Although this book surveys the history of world cinema, we could hardly start with the question What is the history of world cinema? That would give us no help in setting about our research and organizing the material we find.
Following the aspects of film history outlined here, we have pursued three principal questions.
1. How have uses of the film medium changed or become normalized over time? Within “uses of the medium” we include matters of film form: the part/whole organization of the film. Often this involves telling a story, but a film’s overall form might also be based on an argument or an abstract pattern. The term “uses of the medium” also includes matters of film style, the patterned uses of film techniques (mise-en-scene, or staging, lighting, setting, and costume; camerawork; editing; and sound). In addition, any balanced conception of how the medium has been used must also consider film modes (documentary, avant-garde, fiction, animation) and genres (the Western, the thriller, the musical). So we also examine these phenomena. All such matters are central to most college and university survey courses in film history.
A central purpose of Film History: An Introduction is to survey the uses of the medium in different times and places. Sometimes we dwell on the creation of stable norms of form and style, as when we examine how Hollywood standardized certain editing options in the first two decades of filmmaking. At other times, we examine how filmmakers have proposed innovative ways of structuring form or using film technique.
2. How have the conditions of the film industry— production, distribution, and exhibition—affected the uses of the medium? Films are made within modes of production, habitual ways of organizing the labor and materials involved in creating a movie. Some modes of production are industrial. In these circumstances, companies make films as a business. The classic instance of industrial production is the studio system, in which firms are organized in order to make films for large audiences through a fairly detailed division of labor. Another sort of industrial production might be called the artisanal, or one-off, approach, in which a production company makes one film at a time (perhaps only one film, period). Other modes of production are less highly organized, involving small groups or individuals who make films for specific purposes. In any event, the ways in which films are made have had particular effects on the look and sound of the finished products.
So have the ways in which films are shown and consumed. For example, the major technological innovations associated with the early 1950s—wide-screen picture, stereophonic sound, increased use of color— were actually available decades earlier. Each could have been developed before the 1950s, but the U. S. film industry had no pressing need to do so since film attendance was so high that spending money on new attractions would not have significantly increased profits. Only when attendance dropped precipitously in the late 1940s were producers and exhibitors impelled to introduce new technologies to lure audiences back into theaters.
3. How have international trends emerged in the uses of the film medium and in the film market? In this book we try to balance the consideration of important national contributions with a sense of how international and cross-cultural influences were operating. Many nations’ audiences and film industries have been influenced by directors and films that have migrated across their borders. Genres are vagabond as well. The Hollywood Western influenced the Japanese samurai film and the Italian Western, genres that in turn influenced the Hong Kong kung-fu films of the 1970s; interestingly,
Hollywood films then began incorporating elements of the martial arts movie.
Just as important, the film industry itself is significantly transnational. At certain periods, circumstances closed off countries from the flow of films, but most often there has been a global film market, and we understand it best by tracing trends across cultures and regions. We have paid particular attention to conditions that allowed people to see films made outside their own country.
Each of these how questions accompanies a great many why questions. For any part of the processes we focus on, we can ask what conditions caused them to operate as they did. Why, for instance, did Soviet filmmakers undertake their experiments in disturbing, aggressive narrative? Why did Hollywood’s studio system begin to fragment in the late 1940s? Why did “new waves” and “young cinemas” arise in Europe, the Soviet Union, and Japan around 1960? Why are more films produced now with international investment than in the 1930s or 1940s? Historians are keen to know what factors made a change occur, and our general questions include a host of subquestions about causes and effects.
Recall our five general explanatory approaches: biographical, industrial, aesthetic, technological, and social. If we had to squeeze our book into one or more of these pigeonholes, we could say that its approach is predominantly aesthetic and industrial. It examines how types of films, film styles, and film forms have changed in relation to the conditions of film production, distribution, and exhibition within certain countries and within the international flow of films. But this summary of our approach is too confining, as even a cursory look at what follows will indicate. Sometimes we invoke the individual—a powerful producer, an innovative filmmaker, an imaginative critic. Sometimes we consider technology. And we often frame our account with discussions of the political, social, and cultural context of a period.
Take, for example, our central question: How have uses of the film medium changed or become normalized over time? This is a question about aesthetic matters, but it also impinges on factors of technology. For instance, conceptions of “realistic” filmmaking changed with the introduction of portable cameras and sound equipment in the late 1950s. Similarly, our second question—How have the conditions of the film industry affected the uses of the medium?—is at once economic, technological, and aesthetic. Finally, asking how international trends have emerged in the uses of the film medium and in the film market concerns both economic and social/cultural/political factors. In the early era of cinema, films circulated freely among countries, and viewers often did not know the nationality of a film they were seeing. In the 1910s, however, war and nationalism blocked certain films from circulating. At the same time, the growth of particular film industries, notably Hollywood, depended on access to other markets, so the degree to which films could circulate boosted some nations’ output and hindered that of others. In addition, the circulation of U. S. films abroad served to spread American cultural values, which in turn created both admiration and hostility.
In sum, we have been guided, as we think most historians are, by research questions rather than rigid conceptions of the “kind” of history we are writing. And what we take to be the most plausible answer to a given question will depend on the strength of the evidence and the argument we can make for it—not on a prior commitment to writing only a certain kind of history.
Our answers to historical questions are, however, not simply given in a list or summary. Like most historical arguments, ours takes a narrative form.
Historians use language to communicate their arguments and evidence to others. Descriptive research programs can do this through a summary of findings: this film is Diana I’affasdnatrice, made in Italy by Caesar-Film in 1915, directed by Gustavo Serena, and so on. But historical explanations require a more complicated crafting.
Sometimes historians frame their explanations as persuasive arguments. To take an example already cited, a historian investigating the development of sound by Warner Bros. might start by considering the various explanations already offered and taken for granted. Then he might set forth the reasons for believing his alternative interpretation. This is a familiar form of rhetorical argument, eliminating unsatisfactory beliefs before settling on a more plausible one.
More often, historians’ explanations take the form of stories. Narrative history, as it is called, seeks to answer how and why questions by tracing the relevant circumstances and conditions over time. It produces a chain of causes and effects, or it shows how a process works, by telling a story. For instance, if we are trying to answer the question How did the Hays Office negotiate with firms to arrive at an agreement about an acceptable film? we can frame a step-by-step narrative of the censorship process. Or, if we are seeking to explain what led the Hays Office to be created, we might lay out the causal factors as a story. As these examples indicate, the story’s “players” might be individuals or groups, institutions or even films; the “plot” consists of the situations in which the players operate and the changes they initiate and undergo.
Narrative is one of the basic ways in which humans make sense of the world, and so it is not surprising that historians use stories to make past events intelligible. We have accordingly framed this book as a large-scale narrative, one that includes several stories within it. This is partly because of custom: virtually all introductory historical works take this perspective, and readers are comfortable with it. But we also believe that there are advantages to working on a wide canvas. New patterns of information may leap to the eye, and fresh connections may become more visible when we consider history as a dynamic, ongoing process.
We divide film history into five large periods—early cinema (to about 1919), the late silent era (1919-1929), the development of sound cinema (1926-1945), the period after World War II (1946-1960s), and the contemporary cinema (1960s to the present). These divisions reflect developments in (1) film form and style; (2) major changes in film production, distribution, and exhibition; and (3) significant international trends. The periodization cannot be exactly synchronized for all three areas, but it does indicate approximate boundaries for the changes we try to trace.
In our attempt to systematically answer the three principal questions outlined earlier, we have relied on secondary sources, principally other historians’ writings on the matters we consider. We have also used primary sources: trade papers, the writings of filmmakers, and films. Because films constitute our major primary source, we need to say a few more words about how they serve as evidence in writing film history.
Although the cinema is a relatively young medium, invented only a little over a century ago, many films have already been lost or destroyed. For decades, movies were seen as products with temporary commercial value, and companies did little to ensure their preservation. Even when film archives were founded, beginning in the 1930s, they faced a daunting task of collecting and sheltering the thousands of films that had already been made. Moreover, the nitrate film stock, upon which most films up to the early 1950s were shot and printed, was highly flammable and deteriorated over time. Deliberate destruction of films, archive and warehouse fires,
A frame from Knocknagow (Film Company of Ireland, 1918)
And the gradual decomposition of nitrate stored in bad conditions have led to the loss of many titles. (In the frame above, severe nitrate deterioration has all but obliterated the figures.) According to rough estimates, only about 20 percent of silent films are known to survive. Many of these are still sitting in vaults, unidentified or unpreserved due to lack of funds.
Even more recent films may be inaccessible to the researcher. Films made in some small countries, particularly in Third World nations, do not circulate widely. Small archives may not have the facilities to preserve films or show them to researchers. In some cases, political regimes may choose to suppress certain films and promote others. We have attempted to examine a great range of types of international films. Inevitably we could not track down every film we hoped to see, and sometimes we were unable to include photographs from those we did see.
Nevertheless, we have surveyed a large number of films, and we offer this book as both an overview of the history of cinema and an attempt to see it in a somewhat new light. Film history, for us, is less an inert body of knowledge than an activity of inquiry. After a researcher has made a serious argument in an attempt to answer a question, “film history” is no longer quite what it was before. The reader gains not only new information and a new point of view. New patterns emerge that can make even familiar facts stand out with fresh force.
If film history is a generative, self-renewing activity, then we cannot simply offer a condensation of “all previous knowledge.” We are, in a sense, casting what we find into a new form. Throughout the years spent researching and writing this book, we have come to believe that it offers a fairly novel version of the shape of film history, both its overall contour and its specific detail. We have relied on the research of a great many scholars in gathering the information and arguments presented here, but we are chiefly responsible for the particular story we tell.
Recognizing that there are many stories to be told about cinema, we have appended to each chapter a section titled “Notes and Queries.” In these we raise side issues, explore recent discoveries, and trace some more specialized historiographic matters.
We have taken the opportunity of this second edition of Film History: An Introduction to update its coverage and to take into account historical work that has appeared since its initial publication in 1994. We thank the scholars whose research initially made it possible for us to rethink the history of the medium we love, as well as those who contributed to this revision and those who will continue to challenge us to hone the ideas we offer here.
1. The survey of film aesthetics most appropriate to our undertaking here is David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, 6th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001).
2. This research program is described in Henry Jenkins, What Made Pistachio Nuts? Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992).
3. See Lea Jacobs, The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film (1991; reprint Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).
4. See, for example, Yuri Tsivian, et al., Silent Witnesses: Russian Films 1908-1919 (Pordenone: Giornate del Cinema Muto, 1989); Charles Musser, Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Tom Gunning, D. W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film: The Early Years at Biograph (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991); and Ben Brewster and Lea Jacobs, Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Early Feature Film (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).
5. Douglas Gomery, “The Coming of Sound: Technological Change in the American Film Industry,” in Tino Balio, ed., The American Film Industry, rev. ed. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), pp. 229-51. (See “Notes and Queries,” Chapter 9.)
The medium of cinema appeared in the mid-1890s, an era when the United States was still expanding into one of the world’s major colonialist powers. The Spanish-American War of 1898 resulted in the United States’ gaining control of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii, and part of Samoa. The United States itself was still in the process of formation. Idaho, Montana, and North and South Dakota had become states in 1889, and Arizona and New Mexico would not enter the Union until 1912. During the late nineteenth century, railroad, oil, tobacco, and other industries were expanding rapidly, and, in 1890, the Sherman Antitrust Act was passed in an attempt to limit the growth of monopolies.
Due to hard times in southern and eastern Europe, a new wave of immigrants arrived on American shores after 1890. Living mostly in ethnic communities within large cities, these non-English speakers would form a sizable audience for the silent cinema.
The first decade of the new century saw a progressivist impulse in America, under the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. There were movements to give women the vote, to prohibit child labor, to enforce antitrust laws, and to institute regulations to protect consumers. This era was also one of virulent racism, scarred by many lynchings. African American progressives formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909.
American expansion came at a time when the major European powers had already established far-flung empires and were engaged in an intricate game of jockeying for further power in such unstable areas as the Balkan States and the decaying Ottoman Empire. Tensions over such maneuvering, as well as mutual distrust, especially between France and Germany, led to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. This conflict gradually drew countries from all over the globe into the fighting. Although many citizens
Wanted no involvement, the United States entered the fray in 1917 and broke the stalemate that had developed, ultimately forcing Germany to surrender in 1918.
The global balance of power had shifted. Germany lost many of its colonies, and the United States emerged as the world’s leading financial force. President Woodrow Wilson tried to expand progressivist principles on an international scale, proposing a League of Nations to foster world unity. The League, formed in 1919, helped build a spirit of international cooperation during the 1920s, but it proved too weak to prevent lingering tensions from eventually causing a second international conflict.
During the three decades before World War I, the cinema was invented and grew from a small amusement-arcade business to an international industry. Films began as brief moving views presented as novelties, and, by the mid-1910s, the lengthy narrative feature film became the basis for cinema programs.
The invention of the cinema was a lengthy process, involving engineers and entrepreneurs in several countries. Struggles among patent holders in the United States slowed the development of the industry here, while French companies quickly seized the lead in markets throughout the world (Chapter 1).
From 1905 on, a rapid expansion in demand for motion-picture entertainment in the United States led to the spread of small movie theaters called nickelodeons. This demand was fueled in part by the rising immigrant population and in part by the shorter work hours gained by the increasingly militant labor-union movement. Soon America was far and away the world’s largest market for films—a situation that would allow it to increase its selling power abroad as well.
During the period of the “nickelodeon boom,” the story film became the main type of fare offered on programs. Films made in France, Italy, Denmark, the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere circulated widely around the world. Narrative traits and stylistic techniques changed rapidly as influences passed back and forth among countries. Movies grew longer, employed more editing, added explanatory intertitles, and featured a greater variety of camera distances. Adaptations from literature and lavish historical spectacles added prestige to the new art form (Chapter 2).
World War I had enormous effects on the cinema. The outbreak of hostilities triggered a severe cutback in French production, and the country lost its leading position in world markets. Italy soon encountered similar problems. The growing Hollywood film industry stepped in to fill the gap in supply, expanding its distribution system abroad. By the war’s end, American films had an international grip that other countries would struggle, usually with limited success, to loosen.
During this era, filmmakers in many countries explored film form. Film editing grew subtle and complex, acting styles became varied, and directors exploited long takes, realistic decor, and camera movement. By the end of World War I, many of today’s film conventions had been established (Chapter 3).