Looking Back 100 Years: The Birth of Classic Hollywood

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This article is part 1 of 4 in a series. 

1917 was a year of tension and conflict. Europe was war-torn, having been engaged in World War I for 3 years with no hope for peace on the horizon. Several acts by Germany including resuming submarine warfare and the Zimmerman Telegram would cause the United States to reluctantly enter the war and bolster the Allied forces. On the homefront, numerous scientific advances around the turn of the century were proliferating their way through society to modernize cities and improve industrial efficiencies. However, the transition to having more machines and electricity in the workplace was not a smooth one. Industrial accidents were common, working conditions were terrifying, and child labor was the norm. Thus, free time was not a luxury that many people had. Still, film was on the rise.       

The general condition of society at the time had a profound effect on the development of the film industry. 1917 in specific was a very important year in the history of film. While film was at least a few years away from becoming a major pastime and pop culture phenomenon, it had advanced substantially from its first commercial use as a mere vaudeville novelty. In the 1900’s film was first profitized in “Nickelodeons”, permanent theaters which showed short film clips and charged for admission. As technology advanced, films could become more elaborate, and more important, lengthier. Venues were needed to show off these longer, more complex short films, and exhibition halls began opening around the world. These were the precursors to movie theaters as we know them today. 

By 1917, what we call feature-length films were being shown in exhibition halls, although they were not the norm. Short films were the more typical, and more profitable ventures of the time. Major studios would churn out new films on a monthly, or even quicker pace. Europe’s’ preoccupation with WW1 allowed the film industry of the United States to flourish. Hollywood, California became a haven for up-and-coming filmmakers, not only because of the warm weather, but because in California they would not be subject to pay Thomas Edison’s royalty fees for the use of the technology. With so many filmmakers concentrated in one location, techniques began to be implemented that allowed for a more consistent approach to the media. Similarly, the close competition promoted the use of advanced technology and production techniques in order to make more impressive films. With lack of film production on a similar scale taking place anywhere else in the world at the time, Hollywood came to dominate the film industry for many years to come. Unfortunately, most of the films produced in this era are lost to us now. In particular, a 1937 fire at 20th Century Fox destroyed most of the important accomplishments.