44 6.2. American Cinema 1900-1960

Origins and Fort Lee

Main article: Silent film

The first recorded instance of photographs capturing and reproducing motion was a series of photographs of a running horse by Eadweard Muybridge, which he captured in Palo Alto, California, using a set of still cameras placed in a row. Muybridge’s accomplishment led inventors everywhere to attempt to make similar devices that would capture such motion. In the United States, Thomas Edison was among the first to produce such a device, the kinetoscope.

The history of cinema in the United States can trace its roots to the East Coast where, at one time, Fort Lee, New Jersey was the motion picture capital of America. The industry got its start at the end of the 19th century with the construction of Thomas Edison’s “Black Maria“, the first motion picture studio in West Orange, New Jersey. The cities and towns on the Hudson River and Hudson Palisades offered land at costs considerably less than New York City across the river and benefited greatly as a result of the phenomenal growth of the film industry at the turn of the 20th century.

Film-making began attracting both capital and an innovative workforce, and when the Kalem Company began using Fort Lee in 1907 as a location for filming in the area, other filmmakers quickly followed. In 1909, a forerunner of Universal Studios, the Champion Film Company, built the first studio. They were quickly followed by others who either built new studios or who leased facilities in Fort Lee. In the 1910s and 1920s, film companies such as the Independent Moving Pictures Company, Peerless Studios, The Solax Company, Éclair Studios, Goldwyn Picture Corporation, American Méliès (Star Films), World Film Company, Biograph Studios, Fox Film Corporation, Pathé Frères, Metro Pictures Corporation, Victor Film Company, and Selznick Pictures Corporation were all making pictures in Fort Lee. Such notables as Mary Pickford got their start at Biograph Studios.

In New York the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, was built during the silent film era, was used by the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields. The Edison Studios were located in the Bronx. Chelsea, Manhattan was also frequently used. Other major centers of film production also included Chicago, Florida, Texas, California, and Cuba.

The film patents wars of the early 20th century led to the spread of film companies across the U.S. Many worked with equipment for which they did not own the rights, and thus filming in New York could be dangerous; it was close to Edison’s Company headquarters, and to agents the company set out to seize cameras. By 1912, most major film companies had set up production facilities in Southern California near or in Los Angeles because of the location’s proximity to Mexico, as well as the region’s favorable year-round weather.

Rise of Hollywood

“History of Hollywood” redirects here. For the history of the district itself, see Hollywood’s History.

In early 1910, director D. W. Griffith was sent by the Biograph Company to the west coast with his acting troupe, consisting of actors Blanche Sweet, Lillian Gish,Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore and others. They started filming on a vacant lot near Georgia Street in downtown Los Angeles. While there, the company decided to explore new territories, traveling several miles north to Hollywood, a little village that was friendly and enjoyed the movie company filming there. Griffith then filmed the first movie ever shot in Hollywood, In Old California, a Biograph melodrama about California in the 19th century, when it belonged to Mexico. Griffith stayed there for months and made several films before returning to New York. After hearing about Griffith’s success in Hollywood, in 1913, many movie-makers headed west to avoid the fees imposed by Thomas Edison, who owned patents on the movie-making process. Nestor Studios of Bayonne, New Jersey, built the first studio in Hollywood in 1911. Nestor Studios, owned by David and William Horsley, later merged with Universal Studios; and William Horsley’s other company, Hollywood Film Laboratory, is now the oldest existing company in Hollywood, now called the Hollywood Digital Laboratory. California‘s more hospitable and cost-effective climate led to the eventual shift of virtually all filmmaking to the West Coast by the 1930s. At the time, Thomas Edison owned almost all the patents relevant to motion picture production and movie producers on the East Coast acting independently of Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company were often sued or enjoined by Edison and his agents, while movie makers working on the West Coast could work independently of Edison’s control.

In Los Angeles, the studios and Hollywood grew. Before World War I, movies were made in several U.S. cities, but filmmakers gravitated to southern California as the industry developed. They were attracted by the warm climate and reliable sunlight, which made it possible to film movies outdoors year-round, and by the varied scenery that was available. There are several starting points for cinema (particularly American cinema), but it was Griffith’s controversial 1915 epic Birth of a Nation that pioneered the worldwide filming vocabulary that still dominates celluloid to this day.

In the early 20th century, when the medium was new, many Jewish immigrants found employment in the U.S. film industry. They were able to make their mark in a brand-new business: the exhibition of short films in storefront theaters called nickelodeons, after their admission price of a nickel (five cents). Within a few years, ambitious men like Samuel Goldwyn, William Fox, Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor, Louis B. Mayer and the Warner Brothers (Harry, Albert, Samuel, and Jack) had switched to the production side of the business. Soon they were the heads of a new kind of enterprise: the movie studio. (It is worth noting that the U.S. had at least one female director, producer and studio head in these early years: French-born director Alice Guy-Blaché.) They also set the stage for the industry’s internationalism; the industry is often accused of Amero-centric provincialism.

Other moviemakers arrived from Europe after World War I: directors like Ernst Lubitsch, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang and Jean Renoir; and actors like Rudolph Valentino, Marlene Dietrich, Ronald Colman and Charles Boyer. They joined a homegrown supply of actors — lured west from the New York City stage after the introduction of sound films — to form one of the 20th century’s most remarkable growth industries. At motion pictures’ height of popularity in the mid-1940s, the studios were cranking out a total of about 400 movies a year, seen by an audience of 90 million Americans per week.

The Hollywood Sign in the Hollywood Hills has become a landmark representing the Southern California film industry.

Sound also became widely used in Hollywood in the late 1920s. After The Jazz Singer, the first film with synchronized voices, was successfully released as a Vitaphone talkie in 1927, Hollywood film companies would respond to Warner Bros. and begin to use Vitaphone sound — which Warner Bros. owned until 1928 – in future films. By May 1928, Electrical Research Product Incorporated (ERPI), a subsidiary of the Western Electric company, gained a monopoly over film sound distribution.

A side effect of the “talkies” was that many actors who had made their careers in silent films suddenly found themselves out of work, as they often had bad voices or could not remember their lines. Meanwhile, in 1922, US politician Will H. Hays left politics and formed the movie studio boss organization known as the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). The organization became the Motion Picture Association of America after Hays retired in 1945.

In the early times of talkies, American studios found that their sound productions were rejected in foreign-language markets and even among speakers of other dialects of English. The synchronization technology was still too primitive for dubbing. One of the solutions was creating parallel foreign-language versions of Hollywood films. Around 1930, the American companies opened a studio in Joinville-le-Pont, France, where the same sets and wardrobe and even mass scenes were used for different time-sharing crews.

Also, foreign unemployed actors, playwrights and winners of photogenia contests were chosen and brought to Hollywood, where they shot parallel versions of the English-language films. These parallel versions had a lower budget, were shot at night and were directed by second-line American directors who did not speak the foreign language. The Spanish-language crews included people like Luis Buñuel, Enrique Jardiel Poncela, Xavier Cugat and Edgar Neville. The productions were not very successful in their intended markets, due to the following reasons:

  • The lower budgets were apparent.
  • Many theater actors had no previous experience in cinema.
  • The original movies were often second-rate themselves, since studios expected that the top productions would sell by themselves.
  • The mix of foreign accents (Castilian, Mexican, and Chilean for example in the Spanish case) was odd for the audiences.
  • Some markets lacked sound-equipped theaters.

In spite of this, some productions like the Spanish version of Dracula compare favorably with the original. By the mid-1930s, synchronization had advanced enough for dubbing to become usual.

Portrait of Classical Hollywood Cinema (1917–1960)

Main article: Classical Hollywood

Classical Hollywood Cinema is defined as a technical and narrative style characteristic of film from 1917 to 1960. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, which lasted from the end of the silent era in American cinema in the late 1920s to the early 1960s, thousands of movies were issued from the Hollywood studios. The start of the Golden Age was arguably when The Jazz Singer was released in 1927, ending the silent era and increasing box-office profits for films as sound was introduced to feature films.

Most Hollywood pictures adhered closely to a formula – Western, slapstick comedy,musical, animated cartoon, biographical film (biographical picture) – and the same creative teams often worked on films made by the same studio. For example, Cedric Gibbons and Herbert Stothart always worked on MGM films, Alfred Newman worked at 20th Century Fox for twenty years, Cecil B. De Mille‘s films were almost all made at Paramount, and director Henry King‘s films were mostly made for 20th Century Fox.

At the same time, one could usually guess which studio made which film, largely because of the actors who appeared in it; MGM, for example, claimed it had contracted “more stars than there are in heaven.” Each studio had its own style and characteristic touches which made it possible to know this – a trait that does not exist today.

For example, To Have and Have Not (1944) is famous not only for the first pairing of actors Humphrey Bogart (1899–1957) and Lauren Bacall (1924–2014), but also for being written by two future winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature: Ernest Hemingway(1899–1961), the author of the novel on which the script was nominally based, and William Faulkner (1897–1962), who worked on the screen adaptation.

After The Jazz Singer was released in 1927, Warner Bros. gained huge success and were able to acquire their own string of movie theaters, after purchasing Stanley Theaters and First National Productions in 1928. MGM had also owned the Loews string of theaters since forming in 1924, and the Fox Film Corporation owned the Fox Theatre strings as well. Also, RKO (a 1928 merger between Keith-Orpheum Theaters and the Radio Corporation of America) responded to the Western Electric/ERPI monopoly over sound in films, and developed their own method, known as Photophone, to put sound in films.

Paramount, which already acquired Balaban and Katz in 1926, would answer to the success of Warner Bros. and RKO, and buy a number of theaters in the late 1920s as well, and would hold a monopoly on theaters in Detroit, Michigan. By the 1930s, almost all of the first-run metropolitan theaters in the United States were owned by the Big Five studios – MGM, Paramount Pictures, RKO, Warner Bros., and 20th Century Fox.

The studio system

Movie-making was still a business however, and motion picture companies made money by operating under the studio system. The major studios kept thousands of people on salary — actors, producers, directors, writers, stunt men, craftspersons, and technicians. They owned or leased Movie Ranches in rural Southern California for location shooting of westerns and other large-scale genre films. And they owned hundreds of theaters in cities and towns across the nation, theaters that showed their films and that were always in need of fresh material.

In 1930, MPPDA President Will Hays created the Hays (Production) Code, which followed censorship guidelines and went into effect after government threats of censorship expanded by 1930. However, the code was never enforced until 1934, after the Catholic watchdog organization The Legion of Decency – appalled by some of the provocative films and lurid advertising of the era later classified Pre-Code Hollywood– threatened a boycott of motion pictures if it didn’t go into effect. Those films that didn’t obtain a seal of approval from the Production Code Administration had to pay a $25,000 fine and could not profit in the theaters, as the MPPDA controlled every theater in the country through the Big Five studios.

Throughout the 1930s, as well as most of the golden age, MGM dominated the film screen and had the top stars in Hollywood, and was also credited for creating the Hollywood star system altogether. Some MGM stars included “King of Hollywood” Clark Gable, Lionel Barrymore, Jean Harlow, Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo,Joan Crawford, Jeanette MacDonald and husband Gene Raymond, Spencer Tracy, Judy Garland, and Gene Kelly. But MGM did not stand alone. Another great achievement of US cinema during this era came through Walt Disney‘s animation company. In 1937, Disney created the most successful film of its time, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This distinction was promptly topped in 1939 when Selznick International created what is still, when adjusted for inflation, the most successful film of all time, Gone with the Wind.

Many film historians have remarked upon the many great works of cinema that emerged from this period of highly regimented film-making. One reason this was possible is that, with so many movies being made, not every one had to be a big hit. A studio could gamble on a medium-budget feature with a good script and relatively unknown actors: Citizen Kane, directed by Orson Welles (1915–1985) and often regarded as the greatest film of all time, fits that description. In other cases, strong-willed directors like Howard Hawks (1896–1977), Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) and Frank Capra (1897–1991) battled the studios in order to achieve their artistic visions.

The apogee of the studio system may have been the year 1939, which saw the release of such classics as The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Wuthering Heights, Only Angels Have Wings, Ninotchka and Midnight. Among the other films from the Golden Age period that are now considered to be classics: Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, It Happened One Night, the original King Kong, Mutiny on the Bounty, Top Hat, City Lights, Red River,The Lady from Shanghai, Rear Window, On the Waterfront, Rebel Without a Cause, Some Like It Hot and The Manchurian Candidate.

Decline of the studio system (late 1940s)

Percentage of the US population that went to the cinema on average, weekly, 1930–2000

The studio system and the Golden Age of Hollywood succumbed to two forces that developed in the late 1940s:

In 1938, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released during a run of lackluster films from the major studios, and quickly became the highest-grossing film released to that point. Embarrassingly for the studios, it was an independently produced animated film that did not feature any studio-employed stars. This stoked already widespread frustration at the practice of block-booking, in which studios would only sell an entire year’s schedule of films at a time to theaters and use the lock-in to cover for releases of mediocre quality.

Assistant Attorney General Thurman Arnold—a noted “trust buster” of the Roosevelt administration — took this opportunity to initiate proceedings against the eight largest Hollywood studios in July 1938 for violations of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The federal suit resulted in five of the eight studios (the “Big Five”: Warner Bros., MGM, Fox, RKO and Paramount) reaching a compromise with Arnold in October 1940 and signing a consent decree agreeing to, within three years:

  • Eliminate the block-booking of short film subjects, in an arrangement known as “one shot”, or “full force” block-booking.
  • Eliminate the block-booking of any more than five features in their theaters.
  • No longer engage in blind buying (or the buying of films by theater districts without seeing films beforehand) and instead have trade-showing, in which all 31 theater districts in the US would see films every two weeks before showing movies in theaters.
  • Set up an administration board in each theater district to enforce these requirements.

The “Little Three” (Universal Studios, United Artists, and Columbia Pictures), who did not own any theaters, refused to participate in the consent decree. A number of independent film producers were also unhappy with the compromise and formed a union known as the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers and sued Paramount for the monopoly they still had over the Detroit Theaters — as Paramount was also gaining dominance through actors like Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, Veronica Lake, Betty Hutton, crooner Bing Crosby, Alan Ladd, and longtime actor for studio Gary Cooper too- by 1942. The Big Five studios didn’t meet the requirements of the Consent of Decree during WWII, without major consequence, but after the war ended they joined Paramount as defendants in the Hollywood anti-trust case, as did the Little Three studios.

The Supreme Court eventually ruled that the major studios ownership of theaters and film distribution was a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. As a result, the studios began to release actors and technical staff from their contracts with the studios. This changed the paradigm of film making by the major Hollywood studios, as each could have an entirely different cast and creative team.

The decision resulted in the gradual loss of the characteristics which made Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount Pictures, Universal Studios, Columbia Pictures, RKO Pictures, and 20th Century Fox films immediately identifiable. Certain movie people, such as Cecil B. DeMille, either remained contract artists till the end of their careers or used the same creative teams on their films, so that a DeMille film still looked like one whether it was made in 1932 or 1956.

Impact: Fewer films, larger individual budgets

Also, the number of movies being produced annually dropped as the average budget soared, marking a major change in strategy for the industry. Studios now aimed to produce entertainment that could not be offered by television: spectacular, larger-than-life productions. Studios also began to sell portions of their theatrical film libraries to other companies to sell to television. By 1949, all major film studios had given up ownership of their theaters.

Television was also instrumental in the decline of Hollywood’s Golden Age as it broke the movie industry’s hegemony in American entertainment. Despite this, the film industry was also able to gain some leverage for future films as longtime government censorship faded in the 1950s. After the Paramount anti-trust case ended, Hollywood movie studios no longer owned theaters, and thus made it so foreign films could be released in American theaters without censorship.

This was complemented with the 1952 Miracle Decision in the Joseph Burstyn Inc. v Wilson case, in which the Supreme Court of the United States reversed its earlier position, from 1915’s Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio case, and stated that motion pictures were a form of art and were entitled to the protection of the First amendment; US laws could no longer censor films. By 1968, with film studios becoming increasingly defiant to its censorship function, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) had replaced the Hays Code–which was now greatly violated after the government threat of censorship that justified the origin of the code had ended—with the film rating system.

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