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    American Film

    Invention & Silent Films

    Though they seem like they've been around forever, moving pictures, or 'movies', didn't begin rolling out until the late 1800s, thanks to the efforts of inventors like Muybridge, Edison and the Lumiere brothers. Those early days were fraught with patent wars over the emerging industry, and lacked any presiding association or location. Movie tickets cost a nickel, Hollywood was a simple country village and actors were given $8 a day and no onscreen credit1.

    In 1910, ex-stage actor, now director David Wark Griffith set forth with his actors to film Hollywood’s first movie, 17-minute long In Old California, a Spanish colonial adventure2. His films because great successes as they were among the first to feature real narrative effort as well as editting cuts to imply time passing or simultaneous events; emotive, suspenseful close-ups and lighting, and an acting style called photographic realism which favoured more realistic portrayals of character over the exaggerated gestures of the stage1. Hollywood sprouted up rapidly after that, and film culture blossomed with it, giving rise to celebrity actors, fan magazines, burgeoning studios (Universal and Paramount) and the first feature-length films.

    A still from Buster Keaton's iconic 1920 film, Convict 13

    The next few decades of cinema saw a shift out of the Victorian morals to the looser, shinier outlook of the Roaring Twenties. Though many think of silent films as simplistic, slapstick shorts, this mask of innocence often covered more complex social issues such as the power of authority, the changing role of women, sources of crime and corrupt politicians1. Censorship became an issue during these times too, with many objecting to the risque humour onscreen and the perceived moral degradation of Hollywood, as the industry experienced its first string of scandals (including false rape and manslaughter charges against Fatty Arbuckle, mentor to Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin).

    Sound, The Depression & War

    Sound arrived to the film industry just before the Great Depression set in, championed by Warner Brothers as means for a newcomer studio to get ahead1. Its expansive popularity led to new genres like the musical, gangster films and witty, rather than slapstick, comedy. However, it also led to a homogenizing of the theatre experience, as many of the social-centric working class picture houses could not afford to upgrade to exhibiting films with sound, thus closing in on the programmed, screen-centric model we know today.

    The Great Depression gave rise to the social problem movie. After years of gangsters and street workers, censorship re-asserted itself in the form of the Breen Ratings Office and films became both more creative and subtle in their risque humour (stylization and the screwball comedy have their roots here), and also more optimistic. Especially after the New Deal, protagonists were more likely to be a poor, good-hearted boy or government man who won the girl and saved that day against all odds. It is difficult to say if movies at this time were mere escapism, or a rope of hope for a starved and desperate population to hold onto.

    The use of cinema in maintaining population of morale remained an issue throughout WW2. Though slow on the uptake, Hollywood leapt to produce war movies starring American soldiers after Pearl Harbour. However, fear of censorship was real and many studios created ‘educational’ films alongside their tales of spies, and racially diverse soldiers coming together in victory1.

    Infographic from the documentary Why We Fight, directed by Frank Capra, released during WW2

    Transformation into Modern Cinema

    Post-war Hollywood had troubles all its own: tickets sales slumped upon the return of veterans who prefered to get degrees and start families; television reared its head; many pillar members of the industry retired; foreign countries stepped back from Hollywood in an effort to bolster their own domestic film industries; HUAC frightened many, including Disney, away from producing anything not staunchly anti-communist, and a Supreme Court decision stopped picture studios from owning theatres. There were points of excitement still though - primarily, the beginning of the film noir genre, the growing youth culture encouraging science fiction films, colour, and a different Supreme Court decision that let films be protected by the First Amendment, replacing censorship with our modern rating system1.

    From the 60s onwards, films began to tap more and more into the rising attendance of young people. Though social problem movies (now with a focus on immigration and racial divides) were far from over, rom-coms, slashers, sports/dance movies and blockbusters sprouted up in startling quantities. In 1985, the Department of Justice overturned an anti-trust ruling, allowing entertainment companies and figures like Sony, Time Warner and Rupert Murdoch to buy major studios1. It is interesting also to note the shifting view of the Vietnam veteran as portrayed in films from jungle-crazed madman to a victim of a war no-one won.

    Spielberg's 1975 Jaws is often regarded at the first summer blockbuster

    Modern Hollywood has inherited and evolved many positive and negative traits; often which is which depends on who is asked. More children/family entertainment movies have been produced with the last few decades than ever before, the industry has never been as open to fresh independent talent and diversity both in front and behind the cameras is steadily increasing. Unfortunately, ticket sales are on the decline again as of late. Paired with an average movie production cost of $140 million3 means studios are taking fewer and fewer risks, thus the stream of semi-brainless action flicks made to appeal primarily to teenaged boys. A glance over any new releases list will turn up many films that do fit this mold, however, and we have seen that Hollywood goes through phases; so far, it has proved very hard to kill.



    1. Mintz, S. & McNeil, S. (2013). Hollywood as History. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/historyonline/hollywood_history.cfm. [Last Accessed 3/04/14].

    2. French, P. (2010). How 100 years of Hollywood have charted the history of America. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/feb/28/philip-french-best-hollywood-films. [Last Accessed 3/04/14].

    3. Ralph (). What is the average budget for a Hollywood movie?. [ONLINE] Available at: http://hollywood-movies.yoexpert.com/movies/what-is-the-average-movie-budget-for-a-hollywood-m-1403.html. [Last Accessed 3/04/14].

    Jaws photo credit: Jeremy Thompson

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