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Looking Back 100 Years: The Birth of Classic Hollywood

This month, Cinelinx is taking you on a trip back through time. Join us as we examine how movies have changed over the last 100 years. To begin, we are going all the way back to 1917. 

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. 


 

The Stars

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Mary Pickford was the biggest movie star of 1917 and one of the first to ever gain widespread popularity for her work in film. Movie audiences came to know her as a curly haired “American Sweetheart” (even though she was from Canada), eventually earning the nickname of “Queen of the Movies” because she was so popular. Pickford was among the most prolific actors of her generation, including appearing in 51 films in 1909 alone. She acted in film frequently as a way to become more well known and recognizable to audiences. She understood the potential of film and star power, later using her image as leverage to achieve record-breaking salaries and make the films she wanted. In a time that actors in films usually went uncredited, she is among the first to have been credited for her work on screen, which helped her to gain fame quickly. In 1917 she appeared in six feature films, including Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, a smash hit. In addition to being an actress, she was also a writer, a director, a producer, and would be co-founder of United Artist Studios in 1919. 

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Cecil B. DeMille became the first celebrity filmmaker, who was renowned not only because of the films he made, but because of the business he made his films into. DeMille is often cited as the originator of the modern film industry in the United States and the father of Hollywood. He was the first person to make a feature-length film in Hollywood (1914’s The Squaw Man). The success of that film convinced many other filmmakers to make their way to California, and the industry began. DeMille had originally been a set decorator for plays, and was hired to bring a similar skill to motion pictures. He was one of the first people to bring stage lighting and dressing techniques into a professional movie production, which fundamentally changed the industry’s approach to film as a work of art rather than simply an interesting gimmick. During his early career, DeMille helped to shape the direction of film, as he recognized the importance of improving production values to attract more attention and therefore business to his company. As a director, his films found much success in the early years of film and allowed for the founding of Paramount Pictures in 1912.  

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One important figure from 1917 who is well recognized even today is Charlie Chaplin. In 1917, Chaplin had yet to make a feature film, but he was a world-famous star nonetheless. Having started as a bit player in film in 1913, his character “The Little Tramp” became a pop culture phenomenon and eventually Chaplin was able to start making his own films. His short films were highly-regarded and 1917 saw the release of four of his masterpieces; Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant, and The Adventurer. In 1917, Chaplin became the first actor in history to sign a million dollar deal for 9 films. 


 

The Successes

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The most profitable film of 1917 was Cleopatra. Cleopatra was based on the 1889 novel of the same name and would be remade several times in later years. For this first film version of the famous story, no expense was spared. Along with Birth of a Nation in 1915, it was one of the first mega film productions. The 1910’s were the first time that film became a profitable business venture. As production studios began to figure out what types of movies audiences wanted to see, they became more comfortable spending more money to make them more impressive. Before the era of advertising, it was word of mouth that got people into theaters, and to do so, filmmakers had to astonish their patrons. Cleopatra was able to astonish it's viewers on multiple levels. First, it starred Theda Bara as the Egyptian Queen. Bara was played up as an exotic and adventurous woman, and her rebellious behavior reflected well with American attitudes at the time. Furthermore, the detail of the costumes and sets was simply unprecedented at the time.

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Another of the most successful films of 1917 was Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, starring Pickford. This film was based on a novel by the same name and is notable because it was adapted to the screen by Frances Marion. Marion would later become one of the most renowned female screenwriters of the 20th century, including the first person to win two Academy Awards for writing. Marion was an impressive screenwriter because she was one of the first to write a part for a particular actor or actress. In doing so, she was very influential in creating the onscreen personas that actors of the time became best known for. She collaborated often with the biggest names of the day, including Pickford. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is important as it is one of Marions films to help establish the almost child-like charm that Pickford would become known for.  


 

The New Developments

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1917 saw the first use of Technicolor in a commercial film. This was an important advancement because Technicolor would become the primary color process used by Hollywood until the 1950’s. While color film had been achievable since 1902, the traditional method was to simply add color on top of black and white footage. This was a time-intensive (and therefore expensive) process because the color would have to be stenciled onto each individual frame and would be inconsistent during playback. Technicolor, along with Kinemacolor were the first two processes to use special cameras to actually record in color. However, the version of Technicolor used in 1917 was “version 1” which would be improved on in the future before it became widespread. Version 1 required the use of a prism to combine two projections (one red and one green) during playback, and this prism required a technician to adjust it while the film played. The Gulf Between was the only feature film to use Technicolor version 1, and had a limited release due to the cost and complications of the projectors. This film was made primarily to showcase the technology and increase interest in color film for the future. 

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Animation has been used in film almost since its invention in the 1880’s. However, 1917 saw the release of the first feature-length animated film. That film was El Apostol, an Argentine film that had a running time of 70 minutes. The film used cut-out animation, where the characters were paper puppets with movable extremities. They were filmed against a setting that was constructed of models and paintings. The film was a political satire, and the only known copy was unfortunately destroyed in a fire.  

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Finally, the most important development of 1917 was the birth of “Classical Hollywood”. “Classical Hollywood” refers to the characteristic storytelling technique that dominated American filmmaking, and to a lesser degree global filmmaking, until the 1960’s. “Classical Hollywood” boiled down to its most simplistic elements can be compared to bringing a play to the big screen. This type of filmmaking puts emphasis on creating a character-driven narrative, and defining those characters within a space and time. Constructively, its characters exists in sets, there’s extensive use of music to enhance the emotional tones, and there is fluid editing where clips are connected to form a scene, and scenes put together to tell the story. 

The inauguration of this type of cinema has its roots in Thomas Edison’s control over his invention in the early 1900’s. To escape having to pay royalties for the use of his technology, filmmakers moved away from the east coast of the United States. With more isolated production, these filmmakers would experiment with their films. Techniques that made their films more interesting and exciting were copied by others. WW1 slowed down the development of international filmmaking efforts to some degree, and allowed American filmmakers several years to build on previous accomplishments. A ground-breaking film that showcased many of the techniques that would appear in Classical Hollywood was 1915’s Birth of a Nation. This film was so different than what had come before that it inspired many new ideas, most importantly that film could be an important industry. With this newfound motivation, filmmakers developed countless innovations over the next couple years. By 1917, the techniques used to make feature films became more congruent as box office success began to point filmmakers in a certain direction. In particular, movies like Cleopatra, and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm would show the formulas to success that filmmakers would follow for the next 5 decades. 

Click here to continue to Part 2 of this series. 

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