This post will serve as a recap for the films we’ve seen so far in our Paramount100: A Century of Cinema series. It will be updated each week with a brief description of the films most recently screened (including links to the films themselves or information on how you can see them), allowing you to continue following along with this journey through film history.
In the beginning, there were zoetropes (spinning toys that create the illusion of motion) and magic lanterns (early image projectors), entertaining diversions that planted the seed of motion pictures in the minds of inventors across the world. Zoetropes, like flipbooks, operate on the concept of “persistence of vision,” the idea that a succession of images flashed rapidly in front of our eyes can create the illusion of motion. In 1872, photographer Eadweard Muybridge carried this idea a step further when, in order to settle a bet, he took a series of photos of a horse running down a track to determine whether or not all four of the horse’s feet were ever off the ground at the same time. He got his answer (yes), but more importantly, he recognized that those images, played one by one in rapid succession, could recreate the actual motion of the running horse.
From there, it was only a matter of time before inventors created the technology to capture and exhibit motion pictures, with many of them clamoring to become the first, and most prolific, producer of this exciting new entertainment form. In the United States, famed inventor Thomas Edison, already familiar with the cutthroat game of patents and copyrights, wrested control of the industry in the early years with the Kinetograph, one of the first motion picture cameras (actually invented by cohort W.K.L Dickson). Because the Kinetograph’s significant weight made it anything but portable, Edison had to buy a tract of land in New Jersey and erect what was essentially the first movie studio. Dubbed The Black Maria, this makeshift studio was built on a turntable so that it could always allow the sunlight to shine through its retractable roof. In early Edison films from 1896 like THE KISS (see below), SANDOW, and SERPENTINE DANCES, you can understand where The Black Maria got its name. These movies mostly featured vaudeville actors performing their act in a black room in front of a static camera, resulting in something more like technical demonstrations than the art form we’ve come to know as film.
Whereas Edison initially presented his films to people individually through Kinetoscopes (aka “peep shows”), French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière were able to introduce the more communal moviegoing experience we know today through their Cinematographe, a device that could not only capture moving images but also project them onto a screen for an entire audience to see. In addition to this important innovation, the Cinematographe was also more portable than Edison’s camera, allowing these early French films to be shot outside in various locales. Thus, the Lumières and their cameramen were able to capture people going about their daily lives, resulting in films like EMPLOYEES LEAVING THE LUMIÈRE FACTORY and ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN AT LA CIOTAT (see below) from 1895 that are both fascinating and of great historical significance to those who want a glimpse of life at the turn of the 20th century.
After several years of enjoying these early short films, audiences began to want something more substantial, and filmmakers themselves were anxious to provide exactly that. New celluloid technologies made it possible for films to run longer than 10 minutes, and few were better equipped to take advantage of this new opportunity than French magician and entertainer Georges Méliès. This legendary filmmaker managed to translate his stage sleight of hand to the cinematic medium, utilizing the burgeoning concept of editing to make people disappear and reappear right in front of moviegoers’ eyes. In his most well-known film, A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902, see below), Méliès combined these camera tricks with magnificent costumes and set designs to create an imaginative space journey the likes of which audiences had never seen, proving that films could tell stories as well as any other medium.
However, as imaginative as Méliès’ visuals were, his films didn’t really venture beyond the cinematic boundaries set by those earlier films from the Edison and Lumière companies. His camera still remained static, and the narrative and its characters moved simply and blandly from one scene to the next. Though Méliès frequently employed editing, he never really used the technique to cut between action happening in two different places, now one of the basic foundations of cinematic language. American director Edwin Porter’s film THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903, see below) took a step further in that direction. Not only does Porter’s film feel more realistic by taking place outdoors in real locations (including a real moving train) as opposed to Méliès’ stagebound sets, THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY also revealed how the cinema, more than any other medium, could move freely between various situations to build tension and tell an exciting story. When you see Porter cut directly from a train robbery in progress to the cavalry assembling and giving chase, you’re essentially watching the cinema as we know it being birthed into life.
Over the next decade, these techniques continued to be refined by one innovative filmmaker after another, though perhaps no director played a more significant role in elevating movies into a publicly recognized art form than D.W. Griffith. Having failed as a playwright, Griffith initially tried his hand as an actor in short films, but he eventually realized that his true talents were found behind the camera. As a director, Griffith transformed the American cinema from a nickel-and-dime, “lowbrow” entertainment into something approaching art, using editing, moving cameras, close-ups, and naturalistic acting to create suspenseful and moving dramas that are much more “watchable” for modern audiences than most earlier films. Plus, many of the actors who worked with Griffith, including Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, became so popular and recognizable that the concept of movie stardom was born. His 1912 short THE MUSKETEERS OF PIG ALLEY (starring Gish, see below) was one of the high points of the silent short film era, yet it was only a taste of things to come.
After nearly 20 years of making short films, directors and producers with greater ambitions grew tired of being limited by a film’s running time, and audiences were ready to see what film could offer at a greater length. Italian “sword and sandal” epics retold national myths and legends at lengths of two or even three hours, to massive critical and audience acclaim. Encouraged by this response, Griffith decided it was time to move into feature-length films, resulting eventually in THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915), a film remembered as much for its stylistic and technical milestones as it is for revealing Griffith’s bigoted ideologies. In response to the praise for his filmmaking as well as the outcry over his racism, Griffith promptly began work on his next grand epic, INTOLERANCE.
Telling four different stories of humankind’s intolerance, each from a separate time period (Ancient Babylon, Biblical Times, 16th Century France, The Modern Era), Griffith’s film cuts back and forth between these stories at an increasingly rapid pace, leading to a thrilling and cinematically revolutionary climax. Not only did Griffith give audiences a taste of various genres that were popular at the time (ancient epics, stories about Jesus, modern social problem films), he also revealed what the cinema could achieve through editing. However, this unusual approach was perhaps too much for audiences at the time, and INTOLERANCE (streaming on Netflix) failed to match the blockbuster success of THE BIRTH OF A NATION, digging a deep financial and occupational hole from which Griffith would spend the rest of his career trying to escape.
While dramas like INTOLERANCE did wonders for the credibility of film as an art form, a three hour epic about cruelty wasn’t exactly what most working class patrons (a significant portion of the moviegoing audience) wanted to see after a long shift at work. Even after longer films became more popular, short comedies continued to play before these features to great success. Thus, it was only a matter of time before silent comedy masters like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, having already become stars through their short films, decided to try their hand at features, too.
Chaplin (pictured above from 1916) made his feature-length breakthrough with 1921’s THE KID. In addition to Chaplin’s lovable and iconic Little Tramp character, this memorable debut also features a star-making turn from adorable tyke Jackie Coogan as the young boy adopted by the Little Tramp. As funny as any of Chaplin’s earlier shorts, THE KID (streaming on Hulu Plus) also introduces a heavy dose of sentimentality, which would become a signature feature of Chaplin’s work. Thanks to Coogan’s heartbreaking performance, Chaplin manages to give us tears and chuckles in equal measure.
Though he wasn’t known for his directorial abilities the way Chaplin and Keaton were, Harold Lloyd was certainly well known for his comedic talents. Unlike Chaplin’s eternally destitute Tramp, Lloyd frequently portrayed a motivated young whippersnapper striving for success and the American Dream, armed with nothing but spunk and an iconic pair of glasses. This character was never better than in Lloyd’s most popular film, SAFETY LAST! (streaming on Hulu Plus), which features the iconic scene of Lloyd dangling from a clock on the side of a tall building. Though he isn’t discussed as often as Chaplin or Keaton, Lloyd’s matter-of-fact sense of humor and athletic prowess are truly a joy to watch.
While the continued success of American filmmakers like D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin laid the foundations for Hollywood’s still-existing dominance in the global film industry and defined what has come to be known as “classical filmmaking technique,” foreign directors and producers from France, Sweden, and elsewhere were defying cinematic norms and exploring bold new stylistic territory. In the early 1920s, this was most strikingly apparent in Germany, due to the sharp angles and dark shadows of the German Expressionism movement.
THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI in 1920 popularized the movement around the world, with its daring, jagged sets and threatening shadows creating an atmosphere of dread and menace. The madness of CALIGARI’s design permeated every other aspect of the film, including its actors’ performances, and it’s in the performances that NOSFERATU (streaming on Netflix) most clearly follows in CALIGARI’s footsteps. In particular, Max Schreck mystifies and terrifies in the titular role of Nosferatu, his beady eyes, pointed ears, and vermin-like teeth matched by the subtle, restrained eeriness of his performance. The image of a door swinging open and revealing Schreck’s inhuman creature standing morbidly in the doorway is one you won’t soon forget.
After German Expressionism proved to be a hit with audiences, Hollywood inevitably began to absorb some of the movement’s characteristics into its own movies. When German émigré Carl Laemmle founded Universal Pictures, he instilled the prevailing visual style of his homeland into many of his pictures. In one of his most popular productions, 1925’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (available to rent at Vulcan Video and I Luv Video), you can see the imprint of German Expressionism all over the film, from Lon Chaney’s hideously Nosferatu-esque Phantom to the dimly lit corridors of the Phantom’s lair. In fact, after the unmasking of the Phantom, you just might stop worrying about Nosferatu…