The Rise of Hollywood: 1910-1920
INT. NIGHT. AN OLD THEATER.
Your HOST approaches you in old fashioned attire and beckons you to a dusty seat. Once he’s sure you’re comfortably situated, he moves to the projection room and starts up the ancient machine…
Now we’re in the heyday of the Silent Era! Whoo! Actually, I should specify that we’re now in the heydey of the AMERICAN silent era. France and Italy were killing it already, but American filmmakers lacked the finesse that made the French and Italian films so ahead of their time. One cool film American studios put out before this was The Great Train Robbery (1903) by a dude named Edwin S. Porter (one of Edison’s people). His career in film didn’t last super long, but he pioneered the jump from cinema as real-life spectacle (filming everyday events like crooks getting arrested or firemen working) to something with a story! The Great Train Robbery was pretty cool, (yay, first Western film!) but it would be a while before American cinema would be able to stand up to European films and actually attain the level of actual art.
The means by which that was accomplished is kind of a fun story.
And by fun story, I mean World War I happened and blew up Europe and America kind of came out on top by default…
So, basically Hollywood (which came into being in this decade, but I’ll talk about that later) got a free pass early on and it’s been riding that wave for a while.
But while we’re talking about American films, let’s talk about a dude named D. W. Griffith, who was STOKED at riding the new film trend to its height. Now Griffith was a bit of a huckster, but nobody really cared much about his wild claims that he single-handedly came up with most of the filming and acting techniques that made film so cool because he was a legitimately good director. Cross-cutting was his trademark, jumping back and forth between two scenes to ramp up tension. The Voice of a Child (1911) was only 14 minutes long, but it used 90 separate shots, which is crazy excessive compared to the 30-40 shots in most films of the day.
Another film that was pretty important was The Lonely Villa (1909), which Griffith legit stole from Pathé (remember him from last week?). He used the same story (the original was called Physician of the Castle )and reshot it with new actors and locations. But Griffith’s version feels more like a movie and not just a filmed stage show (which many early films felt like). Cross-cutting and a focus on atmosphere went a long way towards establishing the FEEL of a movie as a separate thing from theater.
So I guess the moral is only steal something if you can do it better?
No, don’t do that. Stealing is wrong.
Borrowing is OK, though.
Anyways, Griffith’s focus on USING the camera as a narrative tool was awesome because it meant that you could tell a story without it having to be explained (which many early films required). This is also the time when intertitles become the norm, either for showing a line of dialogue that can’t be implied or commenting on the action or whatever).
Now, another cool thing that happened in this decade was the shift toward longer films. In Griffith’s early days, the norm was single reel films (ten to fifteen minutes). In Europe, there were some longer films, obviously, but they weren’t taken seriously in America until this sweet Italian dude named Giovanni Pastrone made this super cool two-reel film called La Caduta di Troia (The Fall of Troy) in 1910. It was pretty legit. It even featured color-tinted scenes to suggest environment or atmosphere. So, naturally, people were all, “We want more of that! That’s cool!”
Another cool epic was Quo Vadis? (1913) an adaptation from the famous novel about Christians and Pagans in Rome. It was directed by Enrico Guazzoni, and was so huge and amazing and elaborate that the thought of going back to teeny tiny one-reels made as much sense as trading in horse drawn carriages for thin walking shoes.
So, D. W. Griffith, his ego bruised at the amazingness of the Italians, was all, “Yeah, well I can make a huge cool epic! Just you watch! I invented all of this! So, he made The Birth of a Nation (1915).
I guess I should explain that sigh. OK, so America made some great progress after the Civil War, and the slaves were freed and things still sucked for them, but at least now the African American population had some allies in the government (kind of). But move forward to 1915 and America had become WAY more racist. Like, full on white supremacy and people believing in a Nazi-esque obsession with racial purity. Segregation became more highly enforced around this time. So, since Griffith was happily ensconced as a racist piece of garbage with all his money and position, he realized that his version of history would be important because he believed that desegregation was super dangerous because white women would be in greater danger of being raped.
Hence the sigh.
So, in his version of American history, the Ku Klux Klan are the heroes, fighting to save America from the “barbarian” tendencies of the black people, who were all depicted as stupid and evil stereotypes. It’s so gross that this film is so highly regarded from a filmmaking standpoint because its subject matter is so awful. In one sequence, Klan members are seen rushing to save a white woman from being defiled by “evil black people.” At the time of its release, the brand new NCAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) were justifiably horrified by the film and fought to get it banned, but of course that didn’t happen.
The film made millions of dollars from enthusiastic viewers.
Just remember, folks: Swastikas are banned in Germany, but The Birth of a Nation is just considered “controversial” in America even though it is literally a hate crime in film form.
Allow me another sigh.
OK, so let’s move on to other matters.
This decade is when Hollywood became a thing. And the way that happened is actually pretty funny.
So, films were super popular with regular folks and it wasn’t considered a “high class” thing like going to the opera or symphony. So of course people began to rail on about cinema being an “immoral” thing, corrupting people with scenes of violence and sexuality that were going to make them into terrible people. So, the National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures was created to control the production of films. But it wasn’t able to do much. That honor eventually went to The Motion Picture Patents Company (a trust of several early film magnates including Edison and Kodak) who tried to standardize American film and make American films able to compete with the more awesome European films. They also had the most power to control what was made because they controlled the film materials and distribution.
Well, this eventually became restrictive and folks migrated as far as they could away from the Patents Company because they wanted to make their own films without having to kowtow to the limitations of the Company. One person who fought the influence of this trust was William Fox (yes, that Fox), a theater rental company owner (and German-Jewish immigrant from Hungary), who was powerful enough to oppose them. He sued the company for restraint of trade and toppled the trust’s monopoly on film distribution. Fox himself went on to become an independent filmmaker in 1912, and then formed the Fox Film Corporation in 1915 (the “Twentieth Century” was added in 1935).
Another opponent of the Patents Company was Carl Laemmle, future creator of Universal studios. He was also a German Jewish fellow who started out as a book keeper. He created his own film production company, The Independent Motion Picture Company (IMP), in California. In 1913, IMP became Universal. Like Fox, he chose California because it was far away from the Patents Company (remember, this was before widespread globalization and such a thing was possible). They chose the L.A. area because it was close to the Mexican border. If the Patents Company filed any formal charges against them, the independents could easily slip across the border away from their influence.
The area they chose was informally called Hollywood and the name stuck. It was also around this time that the star system began to take hold, with studios advertising films based on their stars rather than their content or their directors.
Before I wrap this decade up, I wanted to mention that “silent” films weren’t all that silent. The film itself couldn’t record sound, but the screening of a film was accompanied by live music (not just a piano, but sometimes bands or small orchestras), sound effects, narration, and even spoken dialogue by actors to accompany what was said on the screen. They were engaging three-dimensional productions that were a far cry from the bouncy piano we often associate with silent films.
Silent films were pretty rad.
Next up, we’ll be heading into the 20’s, which is where films get MASSIVE.
See you then!
Also, here are my sources! I’m only as smart as the books I hijacked (legally) from the library, after all!
Shipman, David. The Story of Cinema.
Sklar, Robert. A World History of Film