Cinema of the United States

The cinema of the United States has had a profound effect on cinema across the world since the early 20th century. Its history is sometimes separated into four main periods: the silent film era, classical Hollywood cinema, New Hollywood, and the contemporary period. Since the 1920s, the American film industry has grossed more money every year than that of any other country.

In 1878, Eadweard Muybridge demonstrated the power of photography to capture motion. In 1894, the world's first commercial motion picture exhibition was given in New York City, using Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope. The United States was in the forefront of sound film's development in the following decades. Since the early twentieth century, the U.S. film industry has largely been based in and around Hollywood, Los Angeles, California. Picture City, FL was also a planned site for a movie picture production center in the 1920s, but due to the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane, the idea collapsed and Picture City was returned back to the original name of Hobe Sound. Director D. W. Griffith was central to the development of film grammar and Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941) is frequently cited in critics' polls as the greatest film of all time.[1] American screen actors like John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe have become iconic figures, while producer/entrepreneur Walt Disney was a leader in both animated film and movie merchandising. The major film studios of Hollywood are the primary source of the most commercially successful movies in the world, such as Gone with the Wind (1939), Star Wars (1977), Titanic (1997), and Avatar (2009). Today, American film studios collectively generate several hundred movies every year, making the United States the third most prolific producer of films in the world — the first being India and the second being Nigeria.[2]

Origins

The second recorded instance of photographs capturing and reproducing motion was Eadweard Muybridge's series of photographs of a running horse, 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 Alva Edison was among the first to produce such a device, the kinetoscope, whose heavy-handed patent enforcement caused early filmmakers to look for alternatives.

In the earliest days of the American film industry, New York was the epicenter of film-making. The Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, built during the silent film era, was used by the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields. Chelsea, Manhattan was also frequently used. Mary Pickford, an Academy Award winning actress, shot some of her early films in this area. Other major centers of film production included Chicago, Florida, 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 because of the location's proximity to Mexico, though the region's optimal year-round weather is generally cited as the primary reason.[3]

Rise of Hollywood

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 1800s, when it belonged to Mexico. Biograph stayed there for months and made several films before returning to New York. After hearing about Biograph'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. In Los Angeles, California, 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 mild 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 1900s, 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 US had at least one female director, producer and studio head in these early years, 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 http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-52148/history-of-the-motion-picture#508075.hook.

Sound also became widely used in Hollywood in the late 1920s http://history.sandiego.edu/gen/recording/motionpicture1.html. 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 http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-52148/history-of-the-motion-picture#508075.hook. 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 Pictures Distributors Association of America (MPDAA) http://lcweb2.loc.gov:8081/ammem/amrlhtml/dthays.html. 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.

Golden Age of Hollywood

During the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, which lasted from the end of the silent era in American cinema in the late 1920s to the late 1950s, 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, biopic (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. Yet each movie was a little different, and, unlike the craftsmen who made cars, many of the people who made movies were artists. 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–) 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 was 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[4]) responded to the Western Electric/ERPI monopoly over sound in films , and developed their own method, known as Photophone, to put sound in films http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-52148/history-of-the-motion-picture#508075.hook. Paramount, who 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.[5] By the 1930s, all of America's theaters were owned by the Big Five studios - MGM, Paramount Pictures, RKO, Warner Bros., and 20th Century Fox. http://www.filmsite.org/20sintro.html.

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, MPDAA President Will Hays created the Hays (Production) Code, which followed censorship guidelines and went into effect after government threats of censorship expanded by 1930 http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history.do?action=tdihArticleCategory&id=3125. 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 http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2003/29/pre_code_cinema/. Those films that didn't obtain a seal of approval from the Production Code Administration had to pay a $25,000.00 fine and could not profit in the theaters, as the MPDDA owned every theater in the country through the Big Five studios http://web.archive.org/web/20091026204028/http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Lot/4344/stage2.html.

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 http://mgm.mediaroom.com/index.php?s=40&cat=6. 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 http://mgm.mediaroom.com/index.php?s=40&cat=6. 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 http://disney.go.com/vault/archives/movies/snow/snow.html. 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 http://www.boxofficereport.com/atbon/adjusted.shtml.

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, City Lights, Red River and Top Hat.