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A History of Cinema

by Piero Scaruffi

Back to Cinema | Database of Filmmakers | Best Films of All Time

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Table of Contents

Chapters that have been completed:
A History of Indian Cinema
A History of Russian Cinema
A History of Polish Cinema
A History of Czech and Slovak Cinema
A History of Hungarian Cinema
A History of Balkan Cinema
A History of Yugoslav Cinema
A History of Romanian Cinema
A History of Bulgarian Cinema
A History of Greek Cinema
A History of Turkish Cinema

For a shorter version, see this page (up to the 1970s)

For the old Italian version, see this page


Feuilleton Cinema

(Translated by DeepL from my old Italian text.

Photography, a process based on a simple chemical reaction, had become commonplace after Daguerre's invention of the daguerreotype (1839). By applying Plateau's principle (1829), according to which each image caught by the human eye persists for a tenth of a second, several devices could be developed that could provide the illusion of motion by sliding more than ten drawings per second in front of the viewer. It was not until (1885) George Eastman invented celluloid film (instead of the antiquated copper plates) that the two discoveries could be merged: Thomas Edison built (1888) the cinematograph, a camera that rapidly took many photographs one after another on a single strip of film, and the Kinetoscope, a large wheel on the edge of which photographs were attached and which the viewer spun with a crank while looking into a fixed hole at a point on the edge. The next decade was full of inventions aimed at perfecting the technique, a real frenzy of the moving image that was part of the more general frenzy for machines; in those years new apparatuses were being patented for a wide variety of uses, from agriculture to warfare, practically in a continuous stream.

A competitor of Edison's kinetoscope was the "mutoscope", invented in 1898 in Britain by Herman Casler. It could be found at railway stations, seaside piers, amusement arcades and fairgrounds. In France the Lumiere brothers developed the Kinora in 1895, basically a miniature version of the mutoscope for home use. Gaumont marketed the gadget in France, and in 1902 Mutoscope started selling the Kinora in Britain.

In 1895 William Dickson quit his job at Thomas Edison's laboratory and started the American Mutoscope company in New Jersey with Herman Casler and Harry Marvin. Not only they offered the mutoscope in the USA but they also introduced (in 1896) a better projector, the Biograph, than Edison's Vitascope. This company started making movies in a Manhattan studio (while Edison was making his movies in West Orange, a town in New Jersey) and was renamed Biograph in 1908, just when Griffith joined it and directed his first movie, The Adventures of Dollie (1908).

Brothers Louis and Auguste Lumiere coined the term "cinematograph" and built the first movie theater at the "Gran Cafe'" on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris at the end of 1895. Unlike the other forerunners, the Lumieres conceived of the new device as more than a mere tool for projecting moving images; what others regarded as a simple optical experiment for the Lumieres quickly became a showstopper and a commercial investment. Even the few who had tried their inventions in public had not gone beyond a feeble ersatz of the variety show, puppets, and circus; they exhibited the monster to amaze and amuse with novelty, and by appealing solely to curiosity, but of course the public after the first time had no reason to return to see the same thing again.

The Lumières, on the other hand, understood that interest in the banger itself was short-lived, while interest in what was projected (comics, sketches, documentaries) grew; even they did not, however, have an awareness of the importance of the invention.

The dizzying success of the Lumiere (in January it had conquered Paris without the help of the press, in February London, in March Brussels, in April Vienna and Geneva, in June Madrid Belgrade and New York, in July St. Petersburg and Bucharest; before the end of 1896 their operators had landed on every continent, and in New York twenty-one operators were not enough to meet the demands of the public. Having routed their competitors, Edison first and Reynaud among others, the Lumières were, however, in turn hard hit by the tragedy of the fire at the Bazar de la Charité, in which a hundred spectators perished, by which the cinematograph, still not well accepted by the press and the upper classes, earned a bad reputation, so much so that, revived in a big way by the Exposition Universelle, it remained at the level of entertainment for the lower classes until the first postwar period.

The Lumières went out of business in 1900, when they sold the rights to the invention to businessman Charles Pathé, convinced that cinema would not last long. In reality, many things were changing: a new competition had arisen, not from inventors but from authors who offered more interesting films than the Lumières' outdated ones; continuous technical advances were making projection more and more enjoyable and effective. Commerce and industry were attracted by the incredible popularity that the new spectacle had gained in just a few years; in cultural salons the artistic possibilities of the cinematograph were discussed; controversy opened up in the press about the effects of the new type of entertainment; the mentality of the common man, confronted with a perfect reproduction of himself in two dimensions, underwent an unconscious trauma, comparable to that of a man seeing himself for the first time in a mirror; the cinema changed the relationship between his own world and the world of everyone, like any form of information, as had happened with newspapers and as would happen with radio, changing the relationships of space and time; it offered itself as a fundamental contribution to the preservation of the past (both nostalgically and historically), far beyond writing and photography, and as a powerful tool of the imagination, an easy means then of exploiting the value of memory and feeling, and formidable psychic agent; the audience's reactions (the hilarity diverted before trivial everyday incidents, the vivid emotion before misfortunes and sufferings, the sympathetic attention before scenes of common life) led to imagining the cinema as a possible extension of the theater, while the ease of unfolding an action led to considering it the natural successor of the novel.

Innumerable directions of development presented themselves to aspiring film men; and cinema, born between science and capitalism (the two most ruthless and pertinacious branches of twentieth-century civilization), was about to tread them all.

The first to exploit the expressive possibilities of cinema and to go beyond the one-minute "Lumierian" stereotype was Georges Melies, while the first to seriously exploit its commercial possibilities were Leonard Gaumont and especially Charles Pathe'; the one a camera manufacturer, the other a phonograph seller. From 1896 they produced films in competition using hard-working artisans such as Ferdinand Zecca, running after the tastes of the public and shortly invading world markets.

Pathe' movies were distributed in the USA in 1896 and quickly became sensations.

The cinema of the 1900s was made by men of the theater, but it copied the appendix novel; comedy and tragedy transferred to the screen were transformed into episodes full of episodes, either too goliardic or too grim, too sentimental or too heroic, easy to grip on the audience, which often had a continuation; Louis Feuillade brought tragic appendix cinema to the highest perfection, while Mae Linder was the first comic serials, and Emil Cohl applied the practice to animated drawing.

In 1908 the Société Film d'Art was established, which aimed to transfer theatrical masterpieces to the screen. For years Europe was thus flooded with literary reductions, which became the most widely seen works everywhere. The Société had the historical merit of making the new medium respectable....

Until the end of World War I, French cinema dominated the world market; but then it declined quickly, beaten by American competition, and many of its directors ended up moving to the United States.

Louis Lumière and Ferdinand Zecca

(Translated by DeepL from my old Italian text.

The inventor of the cinematograph was also the author of some forty films (in the eight years, from 1894 to 1903, in which he devoted himself to film production); the first ten, presented on the famous evening of 1895, were very short documentaries of everyday life (such as La sortie des usines Lumière à Lyon), but already a month later a comic skit, L'arroseur #arrosé, was part of the repertoire, with the world's most famous gag (the brat crushing the hose, the puzzled gardener bringing the hose mouthpiece to his eye, the brat removing his foot, the watered gardener), and in his later years Lumière also attempted historical and literary transpositions; he was the first to use the close-up (Le déjeuner de bébé) and depth of field (d'un Arrivée train).

Ferdinand Zecca, Pathé's right-hand man, also directed, between 1901 and 1906, dozens of coruscating films, in which he followed, rather than inspiration, the tastes of the audience; specializing in bourgeois comedies, passion dramas, and historical subjects, distinguished by the brio and brutal cut of certain scenes (elements of easier appeal to the unrefined audiences of popular theaters), he chose subjects from illustrated weeklies, tackling the problems that most impressed people (Histoire d'un crime) and often drew inspiration from Zola's novels (La victimes de l'alcoolisme)02; his most challenging work was La vie et la passion de Jésus Christ, of unusual length; Zecca was the proponent of tragic realism, and along this path he directed the filmmakers he later had at his command, beginning an important school of French cinema.

Georges Melies
Louis Feuillade

Emile Reynaud e Emile Cohl

(Translated by DeepL from my old Italian text.

The pioneers of animated cinema were, in addition to Méliès, Emile Reynaud and Emile Cohl.

The former, an optical experimenter since the 1870s, set up in 1888 an ingenious "optical theater" by means of which he projected strips of drawings that he himself made with moving passion (each consisted of about seven hundred colored images); in them he dealt with the subjects that would also inspire early filmmakers: everyday life, historical episodes, comic sketches. A painter and poet endowed with great sensitivity, he was betrayed by the public who preferred the diabolical invention of the Lumière to his precious craftsmanship and, after destroying all his works, (except Pauvre Pierrot, starring masks in traditional roles, and Autour d'une cabine, set on the beach amid lyrical flocks of seagulls and comic brawls of bathers), he ended up in an almshouse, where he died like Méliès, poor and forgotten.

More fortunate was Emile Cohl, who made his debut in 1907 and introduced animated drawing into cinema, effectively inventing animated cinema in its final guise; more than for his sharp strokes and new technical procedures, Cohl's short films are distinguished by the lively imagination that animates them, often resorting to the repertoire of the absurd (drawings that create themselves), and by the humanization of animals, one of his many ideas that became stereotypes of the genre. He drew equally from classical literature and everyday life, but excelled especially where he was able to bend these cues to his surreal imagination: Drame chez le fantoches, Le baron de Crac. Less of an experimenter and less of a poet than Reyneaud, he is already a classical author, all about action and comedy.

"Kolossal" movies in Italy

(Translated by DeepL from my old Italian text.

Cinema spread throughout Europe and America thanks first to Lumiere's many screenings abroad and various competing inventions. At this early stage, cinema was run directly by the inventors themselves, Lumiere and Edison in the lead. But before long the generation of artisans is overtaken by a generation of merchants and small industrialists, who lay the foundations for a film industry. They are modest, very enterprising capitalists who set up filming sheds, hire a mostly unskilled staff, and gradually organize distribution facilities. The first directors are self-taught coming mainly from two categories: optics and theater; the former come to cinema by often developing their own inventions, the latter attempt to impose cinema as an evolution of theater (prose or variety). Directed at audiences of proletarian or petty-bourgeois backgrounds, cinema does not, however, boast personalities of great intellectual stature. Film quickly conquers audiences halfway around the world for two reasons: the silent image is a language that can be understood by everyone, regardless of language, costume or other distinctions; the fact that the film is made by people of lower-middle-class culture means that its syntax is very simple (documentary, comic or short story). Cinema is an easy, entertaining and after the first gross industrialization, inexpensive entertainment.

In the United States, where heavy immigration resulted in a heterogeneous population with not a few communication problems and economic prosperity enabled even the less affluent to spend on entertainment, cinema found its largest and most natural market. The European industry almost immediately headed for the American market, but was quickly routed by the local one; so that when the phenomenon was reversed and it was American cinema that invaded Europe, many filmmakers preferred to move to the other side of the fence, that is, to emigrate. While in the United States the film trust was born and the battle for its monopoly was raging, in England the new art spread thanks to the initiative of amateurs, such as those of the Brighton school; lacking a serious organization, English cinematography was easy prey to the French first (Pathé and Gaumont) and the American later. The English had specialized in fictional reportage and variety sketch; from the former genre (which propounded a profusion of fires and robberies) would draw American realist cinema (Porter) and all chase films, while the latter would be inspired by Chaplin. English cinema also had the great merit of spreading across the Commonwealth, to Canada, Australia and India in particular.

Literary reductions were rampant throughout Europe; apart from England, which relied heavily on the transposition of theatrical subjects as a remedy against foreign invasion, literary cinema was highly successful in Italy.

The genres that developed in Italy, where cinema was divided between aristocrats and theatricalists, were the majestic stagings, passionate melodramas, and sentimental serials. This romantic cinema reached its apex on the eve of World War I; Italian cinema then, unraveled by war and fascism, would slowly fade away.

The Italian "kolossal", which began as a historical costume film (Caserini's Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei) and found the ideal era in ancient Rome (Grazzoni's Quo vadis), triumphed with Pastrone's films; it was the natural display of Rome's ancient grandeur by a fading aristocracy and the continuation on screen of the splendors of theatrical opera. The love stories that arose from the intersection of late Romanticism, bourgeois verismo, and D'Annunzio's decadentism and that combined, on mostly famous subjects (from the Lady of the Camellias to Anna Karenina), the passionate and the mundane (sentimentality and luxury) launched the Divas Fatales (Francesca Bertini), beautiful and ambitious actresses, dramatic and sensual to the point of ridicule, modeled after the great Eleonora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt. Their rivalry titillated audiences more than the events of their bad movies fascinated them. The masterpiece of this genre was Mario Caserini's Ma l'amor mio non muore. Martoglio, on the other hand, anticipated neorealism with Sperduti nel buio (1914), a verist drama centered on the love of a blind man for a young girl of the underworld who would like to redeem herself, similarly Bertini with Assunta Spina.

In the serial only Emilio Ghione achieved original results with his picturesque episodic giallo films in which he played Za la Mort, a sentimental, gentlemanly criminal, along the lines of Fantomas (I rati grigi, 1917).

Marinetti's futurism contaminated little coeval cinema, with the exception of Anton Giulio Bragaglia's Thais (1916), which, as the extreme fusion of the two prince genres, melodrama and Kolossal, integrated with the linguistic freedom emanating from the posters dramatic scenes and hallucinatory sets anticipating the gloomy expressionist taste.

But it was the kolossal and the divas that made Italian cinema famous abroad; both directly influenced that of Hollywood and were thus instrumental in the development of the new art. At the outbreak of war, Italian cinema enjoyed unparalleled international popularity.

Fascist Cinema

(Translated by DeepL from my old Italian text.

Fascism (which came to power in 1922) created the LUCE Institute in 1925, which imposed national production in the 1930s. Quantitative growth was matched, however, by a sharp fall in quality; films stood either on the propaganda front or on the sentimental front.

In the former case, rhetorical films of patriotic exaltation were born, either heirs of historical colossals (Carmine Gallone's Scipione l'Africano) or hymns to Italian exploits in the African colonies (Augusto Genina's Squadrone Bianco on the theme of the unhappy man in love who leaves voluntarily for an outpost in the desert and Goffredo Alessandrini's Angelo Serra pilota, where Nazzari is a veteran of the Great War who makes ends meet by being a pilot of tourist planes and, when he tries to break out of anonymity with a historical feat, fails miserably; disappointed, he volunteers for Libya, where he will rehabilitate himself by heroically sacrificing his own life to save his son's).

In the second case, instead, demure and tear-jerking comedies (white telephone cinema) saw the light of day, starring typists and carefree seamstresses, the prototype is of the brilliant comedy (Alessandrini's La segretaria privata); A Thousand Liras a Month (39, screenwriter Luigi Zampa), luxury and escapist cinema set in Budapest in the world of television; these were tenuous tales of thwarted love affairs, cheerful and pathetic, the result of post-Bohème twilight love, on the wave of the success of Addio Giovinezza, the 1911 comedy that was somewhat the prototype of the genre.

The crowds' favorite actor was the intrepid and ardent gentleman, the good, strong, generous and courageous gallant knight and champion of justice whom the regime pointed to as an example and young women dreamed of marrying (thus Amedeo Nazzari). The passion genre lasted practically until the 1950s (Matarazzo's Catene).

The operatic genre also flourished (Carmine Gallone's Casta Diva about the unhappy passion of musician Vincenzo Bellini for a married aristocrat).

The founding of Cinecitta`, Rome's Hollywood, was also conceived in this drive to launch national cinema, and the Venice Film Festival was established (1932).

Giovanni Pastrone

The Industry in the USA

In theory, cinema was invented in 1895 in France by Louis Lumiere. In the first decade of the 20th century cinema was dominated by two French firms, Pathe' and Gaumont. They were pretty much the only "studios" in the world making feature-length films. However, in the USA an inventor named Charles Jenkins had independently built a movie camera and beaten the Lumiere brothers with a public screening in june 1894. His patent was soon acquired by the Edison Company, that in 1896 debuted the vitascope, marketed as an Edison invention, replacing Edison's "kinetoscope" of 1894, that wasn't much of a movie projector (it was designed for individual viewers).

Early films were very short. Longer stories were told in minute-long episodes. Between one episode and the next one there was a considerable wait due to the need to "reload" the equipment. The wait was often filled with entertainment of a different kind, for example a lantern show. Soldiers of the Cross (1900), directed in Australia by a Salvation Army officer, Joseph Perry, for the Salvation Army, lasted more than two hours, but the time was mostly taken by the lantern slides in between its 13 episodes (only the slides survive). There were early attempts at producing multi-shot films, like Louis Lumiere's 13-minute La Vie et la Passion de Jesus-Christ/ Life and Passion of Jesus (1898), consisting of 13 scenes (from the "Adoration of the Magi" to "The Resurrection"), and Georges Melies' six-minute Cendrillon/ Cinderella (1899), which was made of 20 scenes, with each scene being a shot. All shots were taken from the perspective of the viewer sitting in the theater. Only non-fiction documentaries were employing shots of the same scene taken from different perspectives, for example the documentaries of the military parade for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. The need arose to summarize real events in a few minutes, and therefore to take sseparate brief shots of what was happening rather than filming the whole thing for several hours. That technique was soon transferred to narrative cinema. by filmmakers like James Williamson, who had started out by filming current events. His films employed multiple shots of the same scene : the one-minute Attack on a China Mission (1900), which also employed many actors (instead of just one or two), the one-minute Stop Thief (1901), and considered the first "chase film", and Fire (1901), four minutes long. The Big Swallow (1901) was his contribution to the genre of "trick films" invented by Melies. Meanwhile, George Albert Smith demonstrated the new "close-up" technique in Grandma's Reading Glass (1900), and the film shows the same scene from five different perspectives (five shots). The "editing" became even more complex once filmmakers moved outdoors, where it was natural to move the camera around instead of being influenced by the viewpoint of the spectator in a theater

The first place to bring together films and theater was probably Los Angeles, where in 1902 Thomas Tally opened his Electric Theater. Until 1907 France dominated the industry, taking 40% of revenues even in the USA. In 1908 Edison and its competitors joined with Eastman Kodak (manufacturer of film stock) to create the "Film Trust" (or, better, Motion Pictures Patent Company). It was basically a cartel to preempt anyone else from entering the market. They set fixed prices for anyone who wanted to make or screen movies, and made it very difficult to import movies from France. So far the industry of the USA (mostly based in New York) had only produced short and trivial movies. The trust's intention was to continue that way. However, the following year Carl Laemmle boldly attacked the trust with his Independent Moving Pictures and several young producers from New York followed his example. They joined ranks and in 1910 formed the Motion Picture Distributing and Sales Company, from which in 1912 the Universal Film Manufacturing Company (later known simply as Universal) was born, largely driven by Laemmle. In 1915 another Jew from New York, Hungary-born Wilhelm Fuchs (later known as William Fox) founded Fox Film Corporation. They became producers not because they wanted to but because the Film Trust made it too difficult, costly and dangerous to import the (more advanced) foreign films that they would have liked to show.

In 1914 William Hodkinson founded the first nation-wide film distributor, Paramount. Yet another Jew from New York, Adolph Zukor, in 1912 had opened a studio called Famous Players Film Company specifically to import Les Amours de la Reine Elisabeth, a French film that featured the most famous actress of the age, Sarah Bernhardt. The success of that operation allowed him to obtain financing from New York's theater impresarios Frohman (three Jewish brothers originally from Ohio who ran a nationwide network of theaters). Zukor's business plan was summarized by the name of his company: make feature-length films of theatrical plays starring famous actors; and he had used Paramount to distribute them nationwide.

Another independent Jewish producer was Jesse Lasky, whose Lasky Feature Show Company had been funded by his Polish-born brother-in-law Samuel Goldwyn. Starting in 1914 both Zukor and Lasky used Paramount to distribute their films.

The alliance with owners of theaters was a must for the independents. The Protective Amusement Company was owned by New York's theatrical producers Klaw & Erlanger, i.e. Abraham Erlanger and Marcus Klaw, allies of Charles Frohman. New Jersey's World Film Company, founded in 1914 by Lewis Selznick, a Ukrainian Jew, made such an alliance with the Shubert brothers, a trio of Polish Jews originally from Syracuse who from New York had created the largest network of theaters in the world by defeating the Frohman cartel. Companies that lacked access to middle-class theaters risked their lives. Even the company that pioneered the Hollywood studio system, Triangle Film, founded in 1915 in Culver City by Harry and Roy Aitken (the rare aristocratic Anglosaxon case) pretty much to distribute the films by Griffith, Thomas Ince and Mack Sennett in lavish movie theaters to the higher social classes of the East Coast could not survive: cinema made sense only as low-brow art for the masses, and the existing networks of theaters were the ones who knew how to sell to that audience (and they were often run by self-made Jewish impresarios, either immigrants or from poor neighborhoods).

The Film Trust, that owned the patents on everything that was needed to make and show a film, sent armies of lawyers after these independents. The indepedents ran as far as they could, namely to California, and in particular to a place called Hollywood near Los Angeles. In 1910 the first film was shot in Hollywood (by Griffith) The California independents (largely young Jews from poor neighborhoods) specialized in French-inspired feature-length stories that were a lot more interesting than the stereotypical movies of the East Coast studios (largely run by older Anglosaxon bureaucrats). The California independents also managed to create an unlikely alliance between cinema and Wall Street: the Film Trust had no need for venture capital, but the independents had to rely on it. Wall Street understood that one could make money out of a cultural artifact as much as from shoes or light bulbs. The independents became in fact very successful and ended up killing the Film Trust. World War II offered them another accidental victory: the French industry never recovered from the onslaught of that conflict, and Hollywood (that was its adopted child) became the new cradle of cinema.
In 1916 Adolph Zukor engineered a merger of his Famous Players, Lasky's company and Paramount to create the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, which was then not only the largest film company in the world but also the one that had both studios (Zukor's and Lasky's studios) and nation-wide distribution (Paramount's network). Zukor simply expanded his original concept: make films around famous actors. The "Star System" was born. Besides investing in stars, Zukor also invested in organization and technology. His method, that focused on streamlined production and a mass market, was "industrial" the way Ford's assembly line was. Incidentally, it also promoted the producer to a higher creative role, while the filmmaker was downgraded from auteur to mere specialized worker. This new entity, later simply known as Paramount, was able to create a monopoly reminiscent of the old days of the Film Trust.
Thomas Tally saw the danger from the beginning and in 1917 engineered the antidote to Zukor's empire: the First National Exhibitors Circuit, an association of some of the biggest movie theaters that successfully opposed Paramount's monopolistic aspirations. They maintained the right to show the movies they wanted.
However, Zukor's Paramount started buying theaters too through a subsidiary named Publix Theatres Corporation. By 1926 Paramount directly operated more than one thousand theaters and had become the first nation-wide chain of movie theaters with a combined daily audience of more than two million people.
Another powerful contender was Marcus Loew, owner of a chain of movie theaters (Loew's Theatres) who in 1920 acquired both Metro Pictures Corporation and in 1924 Goldwyn Pictures, originally founded by Samuel Goldwyn in 1916 and that had studios in Los Angeles, in order to produce films for his theaters and therefore bypass the distributors. The man he put in charge of the new entity was the Russian-born Jew Louis Mayer, an original founder of Metro who had moved in 1918 to Los Angeles and become a successful producer. Eventually the new entity became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).
The Warner Brothers, who had run movie theaters since 1905 in Ohio and Pennsylvania, had the same idea of producing their own films and in 1918 they opened a studio on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Two of them (Sam and Jack Warner) produced the films while the other two (Harry and Albert Warner, based in New York City) took care of distribution. This family-run operation did not take off until 1923, when they "hired" a dog, Rin Tin Tin, that became a national sensation.
By 1929 cinema had become the USA's fifth largest industry by revenue, and most films were made in Hollywood. There were 18,000 movie theaters in the USA and thousands also in Europe. The sociological impact was colossal: cinema defined the "American way of life" (influencing the habits and clothes of millions of viewers) and cinema exported the "American way of life" to the rest of the world. Cinema newsreel series even began to compete with radio news: in 1928 Fox launched its Movietone News, followed in 1929 by Universal Newsreel and in 1935 by The March of Time (a transposition of a popular radio news series broadcast started in 1931 by Fred Smith for Time magazine). Cinema's exponential growth would continued until television became a serious competitor in the 1950s.

Liberal Realism in the USA

(Translated by DeepL from my old Italian text.

American motion pictures were born in the spring of 1896, with Edison's first New York projections; Edison secured a monopoly by driving out, by more or less fair methods, the emissaries of Lumière, who had come to introduce the far more perfected French invention to American audiences, and then by fighting local competitors to the tune of lawsuits in an unsparing war that lasted a decade. The moving pictures therefore assumed considerable economic importance from the outset, and Edison organized them into a rigid industrial structure, which salaried a swarm of acrobats and thespians and churned out low-budget films over and over again to be distributed by the bushel to an increasingly film-hungry public. Made in a New Jersey studio (but with exteriors also filmed in Alaska and Cuba to capture the gold rush and battlefields) and shown in Broadway music halls (but by 1898 just about everywhere also in theaters used solely for film entertainment), moving pictures revolutionized the practice of mass entertainment in all major American cities within a few years.

In 1894 Andrew Holland's phonograph shop on Broadway began offering movies that customers could watch in nickel-operated kinetoscopes. It was a solitary experience, a "peep show", very different from the experience of a theater, and it didn't make movies a form of mass entertainment like the vaudeville was. Vaudeville theaters started showing movies too, considering the movie as a vaudeville act, a novelty. In 1900, nickel-odeons, humble theaters where for five cents (more often ten cents) one could watch short one-reel movies in the company of others, were born. In 1902 Thomas Lincoln Tally, who already owned penny arcades and phonograph parlors, opened the Electric Theatre in Los Angeles, that charged a dime (not a nickel) to watch movies. In 1905 the visionary Harry Davis, who owned vaudeville theaters and an amusement arcade, opened the Nickelodeon in Pittsburgh, the place that gave the name to this kind of "store", and later opened a chain of nickelodeons named Bijou Dream in many other cities (Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland, etc). In 1905 William Fox, who operated a group of theaters in Brooklyn, started his first nickelodeon. Eugene Cline opened the first nickelodeon in Chicago and in 1906 Carl Laemmle opened his 214-seat White Front. In 1906 fabled vaudeville impresario Edward Albee, whose Keith theaters had pioneered the projection of movies, opened his thousand-seat nickelodeon Keith in Rhode Island. In 1907 Louis Mayer opened the Orpheum Theater in Massachusetts. For about 15 years, equipped with a vitascope projector, nickelodeons were the permanent homes of movies. Far from being glamorous places, they were often just converted dancehalls made to look like vaudeville theaters. Songs and vaudeville acts complemented the main attraction, the movies. In 1910 there were more than ten thousand nickelodeons in service, and millions of people were attending them weekly. The audience was mostly from the working class (many of whom were poor immigrants), a fact that discouraged the more educated and refined middle class from attending. The working class had discovered the movies despite the movies themselves, which often aimed for the more refined tastes of the more affluent middle class: many of the early movies were adaptations of literary classics. Moviegoing was considered a working-class activity. It was also discouraged by the churches, that might sponsor movie projections under proper supervision but strongly condemned the unsupervised exhibition of movies in the nickelodeons. It is telling that "aristocratic" Boston was late to the party: its first movie theater was Mitchell Mark's Theater Comique, and it was not quite a nickelodeon because the ticket cost ten cents. At the beginning cinema was mostly a show for men. Relatively few women and children mixed with the rowdy and vulgar crowd of the nickelodeon. The nickelodeons perceived themselves as the alternative to the vaudeville, and increasingly vaudeville houses were converted into nickelodeons. The puritan moral code of the Victorian era slowly took over, and more comfortable and elegant movie theaters were built.

Nickelodeons needed to at least match the weekly rotation of acts in the typical vaudevilly venue, i.e. offer a program of movies that changed at least weekly, and this required a steady supply of new movies. Exchanges (rental houses) were set up to distribute/rent movies. In 1903 in San Francisco the four brothers Harry, Herbert, Joseph and Earle Miles, started purchasing films from production studios and renting them out to movie "exhibitors" on a weekly basis, and a few months later opened an office also in New York, as well as one of Manhattan's first nickelodeons. Chicago, that had more nickelodeons per capita than any other city in the USA, was the first major center for movie exchanges, pioneered in 1896 by William Swanson and George Kleine and, on a larger scale, in 1905 by Eugene Cline's company, George Spoor's National Film Renting Company, Max Lewis' Chicago Film Exchange, and Robert Bachman's 20th Century Optiscope. William Swanson and Carl Laemmle set up their own exchanges in 1906. By 1907 Chicago boasted at least 15 film exchanges, controlling 80% of the movie distribution market in the USA. William Fox opened the first major New York exchange in 1907, the Greater New York Film Rental Company.

Vitagraph and Pathe' were the two production companies that catered to the nickelodeons. They also created the first trade paper for that audience, the Views and Film Index, published in New York in 1908.

Chicago was also at the vanguard of producing movies, an activity pioneered in 1896 by William Selig (born William Zeligowsky), a vaudeville magician and manager of a San Francisco-based vaudeville show, with his Selig Polyscope Company (which in 1909 also established the first permanent studio in Los Angeles). In 1907 inventor and nickelodeon owner George Spoor and actor Gilbert Anderson (better known as "Broncho Billy Anderson") founded Essanay to make movies. Spoor and Edward Hill Amet had already built in 1894 a 35-mm movie projector for theaters (one year before the Lumieres) called the "magniscope", and in 1897 Spoor had pioneered movie journalism with a newsreel of the inauguration of president William McKinley.

In 1906 the Miles Brothers built the first movie studio on the West Coast, but it was destroyed days later in the famous San Francisco earthquake and fire.

In 1907 Edison, who owned most of the US patents for motion picture equipment, began a legal campaign against his competitors. Only one survived: Biograph, that used a different technology. This forced movie producers to import French and British movies. In December 1908 Edison formed the Motion Picture Patents Company to fight independent film producers and film exchanges: Biograph, Selig, Lubin, Essanay, Kalem, Vitagraph, Pathe' and Melies joined with George Kleine (by then the main movie distributor) and Eastman Kodak (the biggest supplier of raw film stock) against independents like Carl Laemmle and William Fox. Edison's cartel de facto controlled all the patents on film stock, cameras and projectors. The independents reacted to Edison's persecution by moving as far as possible from Edison's New Jersey base, where the law couldn't reach them: to Los Angeles, and more specifically Hollywood. In 1911 Eastman Kodak broke with the cartel and started selling again to the independents, and in 1913 many of the original patents expired. In 1912 the independents started making feature-length films, and the cartel was late in understanding the appeal of the longer format (Edison, Biograph, Essanay and Vitagraph released their first feature films only in 1914). In 1915 the final nail in the coffin was provided by a court that accused Edison's cartel of violating the anti-trust Sherman Act.

At the same time the nickelodeons was being supplanted by the "palace theater", the upscale movie theater, more expensive but also more comfortable, targeting the upperclass. Thomas Lamb was the architect who designed New York's most famous ones: William Fox's City Theatre (1909), Henry Marvin's Regent Theater (1913), with a design inspired by both Venice palaces and Spanish-Moorish palaces, and the ones that popped up in Times Square: the Mark Strand Theater (1914), the Rialto Theater (1916) and the Rivoli Theater (1917).

Moving pictures even invaded Europe, stealing the market from the French, while genres (current events, adventure, comedy, mystery, romance, animation, etc.) were proliferating and crystallizing in proto-classical forms. The worldwide spread of American cinema and the consequent crisis of European cinematographies was followed by a massive immigration of foreign, especially French, talent. Technical advances, due to pioneers such as James Blackton, allowed subjects to mature rapidly, so much so that a personality such as Edwin Porter's could already manifest itself in the early years.

But the great turning point for American cinema was the rush to California, (rich in authentic landscapes and Indians), which began in 1908, as a result of which Hollywood, a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, became the capital of world cinema.

Among the businessmen, directors and actors who deserted New York to move to Los Angeles was Adolph Zukor, a Hungarian immigrant who at the turn of the century had grown rich starting with a humble nickel-odeon, the man who founded Paramount, the first Hollywood behemoth, in 1914. This was followed in 1915 by Universal and Fox, in 1920 by Metro-Goldwin-Mayer, in 1917 by Warner Bros. and in 1924 by Columbia, almost all of which were run by immigrants who came from nowhere. Immigrants were also key players in American serials, which arose in the wake of the success of Fantomas, with Louis Gasnier being the main protagonist.

At the outbreak of World War I, Hollywood was teeming with studios, and the war between producers had already begun. The war was another major incentive for the growth of American cinema: nationalist propaganda and the breathtaking spectacle of war films piqued the interest of domestic audiences, while the new crisis in European cinemas encouraged further expansion abroad. This era dense with political, social and customary events culminated cinematically with the extraordinary personalities of David Griffith, Cecil de Mille and Thomas Ince. During the war Europe stopped producing films: while in 1914 the U.S. produced 50 percent of the world's films, by 1919 the percentage had risen above 90 percent. American culture, in which theater was not deeply rooted, immediately used film as a spectacle in its own right; indeed, for commercial needs it tended precisely to differentiate it from other types of entertainment. The Americans, also advantaged by a more dynamic and modern mentality, and less inhibited by prejudices against a new and popular art, knew how to exploit the invention better than the French, to whom, moreover, they owed everything technically (except what they owed to the Italians).

Cinema up to World War I portrays the spirit and life of the age, the age in which liberal economics triumphed, and in which American society, with its typical individualistic component, demonstrated its first evils (violence, physical and moral, above all).

James Blackton e Louis Gasnier

James Blackton was the most illustrious of the pioneers of American cinema, those adventurous people who made films on New York rooftops and filmed documentaries of the Cuban War; from 1903 until the crisis of '29 he made dozens of miscellaneous little films with which he inaugurated the great American cinematography; the repertoire included comedy films, literary films, war films (The battle cry of peace) complete with German invasion of America, animated drawings (The haunted hotel, which places him with Cohl and Reynaud among the progenitors of animated cinema), and above all scenes of true life, in which he first put a stop to the ridiculous mimicry rhetoric of the actors. Although still halfway between appendix cinema and realist cinema, Blackton is Hollywood's first great.

Louis Gasnier, a Frenchman who emigrated before the war, launched the American serial into the world with The exploits of Elaine, about fifty episodes in all; hinging on the adventures of a blond heroine (Pearl White), the films resorted to the usual gimmicks of the detective story: rooftop escapes, thieving journalists and detectives, bombs, jewelry, cars--a full deployment of the arsenal of tricks to keep the audience in suspense, plus a jaunty girl to tint the whole thing pink.

Edwin Porter
David Griffith
Thomas Ince
Cecil De Mille

The Stars

Sarah Bernhardt (1844)

Eleonora Duse (1858)

Lilian Gish (1896)

Asta Nielsen (1883)

Ingrid Bergman (1915)

Greta Garbo 1905)

Pola Negri (1897)

Emil Jannings (1884)

Marlene Dietrich (1904)

Gloria Swanson (1898)

Douglas Fairbanks (1883)

Mary Pickford (1893)

Louise Brooks (1900)

Rudolph Valentino

The 1920s

Cinema was a young art but in the 1920s it was already under threat in the USA by a new form of art: radio, which was also free. Hollywood responded with a sort of boom that yielded King Vidor's The Big Parade (1925) and The Crowd (1928), Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush (1925) and The Circus (1928), Buster Keaton's The General (1927) , Frank Borzage's Seventh Heaven (1927); and then of course with sound.

The pressure from radio was weaker in Europe, where stations started appearing only in the 1920s: the British Broadcasting Company (BBC)and Radio Paris in 1922, Funk-Stunde AG Berlin and Austria's Radio Hekaphon in 1923, Unione Radiofonica Italiana and the Soviet Comintern radio station in 1924, Sweden's AB Radiotjanst in 1925. Even a decade later Europe still lagged behind the USA in adoption of radio receivers: in 1937 there were 26 million in the USA (out of a population of 128 million), 8 million in both Britain and Germany (out of a population of 70 million), 5 million in France (population 40 million). At the same time that Hollywood was focusing on melodramas and comedies, Germany produced Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924), Georg Wilhelm Pabst's Joyless Street (1925), Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926) and Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's Sunrise (1927), and France produced Marcel L'Herbier's The Inhuman Woman (1924) Germaine Dulac's The Devil in the City (1925) and Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Jeanne d'Arc (1927), and Russia produced Sergei Eisenstein's Strike (1924), Iakov Protazanov's Aelita (1924), Aleksandr Dovzenko's Zvenigora (1928) Grigorij Kozincev's and Leonid Trauberg's New Babylon (1929) and Dziga Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera (1929). Generally speaking, European films were more intellectual and less "entertaining", and the limited impact of radio was probably a factor. There the competition was with theater, not radio.

Naturalism in Scandinavia

(Translated by DeepL from my old Italian text.

Ole Olsen and Carl Magnusson were the distributors who, in 1906 and 1909 respectively, began to spread cinema in Scandinavia, in Denmark the former, in Scotland the latter. While the early Swedish filmmakers were crucially influenced by Strindberg's mystical naturalism, the Danes, lacking such an artistic figure in their homeland, indulged in all directions, including, yes, even the Strindbergian analysis of provincial life and customs, but without skimping on forays into other European literatures and always keeping the American model of spectacular cinema in mind; while Magnusson's court thus erected a cinematography of a purely national character, Olsen's scullerymen incorporated the demands of international cinema.

The war favored the Nordic (non-warring) countries, whose films circulated, for lack of anything else, in theaters on the continent, competing with the other war speculators, the Americans. During the war therefore Swedish cinema enjoyed a period of considerable vitality, which fostered and prepared for the advent of the great Swedish school (Sjostrom. Stiller, Brunius , Molander).

Denmark, on the other hand, continued to follow different paths, but in the same period (from the beginning of the war to the 1920s) imposed certain characteristics that would migrate, with their originators, to Hollywood, such as mundane drama and female stardom (Blom, Gad) or that anticipated German expressionism, (the decadentism of Holger, Madsen, Christensen's surrealism, Dreyer's symbolism).

Swedish cinema continued in the footsteps of naturalist theater and the national saga; a cinema capable of reflecting on drama and not just using it as a spectacular element; a cinema capable of handling as much closed space as open space, as much empty space as full space.

August Blom e Urban Gad

(Translated by DeepL from my old Italian text.

August Blom initiated Danish art filmmaking with a series of reductions from literary works and a conspicuous collaboration with the most popular Danish theater actors of the time. When he changed genres and devoted himself to melodrama, his emotional directing style gave great prominence to the performers, making them famous on international audiences. From social drama (Ved faengslets port) he moved on to grandiose stagings, with the ambitious Atlantis.

Urban Gad directed Afgrunden in 1910, a film doubly important because it was a masterpiece of Danish social drama and because it was the starring debut of Asta Nielsen, the only prewar diva. The film recounts the flight from home of a young woman fascinated by the circus, her love for a cowboy, his betrayal, and his murder by the jealousy-crazed young woman; the subject brought two novelties to cinema: the settling theme of women's emancipation and a pronounced eroticism, typical of Nordic actresses but banished by puritanical American cinema; the analysis of love passion and jealousy anticipates the female portraits of German cinema, and contrasts vividly with the domestic myth of the Hollywood woman. The film also depicts the circus environment, i.e., the world of entertainment.

Forest Holger

(Translated by DeepL from my old Italian text.

Forest Holger directed films during the war that were characterized by black, decadent dreamlike atmospheres and striking camera techniques. With the latter he anticipated the filmic syntax of expressionism, while with his twisted and morbid subjects he stood somewhere between a stylized and ethereal cinema and avant-garde cinema. He touched on the phantasmagoric (Opium sdrommen),the occult (Spiritisten) and science fiction (Himmekskibet).

Benjamin Christensen
Gustaf Molander

John Brunius

(Translated by DeepL from my old Italian text.

John Brunius personifies the two sides of Swedish silent cinema: the study of the village setting and historical re-enactment. To the first strand belongs Sjnnöve solbakken, which is poetic and rigorous, while of the second genre are the grandiose stagings of the 1920s, including Fanrik Stals Sagner, in which national folklore and psychological analysis strike the right balance.

Victor Sjostrom
Mauritz Stiller
Carl Dreyer

German Expressionism

(Translated by DeepL from my old Italian text.

In 1918 (while a communist revolution was under way in Berlin and Bavaria had proclaimed itself a socialist republic) the Social Democrats had founded the Weimar Republic; Weimar briefly stifled the Spartacist revolution and established a democratic regime, albeit a precarious one (seventeen governments in fifteen years), and not unmoored from centuries-old authoritarian thrusts (which held an iron fist to both the schools and the army).

The immediate postwar period was a time of great cultural vibrancy for Germany.

In 1916 Albert Einstein formulated his theory of general relativity; in 1919 Walter Gropins founded the Bauhaus, a temple of European rationalism; in 1922# Bertold Brecht's epic theater rose to national prominence. And in the meantime the effects of the great ideas of the last nineteenth century continued to manifest themselves: Marxism and Freud's psychoanalysis.

The spirit of the age, however, is still gathered in expressionism, born in the early years of the century; expressionist theater (Wedekind, Raiser, Toller) stages a visionary climate and plunges into darkness characters who have been entrusted with exalted monologues, to be repeated with exaggerated acting.

Until World War I, the German film market was contested between the French, Italians and Americans. During the war, Germany's three thousand screening theaters were instead the preserve of neutral producers (such as the Scandinavians), but at the same time domestic production began, partly (for example in the work of Joe Mouy) by imitation of foreign models (detective serials, exotic adventures, melodrama, historical reduction), partly for purposes of wartime propaganda (the UFA, founded in 1917), and partly finally as a result of the intervention of theatrical men, stimulated by the demands of the avant-garde to take an interest in such a powerful artistic medium. The myth of total art involved some of the major theatrical figures.

The epicenter of the phenomenon was initially the Deutsches Theater, since 1905 the personal empire of director Max Reinhardt. He was developing new methods of theater directing, culminating in large-scale light shows and various gimmicks. In addition to directly influencing many film directors of his era, Reinhardt also prepared a generation of very talented actors, including Emil Jannings, the world's most famous Faust, Werner Krauss, Wedekind's favorite performer, Conrad Veidt, Fritz Kortner, Ernest Lubitsch, Paul Wegener, and, a generation later, Peter Lorre and Marlene Dietrich; as well as the Polish Pola Negri, whom he imported specifically for the cinema. Of the properly expressionist theater directors moreover, only Leopold Jesner, was somehow involved in the anonymous film venture.

The birth of the UFA and the availability of so many outstanding actors generated a rapid takeoff of German filmmaking. UFA's growth staggered; and in the 1920s it was the only one that could compete with Hollywood. Propaganda films morphed into satire and eventually gave rise to the brilliant comedy (Lubitsch). Art films, on the other hand, gave life often with a historical background to the great Expressionist school, which, in addition to transferring the typical expressive codes of the theatrical genre to the screen, introduced new techniques for set design (which became a decisive element of the action), acting and subject writing, often inspired by legends (typical of the Germanic Middle Ages), the annihilation of the individual in the collective (the German conception of the nation as a large army) and all forms of abnormality, sexual or mental, physical or moral. Expressionist cinema developed the dramatic effect of objects, lighting and camera movements. In a word it merged all the elements of cinematic representation. For example, projecting the shadows of characters onto a symbolic background also means exploring the hidden part of reality, especially when the characters are monstrous and unhappy automatons torn apart by feelings.

German cinema grafted these themes that the avant-garde into the structure of black feuilletas of French origin and popular melodrama of American origin.

Expressionist cinema could be divided into three strands:

The horror film: Zelnik Martin, Wegener, Wiene, Galeen, Leni, Lang.

The street film: Grune, Czinner, Martin, May, Metzner, Murnau, Rahn.

The chamber film ("kammerspiel"): Lupu-pik, Robinson, Pabst. Piscator. Mittler, Dudow, Hochbaum von Rickter.

The first genre exploited to the hilt the tricks of generating fear, with entirely fantastic subject matter, sometimes mediated by the Gothic literature of a century earlier.

The second was a type of social cinema, already on the threshold of realism, derived instead from the theater of petit-bourgeois rebellion (George Kaiser).

The third was the transposition of the Kammerspiel, the chamber drama, with few characters and intense psychological investigation, taking place in a few, possibly cramped, interiors; the theatrical Kammerspiel was represented mainly by Reinhardt and Strindberg, while the cinematic Kammerspiel rested on the figure of Carl Mayer, the greatest screenwriter of German cinema, a theorist of cinema without captions and in which projection time and action time coincide.

Expressionist cinema in all its manifestations always had marked characteristics of psychoanalytic art. And precisely because it was an expression of the collective subconscious, it anticipated the national tragedy of the 1930s (national nightmare) with surprising prescience. Expressionism was, however, a phenomenon that quickly petered out, although it left its mark in the works of all its protagonists. German serials were distinguished from French, Italian and American serials by their taste for the supernatural: Hammeulus#, the perfect man created in a laboratory.

In the stabilized period (around 1930) of the Weimar Republic, many other genres spread:

- the war film (Victor Trivas' Niemansland, in which five soldiers who are enemies among themselves strike up brotherly friendships);

- the youth film (Leontine Sagan's Mädchen in uniform, about the regimented women's boarding schools of the time; Lanyrecht's Anne und der detektive);

- Arnold Fanch's mountain film (Pitz Palü), a slender melodrama against a documentary backdrop of great expanses of snow and inviolate peaks);

- the musical film (Willi Forst's Leise fllehen meine lieder, or Mac Oplsuls's Triebelei, typical Viennese operettas) the actual operetta Der Kongress tanzt by Erik Charell, a parody of the Vienna Congress, and an apologia for the merry Austrian people;

-.the biographical film (Suarez by William Dieterle);

- the popular melodrama (Gerhard Lamprecht's Die verrufenen);

- the fairy tale film (Lotte Reiniger's Prinze achmed, shadow animation).

The Weimar Republic's cinema was bursting at the seams, but not so the republic's economy, which, after the crisis of 1929, was cut off from the international funds that had in fact kept it alive

The advent of Nazism (1933) meant a profound and sudden setback for art: the regime forced all true artists to leave the country, and directed from above the work of the mediocre tradesmen who remained at court.

Regime cinema included films about young people (Hans Steinhoff's Hitlerjunge Auer) anti-Semitic films (Veit Harlan's Jude Güss) nationalist films (Leni Stiefenstahl's Olympia).

Nazi aesthetics favored gruesome choreography and masses of extras, exalted collective ritual, order and hierarchy, and the supremacy of the Aryan race and the German nation.

Until the collapse of Nazism, German cinema could not progress.

Paul Wegener
Robert Wiene
Paul Leni
Carl Mayer
Arthur Robinson
Karl Grune
Karl Martin e Paul Czinner
Fritz Lang
Friedrich Murnau

Karl Martin and Paul Czinner

(Translated by DeepL from my old Italian text.

A theatrical director of great stature, Karl Martin indulged very little in cinema, but his debut, Von Morgens bis Mitternachts (1920), the film adaptation of Georg Kaiser's rebel manifesto, provided a valuable prototype for the street film genre. Characterized by a violent paraphrase of bourgeois myths (culminating in the crucifixion, both physical and moral, of the bourgeois), spasmodic tension and exaggerated symbolism, the film turns out perhaps the most radical work in all expressionist cinema.

To the street film also belongs Nju (1924) by Paul Czinner, but with aspects typical of the kammerspiel. Psychological introspection takes on even intimate characters, and the scruple for detail already hints at a realism-like sensibility. Jannings (the husband) and Veidt (the lover) are grappling with an unsatisfied woman, a compromise between Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary; and indeed the film is reminiscent of both Russian psychological and French naturalist novels. Placing the drama in an affluent setting gives the film a less radical message; precisely because of this, however, films like Nju influenced the maturation of worldly melodrama.


Continues in Italian here.


Alan Crosland's The Jazz Singer (1927), an adaptation of Samson Raphaelson's play "The Jazz Singer" (1925), that producer Sam Warner wanted to promote his new sound technology, Vitaphone, acquired in 1925 from Western Electric. This equipment printed the soundtrack on 16-inch phonograph records recorded at 33 RPMs (a novelty) and required a turntable physically attached to the projector in the theater. Lee DeForest had already invented a similar system, also capable of synchronizing images, music, singing and speech, but couldn't compete with Western Electric. Vitaphone had been employed in 1926 in a film with no dialog, only for the musical soundtrack, Don Juan, also directed by Alan Crosland, and in a ten-minute film of songs, A Plantation Act, performed by Al Johnson in blackface. Johnson (Asa Yoelson) was Lithuanian-born vaudeville singer who, hired by theater manager Lee Shubert and performing in blackface, had been turned into a Broadway star by Jerome Kern's musical revue "La Belle Paree" (1911), by Edmund Eysler's operetta "Vera Violetta" (1911) and by Sigmund Romberg's exotic musicals "Sinbad" (1918) and "Bombo" (1921). The limitation of The Jazz Singer remained the same: only the songs were recorded on Vitaphone, the rest of the acting was still silent. Nonetheless, The star attracted a crowd and the press, and they were moved to collective hysteria by the songs. Lloyd Bacon was then hired for Al Jolson's first all-talking movies, The Singing Fool (1928) and Say It with Songs (1929), while Michael Curtiz directed Mammy (1930) and Crosland directed Big Boy (1930). The best of the Jolson talkies as Hallelujah I'm a Bum (1933), directed by Lewis Milestone, scripted by Ben Hecht and scored by Richard Rodgers.

The advent of sound prompted studios to add music to the film, replacing the theater musician. Studios quickly realized that musical soundtracks added value to the film and started hiring professional symphonic composers to create complex musical accompaniments, and at the same time developed technology to play stereo sound in theaters. Luckily, at the same time Bell Labs (the same group that had developed the Vitaphone and in collaboration with classical music conductor Leopold Stokowski) was improving the technology of sound recording. Western Electric (the commercial arm of Bell Labs) improved the electrical recording system originally introduced in 1925 (which already was a major improvement over Edison's mechanical system) to the point that in 1933 it was producing high-fidelity stereo recordings and in 1940 was used by Disney for the groundbreaking soundtrack of Fantasia. Note that only a few selected theaters were equipped with stereo sound systems, so that for more than a decade the vast majority of viewers heard a mono version of the soundtrack.


In 1934 Daniel Lord, a Catholic priest, wrote a Production Code to enforce morality on Hollywood films. The reasons why this code was adopted by Hollywood are complex, but during the Great Depression moral pressures tended to work on Washington. Furthermore, there were numerous psychological studies showing that cinema was having a bad influence on young people. Lord's commandements started with: "No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it". The main target of the censors was "obscenity", a vague word that Lord defined in broad terms. Tim Wu points out the irony that it was "a Catholic movement designed to discipline Jewish producers on behalf of a Protestant majority".


The big Hollywood studios had created the equivalent of Ford's assembly line: a vertical integration of businesses that fed into each other, from the conception of the film all the way down to its distribution. The great era of Hollywood film-making began in 1948, when the FCC ruled that the integrated studio-theatre system violated anti-trust laws. Until that year the big Hollywood companies had ruled cinema and stymied (artistic) competition, not to mention the distribution of foreign films. Theaters were allowed to show only what the studios wanted to show, which was typically what the studios made. The "Production Code" became harder to enforce, and this resulted in more varied and often "scandalous" themes. The 1948 ruling ushered in the era of foreign films, that many independent theaters decided to carry, and of experimentation inside Hollywood itself.

Wuxia movies

Wuxia, Chinese martial-arts films, sword-fighting films, fell into neglect after the advent of sound. They often borrowed from Chinese opera. After Zhang Shichuan’s Burning of the Red Lotus Temple (1931) wuxia remained limited to Hong Kong and Taiwan cinemas and absent in mainland China In the 1960s the Shaw Brothers, a Taiwanese studio modeled after Hollywood's factory-like production, popularized wuxia films . The first wuxia movie in mainland China in 70 years was Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002).

War movies of the 1970s and 1980s

Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) and Ted Kotcheff's First Blood (1982), the first film of the "Rambo" franchise, Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986), all three set in the Vietnam War, Roger Spottiswoode's Under Fire (1983) and Oliver Stone's Salvador (1986), both set in the Sandinista revolution of Nicaragua, Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields (1984), set in Cambodia during the brutal rule of the communist Khmer Rouge regime,

The State of Cinema in 2022

Godard once said: “The dream of Hollywood is to make one film, and it's television that makes it, but it is distributed everywhere”. That’s precisely what happened in the 21st century. Hollywood started making the same movie over and over again (car chase, love story, super-hero) often through an endless series of sequels. What movies were lacking in imagination they compensated with effects. Ironically, the flood of new titles via the new medium of “streaming”, the sheer abundance of choice, had nullified art. The audience didn’t rebel. Instead it slowly but steadily got numb to the utter un-originality of the movies, even addicted to predictability in the plot. By the 2020s, the number of people capable of understanding a nuanced, complex, sophisticated film plummeted, and so it had become a vicious circle: the studios were making utterly pointless movies for an audience that demanded precisely that kind of movie, the exact same one, over and over again. The youngest in that audience had been raised on YouTube videos (and soon on even shorter TikTok videos). No surprise that many of the youngest valued videogames more than movies: there was a lot more complexity in videogames than in Hollywood movies. The more competent critics were accused of being out-of-touch with most moviegoers, and pretentious at best. This ended up favoring a new generation of critics who were equally unpretentious and incompetent. People hated the critics who were trying to warn people about the dangers of watching only inanity. People hated the critics who didn’t share their opinions, as if the role of the critic was merely to repeat what people posted on social media and on rating websites, i.e. blindly praise the most publicized and better distributed films, typically the blockbuster films, obviously a much easier job than watching 100s of films from all over the world.
TM, ®, Copyright © 2011-2023 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.

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