics, social-realism films, lighthearted screwball comedies, westerns and horror to name a few). It was the era in which the silent period ended, with many silent film stars not making the transition to sound. By 1933, the economic effects of the Depression were being strongly felt, especially in decreased movie theatre attendance.

The Sound Era's Coming-of-Age:

Most of the early talkies were successful at the box-office, but many of them were of poor quality - dialogue-dominated play adaptations, with stilted acting and an unmoving camera or microphone. Screenwriters were required to place more emphasis on characters in their scripts. The first musicals were only literal transcriptions of Broadway shows taken to the screen. Nonetheless, a tremendous variety of films were produced with a wit, style, skill, and elegance that have never been equaled, before or since.

Mastery of techniques for the sound era was also demonstrated in the works of director Ernst Lubitsch, who advanced the action of his films with the integrated musical numbers. The first filmic musical was Lubitsch's first talkie, the witty and bubbly The Love Parade (1929/30) with Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier.

Also, in the first filming of the Ben Hecht-MacArthur play, Lewis Milestone's The Front Page (1931), a mobile camera was combined with inventive, rapid-fire dialogue and quick-editing. Other 1931 films in the emerging 'newspaper' genre included Mervyn LeRoy's social issues film about the tabloid press entitled Five Star Final (1931).

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