Historical Changes in Film Art

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CHAPTER 12 Historical Changes in Film Art: Conventions and Choices, Tradition and Trends

hroughout this book, we’ve urged you to think like a filmmaker. We believe that it’s a good way to enhance your appreciation of how films work. We’ve tried to aid that appreciation by setting out the range of options filmmakers face when they shape their film’s overall form (Chapters 1–3), when they employ techniques of the medium (Chapters 4–8), and when they position the film within genres or

other categories (Chapters 9–10). The book has surveyed a very big menu of artistic choices. As we’ve also suggested, filmmakers are obliged to make creative decisions at every stage of the process. But actually all the options

we’ve scanned aren’t available to any one filmmaker at any particular period. In different times and places, filmmakers have had narrower menus of options.

We can understand the art of film better if we’re aware of those options, of the constraints and opportunities available to earlier film creators. Just as important, when we understand the choices the filmmakers could make, we can have richer experiences of the films. For instance, it wouldn’t be reasonable to say that because Buster Keaton couldn’t make Our Hospitality with sound we couldn’t enjoy the movie. Once we notice how Keaton uses deep space, theme-and-variations gags, and other resources of visual storytelling, the film offers us a delightful experience (pp. 154–158). Similarly, some people won’t watch black-and-white films, but if we understand that most filmmakers before the 1960s could not afford the costs of color filming, we’re in a good position to notice how this constraint could be exploited to make lighting, set design, and costumes vivid in black and white.

In this chapter we consider some options and opportunities available to filmmakers at certain points in history. Sometimes the options seem limited, but surprisingly, they can also nourish creative moviemaking. If you willingly cut down your choices, you can concentrate on working within them. For example, if you’ve embraced intensified continuity (pp. 246–250) as your editing paradigm, you will still face all manner of choices, but they’re more focused and specific.

At the same time, limits can be challenges, provoking filmmakers to seek alternatives. Again and again we’ll see that filmmakers who found the classical Hollywood model too confining have sought other, equally effective ways to make

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453 movies. But even when filmmakers refuse tradition, that tradition has shaped their creative thinking. And often rebellion against one tradition will draw upon other traditions. We’ll see, for instance, that young Soviet filmmakers, refusing the meticulously staged melodramas of the older generation, drew inspiration from the emerging tradition of Hollywood. Studying film history reminds us that, one way or another, filmmakers are always indebted to other filmmakers—their contemporaries, or those who have come before.


Film Form and Style across History Why do older movies feel different from those we see today? It’s not that their makers were less smart or sophisticated than we are. We can appreciate films from earlier times better if we think in terms we’ve discussed throughout this book.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to understanding older films is the fact that they operate according to different conventions. Across most of film history, for instance, censorship blocked filmmakers from directly presenting intimate sexual situations. That forced screenwriters and directors to hint that two people were erotically attracted or were having an affair. By contrast, many of today’s movies present nudity, intercourse, and other sexual displays. That convention of our time doesn’t make our films better, just different—although some historians will argue when filmmakers were forced to be indirect, their films became more slyly unpredictable than ours are (12.1).

Because audiences of earlier times knew the conventions, they came in with different expectations than we do today. For instance, an audience for silent films expected the acting to be visually expressive. That doesn’t mean that silent-film acting was broad or overdone; in fact, we find plenty of subtle performances in the period. (See p. 134.) It’s just that viewers of the 1910s and 1920s expected actors to use their whole bodies to communicate emotion pictorially. Our actors are more likely to rely on their facial expressions and line readings.

Most basically, filmmakers of earlier eras had different formal and stylistic options to choose from. Since we’re used to thinking that we enjoy a wider range of creative choices than they did, their films might seem limited.

There were certainly technological constraints. Before 1930 or so, most directors couldn’t make a film with sound, and before 1960 or thereabouts, most producers couldn’t afford to make a film in color. Zoom lenses weren’t practical until the 1950s, and digital effects had to wait for faster chips, bigger storage space, and more sophisticated programs.

Less obviously, some storytelling options just weren’t thinkable at certain points. Today we routinely see complicated flashback plots in such ordinary movies as The Hangover, but we seldom see them in films of the silent era. The discontinuity editing Eisenstein exploited in October (1927) wasn’t on the menu five years earlier. Nobody thought of it. Likewise, filmmakers could have employed slow motion in fiction features in the 1930s and 1940s, but it was almost unknown. Today it’s common.

Do all these factors mean that formal and stylistic options have expanded? Does today’s filmmaker have a greater range of choice than in earlier times? To some extent, yes; innovations have accumulated, providing the filmmaker a big toolkit. But some older options aren’t live ones for every filmmaker.

12.1 Images say what dialogue can’t. Shadows prophesy the outcome of a flirtation in Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932).

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12.2–12.3 Widescreen staging. The anamorphic 2.55 ratio widescreen of early CinemaScope (p. 182) encouraged filmmakers to use broad, distant staging in long takes, as in The Robe (1953; 12.2). Director Henry Koster uses several characters’ eyelines to call attention to Marcellus, the figure on the near left. This stylistic choice is rare in contemporary Hollywood. Yet some recent filmmakers in other countries have found distant staging a fruitful technique. In Dust in the Wind (1986; 12.3) Hou Hsiao-hsien also uses characters’ eyelines to direct our attention to the significant action, the father on his deathbed. In addition, Hou’s set blocks off the right portion of the frame and minimizes other characters through shadow and aspects of setting. A chair conceals the face of the kneeling daughter, so that her face won’t distract us from the father.

For example, directors working with the CinemaScope widescreen process in the early 1950s felt obliged to stage the action fairly far from the camera and to spread the action out across the frame (12.2). Fairly soon, improvements in lenses and other equipment enabled them to use more medium shots and close-ups. By the mid-1960s, broad and distant staging became rare, and today a Hollywood filmmaker who decided to revisit that approach would risk looking old-fashioned. The contemporary approach is to frame actors tightly, even in widescreen formats (1.52, 6.119–6.134). Yet this distant, lateral staging was by no means a dead end creatively. Directors in other countries have refined techniques that are similar to what we see in early ’Scope films (12.3).

Or go back to the example of a telephone conversation (p. 263). Suppose you want to show both Jim and Amanda as they talk. Today most directors would simply cut from one to the other. In the 1910s, however, there was another option: a split screen (12.4). It was striking but a bit complicated to shoot, so it was eventually dropped in favor of cutting. But during the 1960s it was occasionally revived for

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12.4–12.6 Techniques revived. Split-screen presentation of phone conversations was not unusual in the period of Suspense (1913; 12.4). For decades afterward it was almost never used, but it was revived in the 1960s occasionally for suspense or comedy, as in the musical Bye Bye Birdie (1963; 12.5). It was also a handy way to fill up the wide screen. The 2003 retro comedy Down with Love refers back to the 1960s convention (12.6).

comedies (12.5). Today a director might call on it for comic effect, or to hark back to its 1960s usage (12.6).

The art historian Heinrich Wölfflin summed up this situation in a famous line: “Not everything is possible at all times.” At any moment in film history, there are forces—technology, budget, political censorship, prevailing tastes, clashes within the production team—working to limit artistic choices. The limits on today’s filmmakers aren’t as visible to us, but they are there. In watching an older film, we should try to understand the options that filmmakers had to work with at the time. That will sensitize us not only to the range of possibilities but also to the ways in which some filmmakers, in a quest to try something different, came up with innovations that later creators could use.

Traditions and Movements in Film History We’ve presented artistic decision making in film as a matter of individual choice. That’s accurate, up to a point. But most filmmakers work in groups, as we saw back in Chapter 1. Members of the group contribute to decisions about the project. Moreover, the team members have learned their craft from other filmmakers. The community that shapes a filmmaker’s choice includes many who have gone before, who have laid down best practices and solid solutions to recurring problems.

In other words, filmmakers belong to traditions. They pass ideas about moviemaking from peer to peer, from expert to novice. And many of those ideas are suggestions about what choices you should make. Screenwriters learn to write using three-act structure; cinematographers learn favored ways of lighting faces;

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Some modern filmmakers have tried to imitate older films’ look and feel. Does it work? On The Good German, see “Not back to the future, but ahead to the past.” On Casino Royale, see “Can they make ’em like they used to? Continued.”

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“What’s left to discover today? Plenty” considers the ways that our knowledge of filmmaking traditions changes as forgotten films come to light.

actors learn what counts as a good performance. A tradition, in effect, favors certain creative choices over others. One of the best examples of a filmmaking tradition is American studio cinema, so at various points in the chapter we’ll examine how that

tradition emerged and changed. In many respects, the Hollywood tradition influenced filmmaking around the world. A more limited tradition is that of Hong Kong action cinema of the 1980s and 1990s. That too, as we’ll see, proved quite influential.

Traditions nudge a filmmaker toward certain choices and away from others. But sometimes filmmakers want to explore those others. In instances like these, we get the shorter-lived trends we call movements. In a movement, filmmakers typically operate within a common production structure and share certain assumptions about filmmaking. Above all, they favor a common approach to form, style, and theme that sets them somewhat apart from the usual practices. They innovate. Movements, then, are untraditional in some ways. They press filmmakers to make unusual formal and stylistic choices.

Sometimes the filmmakers in a movement know one another well and respond to one another’s projects. This situation occurred with the Soviet Montage filmmakers of the 1920s, the Surrealists of the period, and the French New Wave of the 1950s–1960s. Here we find young people cooperating and competing because they wanted to explore some new ideas about what cinema could be. To clarify those ideas, they often wrote books and articles. Other movements are more diffuse, with unconnected filmmakers gravitating toward a common approach to form and style.

Most movements don’t last more than a few years, but they can exercise a far-reaching effect. Some movements of the silent and early sound era have affected filmmaking for decades afterward. As we’ll see, many movements have been selectively absorbed into broader traditions, particularly Hollywood’s. The films of our time reenact creative decisions made by filmmakers in the past.

You should already have a sense of this process, because our examples from both recent films and older ones show that today’s films often accept or rework choices that were made in much earlier work. In several sections that follow, we mention how some contemporary filmmakers have found inspiration in the choices favored by film movements.

Because we’re exploring historical contexts, we’ll go beyond noting stylistic and formal qualities. For each tradition and movement, we’ll point to relevant factors that affect the filmmakers’ options—factors such as the state of the industry, artistic theories held by the filmmakers themselves, technological features, and cultural and economic forces. These factors help explain how a particular trend began and developed. This material will also provide a context for particular films we’ve already discussed. For example, we introduced you to Georges Méliès in Chapter 4 and Louis Lumière in Chapter 5. In the previous chapter, we analyzed a Soviet Montage film (Man with a Movie Camera) and a French New Wave one (Breathless). Now you have a chance to see this work in a broader context.

In the sections that follow, we haven’t tried to characterize other important traditions, such as that of Japanese cinema, or other movements, such as Brazil’s Cinema Nôvo of the early 1960s. Readers interested in knowing more can consult our Film History: An Introduction. Here we simply trace how certain possibilities of film form and style were explored in a few typical and well-known historical traditions and movements. The first section sets the stage for them by examining the origins of cinema itself.

Early Cinema (1893–1903) In Chapter 1, we saw that film is a technology-driven medium. To create the illusion of movement, still pictures must appear in rapid succession. To prepare those images and display them at the right rate, certain technologies are necessary.

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Photography and Cinema Most basically, there must be a way of recording a long series of images on some sort of support. In principle, one could simply draw a string of images on a strip of paper or a disc. But photography offered the cheapest and most efficient way to generate the thousands of images needed for a reasonably lengthy show. Thus the invention of photography in 1826 launched a series of discoveries that made cinema possible.

Early photographs required lengthy exposures (initially hours, later minutes) for a single image; this made photographed motion pictures, which need 12 or more frames per second, impossible. Faster exposures, of about 1/25th of a second, became possible by the 1870s, but only on glass plates. Glass plates weren’t usable for motion pictures since there was no practical way to move them through a camera or projector. In 1878, Eadweard Muybridge, an American photographer, did make a series of photographs of a running horse by using a series of cameras with glass plate film and fast exposure, but he was primarily interested in freezing phases of an action, not re-creating the movement by projecting the images in succession.

In 1882, another scientist interested in analyzing animal movement, the Frenchman Étienne-Jules Marey, invented a camera that recorded 12 separate images on the edge of a revolving disc of film on glass. This constituted a step toward the motion picture camera. In 1888, Marey built the first camera to use a strip of flexible film, this time on paper. Again, the purpose was only to break down movement into a series of stills, and the movements photographed lasted a second or less. In 1889, George Eastman introduced a crude flexible film base, celluloid. After this base was improved and camera mechanisms had been devised to draw the film past the lens and expose it to light, the creation of long strips of frames became possible.

Projectors had existed for many years and had been used to show slides and shadow entertainments. These magic lanterns were modified by the addition of shutters, cranks, and other devices to become early motion picture projectors.

One final device was needed if films were to be projected. Since the film stops briefly while the light shines through each individual frame, there had to be a mechanism to create an intermittent motion of the film. Marey used a Maltese cross gear on his 1888 camera, and this became a standard part of early cameras and projectors.

A flexible and transparent film base, a fast exposure time, a mechanism to pull the film through the camera, an intermittent device to stop the film, and a shutter to block off light—all these innovations had been achieved by the early 1890s. After several years, inventors working independently in many countries had developed film cameras and projection devices. The two most important firms were the Edison Manufacturing Company in America, owned by inventor Thomas A. Edison, and Lumière Frères in France, the family firm of Louis and Auguste Lumière.

Edison vs. Lumière By 1893, Thomas A. Edison’s assistant, W. K. L. Dickson, had developed a camera that made short 35mm films. Interested in exploiting these films as a novelty, Edison hoped to combine them with his phonograph to show sound movies. He had Dickson develop a peep-show machine, the Kinetoscope (12.7), to display these films to individual viewers.

But Edison believed that movies were a passing fad, so he didn’t develop a system to project films onto a screen. This task was left to the Lumière brothers. They invented their own camera independently; it exposed a short roll of 35mm film and also served as a projector (12.8). On December 28, 1895, the Lumière brothers presented motion pictures on a screen, at the Grand Café in Paris.

There had been several earlier public screenings, but the Lumières found the most practical method for projecting films, and their format largely determined the direction in which the new medium developed. Edison was obliged to follow their example, abandoning the Kinetoscope and creating his own production company to make films for public projection.

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Early cinema was influenced by other media of its day, including narrative painting. We suggest some similarities in “Professor sees more parallels between things, other things.”

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12.7–12.9 Alternative approaches to early filmmaking. Edison’s Kinetoscope threaded film in a continuous loop around a series of bobbins (12.7). The film was watched by one viewer at a time. The Lumière brothers aimed for public screenings, so they put a magic-lantern projector behind their camera so the images could be displayed to several viewers (12.8). In Edison’s rotating film studio, the Black Maria, a hinged central portion of the roof swung open for filming (12.9).

In conjuring you work under the attentive gaze of the public, who never fail to spot a suspicious movement. You are alone, their eyes never leave you. Failure would not be tolerated. . . . While in the cinema . . . you can do your confecting quietly, far from those profane gazes, and you can do things thirty-six times if necessary until they are right. This allows you to travel further in the domain of the marvellous.” —George Méliès, magician and filmmaker

Early Form and Style The first films typically consisted of a single shot framing an action, usually at long-shot distance. In the first film studio, Edison’s Black Maria (12.9), vaudeville entertainers, famous sports figures, and celebrities such as Annie Oakley performed for the camera. A hinged portion of the roof opened to admit a patch of sunlight, and the entire building turned on a circular rail (visible in 12.9) to follow the sun’s motion. The Lumières, however, took their cameras out to parks, gardens, beaches, and other public places to film everyday activities or news events, as in their Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (5.64).

Until about 1903, most films showed scenic places or noteworthy events, so these can be considered early documentaries. The Lumières sent camera operators all over the world to photograph important events and exotic locales.

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459 Staged narratives, brief skits or gags, were also popular. Edison’s staff played out comic scenes, such as one copyrighted 1893 in which a drunken man struggles briefly with a policeman. The Lumières made a popular short, L’Arroseur arrosé (The Waterer Watered, 1895), also a comic scene, in which a boy tricks a gardener into squirting himself with a hose (4.8).

The earliest films may look crude to us today. This is partly because we seldom see good copies. In properly preserved prints, shown at the right projection speed, the films have a photographic richness that has seldom been equaled. But because they were so short—before 1905, running only a few minutes—the first films couldn’t develop complex stories or rhetorical arguments. Relying on unusual events, cute animals, and other brief attractions, they look forward to the amateur videos that show up on YouTube today (12.10). Early films have inspired avant-garde filmmakers to explore movement and abstract photographic qualities (12.11).



12.10–12.11 Early film and later interests. A Lumière film from 1900, La petite fille et son chat (The Little Girl and Her Cat), centers on a perennial attraction of today’s online videos (12.10). In Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son (1969), avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs uses an optical printer to dissect and stylize a 1905 film of the same name, creating what Jacobs calls “a dream within a dream” (12.11).

Méliès, Magic, and Fictional Narrative In 1896, Georges Méliès built his own camera, based on a projector he had bought. His first films resembled the Lumières’ shots of everyday activities. But as we have seen (pp. 113–114), Méliès was a stage magician, and he discovered the possibilities of special effects. In 1897, Méliès built his own studio, filled with flats and trapdoors. These allowed him to control his effects very precisely (12.12).

Méliès built elaborate settings to create fantasy worlds within which his magical transformations could occur. As we’ve already seen, this care in manipulating setting, lighting, costume, and staging made Méliès the first master of mise-en-scene (4.3–4.6). He was also an important innovator in editing. For one thing, he found that he could create magical transformations by stopping the camera, adjusting elements in the scene, and then resuming filming. Inspecting the original material, historians have found that Méliès trimmed a few frames at each special effect. Stopping and restarting the camera created light bursts on the first few frames, and these had to be snipped out.

Méliès progressed to longer narratives, with each scene played out in a single camera position, and he used cuts to link them. The most famous of these was A Trip to the Moon (1902). Méliès’s Star Film company was associated with magic tricks and fairy stories, but it turned out an astonishing variety of films, including scenes from the Bible and a series based on the Dreyfus case. The dazzling special effects, the impressive settings and costumes, and the expansive fantasies and historical narratives made Méliès’s films popular and widely imitated. They still exercise a powerful hold, having been painstakingly collected and restored, released on DVD, and given a central role in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011), which pays homage to Méliès by restaging some of the films.

The work of Lumière, Méliès, and other early filmmakers gained worldwide fame because films circulated freely from country to country. The French phonograph company Pathé Frères moved into filmmaking in 1901, establishing production and distribution branches in many countries. Until 1914, Pathé was the largest film concern in the world. In England, several entrepreneurs managed to invent or obtain equipment and made scenics, narratives, and trick films from 1895 into the early years of the 20th century. Members of the Brighton School (primarily G. Albert Smith and James Williamson), as well as others such as Cecil Hepworth, shot their films on location or in simple open-air studios (as in 12.13). Their innovative films circulated abroad and influenced other filmmakers. Pioneers in other countries invented or bought equipment and were soon making their own films of everyday scenes or fantasy transformations.

As films became longer, narrative form became the most prominent type of filmmaking in the commercial industry, and the popularity of cinema continued to grow. French, Italian, and American films ruled world markets. Later, World War I was to restrict the international flow of films, and Hollywood emerged as

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In the first years, filmmaking sprang up in small towns all across America. The films are still being rediscovered, as we found in “You can go home again, and maybe find an old movie.”

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12.12–12.13 Early studio shooting. Unlike Edison’s Black Maria, Méliès’s studio was glass-sided, like a greenhouse, and admitted sunlight from many directions (12.12). G. Albert Smith’s Santa Claus (1898) was filmed in the open air, with a false backdrop (12.13). It displays typical traits of the first fictional narratives: distant camera position, flat lighting, and a rear wall placed perpendicular to the camera lens.

the dominant industrial force in film production. In some countries, filmmakers responded by creating movements that differed sharply from the look and feel of the American product.

The Development of the Classical Hollywood Cinema (1908–1927) Edison, determined to make money from his invention, brought patent-violation suits against competing moviemaking firms. When he failed to stamp out his rivals, he allied with several of them in 1908 to establish the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC). Edison and the American Mutoscope and Biograph company were the only stockholders and patent owners. They licensed other members to make, distribute, and exhibit films, and they standardized film lengths at one reel (running about 15 minutes). But this move didn’t eliminate the other production companies, who sprang up quickly. In 1912 the U.S. government sued the MPPC, and three years later it was declared a monopoly and forced to break up.

Hollywood and the Studio System of Production At the same period, both MPPC companies and independents began to relocate from New York and Chicago to California. Los Angeles offered a climate that permitted shooting year-round, and a great variety of locations—mountains, ocean, desert, city. Soon Hollywood and other small towns on the outskirts of Los Angeles hosted film production.

Through the 1910s and 1920s, the smaller firms merged to form the large film corporations that still exist today. Famous Players joined with Jesse L. Lasky and then formed a distribution wing, Paramount. By the late 1920s, most of the major companies—MGM (a merger of Metro, Goldwyn, and Mayer), Fox Film Corporation (merged with 20th Century in 1935), Warner Bros., Universal, and Paramount—had been created. Though in competition with one another, the companies cooperated to some degree, because they realized that the demand for films was so great that no one firm could satisfy the market.

By the early 1920s, the American industry had created a structure that would continue for decades. A few large firms with individual artists under contract were supplemented by small independent producing companies. Within a company,

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For an international survey of the important year 1913, see “Lucky ’13,” and for a look at alternatives to continuity editing, see “Looking different today?” We examine the work of two early French masters in “Capellani trionfante” and “How to watch Fantômas, and why.”

; The cinema knows so well how to tell a story that perhaps there is an impression that it has always known how.” —André Gaudreault, film historian

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461 filmmaking tasks were carefully divided among specialists, and each project was overseen by a producer, who kept an eye on budget and schedule. Thomas Ince, a major producer, pioneered the use of detailed shooting scripts and time sheets so that the shooting could be cost- efficient. The stages of production we surveyed in Chapter 1 (pp. 17–29) were systematized by the Hollywood companies of the late 1910s. This business model came to be known as the studio system. Aiming to turn out films in large quantities, the American cinema became oriented toward narrative form.

Narrative Continuity: Early Prototypes One of Edison’s directors, Edwin S. Porter, made some of the first films to use narrative continuity and development. Among these was The Life of an American Fireman (1903), which showed the race of the firefighters to rescue a mother and a child from a burning house. Although this film used several striking narrative elements (a fireman’s premonition of the disaster, a series of shots of the horse-drawn engine racing to the house), the cutting presents an odd time scheme. We see the rescue of a mother and her child twice, from both inside and outside the house. Porter had not realized the possibility of intercutting the two locales to sustain simultaneous action.

In 1903, Porter made The Great Train Robbery, in some ways a prototype for the classical American film. Here the action develops with a linear time, space, and cause-effect logic. We follow each stage of the robbery (12.14), the pursuit, and the final defeat of the robbers. In 1905, Porter also created a simple parallel narrative in The Kleptomaniac, contrasting the fates of a rich woman and a starving woman who are both caught stealing.

British filmmakers were working along similar lines. Indeed, many historians now believe that Porter derived some of his editing techniques from films such as James Williamson’s Fire! (1901) and G. A. Smith’s Mary Jane’s Mishap (1903). The most famous British film of this era was Lewin Fitzhamon’s 1905 film Rescued by Rover (produced by a major British firm, Cecil Hepworth), which treated a kidnapping in a linear fashion similar to that of The Great Train Robbery. After the kidnapping, we see each stage of Rover’s journey to find the child, his return to fetch the child’s father, and their retracing of the route to the kidnapper’s lair. All the shots make the geography of the action completely intelligible (12.15, 12.16).

In 1908, D. W. Griffith began his directing career. Over the next five years, he would make hundreds of one- and two-reelers (running about 15 and 30 minutes, respectively). These films created relatively complex plots in short spans. Griffith certainly didn’t invent all the devices with which he has been credited, but he did give many techniques strong narrative motivation. For example, a few other filmmakers had used simple last-minute rescues with crosscutting between the rescuers and victims, but Griffith developed and popularized this technique (6.111–6.114). By the time he made The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), Griffith was creating lengthy sequences by cutting among several different locales.

Griffith made another creative choice that was unusual for the early 1910s: He concentrated on subtle changes in facial expression (4.33). To catch such nuances, he set up his camera closer to the action than did many of his contemporaries, framing his actors in medium long shot or medium shot.

Griffith’s films were widely influential. In addition, his dynamic, rapid editing in the final chase scenes of Intolerance was to have a considerable impact on the Soviet Montage style of the 1920s. But he wasn’t alone in refining technique. Supervising production at his company, Thomas Ince demanded tight narratives, with no digressions or loose ends, and his request for detailed shooting scripts favored breaking scenes up into several camera positions. Films made under Ince’s control, such as Civilization (1915), The Italian (1915),

12.14 An early effort at narrative continuity. The robbers in the telegraph office in The Great Train Robbery, preparing to board the train seen through the window. The train portion of the image is an early matte shot.



12.15–12.16 Matching screen direction. In Rescued by Rover, the heroic dog leads his master along a street from the right rear moving toward the left foreground (12.15). The pair is moving from right to left as they reach their destination (12.16).

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A Spanish filmmaking student created a revealing video analyzing a 1912 Griffith Biograph short. We talk about the analysis and link to it in “A variation on a sunbeam.”

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12.17–12.18 Narrative coherence. The opening scene of The Cheat introduces the branding motif (12.17). It returns later when the villain brands the heroine as another item of property (12.18). Both use the “Rembrandt lighting” that made De Mille famous.

and the Westerns of William S. Hart (p. 337), helped stabilize the emerging continuity conventions. Cecil B. De Mille, a director who was to have a much longer career than Griffith and Ince, made several feature-length dramas and

comedies. His The Cheat (1915) reflects important changes occurring in the studio style between 1914 and 1917. During that period, the glass- roofed studios using daylight for illumination gave way to studios dependent on artificial lighting. The Cheat used spectacular effects of chiaroscuro, with only one or two bright sources of light and no fill light. According to legend, De Mille justified this effect to nervous exhibitors by calling it “Rembrandt lighting.” This north lighting was to become part of the classical repertoire of lighting techniques.

Like many American films of the teens, The Cheat uses a linear pattern of narrative. The first scene (12.17) quickly establishes the Japanese businessman as a ruthless collector of objects; we see him burning his brand onto a small statue. The initial action motivates a later scene in which the businessman brands the heroine, who has fallen into his power by borrowing money from him (12.18). The Cheat was one of several 1915 films that showed that Hollywood films were moving toward greater complexity in their storytelling.

The 180° system of staging, shooting, and editing (pp. 231–233) was developing as well. Eyeline matches became more common from 1910 on, and the match on action was in common use by 1916. Shot/reverse-shot cutting became widespread as well, as seen in The Cheat (1915), Hart’s Western The Narrow Trail (1917), and Griffith’s A Romance of Happy Valley (1919).

Classical Form and Style in Place By the early 1920s, the continuity system had become a standardized style that directors in the Hollywood studios used to create coherent, gripping storytelling. Screen direction was usually respected. A match on action could provide a cut to a closer view in a scene (12.19, 12.20). A conversation around a table would no longer be handled in a single frontal shot (12.21–12.25). When an awkward match might have resulted from the joining of two shots, the filmmakers could cover it by inserting a dialogue title.

Filmmakers conceived ways to handle large-scale narrative form as well. By 1923, Buster Keaton could construct a perfectly balanced plot for Our Hospitality. As we saw in Chapter 4, the action develops logically from the death of Willie McKay’s father to Willie’s final resolution of the feud. Along the way, motifs like the railroad tracks, water, and pistols are carefully motivated and ingeniously varied.

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On two of the most important filmmakers of the early classical period, see our entries on William S. Hart in “Rio Jim, in discrete fragments,” and Douglas Fairbanks in “His Majesty the American.”

That evening I tried to increase my knowledge of motion-picture technique by going to the movies. I sat with a stop watch and notebook and tried to estimate the number of cuts or scenes in a thousand-foot reel, the length of individual scenes, the distance of the subject from the camera, and various other technical details.” —King Vidor, director, recalling the night before he began directing his first film, c. 1912

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12.19–12.20 Smooth action matching in the early 1920s. In Fred Niblo’s The Three Musketeers (1921), a long shot of the group (12.19) leads to a cut-in to the central character, played by Douglas Fairbanks (12.20).






12.21–12.25 Consistent eyelines around a table. In an establishing shot from Are Parents People? (Malcolm St. Clair, 1925), the daughter sits down at the table (12.21). In the medium shot she looks leftward toward her father (12.22). He responds to her by looking rightward in the reverse shot (12.23). The daughter then turns to look to the right at her mother (12.24). Her mother returns her gaze in reverse shot (12.25).

In only a decade or so, Hollywood cinema had developed into a sophisticated cinematic tradition. As we’ve indicated (p. 230), classical continuity became a kind of universal language of fictional moviemaking that’s still in force today. Yet no sooner had the tradition crystallized

than alternatives began to appear. Filmmakers in other countries pushed in directions that American cinema had not explored. After examining these alternative movements, in the silent era, we’ll return to consider the classical Hollywood cinema after the coming of sound.

German Expressionism (1919–1926) The worldwide success of American films in the late 1910s and through the 1920s confronted filmmakers abroad with a harsh choice. Should they try to imitate Hollywood? The big budgets of the American studios were hard to match in the aftermath of a war that had devastated the European continent. Or should they try to offer a type of cinema markedly different from the Hollywood standard? Most

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For more on the emergence of Hollywood film style in the late 1910s, see “Happy birthday, classical cinema!” We also have a video lecture, “How Motion Pictures Became the Movies, 1908–1920” that considers this period.

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12.26 The UFA historical epic. Madame Dubarry: A crowd scene in the Tribunal of the French Revolution.

filmmakers took the first option and adopted American techniques of lighting, staging, and editing. (Principles of story construction took longer to be adopted.) But a few filmmakers sought to be more original, and some of them formed movements that had an enduring effect on world cinema.

In 1914, although some impressive pictures had been made in Germany, the industry’s output was relatively small. The nation’s 2,000 movie theaters were playing mostly French, American, Italian, and Danish films. When the war began, America and France banned German films from their screens immediately, but Germany couldn’t afford to ban French and American films, for then the theaters would have had little to show.

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