34 CHAPTER 2â€ƒThe International Expansion of the Cinema, 1905â€“1912
policeman wooing her maid and throws a bucket of water
on him. In Chapter 1, we saw that Edwin S. Porterâ€™s 1903
Uncle Tomâ€™s Cabin used a separate intertitle to introduce the
situation of each shot (see 1.30, 1.31). The longer film
length standardized during the nickelodeon era led to an
increasing number of intertitles.
There were two types of intertitles. Expository titles
were initially more common. Their texts were written in
the third person, summarizing the upcoming action or
simply setting up the situation. A typical one-reeler of
1911, Her Motherâ€™s FiancÃ© (made by Yankee, a small independent), introduced one scene with this title: â€œHome
from School. The Widowâ€™s daughter comes home unexpectedly and surprises her mother.â€ Other expository intertitles were more laconic, like the chapter titles in a
book. In a 1911 Vitagraph film, The Inherited Taint, a
scene begins with the title â€œAn engagement broken.â€ Intertitles could also signal time gaps between scenes as in
â€œThe following dayâ€ and â€œOne month later.â€
Filmmakers also sought a type of intertitle that could
convey narrative information less baldly. Information presented in dialogue titles came from within the story
Moreover, because films increasingly focused on character psychology, dialogue titles could suggest charactersâ€™
thoughts more precisely than gestures could. At first filmmakers were not quite sure where to insert dialogue titles.
Some put the title before the shot in which the character
delivered the line. Other filmmakers placed the dialogue
title in the middle of the shot, just after the character had
begun to speak. The latter placement became the norm by
1914, as filmmakers realized that the spectator could better understand the scene if the title closely coincided with
the speech in the image.
dancers in Le
2.20 The fiancÃ© moves away, leaving
the heroine unprotected. By making him
turn from us, Gad forces us to pay more
attention to her and her former lover
2.19 In Afgrunden, the lovers are
interrupted by the thug.
2.21 The thug moves to frame center,
balancing the composition and asserting
his control of the situation (Afgrunden).
diagonally from the distance into the foreground. Similarly,
Alfred Machinâ€™s Le Moulin maudit (â€œThe Accursed Mill,â€
Belgium, 1909) shows villagers dancing up to and past the
camera along a curved path (2.18).
From 1906 or so onward, filmmakers began giving
more depth to indoor scenes as well. The results could be
quite complex, with figures moving or halting to create
vivid compositions and to highlight an actorâ€™s gesture or
facial expression. In Urban Gadâ€™s Afgrunden (â€œDownfall,â€
Denmark, 1910), the heroineâ€™s effort to reunite with her
fiancÃ© is blocked by her past involvement with a thug. Gad
presents the thugâ€™s arrival so as to emphasize the fiancÃ©â€™s
helpless response (2.19â€“2.21). In such ways, as the drama
unfolded moment by moment, depth staging could guide
the viewerâ€™s eye to the most important parts of the
Intertitlesâ€ƒBefore 1905, most films had no intertitles.
Their main titles often gave information concerning the basic situations in the simple narratives to come. In 1904, for
example, the Lubin company released A Policemanâ€™s Love
Affair, a six-shot comedy about a rich woman who catches a
The Problem of Narrative Clarity 35
swiveled up and down to create tilts. Tilts and pans were
often used to make slight adjustments, or reframings, when
the figures moved about. This ability to keep the action
centered enhanced the comprehensibility of scenes.
Colorâ€ƒAlthough most of the prints of silent films that we
see today are black and white, many were colored in some
fashion when they first appeared. Two techniques for color
release prints became common. Tinting involved dipping an
already-developed positive print into a dye bath that colored
the lighter portions of the images while the dark ones remained black. In toning, the already-developed positive print
was placed in a different chemical solution that saturated
the dark areas of the frame while the lighter areas remained
Why add an overall color to the images? Color could
provide information about the narrative situation and
hence make the story clearer to the spectator. Vitagraphâ€™s
Jepthahâ€™s Daughter uses tinting for a miracle scene; the
pink color suggests fire (Color Plate 2.2). Blue tinting was
frequently used to indicate night scenes (Color Plate 2.3).
Amber tints were common for night interiors, green for
scenes in nature, and so on. Similar color codes held for
toning. For ordinary daylight scenes, toning in sepia or
purple was typical (Color Plate 2.4). Color was also used
to enhance realism. After PathÃ© introduced its stencil system, other companies applied similar techniques (Color
Set Design and Lightingâ€ƒBetween 1905 and 1912, as
production companies were making more money from
their films, some built larger studio buildings to replace the
earlier open-air stages and cramped interior studios. Most
of these had glass walls to admit sunlight (2.7) but also
included some type of electric lighting. As a result, many
films used deeper, more three-dimensional settings, and
some used artificial light.
Camera Position and Actingâ€ƒDecisions about where
to place the camera were important for ensuring that the
action would be comprehensible to the viewer. The edges
of the image created a frame around the events depicted.
Objects or figures at the center tended to be more
Methods of framing the action changed after 1908. In
order to convey the psychology of the characters, for example, filmmakers began to put the camera slightly closer to the
actors so that their facial expressions would be more visible.
This trend seems to have started about 1909, when the 9-foot
line was introduced. This meant that the camera, instead of
being 12 or 16 feet back and showing the actors from head
to toe, was placed only 9 feet away, cutting off the actors just
below the hips. Some reviewers complained that this looked
unnatural and inartistic, but others praised the acting in
films by Vitagraph, which pioneered this technique.
In Vitagraphâ€™s The Inherited Taint (1911), for example, the young hero belongs to a family with a history of
alcoholism. In one scene, he sits at a table in the foreground and orders his servant to bring in some liquor. The
camera is close enough to both actors for us to see their
faces clearly (2.22). After the servant exits, we watch the
hero become inebriated. During the early teens, conventional pantomime gestures continued to be used but were
more restrained and were increasingly used in combination with facial expressions.
Another technique of framing that changed during
this period was the use of high and low camera angles. In
early fiction films, the camera usually viewed the action at
a level angle, about chest- or waist-high. By about 1911,
however, filmmakers began occasionally to frame the action from slightly above or below when doing so provided
a more effective vantage point on the scene (2.23).
During these same years, camera tripods with swiveling heads were introduced. With such tripods, the camera
could be turned from side to side to make pan shots or
2.22, leftâ€ƒIn The Inherited Taint, the servantâ€™s
expression conveys his concern as his master
(Maurice Costello) prepares to drink for the
2.23, rightâ€ƒA camera framing from a slightly
high angle enhances the drama of the final
guillotine scene in Vitagraphâ€™s 1911 three-reel
feature A Tale of Two Cities.
36 CHAPTER 2â€ƒThe International Expansion of the Cinema, 1905â€“1912
connection with each preceding [shot].â€4
From about 1906
onward, filmmakers developed techniques for maintaining
this â€œunbroken connection.â€ By 1917, these techniques
would come together in the continuity system of editing.
This system involved three basic ways of joining shots:
crosscutting, analytical editing, and contiguity editing.
Crosscuttingâ€‚Before 1906, narrative films did not move
back and forth between actions in separate spaces. In
most cases, one continuous action formed the whole story.
The popular chase genre provides the best example. Here
an event triggers the chase, and the characters keep running through one shot after another until the culprit is
caught. If a narrative involved several actions, the film
would concentrate on one in its entirety and then move on
to the next.
One of the earliest known cases where the action cuts
back and forth between locales, with at least two shots in
each place, occurs in The 100-to-One Shot (1906, Vitagraph). The situation is a last-minute race to pay the mortgage before the landlord evicts a family. The last four shots
show the hero speeding toward and arriving at the house:
Shot 29 A street, with a car driving forward.
Shot 30 Inside the house, the landlord starts to force the
old father to leave.
Shot 31 The street in front of the house, with the hero
pulling up in the car.
Shot 32 Inside the house, the hero pays the landlord and
tears up the eviction notice. General rejoicing.
Presumably the filmmakers hoped that when cutting
moved back and forth between two different spaces, the
At the beginning of the nickelodeon era, many fiction
films were still using painted theatrical-style backdrops, or
flats, with some real furniture or props mixed in (2.24; see
also 1.15, 1.25, 1.32, 2.27). Over the next several years,
however, more three-dimensional sets, without painted
furniture, windows, and so on, came into use (see 2.5,
2.29, 2.39). The set in The Lonely Villa (see 2.45), with its
two sidewalls, gives a greater sense of depth than does the
set in The 100-to-One Shot.
Most lighting in early films was even and flat, provided by sunshine or banks of electric lights (see 2.21,
2.24, and 2.27). During this era, however, filmmakers
sometimes used a single arc lamp to cast a strong light
from one direction. Such lamps could be placed in a fireplace to suggest a fire (2.25). The control of artificial
studio lighting would be an important development in
American film style of the late 1910s.
By 1912, American filmmakers had established many
basic techniques for telling a clear story. Spectators could
usually see the characters clearly and understand where
they were in relation to each other, what they could see,
and what they were saying. These techniques would be
elaborated and polished over the next decade, until the
Hollywood narrative system was sophisticated indeed.
The Beginnings of the Continuity Systemâ€ƒWhen editing links a series of shots, narrative clarity will be enhanced
if the spectator understands how the shots relate to each
other in space and time. Is time continuing uninterruptedly,
or has some time been skipped (creating an ellipsis)? Are
we still seeing the same space, or has the scene shifted to a
new locale? As Alfred Capus, a scriptwriter for the French
firm Film dâ€™Art, put it in 1908, â€œIf we wish to retain the attention of the public, we have to maintain unbroken
2.24 In this scene from The 100-to-One Shot (1906,
Vitagraph), the table and chairs are real, but the fireplace, wall,
door frame, window, flowerpotsâ€”even the sunlight coming in
through the windowâ€”are painted on a backdrop. Note also the
stark shadows cast on the floor by the sunlight used to
illuminate the scene.
2.25 In Shamus Oâ€™Brien (1912, IMP), much of the scene is
dark, while an arc lamp low and offscreen right simulates the
light from a fire. (Contrast the set design and lighting of this
scene with those of 2.24.)
The Problem of Narrative Clarity 37
were notes, newspapers, or photographs that the characters examined. These were called inserts and were usually
seen from a characterâ€™s point of view. They helped make
the action comprehensible to the viewer.
Between 1907 and 1911, simple cut-ins to small gestures or objects were occasionally used (2.29, 2.30). Cutins did not become common until the mid-1910s, however.
As we shall see in Chapter 3, longer features led to longer
individual scenes, with filmmakers cutting more freely
within a single space.
Contiguity Editingâ€‚In some scenes, characters move out
of the space of one shot and reappear in a nearby locale.
Such movements were crucial to the chase genre. Typically, a group of characters would run through the shot
and then out of sight; the film would then cut to an adjacent area, where the process would be repeated as they ran
through again. A series of such shots made up most of the
film. A similar pattern occurs in an early model of clear
storytelling, Rescued by Rover (produced in 1905 by Cecil
Hepworth in England, and probably directed by Lewin
Fitzhamon). After a baby is kidnapped, the family dog
races from the house and through the town, finds the
baby, runs back to fetch the father, and leads him to the
kidnapperâ€™s lair. In all the shots of Rover running toward
the lair, the dog moves forward through the space of one
spectator would understand that the actions were taking
Early crosscutting (also known as parallel editing
and intercutting) could be used for actions other than
rescues. French films, especially PathÃ©â€™s, were influential in developing this technique. A clever chase film of
1907, The Runaway Horse, for example, shows a cart
horse eating a bag of oats outside a shop while his
driver delivers laundry inside an apartment building. In
the first shot, the horse is scrawny and the bag full
(2.26). In the next shot, we see the driver inside the
building (2.27). Four more shots of the horse are interspersed with six of the driver inside. The filmmakers
substituted successively more robust animals, so the
cart horse seems to get fatter as the sack empties
(2.28). By the end of the scene, the horse is very lively,
and a chase ensues.
Analytical Editingâ€‚This term refers to editing that breaks
down a single space into separate areas. One simple way
of doing this is to cut in closer to the action. Thus a long
shot shows the entire space, and a closer one enlarges
small objects or facial expressions. Cut-ins in the period
before 1905 were rare (see 1.25, 1.26).
During the nickelodeon era, filmmakers began inserting closer views into the middles of scenes. Often these
2.26â€“2.28 Crosscutting in The Runaway Horse allowed the filmmakers to give the impression that the horse grows healthy and fat
by eating a whole bag of oats.
2.29, 2.30 In After One Hundred Years
(1911, Selig), a cut-in to a closer view
shows a man discovering a bullet hole in
a mantelpiece, a detail that would not be
visible in the distant framing.
38 CHAPTER 2â€ƒThe International Expansion of the Cinema, 1905â€“1912
shot, exits to the left of the camera, and comes into the
space of the next shot, still running forward and exiting
left (2.31, 2.32).
Not all films of this early period show the characters
moving in consistent directions in the contiguous spaces.
By the teens, however, many filmmakers seem to have realized that keeping the direction of movement constant
helped the audience keep track of spatial relations. In
1911, a reviewer complained about inconsistencies:
Attention has been called frequently in Mirror film reviews
to apparent errors of direction or management as to exits
and entrances in motion picture production. . . . A player
will be seen leaving a room or locality in a certain direction,
and in the very next connecting [shot], a sixteenth of a second later, he will enter in exactly the opposite direction. . . .
Any one who has watched pictures knows how often his
sense of reality has been shocked by this very thing. To him
it is as if the player had turned abruptly around in a fraction
of a second and was moving the other way.5
Within the next few years, filmmakers more consistently
kept characters moving in the same direction (2.33, 2.34).
As we shall see, during the mid-1910s the idea of
keeping screen direction consistent became an implicit
rule in Hollywood-style editing. So important is this rule
that the Hollywood approach to editing is also termed the
180-degree system, meaning that the camera should stay
within a semicircle on one side of the action in order to
maintain consistent screen direction.
Another way of indicating that two contiguous
spaces are near each other is to show a character looking
offscreen in one direction and then cut to what that
character sees. In the earliest cases where charactersâ€™
viewpoints were used to motivate a cut, we would see
exactly what the character saw, from his or her optical
point of view. The earliest point-of-view shots simulated
views through microscopes, telescopes, and binoculars
to show that we are seeing what characters see (2.35,
2.36). By the early teens, a new type of point-of-view
shot was becoming common. A character simply looks
offscreen, and we know from the cameraâ€™s position in
the second shot that we are seeing what the character
sees (2.37, 2.38).
The second shot might, however, reveal what the character is looking at but not show it from his or her exact
point of view. Such a cut is called an eyeline match. This
device was an excellent way of showing that one space was
near another, thus clarifying the dramatic action. During
the early 1910s, the eyeline match became a standard way
to link shots. The eyeline match also depended on the
180-degree rule. For example, if a character glances off to
the right, he or she is assumed to be offscreen left in the
next shot (2.39, 2.40).
At about the same time that the eyeline match came
into occasional use, filmmakers also used a double eyeline
2.33, 2.34 In Almaâ€™s Champion (1912,
Vitagraph), the first shot shows the hero
exiting leftward. In the next shot, he moves
into a nearby space along the tracks. His
continued leftward movement, plus the
presence of the train in the background,
helps the spectator understand where the
actions are taking place.
2.31, 2.32 Rescued by Rover: running
consistently toward the left foreground,
Rover leads his master through a clearly
defined series of contiguous spaces to reach
the kidnapperâ€™s hideout.
The Problem of Narrative Clarity 39
interact with each other. One of the earliest known shot/reverse shots occurs in an Essanay Western (2.41, 2.42). The
shot/reverse-shot technique became more common over the
next decade. Today it remains the principal way of constructing conversation scenes in narrative films.
match: one character looking offscreen and then a cut to
another character looking in the opposite direction at the
first. This type of cutting, with some further elaboration, has
come to be known as the shot/reverse shot. It is used in conversations, fights, and other situations in which characters
2.35, 2.36 In the 1905 PathÃ© comedy
The Scholarâ€™s Breakfast, a shot of the
scientist looking through his microscope
leads to a point-of-view shot.
2.37, 2.38 Two shots from A Friendly
Marriage (1911, Vitagraph). After the wife
looks offscreen in the first shot, we
understand that the framing through the
window in the second represents her point
2.39, 2.40 In The Gamblerâ€™s Charm
(1910, Lubin), the gambler shoots through
the door of a bar. He and the other
characters look off toward the right, and in
the second shot it is clear that they are
looking offscreen left at the wounded man.
2.41, 2.42 In The Loafer (1911, Essanay),
two characters argue in a field. The cutting
employs a shot/reverse-shot technique: one
character looks off left, shouting at the
other, and then we see his opponent
reacting, looking off right.
40 CHAPTER 2â€ƒThe International Expansion of the Cinema, 1905â€“1912
D. W. GRIFFITH AND ALBERT CAPELLANI: TWO EARLY MASTERS OF THE CINEMA
Albert Capellani and D. W. Griffith came to filmmaking in
the early years of the nickelodeon boom, when films were
one reel long and relatively simple in form and style. Both
were drawn to melodrama and historical epics, but their
approaches varied. Griffithâ€™s reliance on editing typified a
style developing among American directors. Like most
Europeans, however, Capellani largely avoided cutting. He
relied on prolonged, fairly distant shots with actions precisely staged in depth.
After working as a minor stage and film actor, Griffith
started directing films at AM&B in 1908. He soon began
crosscutting scenes and framing his actors more closely
in original ways. Despite the fact that filmmakers were not
credited, viewers soon recognized that films from
American Biograph (the name the company assumed in
1909) were consistently among the best coming from the
Griffith is the early director most often associated
with the development of crosscutting (see â€œNotes and
Queriesâ€ online). He was undoubtedly influenced by earlier films, including The Runaway Horse (see 2.26â€“2.28,
p. 37.), but of all directors of the period, he explored the
possibilities of crosscutting most daringly. An extended
and suspenseful early use of this technique came in The
Lonely Villa (1909), where thieves lure a man away from
his isolated country home by sending a false message.
To maximize suspense, Griffith cuts among three story elements: the man, the thieves, and the family inside the
house. Having car trouble, the man calls home and learns
that the thieves are breaking into a room where his wife
and daughters are barricaded. He hires a wagon, and the
shots continue to connect the husbandâ€™s rescue group,
the thieves, and the terrified family (2.43â€“2.45). In fewer
than fifteen minutes, The Lonely Villa presents over
fifty shots, most of which are linked by crosscutting. A
contemporary reviewer described the electrifying effect
of the filmâ€™s climax:
â€œThank God, theyâ€™re saved!â€ said a woman behind us
at the conclusion of the Biograph film bearing the
above name. Just like this woman, the entire audience
were in a state of intense excitement as this picture
was being shown. And no wonder, for it is one of the
most adroitly managed bits of bloodless film drama
that we have seen.6
Although not all of Griffithâ€™s subsequent films involved
last-minute rescues, he exploited crosscutting often
enough to popularize the technique and to have a
long-lasting impact on filmmaking.
Griffith also explored the possibilities of framing his
actors more closely than the standard 9-foot line had
permitted. He wanted to replace the typical pantomimic
gestures of the era with a more subtle acting style. In
early 1912, Griffith began training his talented group of
young actresses, including Lillian Gish, Blanche Sweet,
Mae Marsh, and Mary Pickford, to register a lengthy
series of emotions using only slight gestures and facial
changes. One result of these experiments was The
Painted Lady (1912), a tragic story of a demure young
woman who is courted by a man who turns out to be a
thief. After she shoots him during a robbery attempt, she
goes mad and relives their romance in fantasy. Throughout much of The Painted Lady, Griffith places the camera
relatively close to the heroine, framing her from the waist
up so that her slightest expressions and movements are
visible (2.46). Griffith also employed analytical editing
within scenes, including still closer views of actorsâ€™ faces.
In Chapter 3, we shall look at his feature-length films from
2.43â€“2.45 Successive shots from near the end of the crosscut rescue scene in The Lonely Villa show simultaneous action in
The Problem of Narrative Clarity 41
Albert Capellani never went far in crosscutting or
breaking down scenes into closer framings. Instead his
strengths lay in lengthy takes, an intricate, detailed staging
of scenes, and the realism of his sets and locations. Capellaniâ€™s actors, often including his gifted brother Paul, perform at a level outstanding for the era.
Capellani was hired by PathÃ© around 1905, and his
earliest identified films were made that year. He continued
making short films in various genres until 1908, when
PathÃ© formed its prestige unit, SCAGL, and appointed
Capellani to run it. Increasingly, his own projects were
adaptations of respected French literary works by Emile
Zola, Victor Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas, as well as
subject matter drawn from French history.
His first great film, Lâ€™Assommoir (1909), was an adaptation of Zolaâ€™s naturalistic novel about poverty and alcoholism in working-class Paris. (The title is an untranslatable
pun on, roughly, â€œknocked-outâ€ and â€œcheap tavern.â€) It is
full of lengthy takes with complex choreography. In all his
films, Capellani gave exact movements and business to
each actor present, no matter how insignificant. Their
faces, stances, and gestures, often fairly broad, make up
for the almost entire lack of closer shots. Take the scene in
which the heroine Gervaise and her new fiancÃ© Copeau
celebrate their engagement in an open-air cafÃ©. The proceedings are interrupted at intervals by Gervaiseâ€™s former
lover Lantier and the vengeful Virginie, with whom Lantier
has taken up. The entire scene consists of a single
two-minute shot, with the fluid action moving forward and
back, in and out.
The scene begins with the arrival of Gervaise, Copeau,
and their guests in the far distance, with Virginie and
Gervaiseâ€™s jealous ex-lover Lantier awaiting them in the
foreground (2.47). The guests come forward, and Virginie
speaks to Gervaise (2.48). An organ-grinder appears, and
the guests begin to dance (2.49). The scene continues as
the dancers move off left and Virginie gets Copeau to
dance with her. They and the organ-grinder also go out
left, leaving Gervaise alone. In a comic touch, a friend of
hers who is always eating comes in and says something to
her. When he leaves, Lantier enters from the right and berates Gervaise until another guest drives him away. The
dancers return, and the scene ends with Gervaise sitting
disconsolately while Virginie and Lantier stand at the far
right of the frame, watching her menacingly. As this and
other lengthy scenes in Lâ€™Assommoir show, Capellani
instructed all of his actors, even minor ones milling about
in the backgrounds, on facial expressions and gestures.
2.46 Griffithâ€™s The
Painted Lady was
an early instance of
a film that
concentrated on the
virtuoso acting of its
star, Blanche Sweet.
Here she portrays
opening of the
the guests from
the middle ground
and Lantier at the
2.48 As Gervaise
Virginie speaks to
sits down, an
enters from off
right, and the
42 CHAPTER 2â€ƒThe International Expansion of the Cinema, 1905â€“1912
The resulting action is livelier and often more comprehensible than in many films of the day.
Such care with the performances meant that Capellani seldom needed to cut within scenes. When he did,
it was usually not to show an actorâ€™s face but to allow
the spectator to see a small detail crucial to the action.
In Lâ€™homme aux gants blancs (â€œThe Man with White
Gloves,â€ 1908), he cuts to a medium close-up of a
milliner fixing a loose button on a pair of gloves the hero
is buying (2.50). We need to see this action clearly
because it will later be important in the plot.
Capellaniâ€™s films are also notable for their realistic
settings, whether filmed in the studio or on location.
These prestige films warranted higher budgets for building interiors, and he was able to work in historic buildings
in Paris and environs for his films set during the French
Revolution and other eras. He sought equal naturalism for
the settings needed for his Zola adaptations, as with his
treatment of the mine and its surroundings in Germinal
Each in his own way, these two directors brought an
exceptional sophistication to the films they made very early
in the history of the cinema. Their approaches typified
stylistic differences between American and European
directors that would continue throughout most of the 1910s.
D. W. GRIFFITH AND ALBERT CAPELLANI: TWO EARLY MASTERS OF THE CINEMA, continued
2.50 A rare cut-in in Lâ€™homme aux gants blancs. The gloves
will later be lost, found by a thief, and deliberately dropped
beside the body of a woman whom the thief kills. The
seamstressâ€™ identification of the repaired glove leads to the
arrest of the wrong man.
2.51 Two of the main characters seen against a real mining
town filmed for Germinal.
AN INTERNATIONAL STYLE
Many film techniques were used in similar ways internationally. French, Italian, Danish, English, and American
films and, to a lesser extent, films of other countries circulated widely outside the countries in which they were
made. Two examples from very different places should suffice to suggest how widely some techniques were
The chase film, so typical of the years from 1904 to
1908, was an international genre. In the Netherlands,
where production was miniscule, a chase film called De
Mesavonture van een fransch Heertje zonder Pantalon aan
het Strand te Zandvoort (â€œThe Misadventures of a
Frenchman without Pants on the Beach of Zandvoort,â€
c. 1905, Alberts FrÃ¨res) followed a comic formula: a
man falls asleep on the beach, the tide rises to wet his
trousers, he removes them, and indignant bystanders
and police chase him through a series of adjacent locales
The early techniques of continuity developed later in
this period also proved widely influential. The earliest Indian fiction feature film, Raja Harishchandra, was made in
1912 and released in 1913; its director was the first major
Indian filmmaker, D. G. Phalke. Like many later Indian
films, its subject matter was derived from traditional mythology. Only the first and last of the filmâ€™s four reels survive, but they indicate that Phalke had grasped the 9-foot
line, contiguity cutting, and other current principles of
Western filmmaking (2.54â€“2.56).
After 1912, filmmakers continued to explore techniques for telling stories clearly. But World War I interrupted the international circulation of films, and some
nations developed distinctive film styles.
2.52, 2.53 In De Mesavonture van een
fransch Heertje zonder Pantalon aan heet
Strand te Zandvoort, a pair of shots show
the unfortunate hero being chased along
2.54 In the Indian fantasy film, Raja
Harishchandra, the king explains to his
queen that he has given his kingdom to
an old sage whom he had offended. The
shot uses a close framing typical of
2.55, 2.56 In Raja Harishchandra, Phalke uses consistent screen direction as the
king walks rightward through the forest and, in a cut to a contiguous space, arrives at
the hut of the villainous sage.
1. Inscription on a photograph reproduced in Charles
Ford, Max Linder (Paris: Ã‰ditions Seghers, 1966), opposite p. 65.
2. Quoted in Tom Gunning, D. W. Griffith and the Origins of
American Narrative Film: The Early Years at Biograph
(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991), pp. 219â€“20.
3. Quoted in Yuri Tsivian et al., Silent Witnesses: Russian
Films 1908â€“1919 (London: British Film Institute, 1989),
4. Quoted in Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema,
1907â€“1915 (New York: Scribners, 1990), p. 57. The
original word used by Capus was scene, which was the
term used during the period to mean shot.
5. â€œSpectatorâ€ [Frank Woods], â€œSpectatorâ€™s Comments,â€
New York Dramatic Mirror 65, no. 1681 (8 March
6. Quoted in Gunning, D. W. Griffith, p. 204. The word
bloodless refers to the fact that no actual violence is
committed in the film.
We discuss some topics in this chapter further on our blog, Observations on Film Art:
On Albert Capellani: â€œCapellani ritrovatoâ€ and â€œCapellani trionfanteâ€ (both in English)
On a Griffith Biograph film: â€œA variation on a sunbeam: Exploring a Griffith Biograph filmâ€
The year just before World War I marked a turning point in the history
of the cinema. In 1913, an extraordinary array of important feature
films were made in Europe: in France, LÃ©once Perretâ€™s Lâ€™Enfant de Paris and
Albert Capellaniâ€™s Germinal; in Germany, Paul von Woringenâ€™s Die
Landstrasse and Stellan Ryeâ€™s The Student of Prague; in Denmark, August
Blomâ€™s Atlantis and Benjamin Christensenâ€™s The Mysterious X; in Sweden,
Victor SjÃ¶strÃ¶mâ€™s Ingeborg Holm; and in Italy, Giovanni Pastroneâ€™s Cabiria
(released in early 1914). Also in 1913, the serial emerged as a major film
form, and labor-saving techniques were introduced into animation. During
the mid-teens, the feature film was becoming standardized internationally.
A few directors brought Swedish cinema into a â€œgolden ageâ€ that would last
into the 1920s.
Around the world, filmmakers were exploring the expressive possibilities of film style. In its first decade or so, cinema relied on the display of
action for its novelty value. Then, during the nickelodeon era, filmmakers
tested ways of telling stories clearly. From about 1912 on, some directors
increasingly realized that distinctive lighting, editing, acting, staging, set
design, and other film techniques could not only clarify the unfolding of the
action but also heighten the filmâ€™s impact. Time and again in this chapter,
we will see filmmakers creating striking compositions by backlighting subjects, using lengthy takes to create a realistic sense of ordinary time passing,
or cutting among widely disparate elements to make a conceptual point.
Such techniques could enhance the narrative by lending atmosphere,
meaning, and suspense.
Some countries saw the creation and consolidation of major firms and
studios that would dominate film history for decades; most crucially, the
Hollywood industry was taking shape. In August 1914, during these important changes, World War I began. The war had profound effects on the international cinema, some of which are still felt today. The war effort severely
NATIONAL CINEMAS, HOLLYWOOD
CLASSICISM, AND WORLD WAR I, 1913â€“1919
The American Takeover of World Markets 45
barracks. As it became apparent that the fighting would
drag on for years, the French industry gradually resumed
production, but never on the scale of the prewar era. A
less extreme drop in production affected Italy once it
entered the war in 1915.
Cut off from European films, many countries found a
new source in the United States. By 1916, American
exports had risen dramatically. Over the next few years,
American firms sold fewer films through London agents.
They began to market their own products directly, opening
distribution branches in South America, Australia, the Far
East, and European countries not isolated by the hostilities. In this way, American companies collected all the
profits themselves and were soon in a strong position in
many countries. About 60 percent of Argentinaâ€™s imports
during 1916, for example, were American films, and in
subsequent years South American nations bought more
and more Hollywood films. About 95 percent of screenings in Australia and New Zealand consisted of American
films. The US shares of even the French and Italian
markets were rising.
After the war, the US industry maintained its lead
abroad partly because of certain economic factors. A
filmâ€™s production budget was based on how much it could
be expected to earn. Up to the mid-1910s, when most of
an American filmâ€™s income came from the domestic market, budgets were modest. Once a film could predictably
earn more money abroad, its budget could be higher. It
could then recover its costs in the United States and be
sold cheaply abroad, undercutting local national production. By 1917, Hollywood firms were estimating costs
based on both domestic and foreign sales. Accordingly,
producers invested in big sets, lavish costumes, and more
lighting equipment. Highly paid stars like Mary Pickford
and William S. Hart were soon idolized around the world
(3.1). By late 1918, Hollywood also had a backlog of
films to flood the markets of countries formerly cut off by
Other countries found it hard to compete against Hollywood production values. Low budgets led to low sales,
which in turn perpetuated the low budgets. Moreover, it
was usually cheaper to buy an American film than to
finance a local production. Over time, some countries
managed to counter these disadvantages, at least temporarily. Throughout this book, we shall see how alternatives
to Hollywood cinema have arisen. Basically, however,
Hollywood has had two advantages since the mid-1910s:
the average production budget has remained higher in
Hollywood than anywhere else in the world, and importing an American film is still often cheaper than producing
curtailed filmmaking in the two leading producing countries: France and Italy. American companies stepped in to
fill the vacuum.
As of 1916, the United States became the major supplier of films to the world market, and it has held that
position ever since. Much of the history of world cinema
has been bound up with the struggles of various national
industries to compete with Hollywoodâ€™s domination.
The war also limited the free flow of films and influences
across borders. The result was the isolation of several
film-producing countries, where, for the first time,
distinctive national cinemas evolved.
THE AMERICAN TAKEOVER OF WORLD
As we saw in Chapter 2, up until 1912, American film
companies focused on competing for the domestic market.
They were hard put to satisfy the huge demand for films
created by the nickelodeon boom. Edison, American
Biograph, and other Motion Picture Patents Company
(MPPC) members also sought to limit competition from
French, Italian, and other imported films.
Still, it was obvious that a great deal of money was to
be made in exporting films. The first American company
to open its own distribution offices in Europe was Vitagraph, which had a branch in London in 1906 and soon a
second in Paris. By 1909, other American firms were
moving into foreign markets as well. This expansion of
American distribution abroad continued until the
Initially, most companies sold their films indirectly.
Inexperienced with overseas trading, they simply sold the
foreign rights to their films to export agents or foreign distribution firms. London became a center for the international circulation of US films. Many British firms profited
by acting as the agents for this business, though in doing
so they weakened British production by turning over a
large share of the UK market to American films.
France, Italy, and other producing countries still provided stiff competition around the world. Nonetheless, even
before the war began, US films were becoming very popular
in Great Britain, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand. In
most other markets, however, the American share was
much smaller. Without the war, Hollywood might not have
gained a preeminent global position.
The beginning of the war nearly wiped out French
filmmaking. Many industry personnel were immediately
sent to the front. PathÃ©â€™s raw-stock factory switched to
manufacturing munitions, and studios were converted into
46 CHAPTER 3â€ƒNational Cinemas, Hollywood Classicism, and World War I, 1913â€“1919
imports dominated its domestic market. The cinema also
had a low reputation in Germany. During the early 1910s,
reformers and censors attacked film as immoral.
Competition from films had caused theater attendance to decline. In May 1912, organizations of playwrights, directors, and actors went so far as to boycott this
low form of entertainment. By late 1912, however, the boycott was broken, as film producers competed to sign those
same playwrights, directors, and actors to exclusive contracts. Similarly, film firms sought to adapt prestigious literary works and to have established authors write original
During 1913, there arose the Autorenfilm, or â€œauthorsâ€™
film.â€ The term author did not mean then what auteur
means todayâ€”the director of the film. Rather, the Autorenfilm was publicized largely on the basis of a famous writer
responsible for the script or the original literary work from
which the film was adapted. The director of the film was
seldom mentioned. The Autorenfilm was, in effect,
Germanyâ€™s equivalent of the Film dâ€™Art in France (p. 23)
and other attempts at creating an artistic cinema. Similarly,
stage stars were hired and featured prominently in the publicity for such films. A few leading theatrical directors, most
notably Max Reinhardt, worked briefly in the cinema.
THE RISE OF NATIONAL CINEMAS
Before World War I, the cinema was largely an international affair. Technical and artistic discoveries made in
one country were quickly seen and assimilated elsewhere.
The war, however, disrupted the flow of films across borders. Some national industries benefited from this disruption. A few countries were partially or wholly cut off from
imports, yet the demand for films remained. Hence
domestic production rose in such countries, especially
Sweden, Russia, and Germany. Other countries, such as
France, Denmark, and Italy, suffered a decline from prewar levels but managed to continue and improve on prewar traditions. In many cases, stylistic influences could
not circulate so freely across borders. For example, the
singular filmmaking practice that developed in Russia
during the war had virtually no impact abroad and
remained almost entirely unknown elsewhere for over
seventy years. (See â€œNotes and Queriesâ€ online.)
Before 1912, the German film industry was relatively
insignificant. Its films were not widely exported, and
3.1 The Elphinstone Picture Palace in Colombo, Ceylon, shows Paramountâ€™s big-budget adaptation of Beau Geste (1926), starring
Ronald Colman. Native drivers wait outside for their colonialist employers. (Source: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)
The Rise of National Cinemas 47
trait of German cinema, culminating in the German
Expressionist movement of the 1920s (see Chapter 5).
The Autorenfilm lent respectability to the cinema, but
most of the films were not successful with the public, and
the notion of basing films on works by famous authors
declined during 1914. During the same period, however,
the German industry was expanding. Domestic films were
gaining popular success, largely due to the rise of the star
system. Two very different female stars became widely
known. The blonde Henny Porten was the ideal of
German womanhood. Her films were soon export successes, and she was on the verge of becoming internationally famous as the war began. In Germany, she was hugely
popular during the 1920s. The Danish actress Asta
Nielsen (see 2.19â€“2.21, p. 34.) had quickly caught on in
Germany after moving there in 1911. Nielsenâ€™s films were
notable for her varied portrayals, ranging from comic
adolescents to betrayed lovers (3.4), and she had a great
influence on acting styles in other countries.
During the early years of the war, Germany continued
to import films, especially from Denmark. Officials soon
concluded, however, that the anti-German content of
some of these films was hurting the war effort. In 1916,
Germany banned film imports. This ban stimulated the
domestic film industry, helping it to become powerful
internationally after the war.
Italian cinema flourished in the first half of the 1910s.
The success of exported films and the establishment of
the feature film attracted talented people to the industry
and led producing companies to compete energetically.
Historical epics continued to have the most significant triumphs abroad. In 1913, Enrico Guazzoniâ€™s Quo
Vadis? was an enormous hit and confirmed the epic as the
The Autorenfilm was established with Der Andere
(â€œThe Other,â€ 1913, Max Mack), adapted from a drama
by playwright Paul Lindau and starring a major theatrical
performer, Albert Bassermann. Another important
Autorenfilm was Die Landstrasse (â€œThe Country Road,â€
1913, Paul von Woringen). This time Lindau wrote an
original script, dealing with an escaped convict who commits a murder in a small village. The murder is blamed on
a passing beggar, who is finally cleared by the convictâ€™s
From a modern perspective, Die Landstrasse seems an
unusually sophisticated film. It proceeds at a slow pace,
carefully setting up parallels between the convict and the
beggar. There are a number of very long takes that deemphasize action in favor of concentration on minute
detailsâ€”an early exploration of expressive cinematic techniques. One framing simply shows a forest setting, with
the beggar wandering in from the background and sitting
by a bush in the foreground to eat scraps of food he has
obtained in the village. More dramatically, the revelation
of the dying convictâ€™s guilt comes in a minutes-long shot
that encompasses the beggarâ€™s anguished reaction and the
reactions of the onlookers (3.2).
The most successful and famous Autorenfilm was The
Student of Prague (1913, Stellan Rye). It was based on an
original screenplay by the popular writer Hanns Heinz
Ewers and marked the entry of theater star Paul Wegener
into the cinema. For decades, Wegener was to remain a
major force in German filmmaking. The Student of Prague
is a Faust-like story of a student who gives his mirror
image to a demonic character in exchange for wealth. The
image dogs the hero and finally provokes a fatal duel.
Aided by the great cameraman Guido Seeber, Rye and
Wegener used special effects to create scenes of the
student and his double confronting each other (3.3). The
fantasy elements of this film would become a prominent
3.2 The climactic scene of Die
Landstrasse consists primarily of a
lengthy take concentrating on gradual
changes in the charactersâ€™ expressions.
3.3 In The Student of Prague, exposure
of separate portions of the same shot
during filming allowed two characters,
both played by Paul Wegener, to confront
3.4 This scene of Asta Nielsen, in
Weisse Rosen (â€œWhite Roses,â€ 1916), is
filmed into a mirror. Characters enter and
exit as reflections, as the plot develops.
48 CHAPTER 3â€ƒNational Cinemas, Hollywood Classicism, and World War I, 1913â€“1919
Serena) was a rare diva film set in a working-class milieu.
Bertini went on to make a series of more luxurious films
based on her star persona. These included a spy melodrama, Diana lâ€™affascinatrice (â€œDiana the Seductress,â€
1915, Gustavo Serena), that displayed Bertiniâ€™s histrionic
talents and elegant costumes. Diva films remained popular during the second half of the 1910s and then quickly
declined in the 1920s.
The male equivalent of the diva was the strongman.
The characters of Ursus in Quo Vadis? and Maciste
in Cabiria started this trend. A muscular dockworker,
Bartolomeo Pagano (3.7), played Maciste, who so fascinated audiences that Pagano went on to star in a series of
Maciste films lasting into the 1920s. Unlike Cabiria, these
and other strongman films were set in the present. This
genre declined temporarily after 1923, as Italian filmmaking sank into crisis. The peplum film, or the heroic historical epic, often involving brawny heroes, resurfaced
decades later with such films as Hercules (1957).
After the war, Italy tried to regain its place on world
markets but could not make inroads against American
films. In 1919, a large new firm called the Unione Cinematografica Italiana (UCI) attempted to revive Italian production. Its dependence on formulaic filmmaking,
however, exacerbated the industryâ€™s decline during the
Like Germany, Russia developed a distinctive national cinema in near isolation as a result of World War I. Before
the war, Russian production had been largely dominated
by PathÃ©, which opened a studio in Russia in 1908, and
Gaumont, which followed suit in 1909. The first
Russian-owned filmmaking company, started in 1907 by
main Italian genre. Quo Vadis? was followed in 1914 by
one of the most internationally popular films of the era,
Giovanni Pastroneâ€™s Cabiria.
Set in the Roman Empire of the third century b.c.,
Cabiria involved kidnapping and human sacrifice, as the
hero Fulvio and his strongman slave Maciste try to rescue
the heroine. Mammoth scenes showed a palace destroyed
by an erupting volcano and a huge temple within which
children are thrown into a fiery figure of the pagan god
Moloch (3.5). Cabiria also used innovative slow tracking
shots toward or away from static action. Camera movement had appeared in the early years of the cinema, particularly in scenics (pp. 11, 13). Filmmakers had also
occasionally used mobile framing for expressive purposes
in narrative films, as when D. W. Griffith began and
ended The Country Doctor (1909) with pans across a rural
landscape. Cabiriaâ€™s tracking shots were more influential,
however, and the â€œCabiria movementâ€ became a common
technique in films of the mid-1910s.
A second distinctively Italian genre resulted from the
rise of the star system. Several beautiful female stars
became wildly popular. These were the divas (â€œgoddessesâ€). They typically starred in what are sometimes
known as frock-coat filmsâ€”stories of passion and intrigue
in upper-middle-class and aristocratic settings. The situations were unrealistic and often tragic, usually featuring
eroticism and death, and were initially influenced by the
importation of Asta Nielsenâ€™s German films.
The diva films played up luxurious settings, fashionable costumes, and the heightened acting of the performers. Ma lâ€™amor mio non muore! (â€œBut My Love Does Not
Die!â€ 1913, Mario Caserini) established the genre (3.6).
It made Lyda Borelli an instant star, and she remained one
of the most celebrated divas. Borelliâ€™s main rival was
Francesca Bertini, whose 1915 Assunta Spina (Gustavo
3.5 The large interior of the temple in
3.6 Lyda Borelli, as an actress alone in
her dressing room, strikes a dramatic
pose reflected by her mirror in Ma lâ€™amor
mio non muore!
3.7 The faithful Maciste, seen here in a
shot from Cabiria, inspired the
strongman genre in Italian cinema.
The Rise of National Cinemas 49
acting the main appeal. Russian acting, however, was less
flamboyant and more internalized.
The two most important Russian directors of the war
period, Evgenii Bauer and Yakov Protazanov, were masters of the brooding melodrama. From a training in art,
Bauer entered the cinema in 1912 as a set designer and
soon became a director. His mise-en-scÃ¨ne was characterized by deep, detailed sets and an unusually strong sidelighting; he also occasionally used complex tracking shots.
Several of Bauerâ€™s films carried the Russian love for melancholy to extremes, centering on morbid subject matter.
In The Dying Swan (1917), an obsessed artist tries to capture death in his painting of a melancholy ballerina; when
she is suddenly transformed by love, he strangles her in
order to finish his masterpiece (3.8). Bauer was the main
director at the Khanzhonkov company, where he was
given free artistic rein.
Protazanov began directing in 1912, and he worked
mostly for Yermoliev. Several of his main films of this
period were prestigious adaptations from Pushkin and
Tolstoy. They starred Ivan Mozhukhin, a stage actor who
had become immensely popular in films. Mozhukhin was
the epitome of the Russian ideal in acting; tall and handsome, with hypnotic eyes, he cultivated a slow, fervent
style. He starred in the title role of Protazanovâ€™s adaptation of Tolstoyâ€™s novel Father Sergius, made in 1917
between the February and October Revolutions and
released in early 1918 (3.9). After a brief self-exile in
Paris, Protazanov returned to become one of the most successful directors in the USSR when filmmaking revived
there during the 1920s.
By 1916, the Russian film industry had grown to
thirty production firms. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution
brought filmmaking to a near standstill, however, and the
slow, intense style that had developed in Russia during the
war soon looked old-fashioned. Chapter 6 looks more
closely at the changes in the cinema made by the Soviet
photographer A. O. Drankov, was able to compete reasonably well. A second Russian firm, Khanzhonkov, appeared
in 1908. During the early 1910s, exhibition expanded, and
other, smaller Russian producers opened companies.
As in other European countries, between 1912 and
1913 the cinema was gaining respectability, with famous
authors writing scenarios. Since Tsar Nikolai II and his
family were ardent film fans, fashionable audiences as well
as the masses went to the cinema. Although most audiences favored imported films, by 1914 Russia had a small
but healthy film industry.
When Russia prepared for World War I in late July
1914, the borders were closed, and many foreign distribution firmsâ€”primarily the German onesâ€”closed their
Moscow offices. In 1915, when Italy entered the war, its
films also dwindled in the Russian market, and the domestic industry continued to grow. With competition reduced,
new Russian companies were formed, most significantly
the Yermoliev firm.
During this era, Russian filmmakers introduced a distinctive approach to the new art. First, they explored subject matter with a melancholy tone. Even before the war,
Russian audiences favored tragic endings. As one film
trade journal put it, â€œ â€˜Allâ€™s well that ends well!â€™ This is the
guiding principle of foreign cinema. But Russian cinema
stubbornly refuses to accept this and goes its own way.
Here itâ€™s â€˜Allâ€™s well that ends badlyâ€™â€”we need tragic endings.â€1
The pace of many Russian films was slow, with frequent pauses and deliberate gestures enabling the players
to linger over each action.
This slow pace derived from a fascination with psychology. One appeal of these films was the display of
intense, virtuoso acting. In this, Russian filmmaking was
heavily influenced by Italian, German, and Danish films.
Russian producers consciously sought actors and actresses
who could duplicate Asta Nielsenâ€™s popularity. Many
Russian films of this period were also somewhat comparable to the Italian diva films, which made intensity of
3.8, leftâ€ƒThe final scene of The Dying
Swan with the heroineâ€™s corpse serving
as the artistâ€™s model.
3.9, rightâ€ƒIn Father Sergius, Protazanov
uses sidelighting and staging in depth to
enhance the tragic atmosphere as the
protagonist resists seduction by a jaded
50 CHAPTER 3â€ƒNational Cinemas, Hollywood Classicism, and World War I, 1913â€“1919
THE BRIEF HEYDAY OF THE SERIAL
Today the serial is usually remembered as a trivial form of
cinema, consisting largely of low-budget thrillers aimed at
youthful matinee audiences from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Yet the serial served as the main attraction in many theaters during the 1910s. Serial episodes can be seen as a
kind of transitional form between the one-reel film and the
feature. Though some early serial episodes were quite
short, others lasted forty-five minutes or more. They were
shown with other short filmsâ€”newsreels, cartoons, comic
or dramatic narrativesâ€”but they formed the core of the
program. Serials were usually action oriented, offering
thrilling elements like master criminals, lost treasures,
exotic locales, and daring rescues.
The true serial carried a story line over all its episodes. Typically, each episode ended at a high point, with
the main characters in danger. These cliffhangers (so
called because characters often ended up suspended
from cliffs or buildings) lured the spectator back for the
Serials originated at almost the same time in the
United States and France. The earliest American serial
was The Adventures of Kathlyn (1914), made by the Selig
company and starring Kathlyn Williams. Its episodes, set
in India, were self-contained, but there was also an overall plotline. The same was true of The Perils of Pauline,
made by PathÃ© in 1914. This hugely successful serial
made a star of Pearl White and inspired other firms to
make similar films. Williams and White established the
pattern of the serial queen, a heroine (often described as
plucky) who survives numerous outlandish plots against
her life (3.10). By late 1915, American serials were highly
profitable and were technically on a par with feature films
of the era.
The greatest filmmaker associated with this form was
Louis Feuillade. This prolific Gaumont director made
around eighty short films a year between 1907 and 1913,
working in various genres. A turning point in his career,
however, was the â€œFantÃ´masâ€ crime serial, beginning in
1913 with FantÃ´mas and continuing through 1914 with four
additional feature-length episodes. (Even then, however,
he continued to direct comedies as well.) The â€œFantÃ´masâ€
serial adapted the popular writings of Pierre Souvestre
and Marcel Allain, whose books have become classics.
FantÃ´mas was the ultimate criminal, master of many
disguises, who constantly eluded his determined rival, the
detective Juve (3.11). Feuillade filmed this crime story in
the streets of Paris and in conventional studio sets, creating a bizarre juxtaposition of an everyday milieu and fantastic, nightmarish events. His subsequent thriller serials
Les Vampires (1915), Judex (1916), and Tih Minh (1918)
continued this style. Feuillade was extremely popular with
the general public, but he was also embraced by the
Surrealists for the (perhaps unconscious) poetic quality
of his work. Feuilladeâ€™s casual, even comic, treatment
of outrageous plot twists makes his films seem highly
Serials also became significant in Germany during the
1910s. Homunculus (1916, Otto Rippert) told the story of a
laboratory-created humanoid who manipulated stock
3.10 Near the end of the first episode of The Perils of Pauline,
the heroine shinnies down a rope from a balloon that has been
set adrift by the villain.
3.11 The first episode of FantÃ´mas ends as Juve sees a vision
of the escaped FantÃ´mas, in his famous evening clothes and
mask, tauntingly holding out his hands to be handcuffed.
The Rise of National Cinemas 51
work during this period. Perret had come to fame in 1909 as
a comic actor, directing his own series of â€œLÃ©onceâ€ films.
During the mid-1910s, he also made some major features.
Lâ€™Enfant de Paris (â€œChild of Paris,â€ 1913) and Le Roman
dâ€™un mousse (â€œTale of a Cabin Boy,â€ 1914) were powerfully
melodramatic narratives of abducted children. They were
notable for their beautiful cinematography, including skillful
location filming and an unusual use of backlighting (3.13).
Perret also varied his camera angles considerably and broke
scenes down into more shots than was then typical. He thus
helped expand the cinemaâ€™s expressive possibilities. Perretâ€™s
style became more formulaic later on, when he worked in
Hollywood in the second half of the decade and returned to
France to make historical epics in the 1920s.
Feuillade continued to work in a variety of genres,
including comedies and a naturalistic series, â€œLa vie telle
quâ€™elle estâ€ (â€œLife as It Isâ€). His main achievements, however, were in the new serial format (see box).
Despite PathÃ©â€™s and Gaumontâ€™s dominance in French
production, they made no attempt to monopolize the
industry, and smaller companies coexisted peacefully with
them, staying in business by specializing in certain types
of films. All this activity came to an abrupt halt when
During the early 1910s, the French film industry was still
thriving. Many new theaters were being built, and demand
was high. Although imported American films were beginning to encroach on the market, French production
In 1913, however, the largest company, PathÃ© FrÃ¨res,
took the first of several steps that ultimately would harm
the French industry. It cut back on the increasingly costly
production side of the business to concentrate on the profitable areas of distribution and exhibition. In the United
States, French films were being squeezed out by the
growth of independent firms. PathÃ© left the MPPC, forming an independent distribution firm in 1913. This firm
released several widely successful serials during the 1910s,
including The Perils of Pauline (see box). By 1919, however, PathÃ©â€™s concentration on serials and shorts put it on
the margins of the American industry, which was dominated by big firms making features.
Unlike PathÃ©, Gaumont expanded its production in the
years just before the war. Two important Gaumont directors,
LÃ©once Perret and Louis Feuillade, did some of their best
eight-part epic, The Mistress of the World (1919â€“1920), was
perhaps the most expensive German project in the immediate postwar years. During seven episodes, the heroine
undergoes ordeals in Chinese, Mayan, and African locales
(3.12). In the seventh installment, she is rescued; the eighth
wittily depicts the making of a sensationalistic film about
Serial production continued to be important in France
and some other countries into the 1920s, but in the United
States it became a way of creating inexpensive programs
in smaller theaters and of attracting children. During the
sound era, the action serial played the same roles.
Serial films had a great influence on twentieth-century
narrative form in general. Serials, especially soap operas,
were a staple of radio for decades. Television picked up
soap operas, and the continuing story with cliffhangers
made its way into prime-time dramas in the 1980s.
Modern films have also been influenced, as when Steven
Spielberg deliberately based the episodic story of Raiders
of the Lost Ark (1981) on adventure serials. The Back to the
Future, Star Wars, Matrix, Lord of the Rings, and Harry
Potter films all revived the serial format.
3.12 One of the many large, exotic sets constructed for The
Mistress of the World.
markets and ultimately tried to control the world. After the
war, producer-director Joe May specialized in epic serials
starring his wife, Mia May, Germanyâ€™s serial queen. His
52 CHAPTER 3â€ƒNational Cinemas, Hollywood Classicism, and World War I, 1913â€“1919
The real effect of American films in France was not
apparent until after the war. From 1918 to 1919, French
firms attempting to bring production back up to its old
levels found it virtually impossible to reduce the American
share of their market. Chapter 4 examines how the French
industry reacted, trying to create competitive alternatives
to Hollywood cinema.
In Denmark, Ole Olsenâ€™s Nordisk films continued to dominate production, though a small number of other firms operated during the 1910s. From 1913 to 1914, Nordisk and
other companies were moving toward longer films of two,
three, even four reels. One historian has summarized the typical style of Nordiskâ€™s films: â€œThe lighting effects, the stories,
the realism of interior settings, the extraordinary use of natural and urban locations, the intensity of the naturalistic acting
style, the emphasis on fate and the passions.â€3
The work of August Blom, Nordiskâ€™s top director of
the early teens, typifies this style. His most important film
was Atlantis (1913), at eight reels the longest Danish film
to date. The film offered a fairly conventional psychological melodrama, but it dwelt on beautifully designed sets
(3.14) and spectacular scenes, such as the sinking of an
ocean liner (inspired by the Titanic disaster of 1912).
Atlantis was triumphantly successful abroad.
Another Nordisk director, Forest Holger-Madsen,
made an outstanding film, Life of an Evangelist (1914).
The narrative involves a frame story and lengthy flashback, as a preacher tells a young man about his time in
prison as a result of being wrongfully convicted of murder.
His tale saves the young man from a life of crime. The
preacherâ€™s dark, grim room, in which he relates his story,
exemplifies the use of setting to create mood (3.15).
One of the most daring and eccentric directors of
the silent cinema also began working in the Danish
World War I began. By the end of 1914, it had become
apparent that the fighting would continue for quite a
while, and some theaters reopened. In early 1915, production resumed on a limited basis. Newsreels became more
important, and all the firms made highly patriotic fiction
films, such as MÃ¨res franÃ§aises (â€œFrench Mothers,â€ 1917,
RenÃ© Hervil and Louis Mercanton).
PathÃ©â€™s response to the war was to focus on its
American distribution wing, releasing films made by independent producers in the United States. With the huge
success of The Perils of Pauline and subsequent serials,
PathÃ© remained profitable. It was, however, no longer providing stable leadership for French film production.
Through its distribution, it also helped American films
gain a greater share of the French market.
French intellectuals and the general public alike
adored the new American stars they discovered during the
war: Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart,
and Lillian Gish. Writer Philippe Soupault suggests how
suddenly and intensely American films affected Parisian
Then one day we saw hanging on the walls great posters as
long as serpents. At every street-corner a man, his face covered with a red handkerchief, leveled a revolver at the peaceful passersby. We imagined that we heard galloping hoofs,
the roar of motors, explosions, and cries of death. We
rushed into the cinema, and realized immediately that
everything had changed. On the screen appeared the smile
of Pearl Whiteâ€”that almost ferocious smile which
announced the revolution, the beginning of a new world.2
Serial queen Pearl White was idolized in France after the
release of Les MystÃ¨res de New York, the French title of her
second PathÃ© serial, The Exploits of Elaine (1915). During
1917, American films passed the 50-percent mark in
3.13 Filming inside a real building
without using artificial light, Perret
created dramatic silhouette effects in
Lâ€™Enfant de Paris.
3.14 A set depicting a hallway in a
sculptorâ€™s house attracts the eye in
August Blomâ€™s Atlantis.
3.15 An elaborate, realistic model of a
cityscape, combined with strong
backlighting, makes this scene in Life of
an Evangelist unusual for its period.
The Rise of National Cinemas 53
SjÃ¶strÃ¶m. The Swedish cinema initially had little impact
abroad, and so its filmmakers were working without the
larger budgets made possible by export. Sweden was
among the first countries to create a major cinema by
drawing deliberately on the particular traits of its national
culture. Swedish films were characterized by their dependence on northern landscapes and by their use of local
literature, costumes, customs, and the like. After the warâ€™s
end, their specifically Swedish qualities made these films
novel and popular in other countries.
The success of Nordisk in Denmark had been one
inspiration for the formation of a small Swedish firm, the
Svenska Biografteatern, in 1907. It eventually would form
the basis of the leading Swedish film firm, still in existence
today. Located in the small provincial city of Kristianstad,
Svenska was initially a theater chain. In 1909, Charles
Magnusson took over its management and built it into the
countryâ€™s main production company. In 1910, Julius
Jaenzon, a cinematographer who had mainly made topicals,
joined the firm. He was to photograph most of Stillerâ€™s and
SjÃ¶strÃ¶mâ€™s films of the 1910s. Under Magnusson and
Jaenzonâ€™s guidance, the firm produced films on a small
scale in a tiny studio above its main cinema in Kristianstad.
(This building is one of the few early glass-sided studios
that can still be visited; it houses a small cinema museum.)
In 1912, Svenska moved to a larger studio near
Stockholm. The first director hired was Georg af Klercker,
who became head of production. That same year, actors
Mauritz Stiller and Victor SjÃ¶strÃ¶m were hired to boost
Svenskaâ€™s production. All three directed, wrote scripts,
and acted. They made many short films with modest
budgets during the next few years.
After the beginning of the war, Germany blocked film
imports to several northern European countries. Since few
films got past this blockade, Swedish production was
boosted and filmmakers were relatively free of foreign
influences for a few years.
industry. Benjamin Christensen started as an actor at the
small Dansk Biografkompagni in 1911 and soon became
president of the firm. His impressive debut as a director
was The Mysterious X (1913), in which he also starred. It
was a melodramatic story of spies and treason, shot in a
bold visual style. Stark sidelighting and backlighting created silhouette effects (3.16); few films of this period
contain such striking compositions. Christensen went on
to make an equally virtuoso drama, Night of Revenge
(1916). Here he added tracking shots that intensify the
suspense and shock as a convict terrorizes a family
Christensen did not complete another film until the
1920s, when his Witchcraft through the Ages (1922) was
financed by Svensk Filmindustri. It was a bizarre, episodic quasi-documentary tracing the history of witchcraft. After encountering censorship difficulties,
Christensen moved into more conventional filmmaking,
directing dramas and thrillers in Germany and Hollywood during the 1920s.
World War I had a mixed effect on the Danish cinema. Initially Denmark benefited, since, as a neutral
northern country, it was in a unique position to furnish
films to markets like Germany and Russia, which were
cut off from their normal suppliers. In 1917, the Russian
Revolution eliminated that market, and the United States
cut back on its imports from Denmark. During the
1910s, many top Danish directors and actors were also
lured away, mainly to Germany and Sweden. By the warâ€™s
end, Denmark was no longer a significant force in international distribution.
In 1912, Sweden suddenly began producing a string of
innovative films. Most of these were made by only three
directors: Georg af Klercker, Mauritz Stiller, and Victor
3.16 Shooting into the sun creates a
dramatic silhouette of an old mill,
whose blades form part of the â€œXâ€
motif in Christensenâ€™s The Mysterious X.
3.17, 3.18 A suspenseful tracking shot in Night of Revenge, beginning on the
frightened heroine as she sees something outside her window and moving back rapidly
to reveal an intruder forcing his way in and rushing to her.
54 CHAPTER 3â€ƒNational Cinemas, Hollywood Classicism, and World War I, 1913â€“1919
The wit was well displayed in the comedy Thomas
Graalâ€™s Best Film (1917). In it, an eccentric scriptwriteractor (played delightfully by Victor SjÃ¶strÃ¶m) glimpses
and falls in love with a young woman, Bessie, and refuses
to finish his overdue scenario unless she can be found and
persuaded to star in it. Meanwhile, the free-spirited Bessie
rejects her wealthy parentsâ€™ choice of a fiancÃ© and decides
to accept the movie role (3.20). The film alternates
between the two main characters, including scenes representing the scenario the hero writes, which fantasizes a
love story between him and Bessie. Eventually the two
actually meet and become engaged. The result was one of
the cleverest films about filmmaking made in the silent
era. It was so successful that a sequel was made: Thomas
Graalâ€™s Best Child (1918), in which the pair marry and
have a baby.
Stillerâ€™s most famous film was the antithesis of these
comedies. A tragedy set in Renaissance-period Sweden,
Sir Arneâ€™s Treasure (1919) was adapted from a LagerlÃ¶f
story. Three fugitive mercenaries pillage the castle of Sir
Arne, trying to escape with his treasure. The townâ€™s harbor is icebound, however, trapping them until spring. The
young woman Elsalill, the sole survivor of the massacre,
falls in love with Sir Archie, not realizing that he is one of
the killers. Despite his love for Elsalill, Sir Archie uses her
as a shield in a vain escape attempt. The final scene shows
the townspeople bearing her coffin across the ice as spring
Georg af Klercker was a versatile director with a
strong sense of pictorial beauty. Af Klercker had begun as
an actor, and he also did set designs when he first joined
Svenska. He was soon directing but did not get on well
with Magnusson and quit in 1913. He then worked at
smaller production firms, primarily Hasselbladfilm
(founded in 1915). There he was the undisputed leader,
directing most of the firmâ€™s output.
Af Klercker made comedies, crime thrillers, war
films, and melodramas, usually with fairly conventional
stories. In all of them, however, he displays a distinctive
eye for landscape, light, and a variety of framing within
scenes. His films contain some of the most beautiful sets
of this period, defined by simple lines but richly furnished
with details. Af Klercker skillfully suggests offscreen
space: background rooms are often just visible through
beaded curtains, and mirrors reveal action occurring outside the frame (3.19). He also elicited subtle, restrained
performances from his actors. From 1918 to 1919, Hasselblad went through mergers that made it a part of Svenska
Bio, which then became Svensk Filmindustri (the name it
has kept ever since). At that point af Klercker gave up
filmmaking to go into business.
Af Klerckerâ€™s more famous colleagues, Stiller and
SjÃ¶strÃ¶m, both stayed at Svenska, directing, acting, and
writing scripts. They were extremely prolific until both
went to Hollywood, SjÃ¶strÃ¶m in 1923 and Stiller in
1925. Unfortunately, however, most of the negatives of
the films made by Svenska were destroyed in a fire in
1941. This disaster, one of the most tragic losses among
many nitrate fires, means that few of Svenskaâ€™s early
films have survived. Most existing prints of Stiller and
SjÃ¶strÃ¶m films have been copied from early release
So many of Mauritz Stillerâ€™s early films are lost that it
is difficult to judge his career before the mid-1910s. He is
mainly remembered for the urbane wit of several films he
made between 1916 and 1920, as well as for his adaptations of the works of Nobel prizeâ€“winning Swedish novelist Selma LagerlÃ¶f.
space in Mysteriet
natten till den 25:e
of the 25th,â€
1917): the robber
realizes by glancing
into a mirror that
the detective has
hidden to wait for
heroine of Thomas
Graalâ€™s Best Film
finds out she is to
star in a film and
a flamboyant style
Italian diva films.
3.21 At the end
of Sir Arneâ€™s
heroineâ€™s body is
borne past the
icebound ship on
hoped to escape.
The Rise of National Cinemas 55
narratives frequently traced in great detail the grim consequences of a single action.
SjÃ¶strÃ¶mâ€™s early masterpiece, Ingeborg Holm (1913),
begins with a happy middle-class family; the father falls
ill and dies and the wife descends into poverty and madness as she struggles vainly to keep her children. The
film consists primarily of lengthy shots that hold on a
series of actions that unfold within deep spaces (3.22â€“
3.26). The slow, steady pace conveys a remarkable
impression of the heroineâ€™s decades of misfortune,
despite the fact that Ingeborg Holm lasts only about
Terje Vigen (1916) demonstrates SjÃ¶strÃ¶mâ€™s mastery
of landscape as an expressive element in the action.
During wartime, Terje Vigen, a sailor, attempts to fetch
food in his rowboat but is captured by the enemy. During
his lengthy imprisonment, his wife and child die of starvation. Years later, the embittered protagonist gains power
over the family of the man who captured him and must
decide whether to wreak his revenge on them. Again the
narrative traces out the long-term results of an event, suggesting an implacable fate guiding the characters. SjÃ¶strÃ¶m
Stiller continued making both comedies and dramas.
In 1920, he directed Erotikon, often credited as the first
sophisticated sex comedy. It treated romantic relations
casually, as a neglected young wife starts an affair with a
handsome suitor while her middle-aged husband, an
absentminded professor, pairs off with his pretty niece.
Erotikon may well have influenced German director
Ernst Lubitsch, who later became famous for clever sexual innuendo in his films in Hollywood in the 1920s.
Stiller also adapted another LagerlÃ¶f novel in his twopart epic, The Story of GÃ¶sta Berling (1924). This story of
a defrocked minister torn between a dissolute life and the
love of an unhappily married countess contains several
remarkable scenes and performances; among these is the
first major role of the young Greta Garbo, as the countess. She was discovered by Stiller, and they both soon
went to Hollywood, where her career was more successful than his.
Victor SjÃ¶strÃ¶m was one of the most important directors of the entire silent era. His style was austere and naturalistic. He used restrained acting and staged scenes in
considerable depth, both in location shots and in sets. His
3.22â€“3.26 In Ingeborg Holm, a longshot framing shows the heroine parting
from her son. Reluctant to leave her, he
returns to hug her again as the gatekeeper
opens the gate (3.22). As the boy moves
away again with his foster mother,
Ingeborg quickly ducks into the doorway
(3.23). The boy turns back once more
(3.24) and, not seeing his mother, sadly
follows his foster mother (3.25). Once the
pair has gone, the gatekeeper locks the gate
and returns just in time to catch Ingeborg
as she emerges again and begins to faint
(3.26). The staging with the heroineâ€™s
back to the camera displays SjÃ¶strÃ¶mâ€™s
refusal to overemphasize emotions.
56 CHAPTER 3â€ƒNational Cinemas, Hollywood Classicism, and World War I, 1913â€“1919
filming) were some of the most elaborate yet attempted.
Similarly, The Phantom Chariotâ€™s story was told in an intricately interwoven set of flashbacks that became highly
influential in European cinema of the 1920s.
Ironically, the very success of the Swedish cinema
abroad contributed to its decline. After about 1920,
Svenska concentrated on expensive prestige pictures
designed for export. Only a few of these, like The Story of
GÃ¶sta Berling, were artistic successes. SjÃ¶strÃ¶mâ€™s and
Stillerâ€™s growing reputations led Hollywood firms to lure
them away from Svensk Filmindustri. Moreover, other
countries were entering the international marketplace,
and the small Swedish cinema could not compete. After
1921, film production in Sweden plummeted.
THE CLASSICAL HOLLYWOOD CINEMA
The MPPC had dominated the American film industry
between 1908 and 1911, but it lost much of its power after
a 1912 court decision rendered the Latham loop patent
void (see p. 10). Independent firms soon regrouped and
expanded into a studio system that would form the basis
for American filmmaking for decades. Certain filmmaking rolesâ€”chiefly the role of the producerâ€”became central.
In addition, the star system gained full strength, as celebrities came to command enormous salaries and even began
producing in their own right.
The Major Studios Begin to Form
The process of building the Hollywood studio system often
involved the combination of two or more small production
or distribution firms. In 1912, independent producer Carl
Laemmle, who had doggedly fought the MPPC, was pivotal in forming the Universal Film Manufacturing Company, a distribution firm to release the output of his own
Independent Motion Picture Company and several other
independent and foreign firms. By 1913, Laemmle had
gained control of the new company, and in 1915 he opened
heightens the effect of his narrative by using the sea as a
prominent backdrop for much of the action, seeming to
reflect the heroâ€™s anger (3.27).
Landscapes were also prominent in The Outlaw and
His Wife (1917). Again a single desperate action, the
heroâ€™s theft of a sheep to feed his family, affects his entire
life. Fleeing arrest (3.28), Berg-Ejvind finds temporary
safety working on the farm of a rich widow, Halla. They
fall in love, but he is again pursued by the authorities.
Abandoning her estate, Halla follows Berg-Ejvind into the
mountains, where they live together for many years before
dying in each otherâ€™s arms in a blizzard. SjÃ¶strÃ¶m daringly
undercut the intense romanticism of this story by making
the final scene in a snowbound cabin involve an ugly, petty
quarrel between the couple; they reconcile at the end, just
before they die.
The war had restricted exports of Swedish films, and The
Outlaw and His Wife was the first to burst onto the
international scene. The French, reeling from the recent flood
of American films, reacted with delight. Critic and future
filmmaker Louis Delluc praised The Outlaw and His Wife:
And the public is swept away with emotion. For the public is
awestruck by the barren landscapes, the mountains, the rustic
costumes, both the austere ugliness and the acute lyricism of
such closely observed feelings, the truthfulness of the long
scenes which focus exclusively on the couple, the violent
struggles, the high tragic end of the two aged lovers who
escape life through a final embrace in a desertlike snowscape.4
In general, the Swedish cinema was recognized as the first
major alternative to Hollywood to emerge after the war.
Even more successful was SjÃ¶strÃ¶mâ€™s 1920 film The
Phantom Chariot, again adapted from LagerlÃ¶f. It uses
remarkably complex means to tell the story of a drunken
lout who nearly dies in a cemetery at midnight on New
Yearâ€™s Eve. He is given a chance to ride a ghostly carriage
driven by death and witness how his behavior has ruined
the lives of two women who love him. The ghostly superimpositions (accomplished entirely in the camera during
3.28, rightâ€ƒThe fugitive hero (played by
SjÃ¶strÃ¶m) wanders in the vast
countryside in The Outlaw and His Wife.
3.27, leftâ€ƒYears after the deaths of his
family, the vengeful protagonist rages
against the tempestuous sea in Terje
The Classical Hollywood Cinema 57
small exhibition, distribution, and production operations,
merged all three in 1914 to form the Fox Film Corporation. The new firm would be a major player in 1920s
Hollywood (eventually being renamed 20th Century-Fox
in 1935). Three smaller firms that would merge into
MGM in 1924 all began during this era: Metro in 1914
and Goldwyn and Mayer in 1917.
A major challenge to Paramountâ€™s growing power soon
arose. Paramount was releasing about hundred features a
year and requiring theaters to show all of them (with two
programs per week) in order to get any. This was an early
instance of block booking, a practice that was later repeatedly challenged as monopolistic. In 1917, a group of exhibitors resisted this tactic by banding together to finance and
distribute independent features. They formed the First
National Exhibitors Circuit, which soon was supplying
films to hundreds of theaters nationwide. Zukor responded
by beginning to buy up theaters for his own company in
1919, preparing the way for one of the main trends in the
industry during the 1920s: the studios increased vertical
integration by buying national theater chains.
Vertical integration was an important factor that contributed to Hollywoodâ€™s international power. During this
same period, Germany was just beginning to develop a
vertically integrated film industry (see Chapter 5).
Franceâ€™s leading firm, PathÃ©, was backing away from vertical integration by moving out of production. No other
country developed a studio system as strong as that of the
The Hollywood studios have often been referred to as factories, turning out strings of similar films as if on assembly lines. This characterization is only partly true. Each
Universal City, a studio north of Hollywood (3.29), forming the basis of a complex that still exists. By that point,
Universal was moving toward vertical integration, combining production and distribution in the same firm.
Also in 1912, Adolph Zukor scored a tremendous
success by importing and distributing Queen Elizabeth, a
French feature starring Sarah Bernhardt. Zukor then
formed Famous Players in Famous Plays to exploit the
star system and prestigious literary adaptations. Famous
Players would soon become part of the most powerful
studio in Hollywood. Another step toward the studio system came in 1914, when W. W. Hodkinson banded eleven
local distributors together into Paramount, the first
national distributor devoted solely to features. Zukor was
soon distributing his Famous Players films through
Another feature-film company originated in 1914.
The Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company was centered
primarily around the films of former playwright Cecil B.
De Mille. Lasky also distributed through Paramount. In
1916, Zukor took over Paramount, merged Famous Players in Famous Plays and the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play
Company into Famous Playersâ€“Lasky and made Paramount this new firmâ€™s distribution subsidiary. This was
another key move in fusing smaller American producers
and distributors into larger, vertically integrated firms.
Paramount soon controlled many of the most popular
silent stars, including Gloria Swanson, Mary Pickford,
and Douglas Fairbanks, as well as top directors such as
D. W. Griffith, Mack Sennett, and De Mille.
Other firms formed during the 1910s would be crucial in the industry. Sam, Jack, and Harry Warner moved
from exhibiting to distributing, founding Warner Bros. in
1913. By 1918, they began producing but remained a relatively small firm until the 1920s. William Fox, who had
3.29 A row of open-air filmmaking stages at Universal City, c. 1915. A series of films could be made simultaneously on sets built
side by side. The overhead framework held sheets of translucent material to diffuse the strong California sunlight. (Source: Academy of
Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)
58 CHAPTER 3â€ƒNational Cinemas, Hollywood Classicism, and World War I, 1913â€“1919
dark studios were also constructed, either by covering the
glass walls or by building windowless enclosures (3.30).
Here filmmakers controlled lighting with electric lamps.
These studios also had extensive backlots, where large
outdoor sets could be constructed; to save money, the
production firms often kept some of these standing, using
them over and over.
Again, no other country could match Hollywoodâ€™s
approach. Few firms employed so many different film specialists, and only a small number of studios outside the
United States could boast of facilities as extensive as those
of big companies like Paramount.
Filmmaking in Hollywood during the 1910s
During the late 1910s, foreign audiences, many of whom
had been cut off from the Hollywood product during the
war, marveled at how American films had changed. Aside
from having appealing stars and splendid sets, they were
fast-paced and stylistically polished. One reason for this
appeal was that American filmmakers had gone on exploring the classical Hollywood style, linking technique to
clear storytelling (see pp. 32â€“39).
Filmmakers continued to use crosscutting in increasingly complex ways. In addition, by the mid-1910s, individual scenes within a single space were likely to be
broken into several shots, beginning with an establishing
shot, followed by one or more cut-ins to show portions
film was different and so required specific planning and
execution. The studios did, however, develop methods of
making films as efficiently as possible. By 1914, most big
firms had differentiated between the director, who was
responsible for shooting the film, and the producer, who
oversaw the entire production.
The labor of filmmaking was increasingly divided
among expert practitioners. There were separate scenario
departments, for example, and a writer might specialize in
plotting, dialogue, or intertitles. The version used during
filming was the continuity script, and it broke the action
down into individual, numbered shots.
The script allowed the producer to estimate how
much a given film would cost. The continuity script also
allowed people working on the film to coordinate their
efforts, even though they might never communicate
directly with each other. In the planning stage, the set
designer would use the script to determine what types of
sets were necessary. After the shooting was done, the editor put the film together, guided by the numbers shown
on a slate at the beginning of each shot, which corresponded to the numbers in the script. These shots were
designed to match at each cut, creating a continuity of
The big film companies also built studio facilities
during the 1910s, mostly in the Los Angeles area. Initially, these primarily involved outdoor filming on covered stages (see 3.29). By the late 1910s, however, large
3.30 Producer Thomas H. Ince stands in his studio at Inceville. The glass roof and walls are covered with cloth to permit the use of
artificial light. Later studios had no windows. (Source: Bison 101 Archive)
The Classical Hollywood Cinema 59
Filmmakers would typically break even a simple scene
into several shots, cutting to closer views and placing the
camera at various vantage points within the action itself
(3.35â€“3.37). This editing-based manner of constructing a
space contrasted considerably with the approach being
used in Europe at the same time (see box).
The look of individual shots also changed. Most early
films were shot using flat, overall light, from either the
sun or artificial lights or a combination of both. During
the mid-1910s, filmmakers experimented with effects lighting, lighting on part of the scene, motivated as coming
from a specific source. The most influential film to
include this technique was Cecil B. De Milleâ€™s The Cheat
of the action. Directors and cinematographers were
expected to match the positions and movements of actors
and objects at each cut so that the shift in framing
would be less noticeable. Point-of-view shots were used
more commonly and with greater flexibility. The use of
shot/reverse-shot editing for conversation situations had
been rare in the early 1910s (see p. 39), but by 1917 it
occurred at least once in virtually every film (3.31, 3.32).
Similarly common were cuts from shots of people looking
at something to point-of-view shots revealing what they
saw (3.33, 3.34). Indeed, by 1917, the fundamental techniques of continuity editing, including adherence to the
180-degree rule, or axis of action, had been worked out.
3.31, 3.32 A conversation between the
hero, played by Douglas Fairbanks, and
the villain of Manhattan Madness (1916,
Allan Dwan), edited in shot/reverse shot.
3.33, 3.34 A cut from a man
looking downward to a high angle shows
us his point of view on the characters
at the bottom of the staircase in
The On-the-Square Girl (1917, Frederick
3.35â€“3.37 A typical continuity editing pattern in Her Code of Honor (1919, John Stahl). An establishing shot of a tea party (not
shown) leads to a closer view of a young man and woman conversing and then an eyeline match to a medium shot of her stepfather,
delighted at their courtship. Finally, a more distant framing reestablishes the space by showing all three characters.
60 CHAPTER 3â€ƒNational Cinemas, Hollywood Classicism, and World War I, 1913â€“1919
(1915; 3.47â€“3.49), which utilized arc lamps derived from
the theater. By the end of the 1910s and the early 1920s,
large film studios boasted a great array of different types
of lamps for every purpose.
As feature films became standardized, Hollywood
filmmakers established firmer guidelines for creating intelligible plots. These guidelines have changed little since
then. Hollywood plots consist of clear chains of causes and
effects, and most of these involve character psychology (as
opposed to social or natural forces). Each major character
is given a set of comprehensible, consistent traits. The
Hollywood protagonist is typically goal-oriented, trying to
achieve success in work, sports, or some other activity. The
heroâ€™s goal conflicts with the desires of other characters,
creating a struggle that is resolved only at the endâ€”which is
typically a happy one.
Hollywood films usually intensify interest by presenting two interdependent plotlines. Almost inevitably one of
these involves romance, which gets woven in with the protagonistâ€™s quest to achieve a goal. The plot also arouses
suspense through deadlines, escalating conflicts, and
last-minute rescues. These principles of storytelling have
contributed to the enduring international popularity of
PRECISION STAGING IN EUROPEAN CINEMA
How might you direct the audienceâ€™s attention in the
course of a scene? The Hollywood studios favored cutting
together fairly close views of the characters, steering our
attention from one to another. By contrast, many 1910s
European filmmakers continued to rely on staging within a
single shot (pp. 33â€“34). But they refined the approach by
creating a complex choreography not seen in earlier years.
In the 1910s, European directors often relied on deep
sets. They framed action in windows or other apertures to
catch the viewerâ€™s eye. They achieved precise, gradually
changing compositions by moving the actors to or away
from the camera, and by shifting them from side to side to
reveal important action in the distance.
Louis Feuillade often used depth staging to convey
the quick flow of his busy plots. The lengthy opening shot
of Les Vampires takes place in a newspaper office as the
hero discovers that a dossier on the Vampires gang is
missing from his desk (3.38â€“3.40).
By the mid-1910s, directors were employing much
deeper interior sets than we saw in Afgrunden from 1910
(see 2.19â€“2.21). In Assunta Spina (1915), director Gustavo
Serena puts the foreground action somewhat closer to us
than Feuillade does, and the background is much farther
back. The accused criminal Michele is on trial, and the
staging carefully shifts our attention from his plaintive
expression in the distance to his distraught motherâ€™s reaction in the foreground (3.41â€“3.43).
In one scene of Nerven (â€œNerves,â€ 1919), a man takes a
bottle of poison from a cabinet while his blind sister senses
that he is doing something dangerous. In a daring way,
director Robert Reinert absorbs American-style close views
into European depth staging (3.44â€“3.46). As in all these
examples, the directors and actors had to carefully plan
how changes of position would open up or close off
important action in the background.
During the 1920s, European directors adopted
Hollywoodâ€™s continuity editing system. Precision staging in
lengthy takes became rare. It would be revived in the
1930s, when sound filming encouraged it.
3.38 Les Vampires: Philippe had
entered through the rear door and now
opens a drawer in the foreground desk.
3.39 As he reacts to the loss of the
dossier, one of his colleagues stands
up at the rear, looking worried (Les
3.40 The colleague tries to leave, but
Philippe calls him back. Soon he will
confess as the two other reporters watch
The Classical Hollywood Cinema 61
3.44 Nerven: Johannes reaches into
the cabinet to remove the poison.
3.45 He steps forward, examining it
3.46 As he comes still closer to the
camera, his sisterâ€™s face peeps out from
a small slot in the middle of the frame
Films and Filmmakers
During this period, the big Hollywood firms grew enormously. Feature-length films (running on average about
75 minutes) dominated exhibition by 1915. The studios competed to sign up the most popular actors to
long-term contracts. Some stars, like Mary Pickford and
Charles Chaplin, were making thousands, even tens
of thousands, of dollars a week by the end of the
decade. Studios also bought the rights to many
famous literary works and adapted them as vehicles for
3.47â€“3.49 Light from a single, powerful spotlight offscreen left creates a dramatic silhouette on a translucent wall after
the villain is shot in The Cheat.
3.41 Assunta Spina: after the lawyer
sits, a woman rushes into the court, and
Michele looks up toward the camera.
3.42 More women crowd into the
foreground, blocking out the other figures
in court but leaving Micheleâ€™s face visible
3.43 Finally, as Micheleâ€™s mother turns in
frame center to reveal her anguish, the other
women comfort her, blocking out Michele so
that we can concentrate on her reaction
62 CHAPTER 3â€ƒNational Cinemas, Hollywood Classicism, and World War I, 1913â€“1919
the success of the Italian import Quo Vadis?, he completed a
four-reel historical epic, Judith of Bethulia (1913). But it was
his last film for Biograph. During 1914, Griffith made four
feature films for Mutual, the independent distribution firm
he managed; among these, The Avenging Conscience employed
fantasy scenes inspired by Edgar Allan Poeâ€™s short story â€œThe
Tell-Tale Heartâ€ and poem â€œAnnabel Lee.â€
That same year Griffith was at work on a far more
ambitious project. Independently financed from various
sources, the twelve-reel The Birth of a Nation told an epic
tale of the American Civil War by centering on two families
who befriend each other but are on opposite sides in the
conflict. During Reconstruction, Stoneman, Leader of the
House and the head of the northern family, pushes through
legislation that gives rights to freed slaves, while the elder
son of the southern family helps start the Ku Klux Klan in
response to northern policies.
Using many actors from his Biograph days, Griffith
created subtle portrayals of the two families. His regular cinematographer, Billy Bitzer, designed shots ranging from
epic views of battles to intimate details of the charactersâ€™
lives (3.51). Later scenes expanded Griffithâ€™s technique of
crosscutting for last-minute rescue situations. The Klan
races to save the southern family, trapped in a cabin by
attacking blacks, and to free the heroine from the grip of the
villainous mulatto leader, who threatens her virtue (3.52).
Accompanied by a special orchestral score Griffith
had commissioned, the film previewed in Los Angeles and
San Francisco and then opened in New York and Boston
early in 1915. It played in large legitimate theaters at high
prices, was enormously successful, and brought a new
respectability to the movies.
Not surprisingly, given its bigoted account of African
Americansâ€™ role in southern history, The Birth of a Nation
also aroused heated controversy. Many editorials in
The huge expansion of American production required
many directors. Some of these had begun working earlier,
but a younger generation entered the cinema profession
Thomas H. Ince and D. W. Griffithâ€ƒThomas H. Ince is
chiefly remembered for his success as an independent producer. He made studio filmmaking more efficient by preparing detailed scripts that would control all phases of
production. What was called a â€œcontinuity script,â€ later
known as a shooting script, was a shot-by-shot description
of the action, with indications of costumes, settings, props,
and sometimes lighting.
Having one paper record of all these elements allowed
the cast and crew to coordinate their work smoothly. As
stories became more complex and the continuity style of
filmmaking demanded more shots, the continuity script
could provide a blueprint of the finished film. During
shooting, the director and cinematographer could write
into the script any extra shots they made, and so the editor
would know where the footage should be inserted.
Ince had directed short films early in the 1910s, and
he made one of several pacifist features that appeared
before Americaâ€™s entry into the Great War. Civilization
(1916, codirected with two others) sets its story in a mythical kingdom ruled by a warmongering tyrant. Christ
enters the resurrected body of a young pacifist who died in
battle and converts the king with a message of peace
(3.50). This was Inceâ€™s last directorial effort, and he concentrated on producingâ€”including most of the Westerns
of William S. Hartâ€”until his death in 1924.
In 1913, D. W. Griffith left the Biograph Company,
where he had made over four hundred short films since 1908.
Biograph was reluctant to allow Griffith to make films longer
than two reels. Despite the firmâ€™s resistance, in the wake of
3.50 The figure of Christ
superimposed on a battlefield in the
pacifist drama Civilization.
3.51 The southern sonâ€™s return home
is filmed at an oblique angle so that the
doorway conceals his mother and sister
as they embrace him in The Birth of a
Nation. Such understatement enhances
the emotional power of the moment.
3.52 In The Birth of a Nation, Griffith
mounted his camera on a car to create
fast tracking shots before the galloping
Klan members in the climactic rescue
The Classical Hollywood Cinema 63
white- and black-owned newspapers alike denounced its
racism. The film was based on a novel, The Clansman, by
a well-known racist author, Thomas Dixon. Although
Griffith had toned down the worst excesses of the novel
in favor of a concentration on the white families, many
commentators treated the film as primarily a creation
The National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People (NAACP) had been founded in 1909, and
the struggle for civil rights was under way by the time the
film appeared. Realizing that the artistic qualities of The
Birth of a Nation made it effective as racist propaganda,
NAACP officials pressured the censorship boards in
New York and Boston to cut the most offensive scenes or
to ban the film outright. Ironically, segregation meant that
these NAACP members could not even attend the film in
theaters but had to see it at a screening arranged for them.
Supporters of the film won out, however, and The Birth
of a Nation was exhibited all over the country. Black leaders
realized the desirability of African Americanâ€“produced
films to counter such racism, but funds were lacking. Only
somewhat later would films with all-black casts aimed at
African American audiences emerge (see Chapter 7).
In his next film, Griffith tried to outdo himself.
Intolerance, released in 1916, ran roughly three and a half
hours. Griffith used an abstract theme, the idea of intolerance through the ages, to link four separate stories set in
different historical epochs: the fall of Babylon, the last part
of Christâ€™s life, the St. Bartholomewâ€™s Day Massacre in
France, and a tale of a labor strike and gangster activity in
modern-day America. To stress the unchanging nature of
intolerance, Griffith intercut these stories rather than telling
them one after the other. Through most of the film, intertitles and an allegorical figure of a woman rocking a cradle
announce the shifts from one story to the next. In the final
section, however, as four separate rescues are attempted,
Griffith suddenly cut among them without such signals. The
result is a daring experiment in the use of editing to join
disparate spaces and times (3.53, 3.54). Intolerance was also
innovative in its cinematography, as when Bitzer mounted
the camera on a sliding elevator to create swooping
movements over the huge set of the Babylonian court.
Intolerance was not as successful as The Birth of a
Nation, and Griffithâ€™s subsequent features of the 1910s
were less experimental. Griffith went on location to
film war footage for Hearts of the World (1918), a story
set in a French village during World War I. He made
delightful rural love stories with A Romance of Happy
Valley and True Heart Susie (both 1919) and a drama
that used unusual hazy soft-focus cinematography,
Broken Blossoms (1919).
Griffith was the most famous director of this era. He
quickly came to be credited with innovating most of the
major film techniquesâ€”something he encouraged in publicizing himself. Until recently, some historians have treated
The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance as almost the only
important American films of this period. Without detracting from Griffithâ€™s prestige, however, we should realize
that many excellent filmmakers worked during this era,
some of whose work has been discovered only in recent
decades. (See â€œNotes and Queriesâ€ online.)
A New Generation of Directorsâ€ƒGriffith managed to
keep considerable control over his productions, despite the
growing supervision of the studio producers. Other directors who began working in this era also became powerful
creative figures. In 1914, Maurice Tourneur emigrated from
France and became known as a distinctive filmmaker with a
strong sense of pictorial beauty. One of his first American
films, The Wishing Ring (1914), was subtitled â€œAn Idyll of
Old England.â€ It is a fanciful story of a poor girl who naively
believes that a ring a gypsy has given her is magical. She
tries to use it to reconcile a local earl and his estranged son.
Tourneur created a remarkable atmosphere of a rustic
English village, even though the entire film was made in
Tourneur was one of the many filmmakers testing the
expressive possibilities of the film medium during this era.
In 1918, he experimented with using modernist theatrical
set design in The Blue Bird and Prunella, though these
were less popular than most of his films of the 1910s. He
3.53, 3.54 In
Griffith boldly cut
in the Babylonian
story to a speeding
train in the
64 CHAPTER 3â€ƒNational Cinemas, Hollywood Classicism, and World War I, 1913â€“1919
also made some highly intelligent adaptations, including
Victory (1919, from Joseph Conradâ€™s novel) and The Last
of the Mohicans (1920, co-directed with Clarence Brown).
The latter, often considered his finest film, fully displays
Tourneurâ€™s visual style, including his characteristic use of
foreground shapes silhouetted against a landscape, often
framed in a cave or doorway (3.55). During the 1920s,
Tourneur increasingly had trouble retaining control over
his productions as the studio system grew, and he returned
to Europe in 1926.
Unlike Tourneur, Cecil B. De Mille survived within the
studio system and managed to control his own productions
throughout a long and prolific career. De Mille is often
thought of today primarily for his historical epics of the
sound era, but during his early career, he made many innovative films in various genres. The Cheat and several other
pictures he made in 1915 were influential in popularizing
directional, selective lighting (see 3.47â€“3.49). De Mille
made a number of unpretentious, well-acted period films
during the mid-1910s, including The Warrens of Virginia
(1915) and The Girl of the Golden West (1916). In 1918, he
made Male and Female, adapted from J. M. Barrieâ€™s play
The Admirable Crichton and starring Gloria Swanson. The
enormous success of this film led De Mille to concentrate
on romantic comedies, often set in sophisticated society.
His films of the 1920s became more extravagant, exploiting
elaborate sets and fashionable costumes.
One of Americaâ€™s most prolific female directors, Lois
Weber, came to prominence in the 1910s. Having started
in films in 1908 as an actress and scenarist, she was directing by 1911, often alongside her husband Phillips Smalley.
Few of their early films survive, but Suspense (1913) displays a remarkable visual inventiveness (3.56). It earns its
title by crosscutting between a thug breaking into an isolated house and a husband racing to rescue his wife and
baby. Weber went on to direct features on her own, mostly
literary adaptations and films on social themes, notably
The Blot (1921). Like Tourneur, Weber gradually lost independent control of her work and directly only sporadically
from 1923 to 1934. When her career ended, she had
directed well over a hundred films.
Other major Hollywood directors also began their
careers in the 1910s. Actor Raoul Walsh, who had directed
several two-reel films, made an impressive feature debut in
1915 with Regeneration, a realistic story set in a slum milieu
(3.57). John Ford began making low-budget Westerns in
1917 and directed dozens of them over the next few years.
Unfortunately, nearly all are lost, but two surviving films,
Straight Shooting (1917) and Hell Bent (1918), indicate that
Ford had a rare feeling for landscape (3.58) and a flexible
understanding of the continuity system from the beginning.
Slapstick Comedies and Westernsâ€ƒSome of the most
popular directors and stars of this era specialized in slapstick comedy. Once feature films were standardized, they
were typically shown on a program that included shorts,
such as comedies, newsreels, and cartoons. Among the
most successful comedy shorts were the films of
producer-director Mack Sennett. He headed the Keystone
are glimpsed in a
rear-view mirror as
they try to capture
the hero, who has
stolen a car in his
to save his family.
vividly depicts the
petty crime in
which its hero is
3.58 From the
beginning of his
career, John Ford
used roads, rock
the sky to create
dramatic vistas of
the Old West, as in
this image from
used a tent
opening to create
composition for a
in The Last of the
The Classical Hollywood Cinema 65
melodramas, as when
villain Ford Sterling
threatens to saw
Mabel Normand in
half in Mabelâ€™s Awful
Mistake (1913, Mack
Sennett). The white
streaks at the sides are
company, which used a great deal of fast action, including
chases with the bumbling â€œKeystone Kops.â€ His stable of
comic stars, who often directed their own pictures, included
Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin, and Mabel Normand (3.59).
Chaplin, an English music-hall performer, became an
international star with Keystone, going on to direct his own
films at Essanay, Mutual, and First National over the course
of the 1910s. Chaplinâ€™s style was notable for his imaginative
use of objects, as in The Pawnshop (1916), where he gauges
the value of a clock by listening to its ticking with a stethoscope. His dexterity led to many elaborately choreographed
fights, chases, and mix-ups, such as the breakneck shenanigans on roller skates in The Rink (1916). In a few of his
films, such as The Vagabond (1916) and The Immigrant
(1917, 3.60), Chaplin also introduced an element of pathos
rare in slapstick films. Chaplinâ€™s â€œLittle Tramp,â€ with his
bowler, cane, and oversized shoes, was soon one of the
most widely recognized figures in the world.
One of Sennettâ€™s rivals was Hal Roach, who produced
films with the young Harold Lloyd. Although Lloydâ€™s initial series character, â€œLonesome Luke,â€ was basically an
imitation of Chaplin, he soon donned a pair of darkrimmed glasses and developed his own persona (3.61).
Other comics of the period included Roscoe â€œFattyâ€
Arbuckle and his sidekick Buster Keaton, who would
come into his own as a star in the 1920s.
The Western also continued to be popular during the
1910s. William S. Hart, one of its most prominent stars,
had been a stage actor and did not enter films until he was
nearly fifty. His age, plus his lean face, allowed him to play
weather-beaten, world-weary roles. His characters were
often criminals or men with shady pasts; the plots frequently involved his redemption by love. As a result,
Hartâ€™s persona became known as the â€œgood bad man,â€ an
approach taken up by many subsequent Western stars
(3.62). His worn clothing and other realistic touches gave
Hartâ€™s Westerns a sense of historical authenticity, despite
their often conventional plots.
Another cowboy star of this period was in many ways
Hartâ€™s opposite. Tom Mix came out of a background of
rodeos and Wild West shows. His films were less realistic
than Hartâ€™s and emphasized fast action, fancy riding, and
stunts. After years of making low-budget shorts for Selig,
Mix moved to Fox in 1917 and soon became the most
popular cowboy star of the late silent era.
One event at the end of this decade indicates the
importance that major stars and directors had assumed by
this time. In 1919, three of the most popular actorsâ€”Mary
Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charles Chaplinâ€”joined
the leading director D. W. Griffith in establishing a new
firm, United Artists. This was a prestigious distribution
company, dealing only in films that these four produced
independently. (Later, other independent producers and
stars, such as Samuel Goldwyn and Buster Keaton, also
distributed through United Artists.) Although Griffith
had to drop out a few years later, the new firm did give
some stars and producers a degree of control that was not
available to those who worked for the big studios.
The development of the Hollywood studio system and
the accompanying American takeover of world film
3.60 Aboard ship
in The Immigrant,
Chaplin and his
react to their first
sight of the Statue of
3.61 The City
persona, a brash
young fellow in
a straw hat.
protagonist of Hellâ€™s
Hinges (1916, William
S. Hart and Charles
character, as he reads
the Bible given to him
by the heroineâ€”with a
bottle of whiskey at
66 CHAPTER 3â€ƒNational Cinemas, Hollywood Classicism, and World War I, 1913â€“1919
markets were among the most influential changes in cinema history. The events of the 1910s defined standard
commercial filmmaking. Some of the US companies that
began in this era are still making and distributing films.
The division of labor into specialized tasks has been refined
and continues to the present day. The star system remains
one of the primary means of appealing to audiences, and
directors still coordinate the process of filmmaking. The
basic principles of the classical Hollywood style of filmmaking have changed remarkably little. For better or worse,
during this era, Hollywood and the movies became almost
synonymous for audiences around the world.
Streamlining American Animation
As the labor involved in live-action filmmaking was being
divided, animated filmmaking was becoming standardized.
Several filmmakers realized that cartoons could be made
more economically and quickly using an assembly-line system.
The main animator could design and supervise the work while
subsidiary workers drew most of the pictures needed for the
filmâ€™s movement. In addition, during the 1910s, technical
innovations speeded up the process of animation: the mechanical printing of background settings, the use of transparent
cels, and the slash technique of drawing action.
Early animators like Ã‰mile Cohl and Winsor McCay
worked by making huge numbers of drawings (see
Chapter 2). McCay had an assistant to trace the unmoving background settings onto sheets of paper. In 1913,
John Randolph Bray devised a method of mechanizing
the process of animation: he printed the same background
on many sheets of paper, then animated painted shapes on
top of that background to create The Artistâ€™s Dream (3.63).
In December 1914, Bray started his own animation
studio, hiring a young man named Earl Hurd. That same
month, Hurd applied for a patent on the idea of drawing
the moving figures in animated cartoons on sheets of
transparent celluloid. (The individual sheets are called
cels, giving rise to the term cel animation.) This technique meant that each moving portion could be redrawn
bit by bit on separate cels while the same background
painting was used under all of them. Hurdâ€™s â€œBobby
Bumpsâ€ series were among the most popular cartoons of
the decade (3.64).
During this same period, Raoul BarrÃ© developed the
slash system of animation. A figure would be drawn on
paper, and then the portion of the body that moved
would be cut away and redrawn on the sheet of paper
below the remaining portion of the figure. To keep the
shapes steady on the screen when moving portions were
redrawn, BarrÃ© proposed steadying the sheets of paper
on a pair of pegs at the top of the drawing. This peg
system of registration has remained central to cel animation ever since, because it allows cels drawn by different
animators to fit together smoothly. During 1915, BarrÃ©
used the slash system to create a brief series of â€œAnimated Grouch Chasersâ€ for the Edison Company. These
were live-action shorts with embedded animated
During the 1910s, animation was done by independent firms that sold the distribution rights to their films.
Cartoons were sometimes among the shorts shown on
programs before features. During the 1920s, thanks in
part to the labor-saving devices developed during the
1910s, animated shorts would become a much more regular element of movie programs.
3.63 In The Artistâ€™s Dream (1913),
the animated dog is painted onto a
background setting printed on a
series of sheets of paper.
3.64 A frame from Bobby Bumps and
His Goatmobile (1917), in which the
moving figures are drawn on transparent
celluloid sheets placed over a single
painting of the setting.
3.65 An Edison cartoon of 1915,
Cartoons in the Hotel, animated by BarrÃ©.
The head of the cow has been â€œslashedâ€
off its body, which remains static, while
separate drawings allow the head to move.
Trends in Smaller Producing Countries 67
TRENDS IN SMALLER PRODUCING
During the 1910s, many countries began producing fiction
films, but unfortunately, it is presently impossible to write
adequate histories of such filmmaking practices, since few
films from minor producing countries survive. The production companies, usually small and often short-lived, seldom
could preserve the negatives of their films. In many cases
only a few prints were distributed, so the chances of one
surviving were slim. Many countries, such as Mexico,
India, Colombia, and New Zealand, have only recently
established archives to save their cinematic heritage.
Yet most countries have managed to salvage at least a
few silent films. On the basis of these, we can make some
generalizations about filmmaking in the less prominent
producing countries during the silent era.
Firms in such countries had little hope of exporting
their films. This meant that they could afford only small
budgets, so production values were usually relatively low.
Filmmakers concentrated on movies that would appeal
primarily to domestic audiences.
Films made in the smaller producing nations share
two general traits. First, many were shot on location. Since
production was sporadic, large studio facilities simply did
not exist, and filmmakers made a virtue of necessity,
exploiting distinctive natural landscapes and local historical buildings for interesting mise-en-scÃ¨ne. Those studio
facilities that did exist were small and technologically limited. Little artificial lighting was available, and many interior scenes of this period were shot on simple open-air
stages, in sunlight.
Second, filmmakers frequently sought to differentiate
their low-budget films from the more polished imported
works by using national literature and history as sources
for their stories. In many cases, such local appeal worked,
since audiences wanted at least occasionally to see films
that reflected their own cultures. In some cases, these
films were novel enough to be exported.
A good example of a film that used these tactics is
The Sentimental Bloke, perhaps the most important
Australian silent film (1919, Raymond Longford). Based
on a popular book of dialect verses by Australian author
C. J. Dennis, the film presented a working-class romance.
The intertitles quoted passages from the poem, and the
scenes were shot in the inner-city Woolloomooloo district
of Sydney (3.66). The film was very popular in Australia.
â€œIt is a blessed relief and refreshment,â€ wrote one reviewer,
â€œafter much of the twaddlesome picturing and camouflaged lechery of the films that come to us from America.â€5
The Sentimental Bloke received some distribution in Great
Britain, the United States, and other marketsâ€”though the
local dialect in the intertitles had to be revised so that foreign viewers could understand the story.
Other films of the era drew upon similar appeals. In
Argentina, Alcides Greca directed El Ãºltimo malÃ³n (â€œThe
Last Indian Attack,â€ 1917), based on a historical incident
of 1904 (3.67). Similarly, a 1919 production by the small,
newly formed Film Company of Ireland, Willy Reilly and
His Colleen Bawn (released 1920, John MacDonagh), was
based on an Irish novel by William Carleton, which in
turn was based on traditional ballads and events of the
Catholic-Protestant conflicts of 1745. Many of the filmâ€™s
scenes were filmed outdoors in the Irish countryside.
Some interior scenes were also shot outdoors (3.68). In
1919, the Canadian producer Ernest Shipman made a
film called Back to Godâ€™s Country (director, David M.
Hartford). The screenplay was written by Nell Shipman,
the filmâ€™s star, who in the 1920s became a notable independent producer and director. Much of the film was
made in the Canadian wilderness, and the story stressed
the heroineâ€™s love of animals and natural landscapes
(3.69). Again, the distinctive Canadian subject matter and
scenery made the film successful abroad.
3.66, leftâ€ƒA meeting between the hero
and heroine of The Sentimental Bloke,
staged in a Sydney street with ordinary
working-class activities occurring in the
3.67, rightâ€ƒThe staging of a historical
battle on location gives a nearly
documentary quality to some scenes of
El Ãºltimo malÃ³n.
68 CHAPTER 3â€ƒNational Cinemas, Hollywood Classicism, and World War I, 1913â€“1919
The strategies of using national subject matter and
exploiting picturesque local landscapes have remained common in countries with limited production to the present day.
The 1910s, then, were a crucial transitional period for
the cinema. International explorations of storytelling techniques and stylistic expressivity led to a cinema that was
surprisingly close to what we know today. Early as they
are, the films of the mid-to-late 1910s resemble modern
movies much more than they do the novelty-oriented short
subjects made only a few years earlier.
Similarly, the postwar international situation in the film
industry would have long-range consequences. By 1919, Hollywood dominated world markets, and most countries had
to struggle to compete with it, either by imitating its films or
by finding alternative storytelling methods. The Swedish
filmmakers had created a powerful national cinema, but it
was too small to make real headway against the Americans
after the war. Russiaâ€™s distinctive film style was cut off by the
1917 Russian Revolution. The struggle against Hollywood
domination would shape much of what happened within
national film industries for decades to come.
1. Quoted in Yuri Tsivian, â€œSome Preparatory Remarks on
Russian Cinema,â€ in Tsivian, ed., Silent Witnesses:
Russian Films 1908â€“1919 (London: British Film Institute, 1989), p. 24.
2. Quoted in Richard Abel, French Cinema: The First Wave,
1915â€“1929 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,
1984), p. 10.
3. Ron Mottram, The Danish Cinema before Dreyer
(Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1988), p. 117.
4. Louis Delluc, â€œCinema: The Outlaw and His Wife,â€
(1919) in Richard Abel, ed., French Film Theory and Criticism 1907â€“1939, vol. 1 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 188.
5. Quoted in Graham Shirley and Brian Adams, Australian
Cinema: The First Eighty Years (Australia: Angus &
Robertson Publishers and Currency Press, 1983), p. 56.
3.68, leftâ€ƒA set representing the
interior of a tenant cottage, shot on an
open-air stage in full daylight, in Willy
Reilly and His Colleen Bawn.
3.69, rightâ€ƒNell Shipman and a bear on
location in the Canadian wilderness in
Back to Godâ€™s Country.
We discuss some topics in this chapter further on our blog, Observations on Film Art:
On the great films of 1913: â€œLucky â€™13â€
On Evgenii Bauerâ€™s style: â€œWatching movies very, very slowlyâ€
On early continuity style in William S. Hart films: â€œRio Jim, in discrete fragmentsâ€
On American filmmakers of the 1910s: â€œAnybody but Griffithâ€
On William Desmond Taylor: â€œWhen we dead awaken: William Desmond Taylor made movies, tooâ€
On film noir in the 1910s: â€œFilm noir, a hundred years agoâ€
On FantÃ´mas: â€œHow to watch FANTÃ”MAS, and whyâ€
On Douglas Fairbanks: â€œHis majesty the American, leaping for the moonâ€
On 1917 as a key year for Hollywoodâ€™s classical style: â€œHappy birthday, classical cinema!â€
On some European films of the 1910s: â€œSearching for surprises, and fritesâ€
On Fordâ€™s Straight Shooting: â€œJohn Ford, silent manâ€
On German films of the 1910s: â€œHomunculusâ€
On American film style: â€œWayward ways and roads not takenâ€
THE LATE SILENT ERA,
Although classical Hollywood form and style have been pervasive since
the 1910s, we shall find alternative approaches to filmmaking in other
periods and places. So far we have looked at styles associated with a single
filmmaker (such as Georges MÃ©liÃ¨s or D. W. Griffith), with a company (such
as PathÃ©), with a general trend (such as precision staging), or with a national
industry (such as the huge classical Hollywood cinema or the small Swedish
production). Some groups of films belong to a unified movement. A movement involves several filmmakers, working for a limited period and usually in
a single country, whose films share significant formal and stylistic traits.
One broad trend in the arts began in the late nineteenth century and
was causing a great ferment as the cinema was spreading. This trend has
been labeled modernism. It signaled a major shift in cultural attitudes that
arose largely as a response to modern lifeâ€”the late phases of the industrial
revolution, especially the new modes of transportation and communication
that were swiftly transforming peopleâ€™s lives. Telephones, automobiles, and
airplanes were considered great advances, yet they also seemed threatening,
especially in their capacity to be used in warfare.
Photography, in particular, revolutionized the visual arts. Photographs
could provide realistic portraits and show landscapes and cityscapes in
enormous detail. Many painters moved away from the traditions of realism,
portraiture, and subjects drawn from history and classical myth. A new
value was placed on experimentation and even shock value. The many
movements that arose during the early twentieth century can all loosely be
summed up as avant-garde. These new styles, which originated primarily in
Europe, rejected the realistic depiction of a concrete world.
Consider just painting. The first modernist movement appeared in
France during the nineteenth century and was termed Impressionism. Its
The Kid practitioners abandoned painting the solid, permanent appearance of
70 PART 2â€ƒThe Late Silent Era, 1919â€“1929
things and instead attempted to capture the fleeting patterns of light and shadow as they struck the eye.
During the early twentieth century, other modernist
trends in painting quickly arose. Fauvism in France encouraged the use of bold colors and exaggerated shapes to
elicit strong emotions rather than serene contemplation.
Other French painters more coolly depicted several sides
of objects, as if they were being seen in an impossible
space from several viewpoints at once. This movement
became known as Cubism. Beginning in 1908, proponents
of German Expressionism attempted to express raw,
extreme emotions, in painting through garish colors and
distortion and in theater through emphasized gestures,
loud declamation of lines, staring eyes, and choreographed
The 1910s saw the beginnings of abstract painting,
pioneered by Wassily Kandinsky and quickly spreading
internationally. In Italy, the Futurists tried to capture the
hectic pace of modern life by rendering the swirl and blur
of movement. In Russia and, after the 1917 Russian
Revolution, the Soviet Union, some artists championed
purely abstract compositions of simple shapes, a style
known as Suprematism. In the 1920s, as Lenin called for
swift industrial progress, Soviet artists based their works
around the machine in a movement termed Constructivism.
In France during the 1920s, practitioners of Surrealism favored bizarre, irrational, artfully contrived juxtapositions of objects and actions. Going even further, the
Dadaists advocated purely random mixtures of elements
in artworks, reflecting what they saw as the madness of
the postwar world. All these styles, along with modernist
movements and trends in literature, drama, and music,
created a radical break with traditional realism in a
remarkably short time. The modernist tradition would
dominate the arts throughout much of the twentieth
Given the liveliness and prominence of these modernist movements, it is not surprising that they sometimes
influenced the cinema. The years from 1918 to 1933 saw
an astonishing variety of explorations in alternative film
styles. No fewer than three avant-garde movements arose
within commercial industries and flourished briefly:
French Impressionism (1918â€“1929), German Expressionism (1920â€“1927), and Soviet Montage (1925â€“1933).
Moreover, the 1920s saw the beginnings of an independent
experimental cinemaâ€”including Surrealism, Dadaism, and
There are many reasons for such intense, varied activity in this period. One of the most important involves the
new prominence of American cinema as a stylistic and
commercial force. Chapters 2 and 3 described the establishment of the narrative and stylistic premises of the classical Hollywood cinema during the 1910s. We also saw
how the wartime decline in European production allowed
American firms to expand into world markets.
After the war, widely differing situations existed in
other producing nations, but all faced one common factor:
a need to compete with Hollywood in the local market. In
some countries, like Great Britain, such competition usually involved imitating Hollywood films. Other national
cinemas not only followed this strategy but also encouraged filmmakers to experiment, in the hope that innovative films could compete with the Hollywood product.
Some postwar avant-garde films became successful, partly
on the basis of their novelty.
Many of the institutions we now consider integral
parts of the film world first came into being then. For
example, the specialized film journal, publishing theoretical
and analytical articles, arose in France in the 1910s and
proliferated internationally over the next decade. Similarly,
the earliest groups of enthusiasts devoted to alternative cinema were formedâ€”taking their name, the â€œcinÃ©-club,â€ from
French groups that started the trend. Until the mid-1920s,
there were no theaters devoted to the showing of art films.
Whether a theater was large or small, first-run or
second-run, it showed ordinary commercial films. Gradually, however, the â€œlittle cinemaâ€ movement spread, again
beginning in France. Such theaters catered to a small but
loyal portion of the public interested in foreign and avantgarde films. Finally, the first conferences and exhibitions
devoted to the cinema as an art were held during the 1920s.
Many of the circumstances that allow any film movement to come into being, however, are unique to its time
and place. No single set of circumstances will predictably
give rise to a movement. Indeed, as we shall see in Chapters 5 to 7, the conditions in France, Germany, and the
Soviet Union differed vastly in the postwar era.
We go on to examine Hollywood in the 1920s, a
period during which it continued to expand and to polish
the classical narrative style developed during the previous
decade (Chapter 7). Finally, we look at international
trends of this period, including efforts to resist Hollywood
competition and attempts to create an international experimental cinema (Chapter 8).
THE FRENCH FILM INDUSTRY AFTER WORLD WAR I
French film production declined during World War I, as many resources
were drained away to support the fighting. Moreover, American films
increasingly entered France. In the years immediately following the warâ€™s
end, only 20 to 30 percent of films screened there were French, with
Hollywood supplying most of the rest.
French producers faced an uphill struggle in trying to regain their prewar strength. French companies released fewer than a hundred features per
year, while Germany routinely turned out over 200 and the United States
over 500. Throughout the 1920s, production remained in a crisis.
Competition from Imports
What created the problems confronting French film production
between 1918 and 1928? For one thing, imported films continued to
pour into France in the 1920s. American films were the most numerous,
especially early in the decade. Even though Americaâ€™s share
declined steadily throughout the mid-to-late 1920s, other countries,
primarily Germany and Great Britain, gained ground faster than did
France (see chart, p. 72).
The situation for exports was little better. The domestic French market
itself was relatively small, and films seldom could recover their costs without
going abroad. Foreign films, however, were difficult to place in the lucrative
American market, and only a tiny number of French films had any success
there during this period. With American films dominating most other
markets, the French depended largely on areas that already had cultural
FRANCE IN THE 1920s
La DixiÃ¨me symphonie
72 CHAPTER 4â€ƒFrance in the 1920s
one. Responding to exhibitorsâ€™ demands, the distributors
provided Hollywood films.
Producers repeatedly called for the government to
limit imported films. Inevitably, however, the more powerful distributors and exhibitors, who made most of their
money on imports, opposed any quota, and they typically
won out. Despite some minor measures to limit importation in the late 1920s, a strong quota was not passed until
Not only did the government fail to protect producers from foreign competition, it also assailed the industry
with high taxes on movie tickets. During the 1920s,
these taxes ran anywhere from 6 to 40 percent, depending on a theaterâ€™s size and income. Such taxes hurt every
level of the industry, since exhibitors could not risk losing patrons by raising admission prices and they could
not pay as much to the distributors and producers of the
Outdated Production Facilities
To make matters worse, technical facilities were outdated.
As in other European countries, French producers
depended on the glass studios built before the war. The
lack of capital investment hampered companies in
reequipping these studios to catch up with the technological
innovations American firms had made during the 1910s,
particularly in lighting (see pp. 57â€“60).
As a result, French filmmakers were unaccustomed
to using artificial lighting extensively. In the late teens,
French visitors to Hollywood were awed by the vast lighting systems. As director Henri Diamant-Berger observed
in early 1918, â€œLighting effects are sought and achieved
in America by the addition of strong light sources, and
not, as in France, by the suppression of other sources. In
America, lighting effects are created; in France, shadow
effects are created.â€1
That is, French filmmakers typically
start with sunlight and block off parts of the light to create dark patches within the set. American filmmakers
had more flexibility, eliminating sunlight altogether and
creating exactly the effects they wanted with artificial
There were some attempts to bring this kind of control to French filmmaking. In 1919, director Louis
Mercanton rigged up portable lighting equipment to take
on location for his realist filmmaking. For the epic The
Three Musketeers (1921â€“1922), Henri Diamant-Berger
installed American-style overhead lighting in a studio at
Vincennes (4.1). Modern lighting technology became
increasingly available during the 1920s, but it remained
too expensive for widespread use.
exchange with France, such as Belgium, Switzerland, and
French colonies in Africa and Southeast Asia. Companies
were willing to experiment to find a distinctively French
cinema able to compete at home and abroad. Several
directors central to the fledgling French Impressionist
movementâ€”Abel Gance, Marcel Lâ€™Herbier, Germaine
Dulac, and Jean Epsteinâ€”made their early films for
Disunity within the Film Industry
French production was also hampered by disunity. Before
World War I, two big companies, PathÃ© and Gaumont,
controlled the French film industry. After the war, both
cut back severely on production, the riskiest sector of the
industry, and concentrated instead on surer profits from
distribution and exhibition. The largest French firms
backed off from vertical integration just when vertically
integrated firms were strengthening the Hollywood
Franceâ€™s production sector consisted of a few largeand medium-sized firms and many smaller companies.
Often a director or star would raise money for a film, and
if that film failed, the company went out of business or
struggled along for another film or two. This artisanal
strategy offered little hope for competing with Hollywood.
In addition, most films had low budgets. Even by the late
1920s, when the industry was doing somewhat well, one
expert estimated the average cost of a feature to be
between $30,000 and $40,000â€”one-tenth the budget of an
average American feature.
Just as bad, because of the lack of an oligopoly and
vertical integration, the production sectorâ€™s interests
clashed with those of the exhibitors and distributors.
PathÃ©, Gaumont, and the other established firms owned
only 10 to 15 percent of French cinemas. The independent theater owners wanted to screen what would bring
the biggest audienceâ€”usually, American imports. And
often an American film was cheaper to rent than a French
PERCENT RELEASED IN FRANCE
FRENCH AMERICAN GERMAN OTHER
1924 693 9.8 85 2.9 2.3
1925 704 10.4 82 4.1 3.5
1926 565 9.7 78.6 5.8 5.9
1927 581 12.7 63.3 15.7 8.3
1928 583 16.1 53.7 20.9 9.3
1929 438 11.9 48.2 29.7 10.2
Major Postwar Genres and Filmmakers 73
crime and perhaps also a sense that the formula was
becoming stale led to changes. Feuillade, whose films were
now virtually Gaumontâ€™s sole output, turned to serials
based on popular sentimental novels with Les Deux
gamines (â€œThe Two Kids,â€ 1921) and continued in this
vein until his death in 1925. Diamant-Bergerâ€™s fourteenepisode adaptation of The Three Musketeers was among
the decadeâ€™s most successful films. Henri Fescourt
directed Mandrin (1924), whose twelve episodes continued the traditions of abductions, disguises, and rescuesâ€”
but presented them as swashbuckling feats in an
Whether made in serial format or not, many prestigious
and expensive productions were historical epics. In many
cases, film companies economized by using French monuments as settings (4.2). Such films were often intended for
export. The Miracle of the Wolves (1924, Raymond Bernard)
was the most lavish French historical film yet made; while
its interiors used sets, many scenes were shot in the medieval town of Carcassonne. The filmâ€™s producer, the SociÃ©tÃ©
des Films Historiques, gave it a gala New York run, but, as
often happened with such attempts, no American distributor purchased The Miracle of the Wolves.
A modest genre was the fantasy film, and its most
prominent practitioner was RenÃ© Clair. His first film,
Paris qui dort (â€œSleeping Paris,â€ aka The Crazy Ray, 1924),
was a comic story of a mysterious ray that paralyzes Paris.
Clair used freeze-frame techniques and unmoving actors to
create the sense of an immobile city. Several characters flying above the city escape the ray and proceed to live luxuriously by looting whatever they want; soon they track down
the source of the problem and set things moving again. In
Clairâ€™s Le Voyage imaginaire (â€œThe Imaginary Journey,â€
1926), the hero dreams that he is transported by a witch to
a fairyland, created with fancifully painted sets (4.3). Such
fantasies revived a popular tradition of the early cinema in
France, drawing on camera tricks and stylized sets somewhat as Georges MÃ©liÃ¨s and Gaston Velle had done.
Comedies continued to be popular after the war.
Max Linder, who had been lured briefly to Hollywood,
Although some new studios were built, few had extensive backlots of the sort owned by the larger American
and German producers. Most studios were in the Parisian
suburbs, surrounded by houses rather than by open space.
Large sets often had to be constructed in rented studios.
Partly as a result of this and partly through a desire for
realism, French filmmakers continued to go on location
more than did their counterparts in Germany or the
United States. Chateaus, palaces, and other historic landmarks appear as the backdrops of many French silent
films; filmmakers also made a virtue of necessity by using
natural landscapes and scenes shot in French villages.
MAJOR POSTWAR GENRES AND
Despite foreign competition, industry disunity, lack of
capital, government indifference, and limited technical
resources, the French industry produced a variety of films.
In most countries, serials declined in prestige during the late
teens, but in France, they remained among the most lucrative
formats well into the 1920s. Big firms like PathÃ© and
Gaumont found that a high-budget costume drama or literary adaptation could make a profit only when shown in several parts. Because moviegoers regularly attended their local
theater, they were willing to return for all the episodes.
Some French serials of the postwar era followed the
established pattern, with cliffhanger endings, master criminals, and exotic locales, as in Louis Feuilladeâ€™s Tih Minh
(1919). But social pressures against the glorification of
4.1 American-style, three-point lighting in The Three
Musketeers, with a subdued fill light on the set, a key light from
off left foreground, and a high back light that picks out the
actor against the dark background.
4.2 Some scenes
in Lâ€™Agonie des
Agony of the
Eagles,â€ 1921), a
PathÃ© film about
shot on location
74 CHAPTER 4â€ƒFrance in the 1920s
psychological exploration, this movement came to be
The Impressionistsâ€™ Relation to the Industry
These young filmmakers were aided by the crises that
plagued the French industry. Because companies would
often shift their policies or reorganize, filmmakers had
various ways of obtaining financing. Some Impressionist
directors also divided their time between avant-garde
projects and more profit-oriented films. Germaine Dulac
made some important Impressionist films, including
The Smiling Madame Beudet and Gossette (both 1923), but
she spent much of her career making more conventional
dramas. Similarly, Jean Epstein directed costume pictures
in between some of his most experimental works. Jacques
Feyder was among the more commercially successful of
French directors in the 1920s, making a huge hit,
Lâ€™Atlantide, in 1921; yet he made Impressionist films from
1923 to 1926. This strategy helped keep the movement
going for over a decade.
The first director to depart from established traditions
was Abel Gance, who had entered filmmaking in 1911 as
a scenarist and then began directing. Aside from making
an unreleased MÃ©liÃ¨s-like fantasy, La Folie du docteur Tube
returned to make comedies in France, including one of the
earliest comic features, Le Petit cafÃ© (1919, Raymond
Bernard). Linder played a waiter who inherits a large sum
of money but must go on working to fulfill his contract;
comic scenes follow as he tries to get himself fired. The
filmâ€™s witty touches (4.4) made it a surprise hit and helped
give the comic genre more respectability in France. Other
important comedies were made by Clair, whose The
Italian Straw Hat (1928) brought him an international
fame that would grow in the sound era.
As the war was nearing its end, a distinguished stage
producer began making films. From 1887 to 1914, AndrÃ©
Antoine had pioneered a new naturalism in theater. He
hung beef carcasses in a butcher-shop set and built a
gushing fountain for a Sicilian village scene. He also
made his actors employ a restrained style. Antoine was
almost 60 years old when he moved into cinema with
Les FrÃ¨res corses (The Corsican Brothers, 1917), and he
made eight additional films, ending with Lâ€™ArlÃ©sienne
Critics and other filmmakers sometimes dismissed
Antoine as old-fashioned and unfamiliar with the principles of filmmaking. The apparent lack of polish and
sophistication was, however, deceptive. Nowadays his surviving work is admired for its combination of naturalism
and lyricism, a style that has nothing theatrical about it.
Antoine shot in French villages and landscapes, and the
actors maintained the restraint that the director had developed in his stage career (4.5).
THE FRENCH IMPRESSIONIST
Between 1918 and 1929, a new generation of filmmakers
sought to explore the cinema as an art. These directors
considered French filmmaking stodgy and preferred the
lively Hollywood films that had flooded into France
during the war. Because their films displayed a fascination with pictorial beauty and an interest in intense
4.3, leftâ€ƒIn Le Voyage imaginaire, a
waxworks museum comes to lifeâ€”
including figures of Charlie Chaplin and
Jackie Coogan as they appeared in
Chaplinâ€™s 1921 film The Kid.
4.4, rightâ€ƒMax Linderâ€™s comic feature
Le Petit cafÃ© combines intertitles with live
4.5 In adapting Zolaâ€™s novel La Terre, AndrÃ© Antoineâ€™s
1921 film displayed the bleak fields and farms of the Beauce
region near Chartres. The village church often provides an
ironic backdrop to the tale of greed and cruelty among a
The French Impressionist Movement 75
1918 November: Germany and Austria surrender, ending World War I.
La DixiÃ¨me symphonie (â€œThe Tenth Symphonyâ€), Abel Gance
Summer: Independent company, Films Abel Gance, is formed.
Jâ€™Accuse (â€œI Accuseâ€), Abel Gance
Rose-France, Marcel Lâ€™Herbier
January: Louis Delluc publishes Le Journal du CinÃ©-Club, then starts CinÃ©a magazine in April.
Le Carnaval des vÃ©ritÃ©s (â€œCarnival of Truthsâ€), Marcel Lâ€™Herbier
Lâ€™Homme du large (â€œThe Man of the Open Seaâ€), Marcel Lâ€™Herbier
1921 FiÃ¨vre (â€œFeverâ€), Louis Delluc
El Dorado, Marcel Lâ€™Herbier
Yermolievâ€™s Russian Ã©migrÃ© company becomes Films Albatros.
Lâ€™Herbier forms an independent production firm, CinÃ©graphic.
La Femme de nulle part (â€œThe Woman from Nowhereâ€), Louis Delluc
La Roue (â€œThe Wheelâ€), Abel Gance
Lâ€™Auberge rouge (â€œThe Red Innâ€), Jean Epstein
Don Juan et Faust (â€œDon Juan and Faustâ€), Marcel Lâ€™Herbier
La Souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet), Germaine Dulac
Coeur fidÃ¨le (â€œFaithful Heartâ€), Jean Epstein
Crainquebille, Jacques Feyder
Le Marchand de plaisir (â€œThe Seller of Pleasureâ€), Jaque Catelain
Gossette (â€œThe Little Kidâ€), Germaine Dulac
Le Brasier ardent (â€œThe Burning Brazierâ€), Ivan Mosjoukine and Alexandre Volkoff
March: Louis Delluc dies.
La Galerie des monsters (â€œThe Freak Showâ€), Jaque Catelain
Lâ€™Inondation (â€œThe Floodâ€), Louis Delluc
Lâ€™Inhumaine (â€œThe Inhuman Oneâ€), Marcel Lâ€™Herbier
Kean, Alexandre Volkoff
Catherine, Albert DieudonnÃ© (script by Jean Renoir)
La Belle Nivernaise (â€œThe Beautiful Nivernaiseâ€), Jean Epstein
Lâ€™Ironie du destin (â€œThe Irony of Destinyâ€), Dimitri Kirsanoff
Lâ€™Affiche (â€œThe Posterâ€), Jean Epstein
Visages dâ€™enfants (â€œChildrenâ€™s Facesâ€), Jacques Feyder
Feu Mathias Pascal (â€œThe Late Mathias Pascalâ€), Marcel Lâ€™Herbier
La Fille de lâ€™eau (â€œThe Daughter of the Waterâ€), Jean Renoir
Les Films Jean Epstein is formed.
Gribiche, Jacques Feyder
Menilmontant, Dimitri Kirsanoff
6Â½ Ã— 11, Jean Epstein
La Glace Ã trois faces (â€œThe Three-Sided Mirrorâ€), Jean Epstein
NapolÃ©on vu par Abel Gance (â€œNapolÃ©on as Seen by Abel Ganceâ€), Abel Gance
Les Films Jean Epstein goes out of business.
Lâ€™Herbierâ€™s company, CinÃ©graphic, is absorbed by CinÃ©romans.
Brumes dâ€™automne (â€œAutumn Mistsâ€), Dimitri Kirsanoff
La Chute de la maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher), Jean Epstein
La Petite marchande dâ€™allumettes (The Little Match Girl), Jean Renoir
1929 Lâ€™Argent (â€œMoneyâ€), Marcel Lâ€™Herbier
Finis Terrae (â€œThe End of the Earthâ€), Jean Epstein
A Chronology of French Impressionist Cinema
76 CHAPTER 4â€ƒFrance in the 1920s
In these early years, the only Impressionist filmmaker
who remained at the periphery of the industry was critic
and theorist Louis Delluc. Using inherited money and
assistance from other filmmakers, he supported the tiny
companies that produced his low-budget films like FiÃ¨vre.
A few years later, Jean Renoir, son of painter Auguste
Renoir, ventured into different types of avant-garde filmmaking, including Impressionism, supported by his own
money (derived in part from selling some of his fatherâ€™s
paintings). Another Impressionist filmmaker, Dimitri
Kirsanoff, worked with the most limited means of all,
scraping together funds without any production company
and making inexpensive films such as Lâ€™Ironie du destin
One other firm made major contributions to Impressionism in its early years. The Russian production group
Yermoliev (p. 49), fleeing the Soviet governmentâ€™s nationalization of the film industry, settled in Paris in 1920 and
reorganized as Films Albatros in 1922. At first this firm
made popular fantasies, melodramas, and the like. The
companyâ€™s lead actor, Ivan Mosjoukine (who had changed
his name from the Russian Mozhukhin), quickly became a
major French star. In 1923, Albatros produced one of the
most daring of the Impressionist films, Le Brasier ardent,
codirected by Mosjoukine and Alexandre Volkoff. In
1924, it made Kean, directed by Volkoff and starring
Mosjoukine. Though a small company, Albatros was profitable, and it also produced Impressionist films by French
directors: Epstein worked there in the mid-1920s, and
Lâ€™Herbierâ€™s company coproduced Feu Mathias Pascal with
The most prolific and successful directors of the
movement were able to start their own companies. After
his early successes for PathÃ©, Gance formed Films Abel
Gance in 1919 (which became financially independent
of PathÃ© in 1924). After a disagreement with Gaumont
over Don Juan et Faust in 1922, Lâ€™Herbier formed CinÃ©graphic. This firm produced most of Lâ€™Herbierâ€™s subsequent 1920s work and also financed Dellucâ€™s Lâ€™Inondation
and two Impressionist films directed by Lâ€™Herbierâ€™s main
actor, Jaque Catelain. Epstein formed Les Films Jean
Epstein in 1926 and kept it going for two years, during
which time he made some of the Impressionist movementâ€™s most daring films. Independent production
enabled the Impressionists to push their experiments
The style of the Impressionist movement derived partly
from the directorsâ€™ beliefs about the cinema as an art
(â€œThe Madness of Doctor Tube,â€ 1915), he had worked
on commercial projects. With a passion for Romantic literature and art, however, Gance aspired to make more
personal works. His La DixiÃ¨me symphonie (1918) is the
first major film of the Impressionist movement. It concerns a composer who writes a symphony so powerful that
his friends consider it a successor to Beethovenâ€™s nine
symphonies. Gance suggests the listenersâ€™ emotional
reactions to the score by a series of visual devices (4.6).
Such attempts to convey sensations and emotional
â€œimpressionsâ€ would become central to the Impressionist
La DixiÃ¨me symphonie was produced by Charles
PathÃ©, who continued to finance and distribute Ganceâ€™s
films after the director formed his own production company. This was risky, since some Gance films like Jâ€™Accuse
and La Roue were lengthy and expensive. Yet Gance was
the most popular of the Impressionists. In 1920, an informal poll ranked the publicâ€™s favorite films. The only
French productions near the top were by Gance (the
favorites being De Milleâ€™s The Cheat and Chaplinâ€™s short
The other major firm, Gaumont, was making most of
its money from Feuillade serials. It invested some of the
profits in a group of films by Marcel Lâ€™Herbier, whose
debut work, Rose-France, was the second Impressionist
film. This allegory of war-battered France was so symbolic
as to be nearly incomprehensible, and it was not widely
seen. Still, Lâ€™Herbier made two more Impressionist films,
Lâ€™Homme du large and El Dorado, for Gaumont, and by
1920 critics began to notice that France had a cinematic
Jean Epstein, who was to make some of the most
experimental of the Impressionist films, began with a
quasi-documentary, Pasteur (1923), for PathÃ©. Germaine
Dulac was hired to direct her avant-garde character study
The Smiling Madame Beudet by the Film dâ€™Art company,
which originated the project as an adaptation of a recent
4.6 In La DixiÃ¨me
superimposes a dancer
over piano keys to
suggest the subjective
effect of a musical
The French Impressionist Movement 77
properties of the camera: framing isolates objects from
their environment, black-and-white film stock transforms
their appearance, special optical effects further change
them, and so on. By such means, Impressionist theorists
believed, the cinema gives us access to a realm beyond
everyday experience. It shows us the souls of people and
the essences of objects.
With respect to film form, the Impressionists insisted
that cinema should not imitate theatrical or literary narratives. They also argued that film form should be based on
visual rhythm. This idea stems from the Impressionistsâ€™
belief that emotions, rather than stories, should be the basis
for films. The rhythm arises from the careful juxtaposition
of the movements within the shots and the lengths of the
shots themselves. In a lecture, Germaine Dulac analyzed
the rhythm of a moment in Marcel Silverâ€™s Lâ€™Horloge (â€œThe
Clock,â€ 1924) in which a calm love scene abruptly ends as
the pair realize they must return home immediately:
The excitement begins once the thought of the clock
suddenly shatters their happy musing. From then on, the
images succeed each other in a mad rhythm. The throbbing
vision of the pendulum contrasted with the two lovers rushing toward one another creates the drama. . . . Short images
. . . the sensation of the long road the two lovers must
traverse, and the obsessiveness punctuating the action.
Interminable paths, a still imperceptible village. The pendulum is emphasized insofar as the author wants to give us
the sense of distance in the other shots. By the choice of
images, their length, and their contrasts, rhythm becomes
the sole source of emotion.3
For the Impressionists, rhythm was central, offering
a way to emphasize the charactersâ€™ reactions to story
action rather than focusing solely on the action itself.
The Impressionists insisted that their attention to
rhythm put their films closer to music than to any other
Formal Traits of Impressionism
These assumptions about the nature of cinema shaped the
Impressionist filmsâ€™ style and narrative structure. Most
important, filmic techniques often function to convey
character subjectivity. This subjectivity includes mental
images, such as visions, dreams, or memories; optical
point-of-view (POV) shots; and charactersâ€™ perceptions of
events rendered without POV shots. Though films in all
countries had used such devices as superimpositions and
flashbacks to show charactersâ€™ thoughts or feelings, the
Impressionists went much further in this direction.
form. They expressed these beliefs in poetic, often
abstruse, essays and manifestos.
The Impressionists saw art as a form of expression,
conveying the personal vision of the artist: art creates an
experience, and that experience leads to emotions for the
spectator. Art creates these feelings not by making direct
statements but by evoking or suggesting them. In short,
artworks create fleeting feelings, or impressions. By the
1920s, this view of art was a bit old-fashioned, being
rooted in nineteenth-century Romantic and Symbolist
Cinema and the Other Artsâ€ƒSometimes Impressionist
theorists claimed that the cinema is a synthesis of the
other arts. It creates spatial relationships, as architecture, painting, and sculpture do. Because cinema is also a
temporal art, however, it combines its spatial qualities
with rhythmic relationships comparable to those of
music, poetry, and dance. On the other hand, Impressionist theorists also treated the cinema as a pure
medium, presenting unique possibilities to the artist.
This claim led some filmmakers to advocate making only
cinÃ©ma pur (â€œpure cinemaâ€), abstract films that concentrated on graphic and temporal form, often with no narrative (see Chapter 8). Most Impressionists took a less
radical course, making narrative films that explored the
medium of cinema.
Whether a given writer claimed that films synthesized the older arts or created a totally new art form, all
theorists agreed that film is the opposite of theater.
They condemned much French production as mere imitation of the stage, believing that in order to avoid theatricality, films should display naturalistic acting. And
indeed, the acting in many Impressionist films is strikingly restrained. Similarly, the Impressionists preferred
location shooting to artificial sets, and their films contain many evocative landscapes and authentic village
PhotogÃ©nie and Rhythmâ€ƒIn trying to define the nature
of the film image, the Impressionists often referred to the
concept of photogÃ©nie, a term that indicates something more
than being â€œphotogenic.â€ For them, photogÃ©nie was the
basis of cinema. Louis Delluc popularized the term around
1918, using it to define that quality that distinguishes a film
shot from the original object photographed. The process
of filming, according to Delluc, lends an object a new
expressiveness by giving the viewer a fresh perception of it.
Kirsanoff wrote, â€œEach thing existing in the world
knows another existence on the screen.â€2
It sounds a bit
mystical, but it seems that photogÃ©nie is created by the
78 CHAPTER 4â€ƒFrance in the 1920s
view. In Ganceâ€™s NapolÃ©on, the passion of NapolÃ©on and
Josephine as they kiss on their wedding night is conveyed
by a series of gauze filters that drop one by one between
the couple and the lens, gradually blurring the screen to
Occasionally the Impressionists would shoot into a
curved mirror to distort the image. Such distortions could
create a POV shot, as in Dulacâ€™s The Smiling Madame
Beudet; this film contains many optical devices that convey the heroineâ€™s unhappiness with her boorish husband
(4.13). Lâ€™Herbier uses a similar mirror shot in El Dorado
(4.14), but here the framing is not from anyoneâ€™s point of
view; it simply conveys the manâ€™s drunkenness
Throwing the lens out of focus could also convey
subjectivity, whether we see the characters or see through
their eyes. In Le Brasier ardent, the heroine and her
husband have just agreed to divorce, and she sadly stands
thinking (4.15, 4.16). After the hero of Renoirâ€™s La Fille
de lâ€™eau has been in a fight, he sits groggily as a POV shot
conveys his mental state (4.17, 4.18). Similarly, the framing of a shot may suggest charactersâ€™ points of view or
inner states (4.19, 4.20).
Devices of the Cameraâ€ƒAs we have just seen, the
Impressionists were concerned about enhancing the
photogÃ©nie of their films. Because of this, and because of
their interest in character subjectivity, many of the
Impressionistsâ€™ innovations involve camerawork. Most
obviously, Impressionist films frequently contain optical
devices that affect the look of the photographic image.
Such optical devices might be present to enhance the
image by making it more striking or beautiful (4.7, 4.8).
More often, though, optical tricks convey charactersâ€™
impressions. Superimpositions may convey a characterâ€™s
thought or memories (4.9). A filter placed over the lens
may function to suggest subjectivity, usually without the
shotâ€™s being taken from the characterâ€™s optical point of
In Lâ€™Herbierâ€™s El Dorado, the heroine is a performer
in a Spanish cabaret. While onstage, she worries about
her sick son, and her distraction is suggested by a filter
that blurs her figure but not the women around her
(4.10). As the other women snap her out of her reverie,
the filter disappears and she comes into sharp view
(4.11). Here the feelings conveyed are those of the
heroine, and the shot is not taken from anyoneâ€™s point of
4.7 Ganceâ€™s La Roue contains many
oval and round masks to change the
rectangular shape of the image.
4.8 In Lâ€™Herbierâ€™s Rose-France, an
elaborate mask divides the frame into
three images, centering the heroine as if
in a traditional triptych painting.
4.9 As the hero of Lâ€™Herbierâ€™s Feu
Mathias Pascal sits in a moving train, we
see what he is thinking through a series
of images of his village and family,
superimposed over the moving train tracks.
4.10, 4.11 A filter creates a subjective effect in El Dorado. 4.12 Filters achieve a subjective effect
in the wedding-night scene in NapolÃ©on.
The French Impressionist Movement 79
Impressionist films also feature camera movements
that convey subjectivity and enhance photogÃ©nie. Moving
shots could suggest the characterâ€™s optical point of view
(4.24). The moving camera could also convey subjectivity
without optical point of view, as in the carnival scene in
Epsteinâ€™s Coeur fidÃ¨le. Here the heroine sits miserably on a
carnival ride with the fiancÃ© her parents have forced on
Virtually any manipulation of the camera could be
used subjectively. Slow motion was common in rendering
mental images (4.21). In NapolÃ©on, Gance divided the
frame into a grid of smaller, distinct images (4.22). He
also used three cameras side by side to create an extremely
wide format called a triptych (4.23). This functioned to
create wide vistas, symbolic juxtapositions of images, and
occasional subjective effects.
4.13 In The Smiling Madame Beudet,
the wifeâ€™s dislike of her husband is
rendered in a grotesque POV shot.
4.14 A shot made using a curved mirror,
from Lâ€™Herbierâ€™s El Dorado.
4.15, 4.16 In Le Brasier ardent, the
image goes out of focus to suggest the
heroineâ€™s mental abstraction.
4.17, 4.18 A POV shot in La Fille de
lâ€™eau shows the heroâ€™s vision blurred as a
result of a beating.
4.20 A drunken womanâ€™s dizziness is
conveyed in Feu Mathias Pascal through a
canted framing as she staggers along a
4.19 In Jacques Feyderâ€™s Visages
dâ€™enfants, a low camera height and
slightly low angle show the optical point
of view of a child being scolded.
80 CHAPTER 4â€ƒFrance in the 1920s
daughter. He is driving the train on which she is riding
into the city to be married. In despair, he opens the throttle of the train, planning to crash it and kill himself and
everyone aboard (4.26â€“4.31). Figures 4.26 through 4.31
are, respectively, eleven, fourteen, fourteen, seven, six, and
five frames long. Given that projection speeds were about
twenty frames per second at this time, each shot would
last less than a second, and the shortest would remain
on the screen for only about a quarter of a second. Here
excitement is conveyed less through acting than through a
rhythmic rush of swift details.
Devices of Editingâ€ƒUntil 1923, camera devices for
achieving photogÃ©nie and expressing subjectivity were the
main distinguishing traits of Impressionism. In that year,
however, two films appeared that experimented with quick
editing to explore charactersâ€™ mental states. Ganceâ€™s La
Roue (which premiered in December of 1922 but was
released in February of 1923) contains several scenes with
very fast cutting. In one sequence, many short shots convey the overwrought emotions of the hero, Sisif. A railway
engineer, he has fallen in love with Norma, a woman
whom he has raised from a child and who thinks she is his
4.21 In Feu Mathias Pascal, a slow-motion image shows
Mathias leaping on his enemy.
4.23 In NapolÃ©on, three images joined horizontally create an epic vista of the hero surveying his troops.
4.24, leftâ€ƒIn NapolÃ©on, Gance mounted
the camera on a horseâ€™s back, putting us
in the heroâ€™s position as he flees from
4.25, rightâ€ƒIn Coeur fidÃ¨le, the camera
is mounted on the swing along with the
couple so that the background whirls past
as the woman and her fiancÃ© sit
unmoving in the foreground.
4.22 In a split-screen process he called Polyvision, Gance
conveyed the chaos of a pillow fight in NapolÃ©on.
The French Impressionist Movement 81
Another film, Epsteinâ€™s Coeur fidÃ¨le, which
appeared in the autumn of 1923, also drew upon fast
editing. We have already seen how the moving camera
in the carnival scene helps suggest the heroineâ€™s unhappiness. The editing enhances this effect. As in La Roueâ€™s
train scene, details appear in a series of about sixty
brief shots of the objects around the whirling-swings
ride. Most of these shots are well under one second,
and many are only two frames long. One brief segment,
for example, shows the man the woman actually loves
looking on from the ground (4.32), a quick long shot of
the ride and crowd (4.33), then quick flashes of two
frames each of the heroine and her thuggish fiancÃ©
Later in La Roue, Sisifâ€™s son Elie, who also loves
Norma, has fallen over a cliff during a fight with her husband. As he dangles, he hears Norma calling and running
to his rescue. Suddenly a close-up of his face introduces a
radically abbreviated series of shots. Each is only one frame
in length, showing Elie and Norma in situations from earlier scenes in the film. This barrage of instantaneous flashbacks is too brief to register on the eye (since twenty of
them would pass in a single second). The effect is a flicker,
suggesting the confusion of Elieâ€™s emotions as he recognizes Normaâ€™s voice just before falling to his death. This
scene is the first known use of single-frame shots in film
history. Such segments of rhythmic montage made La Roue
an enormously influential film during the 1920s.
4.26â€“4.31 In La Roue, a long series of shots, gradually decreasing in length, suggests the trainâ€™s dangerous acceleration, Normaâ€™s
growing anxiety, and Sisifâ€™s anguish.
4.32 A shot from
Coeur fidÃ¨le lasting
4.33 The next
82 CHAPTER 4â€ƒFrance in the 1920s
After the release of La Roue and Coeur fidÃ¨le, fast
rhythmic editing became a staple of Impressionist filmmaking. It appears in the disorienting opening sequence
of Menilmontant, where the violence of a double murder is
conveyed through details caught in close, short shots.
Gance pushed the technique he had innovated even further in the final scene of NapolÃ©on by using swift editing in
a triptych sequence, with rapid changes in three side-byside frames, combined with multiple superimpositions.
Ever since the 1920s, filmmakers around the world have
explored the possibilities of rhythmic editing, which the
Impressionists opened up.
Devices of Mise-en-ScÃ¨neâ€ƒSince the Impressionists
were interested primarily in the effects of camerawork and
editing on the subjects filmed, fewer distinctive traits of
the movement lie in the area of mise-en-scÃ¨ne. Still, we
can make some generalizations about this aspect of their
style. Perhaps most important, the Impressionists were
concerned about lighting objects to enhance their photogÃ©nie as much as possible (4.36).
If filters placed over the lens could enhance a shotâ€™s
photographic effect, then shooting through some translucent object placed in the setting of the scene could do the
same. The Impressionists often shot through textured curtains (4.37). In Kean, the heroâ€™s first meeting with the
woman he will love has him holding a gauzy curtain up
between them (4.38, 4.39)
Finally, the Impressionists often tried to use striking settings. They did so in two opposing ways: first, by
employing modernist dÃ©cor and, second, by filming in real
In French society in general, â€œmodernâ€ design of the
type now labeled Art Deco was fashionable at the time.
4.36 In Epsteinâ€™s Lâ€™Affiche, the tools
the heroine uses in making artificial
flowers are turned into a striking still life
through arrangement and lighting.
4.37 In Albert DieudonnÃ©â€™s Catherine,
the heroine and her lover look through a
4.34, 4.35 Two two-frame shots follow (Coeur fidÃ¨le).
4.38, 4.39 In
Kean, we see a
of the hero and
a curtain that
points of view.
The French Impressionist Movement 83
Some of the filmmakers used celebrated architects
and artists as designers (4.40). As we saw earlier in this
chapter, however, much French filmmaking of the 1920s
depended in part on location shooting, and the
Impressionists found photogÃ©nie in natural landscapes
(4.41). Lâ€™Herbier obtained unprecedented permission to
shoot in the Alhambra in Spain for El Dorado, and part of
Feu Mathias Pascal was done on location in Rome.
Impressionist Narrativesâ€ƒThe Impressionistsâ€™ stylistic
devices were startlingly innovative, yet most of their narratives were conventional. The plots place characters in
extremely emotion-laden circumstances. A situation may
trigger memories, which lead to flashbacks, or it may
inspire visions of the charactersâ€™ desires, or it may lead the
character to get drunk, motivating distorted views of his or
her surroundings. Impressionist characters faint, go blind,
or fall into despair, and these states are vividly rendered
through camera techniques.
As a result, Impressionist narratives depend to a
considerable extent on psychological motivation. As in
classical narratives, cause and effect operate, but causes
arise largely from charactersâ€™ conflicting traits and obsessions. In Lâ€™Herbierâ€™s Feu Mathias Pascal, for example, a
man living in a small French town marries, and his
mother-in-law makes the couple miserable. In despair, he
seizes upon an accident that makes it appear that he has
died. He takes up a new identity in Rome and falls in
loveâ€”triggering visions and dreams of a new life. The
entire film centers around his motivations and reactions.
In Impressionist films, the devices of camerawork,
editing, and mise-en-scÃ¨ne that we have described do not
occur continuously throughout the narrative. Instead, the
action usually progresses in a conventional fashion, punctuated by scenes in which we linger over charactersâ€™ reactions and mental states. At the beginning of El Dorado, for
example, there is a lengthy scene in which the heroine
thinks of her sick son, with filters suggesting her lack of
attention to the events around her (see 4.10, 4.11). Yet
much of the film is a conventionally melodramatic story
of how she came to be in this situation and how she strives
to escape from it.
Only a few Impressionist films attempted to create
innovative narrative patterns that would make character
subjectivity the basis for an entire filmâ€™s form. Dulac
achieves this in a relatively simple way with The Smiling
Madame Beudet; this brief film contains only the simplest
of plots, concentrating almost entirely on the heroineâ€™s
fantasy life and hatred of her husband.
In one of the Impressionist movementâ€™s most daring
films, La Glace Ã trois faces, Epstein created a shifting, ambiguous plot. Three very different women describe their relations with the same man, and their tales create a contradictory
idea of him. In the final scene, after writing to each woman
with a different excuse for not meeting her, the hero has a
fatal car accident. Nearly all the narrative information has
been filtered through the three womenâ€™s perceptions, and our
direct views of the hero reveal little about him. The final,
symbolic shot shows him reflected in a triple mirror, suggesting the impossibility of pinning down any truth about him.
Few narrative films of the silent era departed so thoroughly
from classical storytelling conventions. The innovations of
La Glace Ã trois faces would resurface in the European art
cinema of the 1950s and 1960s.
4.40 For Lâ€™Inhumaine, Lâ€™Herbier had the great French
modern artist Fernand LÃ©ger design the laboratory of the
4.41 In Lâ€™Inondation, Delluc filmed a character walking along
a country road with the sun opposite the camera, transforming
the landscape into one of the filmâ€™s many lovely compositions.
84 CHAPTER 4â€ƒFrance in the 1920s
THE END OF FRENCH IMPRESSIONISM
In the late 1910s and the first half of the 1920s, the Impressionists formed a tightly knit group, supporting each other
in their mission to establish an alternative, artistic cinema.
By mid-decade, they had succeeded to a considerable
extent. Although few of their films attracted large audiences, they often received favorable reviews and were appreciated by the audiences of the cinÃ©-clubs and art theaters. In
1925, LÃ©on Moussinac, a leftist critic sympathetic to the
Impressionists, published La Naissance du CinÃ©ma (â€œThe
Birth of the Cinemaâ€); there he summed up the movementâ€™s stylistic traits and the theoretical views of its filmmakers. Largely based on Dellucâ€™s writings, Moussinacâ€™s
account stressed expressive techniques like slow motion and
superimpositions, and it singled out the Impressionist group
as the most interesting French filmmakers.
As more filmmakers copied Impressionist techniques,
the style lost its impact. In 1927, Epstein remarked,
â€œOriginal devices such as rapid montage or the tracking or
panning camera are now vulgarized. They are old hat, and
it is necessary to eliminate visibly obvious style in order to
create a simple film.â€4
Indeed, Epstein increasingly presented simple stories in a quasi-documentary style, using
nonactors and eliminating flashy Impressionist camerawork and editing. His last Impressionist film, Finis Terrae,
portrays two young lighthouse keepers on a rugged island;
subjective camera techniques appear mainly when one
youth falls ill. Epsteinâ€™s early sound film, Mor-Vran (1931),
eschews Impressionist style altogether in a restrained,
poetic narrative of villagers on a desolate island.
Perhaps because the styleâ€™s techniques were becoming
somewhat commonplace, other Impressionist filmmakers
began to experiment in different directions. If the era from
1918 to 1922 can be said to have been characterized primarily by pictorialism, and the period from 1923 to 1925
by the addition of rhythmic cutting, then the later years,
1926 to 1929, saw a greater diffusion in the movement. By
1926, some Impressionist directors had achieved considerable independence by forming their own small producing
companies. Moreover, the support provided by the cinÃ©clubs and small cinemas now allowed the production of
low-budget experimental films. As a result of both these
factors, the late Impressionist period saw a proliferation of
short films, such as Kirsanoffâ€™s Menilmontant and the four
films produced by Les Films Jean Epstein.
Another factor diversifying the Impressionist movement was the impact of experimental films. As we shall see
in Chapter 8, Surrealist, Dadaist, and abstract films often
shared the programs of the cinÃ©-clubs and art cinemas
with Impressionist films in the mid-to-late 1920s. These
tendencies were lumped in the category of cinÃ©ma pur.
Dulac wrote and lectured extensively in favor of cinÃ©ma pur,
and in 1928 she abandoned commercial filmmaking to
direct a Surrealist film, The Seashell and the Clergyman.
Thereafter she concentrated on abstract short films.
Problems within the Film Industry
Such stylistic diffusion might eventually have destroyed any
unity among the Impressionistsâ€™ work and ended the movement. In any event, the late 1920s saw a swift decline in
these directorsâ€™ independence. For one thing, their situation
as small producers had always been shaky. They did not own
their own studios but had to rent facilities for shooting. Each
film had to be financed separately, and a filmmakerâ€™s credit
was typically based on the success of the previous film.
At the end of the 1920s, the French economy experienced the same boom enjoyed by other countries, and the
big film companies were gaining strength. Consolidation
seemed to promise a new beginning. PathÃ©, Natan, and
CinÃ©romans merged to create PathÃ©-Natan, while three
other firms created Gaumont-Franco-Film-Aubert. In this
climate, producers had little incentive to support the
Impressionists. There had been some hope that the films
might be fresh enough to succeed in America and Germany,
but they were as uncompetitive abroad as they were at home.
As a result, most Impressionists lost their independent
companies. In 1928, CinÃ©romans absorbed Lâ€™Herbierâ€™s CinÃ©graphic, reediting his expensive production, Lâ€™Argent. Lâ€™Herbier
quit, but he was forced into more commercial projects in the
sound era. That same year, Les Films Jean Epstein went out of
business, though Epstein obtained independent backing for
his modest non-Impressionist films. The tangled production
history and huge budget of NapolÃ©on made it impossible for
Gance to remain independent; thereafter he was strictly supervised by his backers, and his subsequent films contain, at best,
a shadow of his earlier experimentation.
The introduction of sound in 1929 made it virtually
impossible for the Impressionists to regain their independence.
Sound production was costly, and it became more difficult to
scrape together financing for even a short, low-budget, avantgarde feature. In 1968, Lâ€™Herbier recalled the situation:
When sound arrived, the working conditions in the profession became very difficult for a director like me. It was out of
the question, for economic reasons, to envision films in the
talking era like those which we had made in the silent era,
perhaps even at the authorâ€™s [i.e., the directorâ€™s] expense.
One had to censor oneself considerably and even, in my
case, to adopt forms of cinema which I had always held in
contempt. All at once, we were constrained, on account of
talk, to do canned theater pieces, pure and simple.5
Despite the Impressionist filmsâ€™ limited circulation
abroad, they influenced other filmmakers. As we shall see
in Chapter 5, the freely moving camera used to convey a
characterâ€™s perceptual experience was quickly picked up
by German filmmakers, who popularized this technique
and usually have gotten credit for inventing it. Perhaps the
most famous artist to carry on the Impressionist tradition
was the young designer and director Alfred Hitchcock,
who absorbed influences from American, French, and
German films during the 1920s. His 1927 film The Ring
could pass for an Impressionist film (see p. 150), and
during his long career, Hitchcock became a master of subjectivity. He used camera angle, special effects, and camera movement to convey what his characters see and think.
Character subjectivity has long been a staple element of
filmic storytelling, and the Impressionists explored this
technique most thoroughly.
1. Henri Diamant-Berger, â€œPour sauver le film franÃ§ais,â€ Le
Film 153 (16 February 1918): 9.
2. Dimitri Kirsanoff, â€œProblÃ¨mes de la photogÃ©nie,â€ CinÃ©aCinÃ© pour tous 62 (1 June 1926): 10.
3. Germaine Dulac, â€œThe Expressive Techniques of the
Cinema,â€ tr. Stuart Liebman, in Richard Abel, ed.,
French Film Theory and Criticism: 1907â€“1939, vol. 1
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 307.
4. RÃ©my Duval, â€œM. Jean Epstein,â€ Comoedia 5374 (23
September 1927): 3.
5. Jean-AndrÃ© Fieschi, â€œAutour du CinÃ©matographie:
Entretien avec Marcel Lâ€™Herbier,â€ Cahiers du cinÃ©ma 202
(June/July 1968): 41.
We discuss some topics in this chapter further on our blog, Observations on Film Art:
On Albatros: â€œAlbatros soarsâ€
On Lâ€™Herbierâ€™s Lâ€™Inhumaine: â€œLâ€™INHUMAINE: modern art, modern cinemaâ€
On Ganceâ€™s La roue: â€œAn old-fashioned, sentimental avant-garde filmâ€
On La Maison de mystere: â€œA legendary film returns from the realm of the lostâ€
THE GERMAN SITUATION AFTER WORLD WAR I
Germany lost World War I and suffered severe economic and political problems. Yet it emerged from the war with a strong film industry. From 1918 to
the Nazi rise to power in 1933, its cinema ranked second only to Hollywood
in technical sophistication and world influence. Within a few years of the
armistice, German films were seen widely abroad, and a major stylistic
movement, Expressionism, arose in 1920 and continued until 1926. Victorious France could not rejuvenate its film industry, so how did defeated
Germanyâ€™s become so powerful?
The German industryâ€™s expansion during World War I was due largely
to the isolation created by the governmentâ€™s 1916 ban on most foreign films.
The demand by theaters led the number of producing companies to rise
from 25 (1914) to 130 (1918). By the end of the war, however, the formation of the Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft (Ufa) started a trend toward
mergers and larger companies.
Even with this growth, if the government had lifted the 1916 import
ban at the end of the war, foreignâ€”especially Americanâ€”films might have
poured in again. Unlike the situation in France, however, the German government supported filmmaking throughout this period. The ban on imports
continued until December 31, 1920, giving producers nearly five years of
minimal competition in their domestic market. The expansion of the war
years continued, with about 300 production companies forming by 1921.
Moreover, by 1922, anti-German sentiment in enemy countries had largely
faded, and German cinema became famous internationally.
Ironically, much of the film industryâ€™s success came while the nation suffered. By late 1918, the combat had pushed the country deep into debt, and
there was widespread hardship. During the last month of the war, open revolt
broke out, demanding the end of the monarchy and the war. On November 9,
GERMANY IN THE 1920s
Genres and Styles of German Postwar Cinema 87
Moreover, inflation encouraged export and discouraged import, giving German companies an international
advantage. As the exchange rate of the mark fell, consumers were less likely to buy foreign goods. Conversely, companies could sell goods cheaply abroad, compared with
manufacturers in other countries. Film producers benefited from this competitive boost. Importers could bring in
relatively few foreign films, while countries in South
America and Eastern Europe could buy German films
more cheaply than they could the Hollywood product.
Thus, for about two years after the war, the German
import ban protected the film market from competition,
and even after imports were permitted in 1921, unfavorable exchange rates boosted the domestic cinema.
The favorable export situation fostered by high inflation fit in with the film industryâ€™s plans. Even during the
war, the growth of the industry led to hopes for export.
But what sorts of films would succeed abroad? More successfully than any other country in postwar Europe,
Germany found answers to that question.
GENRES AND STYLES
OF GERMAN POSTWAR CINEMA
Partly because the German film industry operated in near
isolation between 1916 and 1921, there were few radical
changes in the types of films being made. The fantasy
genre continued to be prominent, typified by films starring Paul Wegener, like The Golem (1920, Wegener and
Carl Boese) and Der verlorene Schatten (â€œThe Lost
Shadow,â€ 1921, Rochus Gliese). Directly after the war, the
leftist political climate led to a brief abolition of censorship, and that in turn fostered a vogue for films on prostitution, venereal disease, drugs, and other social problems.
The widespread belief that such films were pornographic
led to the reinstitution of censorship. The same sorts of
comedies and dramas that had dominated production in
Germany and most other countries during the mid-teens
continued to be made. Three trends gained prominence:
the spectacle genre, the German Expressionist movement,
and the Kammerspiel film.
Before the war, the Italians had won worldwide audiences
with historical epics such as Quo Vadis? and Cabiria. After
the war, the Germans tried a similar tactic. German historical spectacles found some success and, incidentally,
revealed the first major German director of the postwar
era, Ernst Lubitsch.
just two days before the armistice, the German Republic
was declared, abolishing the monarchy. For a few months,
radical and liberal parties struggled for control, and it
seemed as if a revolution similar to the one in Russia would
occur. By mid-January 1919, however, the extreme left wing
was defeated, and an election led to a coalition government
of more moderate liberal parties. In general, the political
climate drifted gradually toward the right during the 1920s,
culminating in the ascension of the Nazi party in 1933.
Internal strife was intensified by the harsh measures
the Allies took in their treatment of Germany. The war
officially ended with the signing of the infamous Treaty of
Versailles on June 28, 1919. Rather than attempting to heal
the rift with Germany, Great Britain and France insisted on
punishing their enemy. A â€œwar guiltâ€ clause in the treaty
blamed Germany as the sole instigator of the conflict.
Various territories were ceded to Poland and France (with
Germany losing 13 percent of its prewar land). Germany
was forbidden to have more than 100,000 soldiers in its
army, and they were not to carry weapons. Most crucially,
the Allies expected Germany to pay for all wartime damage
to civilian property, in the form of money and goods. (Only
the United States demurred, signing its own peace treaty
with Germany in 1921.) Resentment over these measures
eventually helped right-wing parties come to power.
In the short run, these reparations gradually pushed
the German financial system into chaos. The reparations
arrangement required that Germany regularly send high
payments in gold and ship coal, steel, heavy equipment,
food, and other basic goods to the Allies. Germany was
never able to fulfill the amounts demanded, and domestic
shortages soon developed. The result was inflation, beginning at the warâ€™s end and becoming hyperinflation by
1923. Food and consumer goods became scarce and outrageously costly. In early 1923, the mark, which had been
worth approximately 4 to the dollar before the war, sank
to about 50,000 to the dollar. By the end of 1923, the
mark fell to around 6 billion to the dollar. People carried
baskets of paper money simply to purchase a loaf of bread.
It might seem that such severe economic problems
could not benefit anyone. Many people suffered: retirees
on pensions, investors with money in fixed-rate accounts,
workers whose earnings lost value daily, renters who saw
housing costs spiral upward. Big industry, however, benefited from high inflation. For one thing, people had little
reason to save, since money lost its value sitting in a bank
or under a mattress. Wage earners spent their money while
it was still worth something, and movies, unlike food or
clothing, were readily available. Film attendance was high
during the inflationary period, and many new theaters
88 CHAPTER 5â€ƒGermany in the 1920s
The German Expressionist Movement
In late February 1920, a film premiered in Berlin
that was instantly recognized as something new in
cinema: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Its novelty captured
the public imagination, and it was a considerable
success. The film used stylized sets, with strange,
distorted buildings painted on canvas backdrops and
flats in a theatrical manner (5.2). The actors made
little attempt at realistic performance; instead, they
exhibited jerky or dancelike movements. Critics
announced that the Expressionist style, by then well
established in most other arts, had made its way into
the cinema, and they debated the benefits of this new
development for film art.
Spectacular costume films appeared in a number of
countries, but only companies able to afford large budgets
could use them to compete internationally. Hollywood,
with its high budgets and skilled art directors, could make
Intolerance or The Last of the Mohicans, but productions
on this scale were rare in Great Britain and France.
During the inflationary period, however, the larger
German companies could finance historical epics. Some
firms could afford extensive backlots, and they expanded
studio facilities. The costs of labor to construct sets and
costumes were reasonable, and crowds of extras could be
hired at low wages. The resulting films were impressive
enough to compete abroad and earn stable foreign
currency. When Ernst Lubitsch made Madame DuBarry in
1919, for example, the film reportedly cost the equivalent
of about $40,000. Yet when it was released in the United
States in 1921, experts there estimated that such a film
would cost perhaps $500,000 to make in Hollywoodâ€”at
that time, a high price tag for a feature film.
Lubitsch, who became the most prominent director of
German historical epics, had begun his film career in the
early 1910s as a comedian and director. His first big hit
came in 1916 with Schuhpalast Pinkus (â€œShoe Palace
Pinkusâ€), in which he played a brash young Jewish entrepreneur. It was his second film for the Union company, one
of the smaller firms that merged to form Ufa, where he
directed a series of more prestigious projects. Ossi Oswalda,
an accomplished comedienne, starred in several comedies
directed by Lubitsch in the late teens, including Die Austernprinzessin (â€œThe Oyster Princess,â€ 1919) and Die Puppe
(â€œThe Doll,â€ 1919). But it was with Polish star Pola Negri
that Lubitsch achieved international recognition.
Negri and Lubitsch first worked together in 1918 on
Die Augen der Mumie Ma (â€œThe Eyes of the Mummy Maâ€).
This melodramatic fantasy took place in an exotic
Egyptian locale and was typical of German productions of
the late 1910s. Negriâ€™s costar was the rising German actor
Emil Jannings, and with these two Lubitsch made Madame
DuBarry, based loosely on the career of Louis XVâ€™s
mistress (5.1). It was enormously successful, both in
Germany and abroad. Lubitsch went on to make similar
films, most notably Anna Boleyn (1920). In 1923, he was
the first major German director hired to work in Hollywood. Lubitsch quickly became one of the most skillful
practitioners of the classical Hollywood style of the 1920s.
Historical spectacles remained in vogue as long as
severe inflation enabled the Germans to sell them abroad
at prices that no other countryâ€™s film industry could
match. But in the mid-1920s, the end of inflation dictated
more modest budgets, and the spectacle genre became
considerably less important.
5.1 In Madame DuBarry, large sets and hundreds of extras
recreate revolutionary Paris.
5.2 The heroine of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari wanders
through the Expressionist carnival set. It almost seems that she
is made of the same material as the fairground setting.
Genres and Styles of German Postwar Cinema 89
in 1906; its members included Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
and Erich Heckel. Later, in 1911, Der Blaue Reiter
(â€œThe Blue Riderâ€) was founded; among its supporters
were Franz Marc and Wassili Kandinsky. Although
these and other Expressionist artists like Oskar
Kokoschka and Lyonel Feininger had distinctive individual styles, they shared some traits. Expressionist artists avoided the subtle shadings and colors that gave
realistic paintings their sense of volume and depth.
Instead, the Expressionists often used large shapes of
Expressionism in the Artsâ€ƒExpressionism had begun
around 1908 as a style in painting and the theaterâ€”
appearing in other European countries but finding its most
intense manifestations in Germany. German Expressionism
was one of several modernist movements around the turn of
the century that rejected realism. Its practitioners favored
extreme distortion to express an emotional reality rather
than surface appearances.
In painting, Expressionism was fostered primarily
by two groups. Die BrÃ¼cke (â€œThe Bridgeâ€) was formed
February: Decla company releases Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari),
directed by Robert Wiene; it starts the Expressionist movement.
Spring: Decla and Deutsche Bioscop merge to form Decla-Bioscop; under Erich Pommerâ€™s supervision,
Decla-Bioscop produced many of the major Expressionist films.
Algol, Hans Werckmeister
Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem), Paul Wegener and Carl Boese
Genuine, Robert Wiene
Von Morgens bis Mitternacht (From Morn to Midnight), Karl Heinz Martin
Torgus, Hans Kobe
November: Ufa absorbs Decla-Bioscop, which remains a separate production unit under Pommerâ€™s
Der mÃ¼de Tod (â€œThe Weary Death,â€ aka Destiny), Fritz Lang
Das Haus zum Mond (â€œThe House on the Moonâ€), Karl Heinz Martin
1922 Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler), Fritz Lang
Nosferatu, F. W. Murnau
Schatten (Warning Shadows), Arthur Robison
Der Schatz (â€œThe Treasureâ€), G. W. Pabst
Raskolnikow, Robert Wiene
Erdgeist (â€œEarth Spiritâ€), Leopold Jessner
Der steinerne Reiter (â€œThe Stone Riderâ€), Fritz Wendhausen
Autumn: Hyperinflation ends.
Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks), Paul Leni
Die Nibelungen, in two parts: Siegfried and Kriemhilds Rache (â€œKriemhildâ€™s Revengeâ€), Fritz Lang
Orlacs HÃ¤nde (The Hands of Orlac), Robert Wiene
December: Ufa is rescued from bankruptcy by loans from Paramount and MGM.
TartÃ¼ff (Tartuffe), F. W. Murnau
Zur Chronik von Grieshuus (The Chronicle of the Grey House), Arthur von Gerlach
1926 February: Erich Pommer is forced to resign as head of Ufa.
September: Faust, F. W. Murnau
1927 January: Metropolis, Fritz Lang
A Chronology of German Expressionist Cinema
90 CHAPTER 5â€ƒGermany in the 1920s
this movement in widely differing ways. Some claim that
the true Expressionist films resemble The Cabinet of
Dr. Caligari in using a distorted, graphic style of mise-enscÃ¨ne derived from theatrical Expressionism. Of such films,
perhaps only half a dozen or so were made. Other historians
classify a larger number of films as Expressionist because
the films all contain some types of stylistic distortion that
function in the same ways that the graphic stylization in
Caligari does. By this broader definition (which we use
here), there are close to two dozen Expressionist films,
released between 1920 and 1927. Like French Impressionism, German Expressionism uses the techniques of the
mediumâ€”mise-en-scÃ¨ne, editing, and cameraworkâ€”in
A Stress on Compositionâ€ƒWhile the main defining
traits of French Impressionism lay in the area of camerawork, German Expressionism is distinctive primarily for its
use of mise-en-scÃ¨ne. In 1926, set designer Hermann Warm
(who worked on Caligari and other Expressionist films) was
quoted as believing that â€œthe film image must become
Indeed, German Expressionist films emphasize the composition of individual shots to an exceptional
degree. Any shot in a film creates a visual composition, of
course, but most films draw our attention to specific elements rather than to the overall design of the shot. In classical Hollywood films, the human figure is the most
expressive element, and the sets, costume, and lighting are
usually secondary to the actors. The three-dimensional
space in which the action occurs is more important than are
the two-dimensional graphic patterns on the screen.
In Expressionist films, however, the expressivity
associated with the human figure extends into every aspect
of the mise-en-scÃ¨ne. During the 1920s, descriptions of
Expressionist films often referred to the sets as â€œactingâ€ or
bright, unrealistic colors with dark, cartoonlike outlines (Color Plate 5.1). Figures might be elongated;
faces wore grotesque, mask-like expressions and might
be livid green. Buildings might sag or lean, with the
ground tilted up steeply in defiance of traditional perspective (Color Plate 5.2). Such distortions were difficult for films shot on location, but Caligari showed how
studio-built sets could approximate the stylization of
A more direct model for stylization in setting and
acting was the Expressionist theater. As early as 1908,
Oskar Kokoschkaâ€™s play Murderer, Hope of Women was
staged in an Expressionist manner. The style caught on
during the teens, often in stagings of leftist plays protesting the war and capitalist exploitation. Sets often resembled Expressionist paintings, with large shapes of
unshaded color (5.3). The performances were comparably distorted. Actors shouted, screamed, gestured
broadly, and moved in choreographed patterns (5.4).
The goal was to express feelings in the most direct, exaggerated fashion possible. Similar goals led to extreme
stylization in literature, and narrative techniques such as
frame stories and open endings were adopted by scriptwriters for Expressionist films.
By the end of the 1910s, Expressionism had gone
from being a radical experiment to being a widely
accepted, even fashionable, style. Thus when The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari premiered, it hardly came as a shock
to critics and audiences. Other Expressionist films
quickly followed. The resulting stylistic trend lasted
until the beginning of 1927.
Formal Traits of Expressionismâ€ƒWhat traits characterize Expressionism in the cinema? Historians have defined
5.3 A dark shape indicates a hill, and actors stare wide-eyed
or assume grotesque postures in Fritz von Unruhâ€™s play Ein
Geschlecht (â€œA Family,â€ 1918).
5.4 Actors costumed as skeletons writhe within an abstract
landscape of barbed wire in Ernst Tollerâ€™s Die Wandlung
(â€œThe Changing,â€ 1919).
Genres and Styles of German Postwar Cinema 91
Expressionist films had many tactics for blending the
elements of shots. They used stylized surfaces, symmetry,
distortion, and juxtaposition of similar shapes.
Stylized surfaces might make disparate elements
within the mise-en-scÃ¨ne seem similar. For example, Janeâ€™s
costumes in Caligari are painted with the same jagged
lines as are the sets (see 5.2). In Siegfried, many shots are
filled with a riot of decorative patterns (5.5). In The
Golem, texture links the Golem to the distorted ghetto
sets: both look as if they are made of clay (5.6).
Symmetry offers a way to combine actors, costumes,
and sets so as to emphasize overall compositions. The
Burgundian court in Siegfried (see 5.5) uses symmetry, as
do scenes in most of Fritz Langâ€™s films of this period.
Another striking instance occurs in Hans Werckmeisterâ€™s
Exaggeration and Repetitionâ€ƒPerhaps the most
pervasive trait of Expressionism is the use of distortion and
exaggeration. In Expressionist films, houses are often
pointed and twisted, chairs are tall, and staircases are
crooked and uneven (compare 5.8â€“5.10).
as blending with the actorsâ€™ movements. In 1924, Conrad
Veidt, who played Cesare in Caligari and acted in several
other Expressionist films, explained, â€œIf the decor has
been conceived as having the same spiritual state as that
which governs the characterâ€™s mentality, the actor will
find in that decor a valuable aid in composing and living
his part. He will blend himself into the represented milieu,
and both of them will move in the same rhythm.â€2
while the setting functioned as almost a living component
of the action, the actorâ€™s body became a visual element.
In practice, this blend of set, figure behavior, costumes, and lighting fuses into a perfect composition only at
intervals. A narrative film is not like the traditional graphic
arts of painting or engraving. The plot must advance, and
the composition breaks up as the actors move. In Expressionist films, the action often proceeds in fits and starts,
and the narrative pauses or slows briefly for moments
when the mise-en-scÃ¨ne elements align into eye-catching
compositions. Such compositions need not be wholly
static. An actorâ€™s dancelike movement may combine with a
stylized shape in the set to create a visual pattern.
5.5 In the Burgundian court in
Siegfried, ranks of soldiers and decor
alike form geometric shapes that
combine into an overall composition.
5.6 In The Golem, an animated clay
statue emerges onto a rooftop, looking as
if he is made of the same material as his
5.7 A symmetrical shot in Algol
shows a corridor made up of repeated
abstract black and white shapes and
5.8 The old, sagging house in G. W.
Pabstâ€™s Der Schatz.
5.9 The leaning buildings and
lamppost in Wieneâ€™s Raskolnikow, an
adaptation of Crime and Punishment.
5.10 A stairway in Torgus seems to lean
dizzily, with a slender black triangle
painted on each step.
92 CHAPTER 5â€ƒGermany in the 1920s
5.11 In this famous shot from The
Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the diagonal
composition of the wall dictates the
movement of the actor, with his tight
black clothes contributing to the
stare, her heavy
abstract shapes in
her costume, and
keeping with the
rest of the film.
5.13, leftâ€ƒA womanâ€™s stance in Der
steinerne Reiter echoes the shape of the
stylized tree behind her.
5.14, rightâ€ƒCount Orlak and his guest are
placed within a nested set of four archways,
with the hunched back of the vampire and
the rounded arms of Hutter echoing the
innermost arch. (Arches become an
important motif in Nosferatu, associated
closely with the vampire and his coffin.)
To modern viewers, performances in Expressionist
films may look simply like extreme versions of silent-film
acting. Yet Expressionist acting was deliberately exaggerated to match the style of the settings. In long shots, gestures could be dancelike as the actors moved in patterns
dictated by the sets. Conrad Veidt â€œblend[s] himself into
the represented milieuâ€ in Caligari when he glides on
tiptoe along a wall, his extended hand skimming its surface (5.11). Here, a tableau involves movement rather
than a static composition.
This principle of exaggeration governed close-ups of
the actors as well (5.12). In general, Expressionist actors
worked against an effect of natural behavior, often moving
jerkily, pausing, and then making sudden gestures. Such
performances should be judged not by standards of realism but by how the actorsâ€™ behavior contributed to the
A crucial trait of Expressionist mise-en-scÃ¨ne is the
juxtaposition of similar shapes within a composition.
Human figures, for example, are often posed beside
distorted trees to create similar shapes (5.13). Along with
Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang, F. W. Murnau was one of the
major figures of German Expressionism, yet his films contain relatively few of the obviously artificial, exaggerated
sets that we find in other films of this movement. He did
create, however, numerous stylized compositions in which
the figures blended in with their surroundings (5.14, 5.15).
For the most part, Expressionist films used simple
lighting from the front and sides, illuminating the scene
flatly and evenly to stress the links between the figures
and the decor. In some notable cases, however, shadows
were used to create additional distortion (5.16).
Editing and Cameraworkâ€ƒAlthough the main traits of
Expressionist style come in the area of mise-en-scÃ¨ne, we
can make a few generalizations about its typical use of
other film techniques. Such techniques usually function
unobtrusively to display the mise-en-scÃ¨ne to best advantage. Most editing is simple, drawing on continuity devices
such as shot/reverse shot and crosscutting. In addition,
Genres and Styles of German Postwar Cinema 93
German films are noted for having a somewhat slower
pace than other films of this period. Certainly in the early
1920s they have nothing comparable to the quick rhythmic editing of French Impressionism. This slower pace
gives us time to scan the distinctive compositions created
by the Expressionist visual style.
Similarly, the camerawork is typically functional
rather than spectacular. Many Expressionist sets used
false perspective to form an ideal composition when seen
from a specific vantage point. Thus camera movement
and high or low angles were relatively rare, and the camera
tended to remain at a straight-on angle and an approximately eye-level or chest-level height. In a few cases, however, a camera angle could create a striking composition
by juxtaposing actor and decor in an unusual way (5.17).
Expressionist Narrativeâ€ƒLike the French Impressionists,
Expressionist filmmakers gravitated to certain types of narratives that suited the traits of the style. The movementâ€™s first
film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, used the story of a madman
to motivate the unfamiliar Expressionist distortions for movie
audiences. Because Caligari has remained the most famous
Expressionist film, there is a lingering impression that the
style was used mainly for conveying character subjectivity.
In most Expressionist films, the stylization was used
for narratives that were set in the past or in exotic locales
or that involved elements of fantasy or horrorâ€”genres that
remained popular in Germany in the 1920s. Der Schatz
takes place at an unspecified point in the past and concerns a search for a legendary treasure. The two
feature-length parts of Die Nibelungen, Siegfried and
Kriemhildâ€™s Revenge, are based on the national German
epic and include a dragon and other magical elements in a
medieval setting. Nosferatu is a vampire story set in the
mid-nineteenth century, and in The Golem, the rabbi of the
medieval ghetto in Prague animates a superhuman clay
statue to defend the Jewish population against persecution. In a reversal of this emphasis upon the past, the last
major Expressionist film, Metropolis, is set in a futuristic
city where the workers labor in huge underground factories and live in apartment blocks, all in Expressionist style.
In keeping with this emphasis on remote ages and fantastic events, many Expressionist films have frame stories or
self-contained stories embedded within the larger narrative
structure. Nosferatu is told by the town historian of Wisborg,
where much of the action occurs. Within the narrative, the
characters read books: the Book of the Vampires explains the
basic premises of vampire behavior, since this was the first
of many vampire films, and entries in the log of the ship
that carries Count Orlok to Bremen recount additional
action. The central story of Warning Shadows (1923)
consists of a shadow play that a showman puts on during a
dinner party, with the shadow figures coming to life and
acting out the guestsâ€™ secret passions. Tartuffe begins ends
with a frame story in which a young man tries to warn his
aging father that the housekeeper is out to marry him for his
money; his warning takes the form of a film of MoliÃ¨reâ€™s
play Tartuffe, which constitutes the inner story.
Some Expressionist films do take place in the present. Langâ€™s Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler uses Expressionist
style to satirize the decadence of modern German society: the characters patronize drug and gambling dens in
nightclubs with Expressionist decor, and one couple lives
in a lavish house decorated in the same style. In Algol, a
greedy industrialist receives supernatural aid from the
5.15, leftâ€ƒIn Murnauâ€™s Tartuffe, the title
characterâ€™s pompous walk is set off
against the legs of a huge cast-iron lamp.
5.16, rightâ€ƒIn Nosferatu, the vampire
creeps up the stairway toward the
heroine, but we see only his shadow,
huge and grotesque.
Tartuffe, a high
angle places an
actor against a
swirl of abstract
lines created by
94 CHAPTER 5â€ƒGermany in the 1920s
acting and setting, and symbolism to convey the narrative
Similarly, Backstairs balances two settings. The
boardinghouse kitchen in which the housekeeper works
and the apartment of her secret admirer, the mailman,
stand opposite to each other in a grubby courtyard
(5.19). The filmâ€™s action never moves outside this area.
When the heroineâ€™s departed fiancÃ© mysteriously fails to
write to her, the mailman tries to console her by forging
letters from him.
Shattered, Backstairs, and Sylvester all end with at
least one violent death, and Michael closes with the death
of its protagonist from illness. Because of the intense psychological situations, unhappy endings, and claustrophobic atmospheres, these films attracted mostly critics and
highbrow audiences. Erich Pommer recognized this fact
when he produced The Last Laugh, insisting that Mayer
add a happy ending. This story of a hotel doorman who is
demoted from his lofty post to that of lavatory attendant
was to have concluded with the hero sitting in the rest
room in despair, possibly dying. Mayer, upset at having to
change what he saw as the logical outcome of his scriptâ€™s
situation, added a blatantly implausible final scene in
which a sudden inheritance turns the doorman into a
millionaire. Whether this ludicrously upbeat ending was
mysterious star Algol and builds up an empire; the sets
representing his factories and the star are Expressionist
in style. In the cinema, Expressionism had the same
potential for social comment that it did on the stage. In
most cases, however, filmmakers used the style to create
exotic and fantastic settings that were remote from contemporary reality.
A third German trend of the early 1920s had less international influence than the historical spectacles and the
Expressionist works but produced a number of important
films. This was the Kammerspiel, or â€œchamber-dramaâ€
film. The name derives from a theater, the Kammerspiele,
opened in 1906 by the major stage director Max Reinhardt
to put on intimate dramas for small audiences. Few
Kammerspiel films were made, but nearly all are classics:
Lupu Pickâ€™s Shattered (1921) and Sylvester (aka New Yearâ€™s
Eve or St. Sylvesterâ€™s Eve, 1923), Leopold Jessnerâ€™s
Backstairs (1921) and Erdgeist (1923), Murnauâ€™s The Last
Laugh (1924), and Carl Dreyerâ€™s Michael (1924).
Remarkably, all these films except Michael were scripted
by the important scenarist Carl Mayer, who also coscripted
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and wrote other films, both
Expressionist and non-Expressionist. Mayer is considered
the main force behind the Kammerspiel genre.
These films contrasted sharply with Expressionist
drama. A Kammerspiel film concentrated on a few characters, exploring a crisis in their lives in depth. The emphasis
was on slow, evocative acting and telling details, rather
than extreme expressions of emotion. The chamber-drama
atmosphere came from the use of a small number of settings and a concentration on character psychology rather
than spectacle. Some Expressionist-style distortion might
appear in the set, but it typically suggested dreary surroundings rather than the fantasy or subjectivity of Expressionist films. The Kammerspiel avoided the fantasy and
legendary elements so common in Expressionism; these
were films set in everyday, contemporary surroundings,
and they often covered a short span of time.
Sylvester takes place during a single evening in the life
of a cafÃ© owner. His mother visits his family for a New
Yearâ€™s Eve celebration. Jealousies and conflicts between
the mother and the wife intensify until, as midnight
strikes, the man commits suicide. Brief scenes of people
celebrating in hotels and in the streets create an ironic
contrast with the tensions of these three characters, but
most of the action occurs in the small apartment (5.18).
As with other major Kammerspiel films, Sylvester uses no
intertitles, depending on simple situations, details of
5.18 In Sylvester,
a motif of shots
using a mirror on
the familyâ€™s drab
5.19 Much of
the action in
of the mailmanâ€™s
trips back and
forth across the
courtyard as he
visits the heroine.
Major Changes in the Mid-to-Late 1920s 95
alternatives to it. In the middle of the decade, a major trend
called Neue Sachlichkeit, or â€œNew Objectivity,â€ displaced
Expressionism in the arts. By 1929, the German cinema
had changed greatly from its postwar situation.
The Technological Updating of the German Studios
Unlike the French, German filmmakers swiftly updated
their technology during the 1920s. Because inflation
encouraged film companies to invest their capital in facilities and land, many studios were built or expanded. Ufa, for
example, enlarged its two main complexes at Tempelhof and
Neubabelsberg and soon owned the best-equipped studios
in Europe, with an extensive backlot at Neubabelsberg that
could accommodate several enormous sets. Here were
made such epic productions as Langâ€™s The Nibelungen and
Murnauâ€™s Faust. Foreign producers, primarily from England
and France, rented Ufaâ€™s facilities for shooting large-scale
scenes. In 1922, an investment group converted a zeppelin
hangar into the worldâ€™s largest indoor production facility,
the Staaken studio. The studio was rented to producing
firms for sequences requiring large indoor sets. Scenes from
such films as Langâ€™s monumental Metropolis were shot at
Other innovations during the 1920s responded to
producersâ€™ desire to give their films impressive production values. Designers pioneered the use of false perspectives and models to make sets look bigger. A marginal
Expressionist film, The Street (1923), used an elaborate
model to represent a cityscape in the background of one
scene, with a real car and actors in the foreground. Tiny
cars and dolls moving on tracks in the distance in The
Last Laugh made the street in front of the hotel set seem
bigger than it really was (5.20). In this area, the Germans
were ahead of the Americans, and Hollywood cinematographers and designers picked up tips on models and
false perspective by watching German films and visiting
the German studios.
Producers also wanted to light and photograph their
films using techniques innovated by Hollywood during the
1910s. Since the Germans were eager to export films to
the United States, a widespread assumption arose that
filmmakers should adopt the new elements of American
style, such as backlighting and the use of artificial illumination for exterior shots. Articles in the trade press urged
companies to build better facilities: Dark studios, endowed
with the latest in lighting equipment, replaced the old
The installation of American-style lighting equipment
began in 1921, when Paramount made a short-lived
attempt at producing in Berlin. It outfitted a Berlin studio
the cause, The Last Laugh became the most successful
and famous of the Kammerspiel films. By late 1924, however, the trend ceased to be a prominent genre in German
German Films Abroad
The historical spectacle, the Expressionist film, and the
Kammerspiel drama helped the German industry break
down prejudices abroad and gain a place on world film
markets. Lubitschâ€™s Madame DuBarry was one of the
first postwar German films to succeed abroad. In 1920,
it showed in major cities, becoming famous even in
countries like England and France, where exhibitors
had pledged not to show German films for a lengthy
period after the war. In December 1920, DuBarry, retitled Passion, broke box-office records in a major New
York theater and was released throughout the United
States by one of the largest distributors, First National.
Suddenly American film companies were clamoring to
buy German films, though few found the success of
German Expressionism also proved an export commodity. Yet The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari had an international reputation by late 1921, having already had a mildly
successful release in America after its triumph in
Germany. In September, French critic and filmmaker
Louis Delluc arranged for Caligari to be shown as part of
a program to benefit the Red Cross. So great was the
filmâ€™s impact that it opened in a regular Parisian cinema
in April 1922. Despite the strong anti-German feeling in
France, a fashion for German film followed. Works by
Lubitsch, as well as virtually all the Expressionist and
Kammerspiel films, played in France over the next five
years. A similar fad for Expressionism hit Japan in the
early 1920s, and in many countries, these distinctive films
had at least limited release in art houses.
MAJOR CHANGES IN
THE MID-TO-LATE 1920s
Despite these early successes, many factors led to major
changes in the German industry. Foreign technology and
stylistic conventions had considerable influence. Moreover,
the protection afforded the industry by the high postwar
inflation ended with currency stabilization in 1924. Success
also meant that prominent filmmakers were lured away to
Hollywood. Continued emphasis on export led some studios to imitate Hollywoodâ€™s product rather than seek
96 CHAPTER 5â€ƒGermany in the 1920s
be mounted on a dolly to take it smoothly through the
revelry of a city street (5.22).
The film that popularized the moving camera,
though, was Murnauâ€™s The Last Laugh. There the camera
descends in an elevator in the opening shot; later it
seems to fly through space to follow the blare of a trumpet to the protagonist, who is listening in a window high
above. When he gets drunk at a party, the camera spins
with him on a turntable (5.23, 5.24). The film was
widely seen in the United States and earned Murnau a
contract with Fox.
Another film made in the following year, Variety
(1925, E. A. Dupont), took the idea of the moving camera even further (5.25). Tracks fastened to the ceiling
allowed the camera to swoop above the action, as in
Murnauâ€™s Faust when the hero takes a magic-carpet ride
over a mountainous landscape (represented by an elaborate model). Such hanging camera movements were rapidly adopted in Hollywood. Many other German films of
the mid-to-late 1920s contain spectacular camera
As we saw in the previous chapter, the French
Impressionist filmmakers were already experimenting
with the moving subjective camera in the early 1920s.
Their films, however, were not widely influential abroad.
German filmmakers received worldwide credit for the
new technique. Just as Cabiria had created a vogue for the
with the latest technology, painting over the glass roof to
permit artificial lighting. There Lubitsch made one of his
last German films, Das Weib des Pharao (â€œThe Pharaohâ€™s
Wife,â€ released in the United States as The Loves of Pharaoh, 1921), which was shot with extensive backlighting
and effects lighting (5.21). By mid-decade, most major
German firms had the option of filming entirely with artificial light.
One German technological innovation of the 1920s
became internationally influential: the entfesselte camera
(literally, the â€œunfastened camera,â€ or the camera moving
freely through space). During the early 1920s, some
German filmmakers began experimenting with elaborate
camera movements. In the script for the Kammerspiel
film Sylvester, Carl Mayer specified that the camera should
5.20 An elaborate use of false
perspective in The Last Laugh.
5.21 Hollywood-style backlighting in
The Loves of Pharaoh.
5.22 One portion of an tracking shot
through a street in Sylvester.
5.23, 5.24 In The Last Laugh, the
background whirls past the protagonist,
conveying his dizziness.
placed the camera
on trapezes to
acrobats. Here we
look straight down
on a man swinging
above the crowd.
Major Changes in the Mid-to-Late 1920s 97
PERCENT RELEASED IN GERMANY
GERMAN AMERICAN OTHER
1923 417 60.6 24.5 14.9
1924 560 39.3 33.2 24.5
1925 518 40.9 41.7 17.4
1926 515 35.9 44.5 16.3
1927 521 46.3 36.9 16.7
1928 520 42.5 39.4 18.1
1929 426 45.1 33.3 21.6
As a result of stabilization and the new quota policy,
foreign, and particularly American, films made considerable inroads during the crisis years. This table shows the
percentage of domestic and foreign films released from
1923 to 1929.
The import quota was not completely enforced. In
1925, the US share of the German market edged past
Germanyâ€™s own for the first time since 1915, and Hollywood dominated the market in 1926 to a significant extent.
Parufametâ€ƒPerhaps the most spectacular event of the
German film industryâ€™s poststabilization crisis came in
late 1925, when Ufa nearly went bankrupt. Rather than
cutting back production budgets and reducing the companyâ€™s debt, Ufa head Erich Pommer continued to spend
freely on his biggest projects, borrowing to finance them.
The two biggest films announced for the 1925â€“1926
season (German seasons ran from September to May)
were Murnauâ€™s Faust and Langâ€™s Metropolis. Both directors, however, far exceeded their original budgets and
shooting schedules. Indeed, the films were not released
until the 1926â€“1927 season. The financial fate of late
Expressionist films parallels what happened to some of
the French Impressionists; two ambitious projects,
NapolÃ©on and Lâ€™Argent, curtailed Gance and Lâ€™Herbierâ€™s
power within the film industry.
As a result, in 1925 Ufa was deep in debt, with no
prospects of its two blockbuster films appearing anytime
soon. A crisis developed when a substantial portion of
Ufaâ€™s debts were abruptly called in. Then, in late
December, Paramount and MGM agreed to loan Ufa
$4 million. Among other terms of the deal, Ufa was to
reserve one-third of the play dates in its large theater chain
for films from the two Hollywood firms.
The arrangement also set up a new German distribution company, Parufamet. Ufa owned half of it, while
Paramount and MGM each held one-quarter. Parufamet
would distribute at least twenty films a year for each participating firm. Paramount and MGM benefited, since a
tracking camera in the mid-teens, now The Last Laugh
and Variety inspired cinematographers in various countries to seek ways of moving the camera more fluidly.
During the late 1920s, a wide range of techniques like
elevators, swings, cranes, and turntables â€œunfastenedâ€ the
camera from its tripod.
Once inflationary pressures ended in 1924, the
German film industry could not keep expanding its facilities. Between 1924 and 1926, big-budget films became less
common. Still, the new lighting equipment and expanded
studios were in place, ready for use in the more modest
productions that dominated the second half of the decade.
The end of hyperinflation, however, had other, more serious effects on the film industry.
The End of Inflation
Although the high inflation of the postwar years benefited
the film industry in the short run, it was impossible for
Germany to continue functioning under such circumstances. By 1923, hyperinflation brought the country to
near chaos, and the film industry began to reflect this. At
a time when a potato or a postage stamp cost hundreds of
millions of marks, budgeting a feature film months in
advance became nearly impossible.
In November 1923, the government tried to halt
hyperinflation by introducing a new form of currency,
the Rentenmark. Its value was equal to 1 trillion of the
worthless paper marks. The new currency was not completely effective, and in 1924, foreign governments, primarily the United States, stepped in with loans to
stabilize the German economy further. The sudden
return to a stable currency caused new problems for
businesses. Many firms that had been built up quickly
on credit during the inflationary period either collapsed
or had to cut back. The number of movie theaters in
Germany declined for the first time, and some of the
small production companies formed to cash in on inflationary profits also went under.
Unfortunately for film producers, stable currency
often made it cheaper for distributors to buy a film
from abroad than to finance one in Germany. Moreover, in 1925 the governmentâ€™s quota regulations
changed. From 1921 to 1924, the amount of foreign
footage imported had been fixed at 15 percent of the
total German footage produced in the previous year.
Under the new quota, however, for every domestic film
distributed in Germany, the company responsible
received a certificate permitting the distribution of an
imported film. Thus, up to 50 percent of the films
shown could be imported.
98 CHAPTER 5â€ƒGermany in the 1920s
Sunrise and stayed on briefly to work for Cecil B. De
Mille. Walter Reimann, who had worked on Caligari and
other Expressionist films, left Germany to design the sets
and costumes for Lubitschâ€™s last silent film, Eternal Love
Perhaps most crucial, after resigning as head of Ufa
in early 1926, Pommer went to America. His most important project there was Swedish Ã©migrÃ© director Mauritz
Stillerâ€™s Hotel Imperial (1926). By late 1927, after frustrating stints at Paramount and at MGM, Pommer returned
to Ufa, no longer as head of the studio but merely as one
producer among many. His brief absence coincided with
the depletion of Expressionist film personnel and with a
move toward more cautious policies in the German film
In 1927, Lang was the only major Expressionist director left in Germany. He left Ufa to start his own production company. His next film, Spione (â€œSpies,â€ 1928) used
sets that were closer to the clean lines of Art Deco than to
the distortions of Expressionism. Although Lang and
other German directors used Expressionist touches in
their later films, the movement was over.
Its influence, however, was considerable. Expressionism had proved an effective way of providing atmospheric
settings for horror and other genre stories. As these films
were seen in America and later as filmmakers fleeing Nazi
Germany found their way to Hollywood, echoes of the
style appeared in Universal horror films of the late 1920s
and 1930s and somewhat later in the stark highlights and
shadows of the moody crime thrillers known as films noirs.
Expressionism has continued to crop up occasionally, as
in some of the sets in the American comic horror film
Beetlejuice (1988, Tim Burton) and in experimental films
by David Lynch and Guy Maddin.
A further reason for the decline of Expressionism lies in
the changing cultural climate of Germany. Most art historians date the end of the movement in painting around
1924. The style had been current for about a decade and a
half and had gradually filtered into the popular arts and
design. It became too familiar to retain its status as an
avant-garde style, and artists turned in more vital
Many artists moved away from the contorted emotionalism of Expressionism toward realism and coolheaded social criticism. The trend was called â€œNew
Objectivityâ€ (Neue Sachlichkeit). The savage political caricatures of George Grosz and Otto Dix are considered
substantial number of their films would get through the
German quota and be guaranteed wide distribution.
After the deal was made, Pommer was pressured into
resigning, and more cautious budgeting policies were
initiated at Ufa.
It might seem that the Parufamet deal signaled a
growing American control over the German market, yet
the arrangement had mostly short-term significance. By
1927, Ufa was again having debt problems. In April, the
right-wing publishing magnate Alfred Hugenberg
purchased controlling interest in the company, reduced its
debts, and restored it to relative health. As we shall see in
Chapter 12, Ufa eventually formed the core of the
Nazi-controlled film industry.
At the same time, German filmsâ€™ share of the local
market swung upward once more, and domestic films again
outnumbered the Hollywood product (see table on p. 97).
THE END OF THE EXPRESSIONIST
The production of Expressionist films was most intense
between 1920 and 1924. During the final years of the
trend, only two such films were released, both made by
Ufa: Murnauâ€™s Faust and Langâ€™s Metropolis. The latterâ€™s
release in January 1927 marked the end of the movement.
Two major factors in Expressionismâ€™s decline were the
excessive budgets of the later films and the departure of
the main Expressionist filmmakers to Hollywood.
It might have been possible to make inexpensive
Expressionist films, especially given that some of the early
Expressionist successes had had low budgets. But by 1927,
there were few filmmakers left who seemed interested in
working in the style.
Robert Wiene, who had initiated the style with
Caligari, went on to direct three more Expressionist films.
The last of these, The Hands of Orlac, was made in Austria,
where Wiene went on working, making non-Expressionist
films. After Waxworks, Paul Leni was hired by Universal
in 1926; he made a series of successful films there before
his death in 1929. Fox hired Murnau on the basis of the
critical plaudits for The Last Laugh, and he departed for
America after finishing Faust.
Other personnel closely associated with the Expressionist movement went to Hollywood. Both Conrad Veidt
and Emil Jannings, who were among the most prominent
Expressionist stars, left Germany in 1926, and each acted
in several US films before returning to Germany in 1929.
Set designers were also snapped up. Rochus Gliese,
Murnauâ€™s set designer, went with the director to Fox to do
New Objectivity 99
central to New Objectivity. Their paintings and drawings
are as stylized as those of the Expressionists, but Groszâ€™s
and Dixâ€™s attention to the realities of contemporary
Germany set them apart from that movement (5.26).
Similarly, photography became an increasingly important
art form in Germany, particularly from 1927 to 1933.
Such images ranged from Karl Blossfeldtâ€™s beautiful,
abstract close-ups of plants to John Heartfieldâ€™s satirical
photomontages attacking the Nazis.
The avant-garde theater, too, became less concerned
with the extreme emotions of the characters and more
with the ironies of the social situation. Bertolt Brecht first
came to prominence in the late 1920s and 1930s. His
concept of the Verfremdungseffekt (commonly translated
as the â€œalienation effectâ€) was the opposite of Expressionist technique; Brecht wanted spectators to avoid total
emotional involvement with the characters and action so
that they could think through the ideological implications
of the subject matter. New Objectivity reached into
literature as well, as exemplified by Alfred DÃ¶blinâ€™s novel,
Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), filmed by leftist director Piel
Jutzi in 1931.
In the cinema, New Objectivity took various forms.
One trend usually linked to New Objectivity was the street
film. In such films, characters from sheltered middle-class
backgrounds are suddenly exposed to the environment of
city streets, where they encounter representatives of
various social ills, such as prostitutes, gamblers, black
marketeers, and con men.
Street films came to prominence in 1923 with the
success of Karl Gruneâ€™s The Street. It tells the simple story
of a middle-aged manâ€™s psychological crisis. From the
safety of his apartment, he sees visions of the excitement
and romance that may be awaiting him in the street.
Slipping away from his wife, he explores the city, only to
be lured by a prostitute into a den of cardsharps (5.27).
Eventually he returns home, but the ending leaves the
sense that the denizens of the street lurk threateningly
The most celebrated German director of the mid1920s, G. W. Pabst, rose to fame when he made the second major street film, The Joyless Street (see box). Another
major example was Bruno Rahnâ€™s DirnentragÃ¶die
(â€œWhoreâ€™s Tragedy,â€ aka Tragedy of the Street, 1928). In it
the enduring Danish star Asta Nielsen plays an aging prostitute who takes in a rebellious middle-class runaway; she
dreams of a new life with him. He returns to his parents,
and she is arrested for murdering her pimp. The film used
dark studio sets, a moving camera, and close framings to
create the oppressive atmosphere of back streets and dingy
Rahnâ€™s death and Pabstâ€™s move into other subject matter contributed to the decline of the mainstream street
film in the late 1920s. These films have been criticized for
their failure to offer solutions to the social ills that they
depict. Their gloomy images of the streets suggest that the
middle class could find safety only by retreating from
Grosz, The Grey Day
5.27, leftâ€ƒThe hero follows a prostitute
and encounters an ominous sign in The
5.28, rightâ€ƒTragedy of the Street uses
lengthy low-height tracking shots through
the murky street set as prostitutes solicit
100 CHAPTER 5â€ƒGermany in the 1920s
Number of factors led to the decline of New Objectivity
in the cinema. For one thing, the increasing domination of
German politics by extreme right-wing forces in the late
1920s and early 1930s resulted in a wider split between conservative and liberal factions. Socialist and Communist
groups made films that provided an outlet for strong social
criticism (see Chapter 14). Moreover, the coming of sound
combined with greater control over the film industry by conservative forces to create an emphasis on light entertainment. The operetta genre became one of the most prominent
types of sound filmmaking, and social realism became rare.
EXPORT AND CLASSICAL STYLE
Despite the appearance of some distinctive films in the
mid-to-late 1920s, the pressure to export led big German
companies to make films designed for international audiences. Local subject matter was deemphasized, with many
films set in France or England, both major markets for
German pictures. Moreover, German firms could easily
film on location in London or Paris or the resort towns of
southern France. In a 1927 Ufa film called Die geheime
Macht (â€œThe Secret Forceâ€), a group of Russian nobles
who flee the Russian Revolution end up running a cafÃ© in
Paris; there the heroine is courted by a rich young Englishman. Even stories set in Germany frequently included foreign characters.
Stylistically, many German films are virtually indistinguishable from the Hollywood product. Filmmakers had
been exposed to American films from 1921 on, and many
admired what they saw. Moreover, the heavy investment in
new equipment and facilities during the inflationary
period left a few studios nearly on par technically with the
major Hollywood firms. The Germans quickly grasped
American lighting techniques and continuity editing.
During the late 1920s, filmmakers often employed the
180-degree rule and over-the-shoulder shot/reverse shots
(5.33, 5.34). Their skill with the moving camera gave
their movies an additional stylistic flair.
G. W. PABST AND NEW OBJECTIVITY
G. W. Pabstâ€™s first feature was in the Expressionist
style: Der Schatz (â€œThe Treasure,â€ 1923). His next, The
Joyless Street (1925), remains the most widely seen of
the street films. Set in Vienna during the period of hyperinflation, the film follows the fates of two women: Greta,
the middle-class daughter of a civil servant, and Maria, a
woman from a poverty-ridden home. When Gretaâ€™s father
loses his money, she is nearly prostituted, while Maria
becomes the mistress of a rich man. The Joyless Street
portrays the eraâ€™s financial chaos, perhaps most vividly in
the scenes of women lining up to buy meat from a callous butcher who extorts sexual favors in exchange for
food. (Owing to the filmâ€™s controversial subject matter, it
was often censored abroad, and truncated versions still
Pabstâ€™s subsequent career was uneven. He turned out
some ordinary films, such as the conventional triangle
melodrama Crisis (1928). However, his Secrets of a Soul
(1926) was the first serious attempt to apply the tenets of
the new Freudian school of psychoanalysis in a film narrative. This desire for a scientific approach to psychological
problems marks Secrets of a Soul as another variant of the
New Objectivity. It is virtually a case study, following a
seemingly ordinary man who develops a knife phobia and
seeks treatment from a psychoanalyst. Though the
depiction of psychoanalysis is oversimplified, the Expressionist style of some of the dream sequences (5.29) adds
considerable interest to the film.
Pabst also made another major New Objectivity film,
The Love of Jeanne Ney, in 1928. The filmâ€™s famous opening exemplifies what critics admired in his work. Rather
than showing the villain immediately, the sequence begins
with a tightly framed panning shot that builds a quick
sense of his character through details (5.30â€“5.32).
Pabstâ€™s two late silent films starring the luminous
American actress Louise Brooks, Pandoraâ€™s Box (aka Lulu,
1929) and Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (Diary of a Lost
Girl, 1929), enhanced his reputation and are considered
among his finest works. By the late 1920s, he was a favorite
with critics and intellectual audiences in Europe and the
United States. Pabst also made some of the most notable
early German sound films (see Chapter 9).
Export and Classical Style 101
5.30â€“5.32 The first shot of The Love of Jeanne Ney, moving from the villainâ€™s worn
shoes propped carelessly against the woodwork, to his hand searching the litter on a table
for a cigarette butt, and to him lighting up, with a liquor bottle prominent in the foreground.
5.33, 5.34 The style of many ordinary
German films was virtually indistinguishable from that of Hollywood movies, as
in this over-the-shoulder shot/reverse-shot
scene in Vom TÃ¤ter fehlt jede Spur (â€œNo
Trace of the Culprit,â€ 1928, Constantin J.
5.29 An Expressionist cityscape in Secrets of a Soul. 5.30
102 CHAPTER 5â€ƒGermany in the 1920s
We discuss some topics in this chapter further on our blog, Observations on Film Art:
On Der Golem: â€œDER GOLEM: Revisiting a classicâ€
On films of the immediate post-World War I years: â€œNot-quite-lost shadowsâ€ and â€œMurnau before
This attempt to create a standardized quality film that
did not seem distinctively German worked well for the industry in the late silent era. Exports rose, and Ufa released a significant number of its films in the American market (though
these usually played only in city theaters that specialized in
imported films). The political swing toward the radical right
in the early 1930s, however, would eventually cut the German
film industry off from the rest of the world once more.
1. Rudolf Kurtz, Expressionism and Film, tr. Brenda
Benthien (New Barnet, Herts.: John Libbey, 2016): 68.
2. â€œFaut-il supprimer les sous-titres?â€ Comoedia 4297
(27 September 1924): 3.
I n France and Germany, avant-garde film movements began after World
War I, whereas in the USSR, the Soviet Montage movement emerged
during the 1920s. As in Europe, this avant-garde arose within a commercial
Although the new government controlled the industry in the USSR
after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, it was not immediately able to
finance filmmaking. Except for some educational and propaganda projects,
films were expected to turn a profit. The Soviet Montage movement, which
began in 1925, was initially lucrative partly because several of its films made
money abroadâ€”income that helped build up the Soviet film industry.
The postrevolutionary era of the Soviet cinema falls into three periods.
During War Communism (1918â€“1920), the Soviet Union was in a state of
civil war and experienced great hardships, with the film industry struggling
to survive. The New Economic Policy (1921â€“1924) was designed to bring
the country out of its crisis, and the film industry slowly recovered. Finally,
the period from 1925 to 1933 saw renewed government control, resulting in
growth and export as production, distribution, and exhibition expanded.
This period also saw the experimentation of the Montage movement. Beginning in 1928, however, the First Five-Year Plan imposed strict state controls
that were to hasten the movementâ€™s end.
THE HARDSHIPS OF WAR COMMUNISM, 1918â€“1920
Russia underwent two revolutions during 1917. The first, in February, eliminated the Tsarâ€™s aristocratic rule. In its place, a reformist provisional government was set up. This compromise did not satisfy the radical Bolshevik party,
which favored a Marxist revolution to bring the worker and peasant classes to
power. When the provisional government failed to halt Russiaâ€™s hopeless and
SOVIET CINEMA IN THE 1920s
The House on Trubnaya
104 CHAPTER 6â€ƒSoviet Cinema in the 1920s
Lunacharskyâ€™s sympathetic attitude later helped create
favorable conditions for the Montage directors.
During the first half of 1918, Narkompros struggled
to gain control over film production, distribution, and
exhibition. A few Soviets, or local workersâ€™ governing bodies, set up their own production units, making propaganda
films promoting the new society. For example, the Petrograd Cinema Committee produced Cohabitation (1918),
made by a collective of directors and scripted by
Lunacharsky. Under Soviet rule, large houses that had previously belonged to rich families were divided to provide
dwellings for poorer families. In Cohabitation, a well-to-do
professor and a poor janitor work at the same school;
when the janitor and his daughter are assigned to live in
the professorâ€™s large home, the latterâ€™s wife objects.
Eventually all learn to live together in harmony (6.1).
The year 1918 also saw the first directorial efforts of
two young men who were to become major directors in the
1920s. In June, Dziga Vertov took charge of Narkomprosâ€™s
first newsreel; later he would be an important documentarist
working in the Montage movement. Before the October Revolution, Lev Kuleshov made Engineer Priteâ€™s Project (released
in 1918) for the Khanzhonkov firm, where he had previously worked as an actor and set designer. Unlike his contemporaries in Russia, Kuleshov employed Hollywood-style
continuity guidelines (6.2â€“6.6). Kuleshovâ€™s later teachings
unpopular struggle against Germany in World War I, the
Bolshevik cause gained support, especially from the military. In October, Vladimir Lenin led a second revolution
that created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
The February Revolution had relatively little effect on
the Russian film industry, which had expanded during the
war. Films made just prior to the revolution appeared, and
a few films with political subject matter were rushed
through production. Evgenii Bauer, a leading director,
made The Revolutionary, released in April; it supported
Russiaâ€™s continued participation in World War I. Yakov
Protazanovâ€™s Father Sergius, produced between the two
revolutions, was released in 1918. This film carried on the
tradition of the mid-1910s Russian cinema, with its
emphasis on psychological melodrama (see p. 47).
The Bolshevik Revolution in October created a far
greater disruption in Russian life in general. Given that the
Communists favored state ownership of all companies,
existing film firms waited nervously to see what would happen. Coincidentally, Bauer died in the spring of 1917, and
the illness of his producer, Alexander Khanzhonkov, ended
that companyâ€™s existence. Another major prerevolutionary
producer, Alexander Drankov, left the USSR in the summer of 1918 and tried vainly to reestablish his business
abroad. After a brief trial period of producing propaganda
films commissioned by the new government, the Yermoliev
troupe fled to Paris via the Crimea in 1919; there they
established a successful company, Films Albatros (p. 76).
The logical first step for the new Marxist regime
would have been for the government to acquire, or nationalize, the film industry. The Bolsheviks, however, were not
yet powerful enough for this step. Instead, a new regulatory
body, the Peopleâ€™s Commissariat of Education (generally
known as Narkompros), was assigned to oversee the cinema. The head of Narkompros was Anatoli Lunacharsky.
He was interested in film and occasionally wrote scripts.
soldiers, giving this
made early Soviet
film an air of
6.2 A scene in Engineer Priteâ€™s Project
uses continuity editing, as a woman
seated at a window drops something to
attract the attention of two men passing
6.3 A long shot shows them noticing
the object (Engineer Priteâ€™s Project).
6.4 In a cut-in, the hero picks it up
(Engineer Priteâ€™s Project).
The Hardships of War Communism, 1918â€“1920 105
6.6 In the reverse shot, the woman
looks back at him. The rest of the scene
proceeds in standard continuity fashion
(Engineer Priteâ€™s Project).
6.5 In another shot, he looks up and
right (Engineer Priteâ€™s Project).
6.7 An actor playing Karl Marx
sits before a map of Europe, writing
the Communist Manifesto. The
superimposed clasping workersâ€™ hands
symbolize his inspiration for the famous
command (and the filmâ€™s title) Workers
of All Lands, Unite!
by Britain, the United States, and other countries. In
1920, the Bolsheviks won, but at a terrible cost.
During the civil war, a major concern was to get films
out to troops and villagers in the countryside. Many of the
far-flung areas had no movie theaters, and the Soviet government innovated the use of agit-vehicles. Trains, trucks,
and steamboats (6.8) visited the countryside. Painted with
slogans and caricatures, they carried propaganda leaflets,
printing presses, and small filmmaking setups. They put
on theatrical skits or showed movies on an outdoor screen
for local crowds.
Production, however, continued at a low level. In
August 1919, Lenin finally nationalized the film industry.
The main effect of this move was the discovery of many
old filmsâ€”both Russian and foreignâ€”that had been stored
away. These films provided most of what Soviet citizens
saw in theaters until 1922.
The Kuleshov Group
The departure of the Yermoliev and Drankov companies, along with the dissolution of Khanzhonkov, meant
that a generation of Russian filmmakers had largely disappeared. Who would replace them? Despite the hardships
of War Communism, Narkompros established the State
Film School in 1919. In 1920, the young director of
Engineer Priteâ€™s Project, Lev Kuleshov, joined the faculty
and formed a small workshop that was to train some of
the eraâ€™s important directors and actors.
Over the next few years, working under conditions of
great deprivation and often without film stock for their
experiments, Kuleshovâ€™s group explored the new art. They
practiced acting and put on plays and skits staged as much
like films as possible. Some of the skits used small frames
with curtains, within which the actors stood to create
and writings explored the implications of Hollywood continuity style in detail.
Despite these tentative signs of progress, however,
Soviet production received two serious blows during 1918.
Because the companies that had fled after the revolution
had taken whatever they could with them, the USSR badly
needed production equipment and raw stock. (Neither
was manufactured there.) In May, the government
entrusted $1 million in credit to a film distributor who
had operated in Russia during World War I, Jacques
Cibrario. On a buying mission to the United States,
Cibrario purchased worthless used material and
absconded with most of the money. Russia had little foreign currency, and the loss was serious.
It is little wonder that the government was reluctant
to give the film industry further large sums. Another problem arose in June 1918, when a decree required that all
raw stock held by private firms be registered with the government. The remaining producers and dealers promptly
hid what little raw film remained, and a severe shortage
From 1918 to 1920, Soviet production, distribution,
and exhibition were disorganized. Only six films were produced under state auspices in 1918. Sixty-three were made
in 1919, but most were short newsreels and agitki, brief
propaganda films with simple pro-Soviet messages. Workers
of All Lands, Unite! (1919), for example, showed scenes
from the history of the struggle of workers across the ages,
linked by quotes from Karl Marxâ€™s Communist Manifesto
(6.7). Conditions remained bleak, however, especially for
the few private firms still producing films. When the Russ
company set out in 1919 to adapt Tolstoyâ€™s Polikushka,
lack of food, heat, and positive film stock created incredible difficulties. The film reached theaters only in late 1922.
These were the years of the civil war in the USSR, as
the Reds, or Bolshevik forces, fought the Whites, Russians
opposed to the revolutionary government and supported
106 CHAPTER 6â€ƒSoviet Cinema in the 1920s
pair walking along a Moscow street and ascending a flight
of stepsâ€”which the editing suggests are those of the
Capitol but which were actually filmed at a cathedral in
Moscow. In all of the Kuleshov experiments, the filmmakers built up an overall space that had not existed during
The major implication of Kuleshovâ€™s experiments was
that in cinema the viewerâ€™s response depended less on the
individual shot than on the editingâ€”the montage of the
shots. This idea was to be central to the Montage filmmakersâ€™ theory and style. The Kuleshov groupâ€™s move from
classroom experimentation to film production, however,
would take three years.
RECOVERY UNDER THE NEW ECONOMIC
By 1920, the hardships caused by the civil war and the
disorganization of the new government had created a
severe famine in parts of the USSR. Faced with this crisis,
Lenin formulated the New Economic Policy (NEP) in
â€œclose-ups.â€ Later they experimented with film scenes,
reediting old films. In 1921, Kuleshov obtained a small
amount of precious raw stock from the government and
shot what are known as the â€œKuleshov experiments.â€ In all
of these, the group explored an editing principle now
called the Kuleshov effect.
The Kuleshov effect is based on leaving out a sceneâ€™s
establishing shot and leading the spectator to infer spatial
or temporal continuity from the shots of separate elements. Often Kuleshovâ€™s experiments relied on the eyeline
match. The workshopâ€™s most famous experiment involved
recutting old footage with the actor Ivan Mozhukhin. A
close view of Mozhukhin with a neutral expression was
selected. This same shot was repeatedly edited together
with shots of other subject matter, variously reported as a
bowl of soup, a dead body, a baby, and the like. Supposedly, ordinary viewers praised Mozhukhinâ€™s performance,
believing that his face had registered the appropriate hunger, sorrow, or delightâ€”even though his face was the same
in each scene.
This Mozhukhin experiment does not survive, but
two other Kuleshov experiments do. One stages a fight on
a balcony, watched by a man on a sidewalk nearby. Its
skillful editing, notably its use of eyeline matching, reflects
the knowledge of continuity style that Kuleshov had
demonstrated in Engineer Priteâ€™s Project (see 6.2â€“6.6). A
second, poetically called The Created Surface of the Earth,
assembled a single space out of shots made in various
widely separated locations, all united by the eyeline
matches between a man and a woman who meet in a park.
Unfortunately the ending is missing, but it showed the pair
looking and pointing offscreen (6.9), followed by a shot of
the US Capitol (from an old film), and finally shots of the
6.9 Actors in a
Moscow park look
offscreen. The next
showed the US
they seem to see
Surface of the
6.8 A decorated agit-train called
the â€œV. I. Lenin.â€ The sign at the top
reads â€œSoviet Cinematograph,â€
indicating that the train carried a
projection setup. The words at the
sides of the door say â€œpeopleâ€™s
Recovery under the New Economic Policy, 1921â€“1924 107
1921, which allowed a limited and temporary reintroduction of private ownership and capitalist-style dealings. As
a result, hoarded raw stock reappeared, and film production by private firms and government groups increased.
In early 1922, Lenin made two statements that helped
determine the course of Soviet filmmaking. First, he issued
the so-called Lenin proportion, stating that film programs
should balance entertainment and educationâ€”though not
specifying how much of each type of film should be shown.
He also declared (according to Lunacharsky), â€œOf all the
arts, for us the cinema is the most important.â€ Lenin probably meant that the cinema was the most powerful tool for
propaganda and education in a largely illiterate population. His statement has been quoted innumerable times as
an indication of the Bolshevik governmentâ€™s reliance on
the new medium for propaganda.
In late 1922, the government attempted to organize
the feeble film industry by creating a central distribution
monopoly called Goskino. All private and government
production firms were to release their films through
Goskino, which would also control the import and export
of films. The attempt failed, since several companies were
powerful enough to compete with Goskino. In some cases,
private importers bid against Goskino for the same films,
driving prices higher.
This was no small matter. During the NEP, the Soviet
film industry relied on imports. In the early years after the
October Revolution, the USSR had been cut off from the
rest of the world, partly by the civil war and partly by
most countriesâ€™ refusal to deal with a Communist government. In 1922, the Treaty of Rapallo opened the way
for trade between Russia and Germany. The treaty was a
6.10 In scenes like this, when the
children leap from a bridge onto a train
during the defense of their town, Red Imps
captured the fast pace of American
adventure films of the 1910s.
breakthrough in the USSRâ€™s relations with the West, and
Berlin became the main conduit for films going into and
out of the USSR during the 1920s.
Eager to beat their competitors into the vast new
Soviet market, German film firms sold on credit, and lighting equipment, raw stock, and new films flowed into the
USSR. A 1923 investigation found that 99 percent of films
in Soviet distribution were foreign. Since most of the film
industryâ€™s revenues came from distributing imported pictures, foreign trade played a crucial role in its recovery.
Although the industry faced an uphill struggle, the
NEP period saw a slow growth. Production centers were
gradually set up in the non-Russian republics of the USSR
so that ethnic populations could see films reflecting their
own cultures. With the acquisition of raw stock, production of fiction features increased. In 1923, there appeared
the first Soviet film that was as popular with Soviet audiences as were imported films: a civil war drama called Red
Imps. It was directed by Ivan Perestiani for the Georgian
branch of Narkompros. The film concerns two teenagers,
a brother obsessed with James Fenimore Cooperâ€™s adventure books and a sister devoted to a novel about anarchism. When their father is killed by the Whites, the pair
team up with a black street acrobat and set out to join the
Red Army. As scouts, they live out the sorts of adventures
they had previously read about (6.10).
The year 1924 saw a further increase in production.
Yuri Zhelyabuzhsky, who had gotten his start directing
agitki, made Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom, a contemporary
comedy in which a street cigarette seller becomes a movie
star by accident. Several scenes reflect the Soviet film situation of the day (6.11, 6.12). Another popular film,
6.11 In a sequence from Cigarette-Girl
of Mosselprom, set in a movie studio, a
director reading a script sits in front of
a German film poster.
6.12 At the end, the heroineâ€™s film
premieres in what may have been a
typical movie theater of the day
(Cigarette-Girl of Mosselprom).
108 CHAPTER 6â€ƒSoviet Cinema in the 1920s
Palace and Fortress, was made by the veteran prerevolutionary director, Alexander Ivanovsky. It centered on a
revolutionary of the era of Tsar Alexander II who is imprisoned and eventually goes mad (6.13). Palace and Fortress
became a favorite target of the Montage directors over the
next few years as they advocated a new approach to
Members of the Kuleshov workshop of the State Film
School also made their first feature in 1924. The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks is
a hilarious comedy about Western misconceptions of the
USSR. Mr. West, a naive American representative of the
YMCA, reluctantly travels to Moscow, where thieves
exploit his prejudices, pretending to defend him against
â€œbarbarousâ€ Bolshevik thugs. Eventually he is rescued by
real (and kindly) Bolsheviks. At the end, the film exploits
the Kuleshov effect by combining newsreel and staged
footage (6.14, 6.15). With its playful use of acting and
editing, Mr. West can be counted as a marginal Montage
film. It brought the Soviet cinema to the verge of a truly
avant-garde movement, as a new generation of directors
interested in more radical stylistic exploration began
6.14, 6.15 In one shot from The
Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in
the Land of the Bolsheviks, a Soviet
official gives a speech, and in the next
Mr. West seems to be watching through
binocularsâ€”though the shots were clearly
made in different spaces and times.
INCREASED STATE CONTROL AND THE
MONTAGE MOVEMENT, 1925â€“1930
Growth and Export in the Film Industry
Because the centralized distribution firm Goskino had
proved unable to organize the film industry, the government created a new company, Sovkino, on January 1,
1925. The few production firms that were allowed to keep
operating were given a strong incentive to help Sovkino
survive: they had to invest in stock in the new firm.
Goskino continued small-scale production. Its main contribution was The Battleship Potemkin (1925), the most
famous film of the Montage movement and the first Soviet
film to have a major success abroad.
A more extensive and long-lived company was
Mezhrabpom-Russ (based on the old Russ collective that
had made Polikushka). This private firm was owned and
financed by a German Communist group, and it made a
surprisingly large proportion of the most significant Soviet
filmsâ€”including Vsevolod Pudovkinâ€™s silent onesâ€”before
its dissolution in 1936.
Specialist companies also held stock in Sovkino:
Gosvoyenfilm made military propaganda until the late
1920s, and Kultkino produced educational filmsâ€”
including some by the major Montage-style documentarist
Dziga Vertov. Sevzapkino was based in Leningrad, and it
later became simply the Leningrad studio of Sovkino.
Working at Sevzapkino were a number of young and
talented Montage directors, most notably the team of
Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg.
Since 1917, the number of theaters had shrunk, due
to the lack of films, the breakdown of projectors, the
inability to heat the auditoriums, and other problems.
Lenin died in 1924, but his belief that the cinema should
serve an educational role continued to influence policy.
The government insisted on getting films to workers and
peasants in remote regions. Sovkino faced the formidable
6.13 As this shot
of the hero and his
Palace and Fortress
used an oldfashioned style,
with the camera
facing the back
wall straight on,
framed from a
distance, and flat
from the front.
Increased State Control and the Montage Movement, 1925â€“1930 109
with another movement, Suprematism, took a more spiritual, abstract turn. Simple geometric shapes were combined into compositions. Kasimir Malevichâ€™s â€œBlack
Squareâ€ (1913) was a black square against a white background; in 1917 he created â€œWhite on White,â€ a white
background surrounding an off-center square of a slightly
In this prerevolutionary period, few of the CuboFuturist or Suprematist artists had political alliances.
They criticized traditional artistic styles, but they did not
see the artist as having a political role. After the Bolshevik
Revolution, however, most artists supported the new government, and there were many debates as to how art and
politics could be fused. Some avant-garde artists were
given teaching posts or put in positions where they influenced official cultural policy, and Lunacharsky, while not
entirely sympathetic to the modernist styles of the day,
allowed them a relatively free hand.
The search for a socially useful art resulted in the rise
of Constructivism around 1920. Manifestos and articles
declared that artists who had been exploring abstract
styles need not abandon their ways of workingâ€”they simply needed to apply them to useful ends. For the Constructivist, art inevitably fulfilled a social function. It was
not an object of rapt contemplation or a source of some
enduring higher truth, as many nineteenth-century views
of art had held. The artist was not an inspired visionary;
he or she was a skilled artisan using the materials of the
medium to create an artwork. Artists were often compared
to engineers, using tools and a rational, even scientific
The Constructivists often compared the artwork to a
machine. While earlier views of art frequently saw the artwork as analogous to a plant, with an organic unity and
growth, the Constructivists stressed that it was put
together from parts. This process of assemblage was sometimes referred to as montage, from the French word for the
assembly of parts into a machine. (As we have seen, filmmakers applied the term montage to the editing of shots
into a film.) This analogy between artwork and machine
was seen positively. Because Soviet society focused on
enhancing the USSRâ€™s industrial output, and also because
Communism stressed the dignity of human labor, the factory and the machine became symbols of the new society.
Artistsâ€™ studios were often seen as factories where laborers
built useful products.
Because all human response was seen as based on scientifically determinable processes, the Constructivists
considered that an artwork could be calculated to elicit a
particular reaction. Thus artworks could be used for
tasks of opening urban theaters and of sending over 1,000
portable projection outfits to the countryside. Moreover,
most workers and peasants could afford only tiny entrance
fees, so the portable theaters operated at a loss.
How was Sovkino to pay for these portable projection
outfits? Not through government subsidies but through its
profits mostly from foreign films, which Sovkino imported
and distributed in the USSR. During the second half of
the decade, however, the company was pressured to reduce
the number of imported films. Even reedited, as most of
them were, they were considered ideologically harmful. A
more desirable source of income was profitable domestic
production. Moreover, if Soviet films were sold abroad,
they might earn much more. Sovkino thus had a strong
incentive to export films. Partly by supporting the young
Montage directors, Sovkino produced films that found an
audience in the West, and the income that these exports
generated bought new equipment and supported the
expansion of the industry.
The first triumph abroad was Sergei Eisensteinâ€™s
Potemkin, which proved enormously popular in Germany
in 1926 and went on to show in many other countries.
Other Soviet films, such as Pudovkinâ€™s Mother, soon followed and were exported very successfully. The foreign
currency earned, especially by Montage-style films, facilitated the Soviet industryâ€™s purchase of foreign production
and exhibition equipment.
Another goal for Sovkino was to make films that
embodied the new ideals of the Communist government
so that they could be conveyed to the countryâ€™s population. The early Montage films, with their dynamic depictions of Tsarist-period oppression and historical rebellions,
were praised for their subject matter. Because these films
were successful financially and critically, for a few years a
new generation of filmmakers was able to continue experimenting in the avant-garde Montage style.
The Influence of Constructivism
The years after the revolution saw enthusiastic experimentation by artists in every medium. They tried to approach
artistic creation in a way appropriate to a completely new
kind of society. One result was a trend in the visual arts
called Constructivism, to which the Montage movement
in the cinema was closely linked.
Despite its radical aims, Constructivism had precedents in prerevolutionary tendencies. Influences from
French Cubism and Italian Futurism combined in Russia
in a movement called Cubo-Futurism, which led to a flamboyant attack on all traditional art forms. Artists affiliated
110 CHAPTER 6â€ƒSoviet Cinema in the 1920s
performance consisted of carefully controlled physical
movements rather than of the expression of emotions.
Meyerholdâ€™s actors trained by doing exercises to gain mastery over their bodies, and their performances had an
A New Generation: The Montage Filmmakers
During the first half of the 1920s, when all these sweeping
changes were revolutionizing the arts, a new generation of
filmmakers was moving into the cinema. For them, the revolution was a crucial formative eventâ€”partly because they
were extraordinarily young. Indeed, Sergei Eisenstein was
nicknamed â€œthe old manâ€ by his younger friends because he
was all of twenty-six when he began his first feature film.
Born in 1898, Eisenstein came from a middle-class
family in Riga, Latvia. His education gave him fluency in
Russian, English, German, and French. He recalled that,
while on a visit to Paris at age 8, he saw a MÃ©liÃ¨s film and
became fascinated by the cinema. Two years later he visited the circus and became similarly obsessed with this
popular spectacle. Following his fatherâ€™s wishes, he began
studying engineering in 1915. Eisenstein participated in
the revolution and during the civil war worked building
bridges. He was drawn to the arts, however, and during
this same period he also decorated agit-trains and helped
design many theatrical skits for the Red Army. The combination of engineering and artistic work seemed anything
but contradictory in the era of Constructivism, and
throughout his life Eisenstein likened the production of
his films to the building of those bridges.
propagandistic and educational purposes promoting the
new Communist societyâ€”if only the right ways of making
them could be discovered. Many artists therefore jettisoned the notion that elite art forms (such as opera and
painting) were superior to popular art forms (such as circus and poster design). Art should be understandable to
all, particularly to the workers and peasants so central to
the Bolshevik cause.
Constructivism resulted in an extraordinary fusion of
abstract graphic design and practical function. For example, El Lissitzky used a geometric composition straight out
of Suprematism for a 1920 propaganda poster supporting
the Bolshevik side in the civil war (Color Plate 6.1). Constructivist artists designed textiles, book covers, workersâ€™
uniforms, street kiosks, even ceramic cups and saucersâ€”
many using modernist abstract shapes.
Constructivism affected the theater as well. The most
important Constructivist theatrical director was Vsevolod
Meyerhold, an established figure who offered his services
to the Bolshevik government immediately after the revolution. Meyerholdâ€™s bold methods of staging were to influence Soviet film directors. Set and costume designs in
several major Meyerhold productions incorporated Constructivist design principles. In his 1922 production of
The Magnanimous Cuckold, for example, the set somewhat
resembled a large factory machine; it consisted of a series
of bare platforms and a large propeller turning during the
play. The actors performed in ordinary work clothes
(6.16). In keeping with Constructivism, Meyerhold also
pioneered the principle of biomechanical acting. The
actorâ€™s body was assumed to be like a machine, and thus a
6.16 Biomechanical acting, work
clothes, and a machine-like set in The
Increased State Control and the Montage Movement, 1925â€“1930 111
Pavlovâ€™s famous experiments on stimulus-response
physiology. In 1926, Pudovkin (born 1893) helped found
the Montage movement with his first fiction feature,
Mother. Within the USSR, Mother was the most popular of
all Montage films. As a result, Pudovkin enjoyed the highest approval from the government of any of the movementâ€™s
directors, and he was able to keep up his experiments with
Montage longer than any of the othersâ€”up until 1933.
Another Kuleshov workshop member, Boris Barnet (born
1902) had studied painting and sculpture, and he trained
as a boxer after the revolution. He acted in The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks
and other mid-1920s films, and he also directed The House
on Trubnaya (1927) and other Montage-style films.
The other important filmmaker who, along with
Kuleshov, had started directing about the time of the
revolution was Dziga Vertov (born 1896). During the
mid-1910s, he wrote poetry and science fiction, composed
what we now call musique concrÃ¨te, and became influenced
by the Cubo-Futurists. From 1916 to 1917, however, he
studied medicine until becoming the supervisor of
Narkomprosâ€™s newsreel series in 1917. He went on, in
1924, to make feature-length documentaries, some
employing the Montage style.
The youngest Montage directors came out of the
Leningrad theater milieu. In 1921, while still in their teens,
Grigori Kozintsev (born 1905), Leonid Trauberg (born
1902), and Sergei Yutkevich (born 1904) formed the
Factory of the Eccentric Actor (FEKS). This theatrical
troupe enthusiastically embraced the circus, the popular
American cinema, the cabaret, and other entertainments.
They issued provocative manifestos in the manner of the
Cubo-Futuristsâ€™ â€œSlap in the Face of Public Tasteâ€ (1912).
In 1922, the FEKS group defined how their approach to
acting departed from that of the traditional theater: â€œfrom
emotion to the machine, from anguish to the trick. The
techniqueâ€”circus. The psychologyâ€”head over heels.â€1
They staged theatrical events that adopted the techniques
of popular entertainments, and by 1924, they moved into
the cinema with a short parody of American serials, The
Adventures of Oktyabrina (now lost). Yutkevich went on to
make Montage films on his own; Kozintsev and Trauberg
codirected several important films of the movement.
Because of their taste for bizarre experimentation, the
FEKS group were criticized by government officials from
the start of their careers.
Eisenstein, Kuleshov, Pudovkin, Vertov, and the
FEKS group were the principal early exponents of Soviet
Montage. Other directors picked up their influences and
developed the style. In particular, filmmakers working
in the non-Russian republics enriched the Montage
In 1920, at the end of the civil war, Eisenstein went to
Moscow and joined the Proletkult Theater (short for Proletarian, or Workersâ€™, Cultural Theater). There he designed
and codirected many plays. In 1921, Eisenstein (along
with his friend, Sergei Yutkevich, another future Montage
film director) enrolled in a theater workshop under the
supervision of Meyerhold, whom he would always consider his mentor.
In 1923, Eisenstein directed his first theatrical production, Enough Simplicity in Every Wise Man. Although
the play was a nineteenth-century farce, Eisenstein staged
it as a circus. The actors dressed in clown costumes and
performed in the acrobatic biomechanical style, walking
on a tightrope above the audience or doing handstands as
they spoke their lines. Eisenstein produced Glumovâ€™s
Diary, a short film to be shown on a screen on the stage.
At the same time that this play was performed, Eisenstein
gained some early experience as a film editor: along with
Esfir Shub (soon to become an important maker of compilation documentaries), he reedited a German Expressionist film, Fritz Langâ€™s Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, for Soviet
Eisenstein always maintained that his move from the
theater to film came in 1924, when he directed a production of playwright S. M. Tretyakovâ€™s Gas Masks, not in a
theater but in a real gas factory. According to Eisenstein,
the contrast between the reality of the setting and the artifice of the drama was too great. A few months later, he
began to work on Strike (released in early 1925)â€”a film set
and shot in a factory. It was the first major film of the
Montage movement, and Eisenstein went on to make
three more important works in that style: Potemkin,
October, and Old and New. Potemkinâ€™s success abroad gave
Eisenstein and his colleagues considerable leeway for
experimentation over the next few years. Many Montage
films proved more popular abroad than in the USSR,
where they were often accused of being too difficult for
workers and peasants to understand.
The oldest Montage director in years and experience
was Lev Kuleshov, who had designed and directed films
before the revolution and then taught at the State Film
School. Kuleshovâ€™s own Soviet films were only mildly
experimental in style, but his workshop produced two
important Montage directors.
Vsevolod Pudovkin had intended to train as a chemist
until he saw D. W. Griffithâ€™s Intolerance in 1919. Convinced of the cinemaâ€™s importance, he soon joined
Kuleshovâ€™s workshop and trained as both an actor and a
director. His first feature film typified the Constructivist
interest in the physical bases of psychological response; he
made Mechanics of the Brain, a documentary about Ivan
112 CHAPTER 6â€ƒSoviet Cinema in the 1920s
1917 February: Tsar Nicholas II is overthrown; the provisional government is established.
October: The Bolshevik Revolution
1918 Narkompros (the Peopleâ€™s Commissariat of Education) takes charge of regulating the film industry.
1919 August: Nationalization of the film industry
Foundation of the State Film School
1920 Lev Kuleshov joins the State Film School and forms his workshop.
1921 The New Economic Policy is instituted.
1922 Formation of Goskino, the state film distribution monopoly
1923 Publication of Sergei Eisensteinâ€™s essay, â€œMontage of Attractionsâ€
1924 Kino-Eye, Dziga Vertov
The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, Lev Kuleshov
January: Formation of Sovkino, the new government distribution monopoly and production company
Strike, Sergei Eisenstein
Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein
Mother, Vsevolod Pudovkin
The Devilâ€™s Wheel, Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg
The Cloak, Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg
Zvenigora, Alexander Dovzhenko
The House on Trubnaya, Boris Barnet
The End of St. Petersburg, Vsevolod Pudovkin
Moscow in October, Boris Barnet
SVD, Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg
March: The First Communist Party Conference on Film Questions is held.
October (aka Ten Days That Shook the World), Sergei Eisenstein
The Heir to Genghis Khan (aka Storm over Asia), Vsevolod Pudovkin
Lace, Sergei Yutkevich
Sergei Eisenstein begins travels that will keep him abroad until 1932.
The New Babylon, Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg
My Grandmother, Kote Mikaberidze
China Express (aka Blue Express), Ilya Trauberg
Man with a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov
Arsenal, Alexander Dovzhenko
Old and New (aka The General Line), Sergei Eisenstein
1930 Formation of Soyuzkino, a centralized company to control all production, distribution, and exhibition
Earth, Alexander Dovzhenko
1931 Alone, Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg
Golden Mountains, Sergei Yutkevich
1932 A Simple Case, Vsevolod Pudovkin
1933 Deserter, Vsevolod Pudovkin
A Chronology of the Soviet Montage Movement
Increased State Control and the Montage Movement, 1925â€“1930 113
movement. Foremost among these was Alexander
Dovzhenko (born 1894), the principal Ukrainian director.
Dovzhenko had been in the Red Army during the civil war
and served as a diplomatic administrator in Berlin in the
early 1920s. There he studied art, returning to the Ukraine
as a painter and cartoonist. In 1926, he suddenly switched
to filmmaking and made a comedy and a spy thriller
before directing his first Montage film, Zvenigora, in 1927.
Based on obscure Ukrainian folk legends, Zvenigora baffled audiences but demonstrated an original style that
emphasizes lyrical imagery above narrative. Dovzhenko
went on to make two more important Montage films, Arsenal and Earth, also set in the Ukraine.
The Theoretical Writings of Montage Filmmakers
The mid-1920s saw a blossoming of Soviet film theory, as
critics and filmmakers sought to understand cinema scientifically. Like the French Impressionists, several Montage
directors considered theory and filmmaking to be closely
linked. They were united in an opposition to traditional
films. All saw in montage the basis of revolutionary films
that would inspire audiences. But the writings of the Montage directors differed in important ways.
In many respects, Kuleshov was the most conservative
theorist of the group. He admired the succinct storytelling
of American films, and he discussed montage chiefly as
techniques of editing for clarity and emotional effects. This
conception of montage influenced Pudovkin, whose two
1926 pamphlets on filmmaking were soon translated into
Western languages (in English as Film Language, 1929).
Through Pudovkin, montage came to refer generally to
dynamic, often discontinuous, narrative editing.
Vertov was far more radical. A committed Constructivist, he emphasized the social utility of documentary
film. Vertov saw fiction films as â€œcine-nicotine,â€ a drug that
dulled the viewerâ€™s awareness of social and political reality.
For him, â€œlife caught unawaresâ€ would be the basis of a
cinema of fact. Montage was less a single technique than
the entire production process: choosing a subject, shooting
footage, and assembling the film all involved selection and
combination of â€œcine-facts.â€ As for editing, Vertov emphasized that the filmmaker should calculate the differences
between shotsâ€”light versus dark, slow motion versus fast
motion, and so on. These differences, or â€œintervals,â€ would
be the basis of the filmâ€™s effect on the audience.
Eisenstein developed the most complicated conception of montage. Initially he believed in what he called
the â€œmontage of attractions.â€ As in a circus, the filmmaker should assemble a series of exciting moments to
stimulate the viewerâ€™s emotions. Later he formulated
elaborate principles by which individual filmic elements
could be combined for maximum emotional and intellectual effects. He insisted that montage was not limited to
editing or even to Constructivist art in general. In a bold
essay of 1929, he scoffed at Kuleshov and Pudovkin as
treating shots like bricks that are joined to build a film.
Bricks, he pointed out, do not interact with each other as
film shots do. He asserted that shots should not be seen
as simply linked but rather as conflicting sharply with
one another. Even Eisensteinâ€™s writing style, with its short
sentences and paragraphs, tried to convey the principle
The shot is by no means an element of montage.
The shot is a montage cell.
Just as cells in their division form a phenomenon of
another order, the organism or embryo, so on the other
side of the dialectical leap from the shot, there is
By what, then, is montage characterized and, consequently, its cellâ€”the shot?
By collision. By the conflict of two pieces in opposition to each other. By conflict. By collision.2
For Eisenstein, this conflict imitated the Marxist concept of the dialectic, in which antithetical elements clash
and produce a synthesis that goes beyond both. Montage
could compel the spectator to sense the conflict between
elements and create a new concept in his or her mind.
In â€œcollision montage,â€ Eisenstein foresaw the possibility of an â€œintellectualâ€ cinema. It would attempt not to
tell a story but to convey abstract ideas, as an essay or
political tract might. He dreamed of filming Marxâ€™s
Capital, and certain of his films took first steps toward
The filmmakersâ€™ theories did not always accord with
their practice. Kuleshov and Pudovkin in particular
proved more daring as filmmakers than their essays might
suggest. All the core Montage directors, however, wrote
about film technique as a vivid way to shape the new
Soviet society by arousing and educating their audiences.
Soviet Montage Form and Style
Genreâ€ƒMost non-Montage Soviet films tended to be topical comedies or conventional literary adaptations. Because
Montage directors emphasized physical conflict and sought
to illustrate Bolshevik doctrine, they often depicted uprisings, strikes, and other clashes in the history of the revolutionary movement. Two films marking the twentieth
anniversary of the failed Revolution of 1905 (Potemkin and
Mother) and three celebrating the tenth anniversary of the
114 CHAPTER 6â€ƒSoviet Cinema in the 1920s
Vertov, however, deplored narrative. Some of his films
were fairly straightforward documentaries about the new
Communist society. In Kino-Eye, he went further and
recorded various everyday events using all sort of camera
and editing tricks, the result being a film more about the
power of cinema than about its purported subject. His
most radically modernist film, Man with a Movie Camera,
showed an onscreen audience watching a documentary
about the making of the Man with a Movie Camera itself.
Its dizzying succession of short shots and elaborate superimpositions was so challenging that Vertov got in trouble
with government authorities and had to tame his style.
The Montage directors believed that any subject matter would affect viewers most strongly if the stylistic
devices created a maximum of dynamic tension. Thus
their techniques were often diametrically opposed to the
smooth, seamless continuity style of Hollywood-type
films. In particular, these directors juxtaposed shots in
vivid, energetic ways, and the main traits that distinguish
the Montage style lie in the area of editing.
Editingâ€ƒThe search for dynamism through editing
resulted in one of the most pervasive characteristics of
Montage films: they tend to have more shots than other
films of their era. While Hollywood practice was to use one
shot per action, Montage filmmakers frequently broke individual actions down into two or more shots. Indeed, an
unmoving character or object might be seen from different
angles for several shots in a row (6.17â€“6.19). Such editing
reflects the directorsâ€™ belief that cuts, in and of themselves,
stimulate the spectator. Beyond this greater quantity of
shots, we can discern more specific strategies of editing,
involving temporal, spatial, and graphic tensions.
While the goal of continuity editing is to create the
illusion of a smooth flow of time within a scene, Montage
cutting often created either overlapping or elliptical temporal relations.
In overlapping editing, the second shot repeats part or
all of the action from the previous shot. When several
Bolshevik Revolution (October, The End of St. Petersburg,
and Moscow in October) used the Montage style.
Other historical Montage films portrayed earlier
revolutionary movements. Kozintsev and Traubergâ€™s
The New Babylon dealt with the doomed 1871 Paris
Commune; the same pairâ€™s SVD, with the Decembrist
plot of 1825. Some presented Tsarist-period strikes (for
example, Strike) or the civil war (for example, Arsenal).
Several Montage films, however, were dramas or comedies on contemporary social problems. For example, as
the new government gave rise to a cumbersome bureaucracy, it became common to satirize the red tape
involved in getting anything done, as in the absurdist
My Grandmother, made in the Republic of Georgia.
Narrativeâ€ƒWhat about the narrative structure of Montage
films? We have seen that French Impressionist films usually
center around personal actions and psychology, while
German Expressionism typically uses supernatural or legendary elements to motivate distorted style. The narrative
patterns of Soviet Montage films differ considerably from
both these other movements. On the one hand, there are
almost no supernatural events (the one exception being
Dovzhenkoâ€™s Zvenigora, which uses elements from Ukrainian
folklore). Moreover, many Montage films downplay individual characters as central causal agents. Instead, drawing on a
Marxist view of history, Montage films often make social
forces the source of causes and effects. Characters do act
and react, but they do so less as psychologically distinct individuals than as members of different social classes.
Thus a single protagonist might represent a general
type or class. Pudovkin used this approach, with the young
heroes of Mother and The End of St. Petersburg symbolizing
different types of supporters of the revolutionary cause.
Some films went so far as to eliminate major characters
and to make the masses their protagonist. Eisensteinâ€™s
early filmsâ€”Strike, Potemkin, and Octoberâ€”all take this
approach; in October even Lenin appears only briefly in the
sweep of revolutionary events.
6.17â€“6.19 No movement occurs during these three successive shots of an officer in Storm over Asia.
Increased State Control and the Montage Movement, 1925â€“1930 115
shots contain such repetitions, the time an action takes
on the screen expands noticeably. Eisensteinâ€™s films contain some of the most famous examples of this tactic.
Potemkin deals with a mutiny by sailors oppressed by
their Tsarist officers; in one scene a sailor washing dishes
gets upset and smashes a plate. This gesture, which would
take only an instant, is spread across ten shots
(6.20â€“6.29). Such overlapping helps emphasize the first
rebellious action of the mutiny. In October, scenes such as
the raising of the bridges and Kerensky, the leader of the
provisional government, ascending the stairs in the
Winter Palace take more time than they would in reality.
6.20â€“6.29 Ten shots in the platesmashing scene from The Battleship
Potemkin, showing the repeated action of
the sailor raising his arm in contradictory
116 CHAPTER 6â€ƒSoviet Cinema in the 1920s
the shots contain overlapping action. In early Montage
films, the editing would sometimes accelerate until the
shots were only a few frames long. Then, after La Roue
and other fast-cut French Impressionist films were shown
in the USSR in 1926, Montage filmmakers began to use
strings of two- and one-frame shots. In most cases, however, rapid editing does not convey charactersâ€™ subjective
perceptions, as it would in French films. Instead, fast cutting may suggest rhythmic sound (6.31) or enhance the
effect of explosive, often violent, action (6.32).
As these examples of temporal relationships among
shots suggest, Montage editing can also create conflict
Elliptical cutting creates the opposite effect. A portion of
an event is left out, so the event takes less time than it would
in reality. One common type of elliptical editing in Montage
films is the jump cut, whereby the same space is shown from
the same camera position in two shots, yet the mise-en-scÃ¨ne
has been changed (6.30). The contradictory temporal relations created by overlapping and elliptical editing compel the
spectator to make sense of the sceneâ€™s action.
Despite the use of ten shots to show the platesmashing in Potemkin, the action occurs rapidly, because
the individual shots are all short. In general, rapid, rhythmic editing is common in Montage films, whether or not
6.30, leftâ€ƒA jump cut in The House on
Trubnaya: two successive close-ups show
a womanâ€™s terrified face as she sees a
streetcar bearing down on her; in the
first her eyes are tightly closed, but a cut
reveals them suddenly open.
6.31, center In October, a rapid burst of
two-frame shots suggests the rat-tat of a
6.32, rightâ€ƒNear the end of Storm over
Asia, the Mongolian hero rebels against
the British colonialists who have
exploited him; single-frame shots
alternate between him swinging his
sword and the sword itself flashing
against a dark background.
Increased State Control and the Montage Movement, 1925â€“1930 117
learns of a plan to rescue him. There is no indication, as
there might be in a French Impressionist film, that the
hero is thinking of the ice; Pudovkin eventually gives the
imagery a social meaning, as a political march is intercut
with the surging river.
The slaughter scene in Strike makes use of another
common Montage device: the nondiegetic insert. The term
diegesis refers to the space and time of the filmâ€™s story:
anything that is part of the story world is diegetic; a
nondiegetic element exists outside the story world. In a
sound film, for example, the voice of a narrator who is not
a character in the film employs nondiegetic sound. A
nondiegetic insert consists of one or more shots depicting
space and time unrelated to those of the story events in the
film. The bull being slaughtered in Strike has no causal,
spatial, or temporal relation to the workers. Its nondiegetic
image is inserted to make a metaphorical point: the workers are being slaughtered like animals. The use of such
nondiegetic shots to make a conceptual point was central
to Eisensteinâ€™s theory of â€œintellectual montage.â€
October makes extensive use of intellectual montage.
Its most complex use comes when a leader calls upon soldiers to fight â€œFor God and Country.â€™â€™ There follows a
lengthy series of nondiegetic shots of statues of gods and
churches from widely differing cultures (6.35) and then
shots of military medals (6.36). Intellectual montage creates its effects through conflict; by juxtaposing shots that
have no apparent causal connection, the filmmaker leads
the audience to create a general concept that links them.
through spatial relationships. Again, the filmmakers do
not guide the spectator through a clear, straightforward
locale, as in a Hollywood film. Rather, the viewer must
actively piece together what is going on. In the platesmashing scene from Potemkin, for example, Eisenstein
creates a contradictory space by mismatching the sailorâ€™s
position from shot to shot. The sailor swings the plate
down from behind his left shoulder (see 6.23) and then is
seen in the next shot with the plate already lifted above his
right shoulder (see 6.24). In 6.17â€“6.19, the cuts violate
the axis of action, with the officer facing left, then right,
and then left again.
The Soviet filmmakers also used crosscutting to create unusual spatial relationships. As we have seen, crosscutting was common in the cinema from the early teens,
and it most often presented simultaneous actions in different spaces (as in Griffithâ€™s The Birth of a Nation, p. 62). In
the USSR, it also served more abstract purposes, linking
two actions for the sake of a thematic point. Near the end
of Strike, for example, Eisenstein cuts from a police officer bringing his fists down violently as he orders a massacre of the strikers (6.33) to a butcherâ€™s hands bringing a
knife down to kill a bull (6.34). The scene continues to
cut between the death of the animal and the attack on the
workersâ€”not to suggest that these two events are happening simultaneously, but to get us to see the massacre as
being like a slaughter. In Mother, Pudovkin uses crosscutting more lyrically, moving between the hero in jail and
the ice thawing on a river, suggesting the heroâ€™s hope as he
6.33, leftâ€ƒIntercutting in Strike
compares a police officer . . .
6.34, rightâ€ƒ. . . to a butcher.
6.35, 6.36 In October, nondiegetic shots
point up the contradictory religious beliefs
and simplistic ideas of patriotism used to
convince soldiers to risk their lives.
118 CHAPTER 6â€ƒSoviet Cinema in the 1920s
Montage directors carried conflictual editing further
by creating striking graphic contrasts from shot to shot. A
cut might bring a distinct directional change in the composition. The Odessa steps sequence in Potemkin, perhaps
the single most famous scene in any Montage film, gains
much of its effectiveness through graphic conflict (6.37,
6.38). The cumulative effect of such cuts in this scene is
to help heighten the tension. In other films, graphic conflict contributes to comedy (6.39, 6.40).
One of the most striking graphic conflicts involves cutting from one image to the same image, but the latter is
flipped right to left or even turned upside down (6.41,
6.42). Near the end of Pudovkinâ€™s Mother, mounted soldiers attack a workersâ€™ demonstration; the pace of the editing picks up, climaxing in a flurry of brief shots of soldiers
riding past the camera, first to the right, then left (6.43),
then upside down (6.44). Such cuts can be jarring, especially when they enhance the impression of violent action.
Cameraworkâ€ƒAlthough the Soviet directors considered
cinemaâ€™s artistic qualities to depend primarily on editing,
they realized that editing juxtapositions would be enhanced
if the individual shots were as striking as possible. Thus
they used camerawork in distinctive ways as well. Many
shots in Montage films avoid conventional chest-height,
straight-on framing and utilize more dynamic angles.
Low-angle framings place buildings or people against a
blank sky, making characters look threatening (6.45) or
heroic (6.46). Canted or decentered framings dynamize the
image (6.47, 6.48). The Montage directors were also fond
of placing the horizon line extremely low in the frame
6.37, leftâ€ƒIn one shot from the Odessa
steps sequence in Potemkin, the steps
create a set of strong diagonal lines from
lower left to upper right, while the
running figures move quickly down and
6.38, rightâ€ƒIn the next shot, the
composition switches this orientation,
with the row of unmoving rifles
extending diagonally from upper left to
lower right (Potemkin).
6.39, 6.40 My Grandmotherâ€™s satirical
treatment of bureaucracy uses a pair of
shots in which canted framings juxtapose
6.41, 6.42 In Ilya Traubergâ€™s China
Express, a medium close-up of a soldier
aiming a rifle rightward is followed by
the same image, but with the soldier now
Increased State Control and the Montage Movement, 1925â€“1930 119
Special Effectsâ€ƒMontage directors also exploited
special-effects cinematography. Vertovâ€™s playful documentary Man with a Movie Camera shows off the power of the
cinema through split-screen framing and superimpositions
(6.51). Eisensteinâ€™s film about collective farming, Old and
New, uses a superimposition of a bull towering above a
field full of cows to suggest how important this one animal
has been to the building of a successful farm (6.52).
Although such camera tricks were likely used for subjective
effects in French Impressionism, Soviet directors often
employed them to make symbolic points. (The building
that splits in Man with a Movie Camera is the Bolshoi
Theater in Moscow, home of traditional prerevolutionary
opera and ballet.)
Mise-en-ScÃ¨neâ€ƒBecause many Soviet films dealt with
historical and social situations, some elements of their
mise-en-scÃ¨ne tended to be realistic. Scenes might be shot
on location in a factory, as Strike and Mother were. Costumes often served primarily to indicate class position.
6.43, 6.44 Two quick shots from the demonstration scene in Mother. 6.45 A dynamic angle in China Express.
6.46 The heroine of Mother in the
climactic demonstration scene.
6.47 In Arsenal, a train carrying
Ukrainian soldiers seems to rush upward
at a steep angle, emphasizing its dynamic
6.48 In The End of St. Petersburg,
Pudovkin satirized profiteers who
wanted to carry on with Russiaâ€™s
participation in World War I by showing
them only from the neck down.
6.49, leftâ€ƒIn Earth, Dovzhenko
repeatedly emphasized the vast
farmlands of the Ukraine through
framings that show almost nothing
6.50, rightâ€ƒPudovkin used a similar
device in Deserter to suggest the
vulnerability of a workersâ€™ demonstration
about to be attacked by police.
120 CHAPTER 6â€ƒSoviet Cinema in the 1920s
Yet the Montage filmmakers also realized that dynamic
tension between elements was not solely a matter of joining shots. Juxtapositions could be made within the shot as
well, using mise-en-scÃ¨ne elements to heighten the impact
on the viewer. Contrasting textures, shapes, volumes, colors, and the like could be placed within a single frame
We have seen how shots containing opposed directions of movement might be edited together. A single shot
can use this principle by setting up more than one direction of figure movement (6.55). Patterns might also create oppositions within the shot; in the plate-smashing
scene from Potemkin (see 6.20â€“6.29), the horizontal
stripes of the sailorâ€™s shirt clash with the vertical stripes
of the wall behind him. Although the precise effect of the
juxtaposition is difficult to define, we can imagine that
our impression of the scene would be very different if the
wall were simply blank. Also, mise-en-scÃ¨ne elements
arranged in different planes in the depth of the shot could
create juxtapositions of volume (6.56). When shots with
visual juxtapositions are edited together with other shots,
the multiple conflicting relationships can be complex
Lighting also gives Montage films a distinctive look.
Soviet films frequently used no fill light on the sets, so
characters appeared against black backgrounds. Note in
6.57 how the front of the officerâ€™s face is relatively dark,
while the sides are strongly lit; this approach to lighting
actors is common in Montage films.
Montage films used a variety of types of acting, ranging from realistic to highly stylizedâ€”often within the same
film. Because so many characters in Soviet films represented certain social classes or professions, directors used
typage, casting nonactors whose physical appearances
would instantly suggest what sort of people they were playing (6.58). There was no need for the nonactor to have
6.51 In Man with a Movie Camera,
Vertov makes a huge building split like a
broken egg by exposing each side of the
frame separately and rolling the camera
in opposite directions for each.
6.52 A conceptual use of special
effects in Old and New.
6.53 In Potemkin, an officer glances
suspiciously at some sailors. The
composition splits into two distinct
halves, dark and bright, with the lighting
on the figuresâ€™ faces matching the color
of their costumes.
6.54 In The New Babylon, the heroine
stands atop a barricade built by the Paris
communards; her plain dress contrasts
with the lacy frills on a department-store
6.55 In Potemkin, a high-angle shot
down the side of the battleship shows
men on the upper level, moving left to
right, while the group on the deck below
move right to left.
6.56 A contrast in volumes in Old and
New, as a bull looms hugely in the
foreground while farmers and a cow
appear as tiny figures below it.
Other Soviet Films 121
the same job in real life; for Potemkin, Eisenstein chose
the small, fastidious man who plays the doctor because he
â€œlookedâ€ like a doctorâ€”though he actually made his living
Typage was a gesture toward realism, but many performers in Montage films borrowed stylized techniques
from Constructivist theater and from the circus: biomechanics and eccentricity. As in the theater, biomechanical
film acting stressed physical control rather than subtle
emotion. The Montage filmmakers delighted in having
their actors punch one another or scramble about over
factory equipment. Eccentricity emphasized the grotesque; performers behaved almost like clowns or slapstick comics. Alexandra Khokhlova, Kuleshovâ€™s wife and
a member of his workshop, offered vivid instances of
eccentric acting. Tall and gangly, she avoided the glamorous image of the female star; instead, she grimaced and
used angular gestures (6.59). Eisensteinâ€™s Strike and
Kozintsev and Traubergâ€™s silent films all contain eccentric performances.
Of the three avant-garde movements we have examined in Chapters 4 through 6, only the Soviet Montage
style lasted into the sound era. In Chapter 9, we discuss
how the Montage filmmakers applied their approach to
OTHER SOVIET FILMS
During the Montage movementâ€™s existence, perhaps fewer
than thirty films were made in the style. Nevertheless, as
in France and Germany, these avant-garde films were prestigious and influential. Both at home and abroad, filmmakers picked up techniques of montage framing and
Non-Montage films covered a wide range of genres.
Although Soviet silent comedies are seldom seen today,
there were plenty of them. Slapstick comedian Igor Ilinsky,
a sort of Russian Adam Sandler, was the decadeâ€™s most
popular star. In The Tailor from Torzhok (made by
Protazanov in 1925 to publicize the government lottery),
Ilinsky plays a tailor frantically seeking a winning lottery
ticket he has lost (6.60, 6.61). A light tone also prevails in
the crime serial Miss Mend (codirected by veteran filmmakers Fyodor Ozep and Barnet, a Kuleshov alumnus, in
1925). In this fantasy, three American workers from the
â€œRocfellerâ€ company hear of a plot to poison the Soviet
Unionâ€™s water supply and, in a spirit of class solidarity, foil
Despite the Montage directorsâ€™ downplaying of major
stars, other films exploited the fame of established stage
actors by casting them in dramas. In a few cases, top stars
6.57 A typical use of an unlit
background in Mother.
6.59 In The Extraordinary Adventures of
Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks,
Khokhlova uses eccentric acting in
playing a crook who vamps Mr. West.
6.58 For the unglamorous role of the
peasant heroine of Old and New,
Eisenstein cast a real peasant.
6.60, 6.61 In The Tailor from Torzhok,
the star mugs broadly, at one point
glancing at the camera and crossing his
122 CHAPTER 6â€ƒSoviet Cinema in the 1920s
of the famous Moscow Art Theater, established by
Konstantin Stanislavsky in 1898 (and considered by many
young filmmakers to be a bastion of conservative style),
agreed to act in films (6.62). Other Moscow Art Theater
actors such as Ivan Moskvin and Mikhail Chekhov starred
in films, and the only surviving film performance by the
great Constructivist stage director Meyerhold is in The
White Eagle (1928).
A similar attempt at prestige came with historical
epics and literary adaptations. Two popular films of this
type were Viktor Gardinâ€™s Poet and Tsar (1927), a biography of the poet Aleksandr Pushkin, and Decembrists
(1927, Alexander Ivanovsky). In a 1927 meeting to discuss
the problems of Sovkino, Cubo-Futurist poet Vladimir
Mayakovsky dismissed the former film contemptuously:
â€œTake â€˜Poet and Tsarâ€™ for example. The picture is likedâ€”
but when you stop to think about it, what bosh, what a
monstrosity.â€3 Similarly, Decembrists, with its large ballroom set (6.63), looked like a tired version of Russian historical dramas of the prerevolutionary era. The Montage
directors found such films conservative and thus diametrically opposed to their own approaches to filmmaking.
THE FIRST FIVE-YEAR PLAN AND THE END
OF THE MONTAGE MOVEMENT
As we have seen, several of the early Montage films were
successfully exported and were praised at home for their
political content. As a result, between 1927 and 1930, the
movementâ€™s activities intensified. At the same time, however, criticisms were increasingly being leveled at the Montage filmmakers by government and film-industry officials.
The main charge was formalism, a vague term implying
that a film was too complex for mass audiences and that
its makers were more interested in film style than in correct ideology.
Ironically, the very recovery of the film industry,
which the export of Montage films helped create, led to
the decline of the movement. In 1927, for the first time,
the industry made more money from its own films than
from imported ones. Official policy encouraged the industry to cut back its foreign trade. Sovkino and Lunacharsky
came under attack for making filmsâ€”including those of
the Montage movementâ€”that were more appropriate for
sophisticated foreigners than for the uneducated peasant
population at home.
Criticized by the press, the major filmmakers had difficulties getting scripts approved and projects funded.
Kuleshov came under fire first. Then Vertov had to move
from his base in Moscow to make Man with a Movie Camera for the Ukrainian national company Vufku. Critics
charged that Kozintsev and Traubergâ€™s eccentric stylization was frivolous and obscure. The prestige that
Eisenstein gained through Potemkin protected him at first,
but as he explored the possibility of creating abstract ideas
through intellectual montage in the late 1920s, he too
faced growing oppositions. For a time, Pudovkin was
spared such attacks, and he managed to keep making
Montage-style films until 1933, when his Deserter brought
the movement to a close.
A turning point for the Soviet film industry came in
March 1928, when the First Communist Party Conference on Film Questions was held. Until then, the government had left film matters largely to the control of
Narkompros and other, smaller organizations scattered
through the republics. Now the USSR was instituting the
First Five-Year Plan, a major push to expand industrial
output. As part of the plan, the cinema was to be centralized. The goal was to increase the number of films and to
build factories to supply all the industryâ€™s needs. Eventually, it was hoped, imports of raw film stock, cameras,
lighting fixtures, and other equipment would be eliminated. Similarly, exportation would not be necessary, and
all films could be tailored strictly to the needs of the workers and peasants.
The implementation of the First Five-Year Plan in the
cinema came slowly. Over the next two years, the government still put little money into the industry. This delay
probably helped prolong the Montage movement. Soon,
6.62, leftâ€ƒIn 1926, the acclaimed
theater actor, Leonid Leonidov appeared
as Ivan the Terrible in Yuri Tarichâ€™s
Wings of a Serf; his performance aided
the filmâ€™s widespread success abroad.
6.63, rightâ€ƒLavish production values in
a conventional Soviet film, Decembrists.
however, circumstances changed. In 1929, Eisenstein left
the country to study sound filmmaking abroad. Spending
most of his time working on abortive projects, first in
Hollywood and then in Mexico, he did not return until
1932. Also in 1929, control over the cinema was taken
away from Narkompros and turned over to the Movie
Committee of the Soviet Union. Now Lunacharsky had little input, being only one of many members of the new
body. In 1930, the film industry was further centralized by
the formation of Soyuzkino, a company that would handle
all production, distribution, and exhibition throughout the
republics of the Soviet Union. The head of Soyuzkino was
Boris Shumyatsky, a Communist Party bureaucrat without
film experience. Unlike Lunacharsky, Shumyatsky had no
sympathy for the Montage filmmakers.
Soon the attacks on those filmmakers intensified.
In 1931, for example, while Eisenstein was in North
America, an article criticized his films for their supposed
â€œpetty bourgeoisâ€ tendencies. If Eisenstein could
strengthen his ties to the proletariat, the author concluded, he might â€œcreate real revolutionary cinema
productions. But we must on no account minimize the difficulties confronting him. The way out of this crisis is possible only through a stubborn campaign for re-education,
through merciless exposure and criticism of his first
All the major Montage filmmakers, and, indeed,
modernist artists in every medium, eventually adopted
more accessible styles.
The Soviet Montage movementâ€™s influence lingered,
however. Leftist filmmakers in other countries, especially
documentarists like Scottish-born John Grierson and
Dutch-born Joris Ivens, adopted heroic, low-angle framings and dynamic cutting for similar propaganda purposes. Kuleshovâ€™s, Pudovkinâ€™s, and Eisensteinâ€™s theoretical
writings have been read by critics and filmmakers ever
since they were translated. Few filmmakers have used the
full range of radical Montage devices, but in a modified
fashion, the movement has had a broad influence.
During the early 1930s, the Soviet film industry
moved toward an official policy that required all films to
follow an approach called Socialist Realism. We examine
that and other developments in Chapter 12.
1. Grigori Kozintsev, Leonid Trauberg, Sergei Yutkevich,
and Georgi Kryzhitsky, â€œEccentrism,â€ tr. Richard Taylor,
in The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents 1896â€“1939, ed. Taylor and Ian Christie (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 58.
2. Sergei Eisenstein, â€œThe Cinematographic Principle and
the Ideogram,â€ in his Film Form, tr. and ed. Jay Leyda
(New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 37.
3. Quoted in Jay Leyda, Kino: A History of the Russian and
Soviet Film, 3rd ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 1983), p. 229.
4. Ivan Anisimov, â€œThe Films of Eisenstein,â€ International
Literature 3 (1931): 114.
We discuss some topics in this chapter further on our blog, Observations on Film Art:
On some Soviet classics: â€œThe ten best films of . . . 1924â€ and â€œThe ten best films of . . . 1925â€ and â€œThe
ten best films of . . . 1926â€
On the influence of The Battleship Potemkin on Hitchcock: â€œSir Alfred must have his set pieces: THE MAN
WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934)
On the influence of Potemkin on Quentin Tarantino: (â€œ50) days of summer (movies), Part 2â€
During World War I, the United States became the global economic
leader. The center of finance shifted from London to New York, and
American ships carried goods all over the world. Despite a brief, intense
recession in 1921, resulting primarily from the shift back to a peacetime
economy, the 1920s were a period of prosperity for many sectors of society.
Republican administrations were in power, and a conservative, pro-business
approach dominated the country. American consumer goods, including
movies, continued to make inroads in many foreign countries.
In contrast to this fiscal conservatism, society seemed to lose much
of its restraint during the Roaring Twenties. The passage of the Volstead
Act (1919), outlawing alcoholic beverages, led to the excesses of the age
of Prohibition. Bootleg liquor was readily available, and visiting speakeasies or attending wild drinking parties became common among all
classes. Before the war, women had grown their hair long, worn floorlength dresses, and danced sedately. Now they created scandals by bobbing their hair, wearing short skirts, doing the Charleston, and smoking
Many sectors of society, though, were shut off from the general prosperity and sophistication of the 1920s. Racism was rampant, with the
Ku Klux Klan growing after its revival in 1915 and the stiffening of immigration quotas to keep certain groups out of the United States. Workers in
agriculture and mining fared poorly. The film industry, however, benefited
from the high level of capital available during this period, and its films bore
traces of the fast pace of life in the Jazz Age.
THE LATE SILENT ERA
IN HOLLYWOOD, 1920â€“1928
The Clownâ€™s Little Brother
Way Down East
Theater Chains and the Expansion of the Industry 125
its distribution wing, Paramount, began buying theaters in
1920. In 1925, during a second wave of theater-buying by
the major firms, Famous Playersâ€“Lasky merged with
Balaban & Katz, a Chicago-based theater chain controlling
many of the biggest auditoriums in the Midwest. The result
was the first production-distribution-exhibition firm with a
truly national theater chain. Zukor marked the change by
renaming the theater circuit Publix Theaters. The firm as a
whole became Paramount-Publix. By the early 1930s, it
owned 1,210 North American theaters, as well as some
theaters abroad. Paramount-Publixâ€™s extensive holdings
made it the subject of repeated government antitrust investigation and litigation that would lead to major changes in
the film industry after World War II.
Another important firm that achieved vertical integration during this era was Loewâ€™s, Inc. Marcus Loew
had begun as a nickelodeon owner, expanded into
vaudeville, and built up a large chain of movie theaters
by the late 1910s. In 1919, he moved into production by
acquiring a medium-size firm, Metro, run by Louis B.
Mayer. With the purchase of Goldwyn Pictures in 1924,
Loew combined his production wing into Metro-GoldwynMayer (MGM). After Paramount, MGM became the
second largest of the Hollywood companies.
The chains owned by the vertically integrated firms
encompassed a small portion of the nationâ€™s 15,000
theaters. In the mid-1920s, the Publix chain had roughly
500 houses, while MGM had only 200. Yet the three main
chains included many of the big first-run theaters, with
thousands of seats and higher admission prices. By late in
the decade, about three-quarters of box-office receipts
came from these large theaters. Smaller urban and rural
theaters had to wait to get a film on a subsequent run and
often received worn prints.
As the big Hollywood companies expanded, they
developed a system of distribution that would maximize
their profits and keep other firms at the margins of the
market. In dealing with the theaters they did not own,
they employed block booking, meaning that any exhibitor who wanted films with high box-office potential had
to rent other, less desirable films from the company.
Exhibitors might be forced to book an entire yearâ€™s
program in advance. Since most theaters changed
programs at least twice a week and each big firm usually made only around fifty films a year, a theater could
deal with more than one firm. Similarly, the studios
needed films from other firms to keep their own theater
programs full. The biggest firms cooperated among
themselves developing into a mature oligopoly during
THEATER CHAINS AND THE
EXPANSION OF THE INDUSTRY
The American film industry, expanding hugely during
World War I, continued to grow in the postwar decade.
Despite the recession of 1921, the era was one of
prosperity and intensive business investment. For the first
time, major Wall Street firms became interested in the
young film industry. Between 1922 and 1930, total investment in the industry leaped from $78 to $850 million. The
average weekly attendance at American movie theaters
doubled from 1922 (40 million) to 1928 (80 million).
Hollywoodâ€™s exports continued to grow nearly unchecked
until the mid-1920s, leveling off only because virtually all
foreign markets were sated.
Central to the industryâ€™s growth was a strategy of
buying and building movie theaters. By owning theater
chains, the big producers ensured an outlet for their films.
Producers could then confidently raise budgets for
individual films. Studios competed in offering eye-catching
production values. A new generation of directors came to
prominence, and Hollywood also attracted more foreign
filmmakers, who brought stylistic innovations. If the
1910s had seen the formation of the film industry, the
next decade witnessed its expansion into a sophisticated
set of institutions.
The most obvious sign of the growth of the film industry
was its increasing vertical integration. The biggest firms
jockeyed for power by combining production and distribution with expanding chains of theaters.
At first, the main theater chains were regional. In
1917, seeking to challenge the power of the big Hollywood
firms, a group of local theater chains formed its own production company, First National Exhibitorsâ€™ Circuit. Its
main member was the Stanley Company of America, a
Philadelphia-based regional chain. Hollywood firms like
Famous Playersâ€“Lasky, Universal, and Fox were suddenly
faced with a competitor that combined production,
distribution, and exhibition.
This three-tiered vertical integration guaranteed that a
companyâ€™s films would find distribution and exhibition.
The bigger the theater chain owned by the firm, the wider
its filmsâ€™ exposure would be.
Although First Nationalâ€™s production wing never
became really profitable, it goaded other firms to integrate
vertically. Adolf Zukor, head of Famous Playersâ€“Lasky and
126 CHAPTER 7â€ƒThe Late Silent Era in Hollywood, 1920â€“1928
aimed at smaller theaters. Despite a strong distribution wing,
the firm had few theaters. Several major directors (John
Ford, Erich von Stroheim) and stars (Lon Chaney) worked
there early in the decade, but they were soon drawn away by
higher salaries. For a time Universal employed the successful young producer Irving Thalberg, who helped the firm
move into higher-quality, big-budget films; soon Thalberg
also left, becoming a major force in shaping MGMâ€™s policies. Later in the decade, German-born Laemmle was in the
forefront in hiring Ã©migrÃ© directors, who brought a brooding,
distinctive style to the studioâ€™s output.
Fox also continued to concentrate on lower-budget
popular fare, including its Westerns with William Farnum
and Tom Mix. Fox launched a modest theater chain in
1925, making it one of the strongest of the Little Five. The
company had a small stable of prestige directors: John
Ford, Raoul Walsh, F. W. Murnau, and Frank Borzage.
Because the big theaters were so important, the major
companies made them opulent to attract patrons, not
simply through the films being shown but through the
promise of an exciting moviegoing experience. The 1920s
were the age of the picture palace, offering thousands of
sets, fancy lobbies, uniformed ushers, and orchestral
accompaniment to the films. Ordinarily attendance
dropped during the summer, so in 1917 the Balaban &
Katz chain pioneered the use of air-conditioningâ€”a major
draw in a period when home air-conditioning was
unknown. Picture palaces gave working- and middle-class
patrons an unaccustomed taste of luxury. Big theaters
also offered a lengthy film program in addition to the
feature, including newsreels and comic shorts. Silent
films always had musical accompaniment. In the big palaces, this would usually entail a live orchestra; a smaller
palace might have a chamber group or pipe organ; and
small-town and second-run houses could offer only a
piano player. Any of these might perform an overture
and musical interludes. Some theaters even had liveaction playlets and musical numbers interspersed with
the film program.
There were two types of architecture: conventional
and atmospheric. Conventional palaces were imitations
of legitimate theaters, often incorporating elaborate
ornamentation based on Italian baroque and rococo
styles. Huge chandeliers, domes, and balconies were covered with stucco and gilt. The atmospheric palace gave
the spectator the impression of sitting in an auditorium
that opened onto a night sky. The dark-blue dome would
have light-bulb stars, and projectors cast moving clouds
onto the ceiling by projectors. The decor might imitate
exotic places, such as a Spanish villa or an Egyptian temple. As the 1920s progressed, theaters got more flamboyant (7.1). The Depression would soon put an end to such
extravagant theater building.
The Big Three and the Little Five
The vertically integrated firms that owned big theater
chainsâ€”Paramount-Publix, Loewâ€™s (MGM), and First
Nationalâ€”constituted the Big Three at the top of the
industry. Trailing behind, but still important, were the Little Five, firms that owned few or no theaters: Universal,
Fox, the Producers Distributing Corporation, the Film
Booking Office, and Warner Bros.
Under founder Carl Laemmle, Universal continued into
the 1920s to concentrate on relatively low-budget films
7.1 Part of the interior of the Brooklyn Paramount (built
in 1928). This theater combined conventional and atmospheric
approaches to picture-palace design, incorporating trees and
false sky glimpsed through the alcoves, topping it all with
an elaborately decorated ceiling. (Source: Brooklyn Paramount
The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America 127
Soon a series of scandals focused attention on the less
palatable aspects of the lifestyles of famous filmmakers,
including sex scandals and flagrant violations of the new
Prohibition law. Mary Pickfordâ€™s image as Americaâ€™s
sweetheart received a blow in 1920 when she divorced her
first husband to marry Douglas Fairbanks. In 1921, comedian Roscoe â€œFattyâ€ Arbuckle was charged with manslaughter when a young actress died during a drunken
party; although he was acquitted, the charges wrecked his
career. The following year, director William Desmond
Taylor was mysteriously murdered in circumstances that
revealed his affairs with several well-known actresses. In
1923, the handsome, athletic star Wallace Reid died of
morphine addiction. The public increasingly viewed Hollywood as promoting excess and decadence.
Partly in an effort to avoid government censorship
and clean up Hollywoodâ€™s image, the main studios formed
a trade organization, the Motion Picture Producers and
Distributors of America (MPPDA). To head it, in 1922
they hired Will Hays, then postmaster general under
Warren Harding. Hays had proved his flair for publicity by
chairing the Republican National Committee. That flair,
combined with his access to powerful figures in
Washington and his Presbyterian background, made him
useful to the film industry.
Haysâ€™s strategy was to push the producers to eliminate
the offensive content of their films and to include morals
clauses in studio contracts. Despite Arbuckleâ€™s acquittal,
Hays banned his films. In 1924, the MPPDA issued the
â€œFormula,â€ a vague document urging studios to avoid the
â€œkind of picture which should not be produced.â€ Predictably, it had little effect, and in 1927 the Hays office (as the
MPPDA came to be known) adopted the more explicit
â€œDonâ€™ts and Be Carefulsâ€ list. â€œDonâ€™tsâ€ included â€œthe illegal traffic in drugs,â€ â€œlicentious or suggestive nudity,â€ and
â€œridicule of the clergy.â€ â€œBe Carefulsâ€ involved â€œthe use of
the flag,â€ â€œbrutality and possible gruesomeness,â€ â€œmethods of smuggling,â€ and â€œdeliberate seduction of girls.â€ The
list dealt as much with the depiction of how crimes were
committed as with sexual content. Producers continued to
circumvent the guidelines, however, and in the early 1930s
the list would be replaced by the much more elaborate
Production Code (see Chapter 10).
Although the Hays Office is usually thought of as a
strategy to block domestic censorship, it also served the
industry in other ways. The MPPDA gathered information
on film markets at home and abroad, keeping up, for
example, with censorship rules in various countries. Hays
established a foreign department that battled several European quotas aimed largely at American exports. In 1926,
Warner Bros. was smaller, possessing neither theaters
nor a distribution wing. It scored a considerable success,
however, with a series of films starring a German shepherd, Rin-Tin-Tin. More surprisingly, Warners hired
German director Ernst Lubitsch, and he made several
important films there. In 1924, Warners drew on Wall
Street investorsâ€™ new willingness to put money into the
film industry. It began a major expansion, acquiring
theaters and other assets. The firmâ€™s investment in new
sound technology would thrust it to the forefront of the
industry within a few years.
The two other members of the Little Five were relatively
small firms. The short-lived Producers Distributing Corporation (1924â€“1928) was notable mainly for producing a series
of Cecil B. De Milleâ€™s films after he left Famous Playersâ€“
Lasky in 1925. The Film Booking Office was formed in 1922
and turned out popular action films. In 1929, it became the
basis for the production portion of a much more important
new firm, RKO.
Standing apart from these eight firms was United
Artists (UA), formed by Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin,
Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith in 1919. UA was a
distribution firm, owning neither production facilities nor
theaters. It existed to distribute films produced independently by its four owners, who each had a small production company. Prior contractual commitments by the
four founders delayed the firmâ€™s initial releases for a year,
and Chaplinâ€™s first UA film, A Woman of Paris (1923), was
not a hit. In 1924, producer Joseph Schenck took over
management of UA. By adding stars Rudolph Valentino,
Norma Talmadge, Buster Keaton, and Gloria Swanson, as
well as prestigious producer Samuel Goldwyn, Schenck
stepped up the rate of release of UA films. However, UA
still failed to make a profit in most years.
THE MOTION PICTURE PRODUCERS
AND DISTRIBUTORS OF AMERICA
As the American film industry expanded, so too did efforts
on the part of various social groups to increase censorship.
By the late 1910s and early 1920s, there was call for a
national censorship law, and more local boards were formed.
Many postwar films exploited Roaring Twenties subject
matter: bootleg liquor, jazz, flappers, and wild parties. Cecil
B. De Milleâ€™s sex comedies presented adultery as frivolous,
even glamorous. Erich von Stroheimâ€™s Blind Husbands (1919)
similarly treated a married womanâ€™s flirtation as a fascinating
violation of social norms.
128 CHAPTER 7â€ƒThe Late Silent Era in Hollywood, 1920â€“1928
important elements. The result of such techniques was the
soft style of cinematography, used most extensively during
the 1920s and 1930s. This style derived from still photography and especially the Pictorialist school, pioneered
by such photographers as Alfred Stieglitz and Edward
Steichen early in the century.
D. W. Griffith was one of the early proponents of
this style. He worked with cinematographer Hendrik
Sartov, who had begun as a still photographer, to film
soft-focus shots of Lillian Gish and some landscapes in
Broken Blossoms (1919). They further explored the
approach in Way Down East (1920; 7.12, 7.13). The
soft style was dominant by the early sound era and
remained prominent until a new hard-edged style
became fashionable in the 1940s.
Another major innovation of this era came with the
gradual adoption of a new panchromatic type of film stock.
The film stock used previously had been orthochromatic;
that is, it was sensitive only to the purple, blue, and green
portions of the visible spectrum. Yellow and red light
barely registered on it, so objects of these colors appeared
nearly black in the finished film. For example, the lips of
actors wearing ordinary red lipstick appear very dark in
many silent films. Purple and blue registered on the film
stock as nearly white, so it was difficult to photograph
cloudy skies: a blue sky with clouds simply washed out to
a uniform white.
Panchromatic film stock, available by the early
1910s, registered the whole range of the visible spectrum, from purple to red, with nearly equal sensitivity.
Thus it could record a sky with the clouds visible against
the blue background, or red lips as shades of gray. But
panchromatic stock had problems as well: it was expensive, it deteriorated quickly if not used right away, and it
demanded much greater illumination to expose a satisfactory image. During the 1910s and early 1920s, it was
primarily used outdoors in bright sunlight for landscape
shots (to capture cloud scenes) or indoors for studio
close-ups that could be brightly lit. By 1925, Eastman
Kodak had made its panchromatic motion-picture stock
Haysâ€™s group convinced Congress to form the Motion
Picture Division of the Department of Commerce. That
division helped sell American films abroad by gathering
information and bringing more pressure against harmful
regulations. Indeed, the formation of the MPPDA provided a clear signal that motion pictures had become a
major American industry.
Style and Technological Changes
The expansion and consolidation of the Hollywood film
industry was paralleled by a polishing of the classical continuity style that had developed in the 1910s.
By the 1920s, the big production firms had dark studios that kept out all sunlight and allowed entire scenes to
be illuminated by artificial lights. Scenesâ€™ backgrounds
were kept inconspicuous with a low fill light, while the
main figures were outlined with a glow of backlight, usually cast from the rear top of the set (7.2). The key, or
brightest light, came from one side of the camera, while a
dimmer secondary light from the other side created fill
that softened shadows and kept backgrounds visible but
inconspicuous. This three-point lighting system (fill, backlighting, and key) became standard in Hollywood cinematography. It created glamorous, consistent compositions
from shot to shot.
By the 1920s, the continuity editing system had
become sophisticated indeed. Eyeline matches, cut-ins,
and small variations of framing could successively reveal
the most important portions of a sceneâ€™s space. In John
Fordâ€™s 1920 Western Just Pals, for example, a mother
waits in anguish as her son supposedly drowns a litter of
unwanted kittens. In fact, he only pretends that he has
killed them. This complex action is gradually revealed
without intertitles through a series of carefully framed
details observed by the heroine (7.3â€“7.11).
By the late 1910s, most of the major technological
innovations in American filmmaking had been made. One
distinct change in the next decade was a new approach to
cinematography. Before about 1919, most films were shot
with a hard-edge, sharp-focus look. Then some filmmakers
began to place gauzy fabrics or filters in front of their
lenses to create soft, blurry images. Special lenses could
keep the foreground action in focus while making the
background less distinct. This technique enhanced the
classical narrative style by concentrating the spectatorâ€™s
attention on the main action while deemphasizing less
7.2 Light coming from the upper
rear of the set outlines the characters
in The Marriage
Studio Filmmaking 129
7.6 A second shot of the boy shows
him looking through the fence
apprehensively and beginning to empty
the bag onto the ground (Just Pals).
7.7 A cut to the ground shows a litter of
kittens falling out of the bag (Just Pals).
7.8 A long shot shows the whole space:
the mother and son are by a river, and he
throws the empty bag into the water
7.9 We see the bag hit the water in a
closer view (Just Pals).
7.10 The long-shot framing shows the
pair moving away, the boy comforting his
mother, who has not turned around to
watch any of his actions (Just Pals).
7.11 After seven shots of their actions,
we return to a closer view of the heroine,
reacting in horror (Just Pals).
7.5 Another cut takes us to a medium
shot of the boyâ€™s mother, also by the
fence, weeping (Just Pals).
7.3 Walking near town, the heroine of
Just Pals pauses and looks off left.
7.4 An eyeline match reveals what she
sees, a little boy with a bag by a fence,
looking off right (Just Pals).
cheaper and stabler; soon the stock was also made more
sensitive, requiring less light for proper exposure. By
1927, the Hollywood studios were quickly switching over
to panchromatic stock. The result was not a radical
change in the look of films, but panchromatic did permit
filmmakers to make shots of actors who were not wearing makeup and to shoot a greater variety of subjects
without having to worry about using special filters or
adjusting costume colors. Panchromatic soon became
the standard internationally.
130 CHAPTER 7â€ƒThe Late Silent Era in Hollywood, 1920â€“1928
subjects, became more respected. New genres also
appeared, such as the antiwar film.
Big-Budget Films of the 1920s
A film that reflected the growth of Hollywood and its
newly ambitious productions was The Four Horsemen of
the Apocalypse, directed by Rex Ingram and released in
1921. It was a big-budget project, running over two hours
and based on a recent best-selling novel. Ingram, who had
directed several minor films, was given considerable control over the project and created an epic picture that was a
huge success. The film deals with a South American familyâ€™s changing fortunes during World War I, and it took a
different attitude toward the conflict than earlier war films
had. Although it still showed the Germans as evil â€œHuns,â€
it presented the conflict as destructive rather than glorious (7.14). This anti-war stance would be common in
other films of the decade.
The filmâ€™s triumph was, however, probably mainly
due to its stars, Rudolph Valentino and Alice Terry, who
played the doomed central couple. They rose to immediate stardom (7.15). Valentino was hired by Paramount
and became a matinee idol, popularizing the â€œLatin loverâ€
in such films as Blood and Sand (1922, Fred Niblo).
His early death in 1926 provoked frenzied grief among
Cecil B. De Mille had been extraordinarily prolific
from 1914 on. During the 1920s, he moved on to more
sumptuous films at Paramount. One of his primary genres
was the sex comedy, often starring Gloria Swanson, one of
In the years after World War I, the technical sophistication of the Hollywood studios was the envy of the world.
In addition, income from the huge American exhibition
market and from expanded exports allowed higher budgets
especially for the most prestigious films. These could cost
in the neighborhood of ten times more than comparable
films made in Europe.
Such resources, in combination with the fully formulated classical Hollywood style, gave filmmakers considerable flexibility. They could apply the same stylistic
methods to many types of movies.
During the 1920s, a new generation of filmmakers
came to the fore, and they would dominate American filmmaking over three decades. Some, like John Ford and
King Vidor, had started directing on a modest scale in the
1910s, but they now rose to fame. Similarly, although
a few stars of earlier years remained popular, new ones
now came forward. Older genres developed, as when slapstick comedies and Westerns, typically relegated to short
7.12 A shimmering soft-focus landscape shot in Way Down East resembles
high-art still photographs of the period.
7.13 Soft-focus cinematography in Way
Down East, soft also considerably
enhanced glamorous shots, as in this
medium close-up of Lillian Gish.
7.14 The final scene of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
shows a military cemetery with innumerable crosses, suggesting
the horrors of war.
Studio Filmmaking 131
Similarly, after D. W. Griffith cofounded UA, he
made several large-scale historical films. Just as he had
been inspired by Italian epics like Cabiria to make The
Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, now he was influenced
by Ernst Lubitschâ€™s postwar German films. Griffithâ€™s
greatest success of the era was Orphans of the Storm
(1922), set during the French Revolution. It starred the
Gish sisters, Lillian and Dorothy, both affiliated with
Griffith since the early 1910s (7.19). Lillianâ€™s career in
particular flourished during this decade, as she worked
with such major directors as King Vidor (La BohÃ¨me,
1926) and Victor SjÃ¶strÃ¶m. Griffith made another historical epic, America (1924), concerning the American
Revolutionary War. His next film, however, was quite different: a naturalistic tale of difficulties in postwar
Germany called Isnâ€™t Life Wonderful (1924). Griffithâ€™s
the eraâ€™s top stars. De Milleâ€™s sophisticated comedies
helped earn Hollywood a reputation for being risquÃ©. He
exploited expensive womenâ€™s fashions, rich decors, and
sexually provocative situations, as in Why Change Your
Wife? (1920; 7.16, 7.17).
When his work came under fire from censorship
groups, De Mille responded with films that mixed steamy
melodrama with religious subject matter. The Ten Commandments (1923) had an introductory story depicting a
young man who scoffs at morality and vows to break all the
commandments; the main part of the film was an historical
epic showing Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt (7.18).
De Milleâ€™s biggest religious production of this era was The
King of Kings (1927), controversial for its onscreen depiction of Christ. In the sound era, De Mille would become
identified with historical and religious epics.
7.15 Glamorous photography in The
Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse helped
make Rudolph Valentino and Alice Terry
7.16, 7.17 In Why Change Your Wife? Gloria Swanson plays a mousy wife who saves
her marriage to Thomas Meighan by adopting a daring wardrobe.
7.18 The Egyptian forces set out in pursuit of the fleeing
Israelites in front of a massive set in The Ten Commandments.
7.19 A poignant moment in Orphans of the Storm, as the two
separated sisters briefly encounter and then lose each other
again in the streets of Paris.
132 CHAPTER 7â€ƒThe Late Silent Era in Hollywood, 1920â€“1928
footage was apparently destroyed, and Greed remains one
of the great mutilated films.
Von Stroheim achieved brief success at MGM by filling The Merry Widow (1925) with sexual subject matter.
He then moved to Paramount to make The Wedding March
(1928), yet another film in which he starred as a seducer,
this time nearly redeemed by love. Again von Stroheim
contemplated a lengthy film that he hoped to release as
two features; the studio reduced it to one, which did poor
business. Von Stroheimâ€™s last major Hollywood project, an
independent production for Gloria Swanson, was Queen
Kelly (1928â€“1929), which was unfinished and only much
later restored and shown. Von Stroheim ceased to direct in
the sound era, but he acted in many important films,
including Jean Renoirâ€™s Grand Illusion (1937).
New Investment and Blockbusters
During the mid-1920s, Wall Street investment allowed the
Hollywood studios to produce even more big-budget films.
Epic films followed the trend typified by The Ten Commandments, with colossal sets and lavish costume design.
The newly formed MGM was particularly committed to
prestige pictures. It undertook one of the decadeâ€™s most
ambitious projects, an adaptation of General Lew Wallaceâ€™s
bestselling novel Ben-Hur. The production had originated
in 1922 at the Goldwyn company, and the planners tried to
give the film authenticity by filming on location in Italyâ€”
where, incidentally, labor costs were lower. Shooting in
Italy, however, lacked the efficiency of studio work, and
one accident during the filming of a naval battle may have
caused the deaths of some extras. In 1924, MGM inherited
the project when it absorbed Goldwyn. The process of
completing the film was long and troubled. Ben-Hur finally
appeared in 1926. Its chariot race was filmed in huge sets;
a battery of cameras covered the action from many angles,
permitting a breakneck pace in the editing (7.22).
MGM also made an important pacifist war film, The
Big Parade (1925). Its director, King Vidor, had learned his
craft by studying the emerging Hollywood style in his
mid-1920s films were increasingly unprofitable, and he
soon abandoned independent production to make a few
films for Paramount. He completed two films in the early
sound era, including the ambitious Abraham Lincoln
(1930), but then was forced into retirement until his
death in 1948.
As Griffithâ€™s case suggests, not all filmmakers who
commanded large budgets in Hollywood during the 1920s
fit comfortably into its efficient system. Erich von
Stroheim had begun in the mid-1910s as an assistant to
Griffith. He also acted, typically playing the â€œevil Hunâ€
figure in World War I films. Universal elevated him to
director in 1919 with Blind Husbands, the story of a couple on a mountaineering holiday; the wife is nearly
seduced away from her complacent husband by a scoundrel, played by von Stroheim (7.20). The success of this
film led Universal to give von Stroheim a larger budget for
his second film, Foolish Wives (1922), in which he played
another predatory role. Von Stroheim exceeded the budget
considerably, partly by building a large set reproducing
Monte Carlo on the studio backlot. Universal turned this
to its advantage by advertising Foolish Wives as the
first million-dollar movie. More problematically, von
Stroheimâ€™s first version ran over six hours. The studio
pared it down to roughly two and a half hours.
Von Stroheimâ€™s Hollywood career involved several
such problems with excessive length and budgets. Producer Irving Thalberg replaced him when cost overruns
threatened his next project, The Merry-Go-Round (1923).
Von Stroheim then moved to the independent production firm Goldwyn to make Greed, an adaptation of
Frank Norrisâ€™s naturalistic novel McTeague ran nine
hours. Von Stroheim cut it by about half. By now the
Goldwyn company had become part of MGM, and
Thalberg took the film away from von Stroheim and
reedited again. The final version, ran about two hours,
shorn of one major plot line and many scenes. This story
of an uneducated dentist and his miserly wife was filled
with naturalistic touches and was perceived as grim, even
sordid, by most critics and audiences (7.21). The excised
7.20, leftâ€ƒErich von Stroheim as the
villainous seducer (termed by publicists
â€œthe man you love to hateâ€) in Blind
7.21, rightâ€ƒThe ending of Greed, with
the protagonist trapped in Death Valley
and killing his old enemy, manifests the
bleak tone that made Greed unpopular
with its initial audiences.
Studio Filmmaking 133
this pattern, portraying war as grim and unglorious. The
Big Parade became the first film to run more than a year
on Broadway, and its success abroad was enormous. Vidor
made a very different sort of film with The Crowd (1928).
A working-class woman marries a clerk, but they nearly
break up when one of their children dies in a traffic accident. The Crowd stood apart from most Hollywood films
in its nonglamorous depiction of everyday life.
Other studios carried on the trend toward big-budget
films. In 1927, Paramount released Wings (William
Wellman), another bittersweet tale of World War I, centering
on two friends, Jack and David, who love the same girl and
become pilots together. Jack fails to realize that his neighbor,
Mary, is in love with him, and she follows him to France as a
Red Cross driver. Mary was played by Clara Bow, who
enjoyed a brief but intense period of stardom from the mid1920s to early 1930s. She epitomized the Jazz Age flapper,
with an uninhibited natural sexuality; her most famous film,
It (1927, Clarence Badger), earned her the name the â€œIt girlâ€
(â€œItâ€ being a current euphemism for sex appeal).
Wings, like The Big Parade, combined its romantic
elements with spectacular battle footage. Portable cameras were mounted on airplanes to capture aerial combats
with an immediacy that trick photography could not equal
(7.25). Its careful use of motifs and sophisticated use of
continuity editing, three-point lighting, and camera movement made Wings the epitome of late silent filmmaking in
Hollywood. When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts
and Sciences was formed in 1927 and began giving out
annual awards (later dubbed â€œOscarsâ€), Wings was the
first winner as best picture.
hometown theater in Texas. He began his career by acting
in and directing minor films in the 1910s. Moving to MGM
when it formed in 1924, he worked in several genres. His
Wine of Youth (1924) was a subtle story of three generations
of women: a wise grandmother looks on helplessly as her
daughter nearly divorces, and her granddaughter takes this
as a cue that she can settle for love outside marriage.
The Big Parade was a much more ambitious project. It
starred John Gilbert, the main romantic idol of the period
after Valentinoâ€™s death, as a rich young man who volunteers during World War I. The early portion of the story
depicts his time behind the lines, as he falls in love with a
French farm woman (7.23). An abrupt switch moves the
film into epic scenes of the war (7.24). But, even more
than The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Big Parade
depicts the horrors of war. Now German soldiers are seen
simply as other human victims of the combat. Alone in a
foxhole with a dying German boy, the hero finds himself
unable to kill the lad and instead lights him a cigarette.
Other war films of the late 1920s and the 1930s followed
7.22 Large sets and trick photography recreated Romeâ€™s
Circus Maximus for the chariot race in Ben-Hur.
7.23 The hero
ends as they are
when he must leave
for the front in The
7.24 The â€œbig paradeâ€ of men and equipment moving up to
the front (The Big Parade).
134 CHAPTER 7â€ƒThe Late Silent Era in Hollywood, 1920â€“1928
Black Pirate (1926, Albert Parker). Fairbanks was one of
the most consistently popular stars of the 1920s, though
his success dissipated in the early sound era.
Fairbanks had been unusual as a silent comedian who
worked exclusively in features from the beginning of his
film career in 1915. In the 1920s, however, several of the
great slapstick stars of the earlier period also aspired to
work in longer films (see box).
Genres and Directors
After UA was started in 1919, Douglas Fairbanks was the
first of its founders to release a film through the new company. His Majesty, the American (1919, Joseph Henabery)
was one of the unpretentious, clever comedies that made
Fairbanks a star. Soon, however, he moved from comedy
to a more ambitious costume picture, The Mark of Zorro
(1920, Fred Niblo). It retained the starâ€™s comic flair but
was longer and emphasized on historical atmosphere, a
conventional romance, dueling, and other dangerous
stunts (7.26). The Mark of Zorro was so successful
that Fairbanks gave up comedy and concentrated on
swashbucklers such as The Three Musketeers (1921, Fred
Niblo), The Thief of Bagdad (1924, Raoul Walsh), and The
7.25 In Wings,
the death of a
German pilot and
American plane in
were filmed in the
air without trick
7.26 Douglas Fairbanks, as Zorro, soars over a host of
pursuers in The Mark of Zorro.
1920s COMEDY IN HOLLYWOOD
During the 1910s, most comedies that were based on
physical action, or slapstick, were shorts that accompanied
more prestigious features (though the popular comic
stars often proved bigger draws). During the 1920s,
feature-length slapstick comedies became more common.
Stars like Charles Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton
concentrated on creating stronger stories that would support their elaborate physical gags. With their mastery of
purely visual action, these comedians developed one of
the most prominent and enduring genres of the decade.
Charles Chaplin continued to make hugely successful
films in the early 1920s, when his contract with First
National kept him from releasing through UA. In 1914,
Chaplin had appeared in the first slapstick feature, Tillieâ€™s
Punctured Romance, but subsequently he concentrated
on shorts. In 1921, he returned to features with extraordinary success in The Kid. Here Chaplin played the familiar
Little Tramp but shared the spotlight with the expressive
child actor Jackie Coogan, who appeared as a foundling
whom the Tramp raises (7.27).
Chaplin soon became even more ambitious, making
a drama, A Woman of Paris, in which he played only
a walk-on role. This bitterly ironic romance satirized
high society. Its droll, even risquÃ©, humor (7.28) influenced
other directors of sophisticated comedies. The public,
however, stayed away from a Chaplin film without the Little
Tramp. Chaplin brought back that beloved character in two
very popular features, The Gold Rush (1925) and The
7.27 In The Kid, the Little Tramp coaches the foundling on
tactics of street fighting, unaware that the rivalâ€™s muscular father
is looking on.
Studio Filmmaking 135
Buster Keatonâ€™s show-business career began when as a
child he joined his parentsâ€™ vaudeville act. In the late 1910s,
he moved into films as an actor in Fatty Arbuckleâ€™s short films
of the late 1910s. When Arbuckle shifted to features in the
early 1920s, Keaton took over his film production unit and
directed and starred in a series of popular two-reelers. His
trademark was his refusal to smile, and he became known as
â€œthe Great Stone Face.â€ Keatonâ€™s early films revealed a taste
for bizarre humor that bordered at times on Surrealism (7.30).
Keaton soon moved into features, though his offbeat
humor and complex plots made him less popular than his
main rivals, Chaplin and Lloyd. His first feature-length hit
was The Navigator (1924, codirected with Donald Crisp), a
story of a couple cast adrift alone on a huge ocean liner.
Keaton was fond of stories that exploited the cinematic
medium, as in Sherlock Jr. (1924), which contained an
elaborate film-within-a-film dream sequence (7.31).
Keatonâ€™s finest film may be The General (1927, codirected
7.28 The heroineâ€™s rich lover fetches one of his own
handkerchiefs from a drawer in her apartment, a touch that
establishes their intimate relationship visually, in A Woman of Paris.
Harold Lloyd quickly joined the vogue for slapstick
features. Using the â€œglassesâ€ character he had developed in the late teens, he made A Sailor-Made Man
(1921, Fred Newmeyer), the story of a brash young man
who wins his love through a series of adventures.
Although Lloyd starred in various types of comedies, he
is best remembered for his â€œthrillâ€ pictures. In Safety
Last! (1923, Newmeyer and Sam Taylor), he played an
ambitious young man who has to climb the side of a skyscraper as a publicity stunt for the store where he works
(7.29). Some of Lloydâ€™s films of this era featured him as
the bumbling small-town boy who becomes a hero when
confronted with a great challenge, as in Girl Shy (1924,
Newmeyer and Taylor), The Freshman (1925, Newmeyer
and Taylor), and The Kid Brother (1927, Ted Wilde).
Lloydâ€™s career lasted into the early sound era, but eventually the aging actor did not fit his youthful image, and
7.30 Trapped on a horse-drawn moving van in a passing police
parade, the hero calmly lights his cigarette with a bomb tossed by
an anarchist in Cops (1922, codirected by Keaton and Eddie Cline).
7.29 In Safety Last, Harold Lloyd created one of the most
memorable comic images of the cinema when he dangled from
a clock above the street.
7.31 The hero of Sherlock Jr., a projectionist, dreams while his
superimposed dream image goes out to enter the film being
shown in the theater.
136 CHAPTER 7â€ƒThe Late Silent Era in Hollywood, 1920â€“1928
directed by Clyde Bruckman), a story of a daring rescue
during the Civil War. Keaton and Bruckman created an
almost perfectly balanced plot structure, evoked period
detail, and staged elaborate gags within single shots.
Nonetheless, The General was not a success.
In 1928, Keaton moved to MGM, where he made one
film that was up to his old standardâ€”The Cameraman
(1928, Edward Sedgwick, Jr.). After the coming of sound,
however, he was not allowed his customary freedom in
improvising gags on the set. Keatonâ€™s career gradually
declined in the early 1930s, when MGM began costarring
him with more aggressive comics like Jimmy Durante.
From the mid-1930s, Keaton played in many minor films
and took small roles, but his career never revived before
his death in 1966.
Harry Langdon came to the cinema somewhat later
than the other major comics of this era. From 1924 to
1927, he made short comedies for Mack Sennett. In these
he developed his typical persona, one quite different
from those of his rivals. Langdon cultivated a baby-faced
image, playing naive characters who react slowly to
whatever happens to them (7.32). By the mid-1920s, he
also began making features: Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926,
Harry Edwards), The Strong Man (1926, Frank Capra), and
Long Pants (1927, Capra). Langdon continued to appear
in small roles into the 1940s, but, as with many other
comics of this era, his appeal came primarily through
Although these major actors entered features, the
comic short remained a popular part of theater programs.
The most important producers of shorts remained Hal
Roach, who had discovered Harold Lloyd, and Mack Sennett, formerly of Keystone. Under their guidance, a new
generation of stars emerged. The most famous of these
were Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who had worked separately in minor comedies for years before being teamed by
Roach in Putting Pants on Philip (1927). This short film
about an American (Hardy) trying to deal with the turmoil
caused by his aggressively flirtatious, kilt-wearing Scottish
cousin (Laurel) remains one of their most hilarious (7.33).
Unlike some other silent comedians, Laurel and Hardy
made an effortless transition to sound, and Roach graduated them to feature films in 1931.
Another star of this period was Charley Chase, who
worked for Sennett. Chase was a thin, ordinary-looking
man with a small moustache who depended not so much
on his comic appearance as on his talent for staging elaborate gags and chases (7.34). Comics from the teens who
had played supporting roles in Chaplinâ€™s and other starsâ€™
films, such as Chester Conklin and Mack Swain, now
acquired series of their own under Sennett.
7.32 In a long take in The Luck oâ€™ the Foolish (1924, Harry
Edwards), Harry Langdon slowly eats a sandwich, registering his
dawning realization that a shingle has accidentally fallen into it.
7.33 Putting Pants on Philip: Stan Laurel as Philip gets upset at
the idea of a tailor measuring him for a new pair of pants.
7.34 Charley hides behind a life-size female puppet that he
uses to flirt with a blackmailer in Fluttering Hearts (1927).
1920s COMEDY IN HOLLYWOOD, continued
Studio Filmmaking 137
Another genre that gained in prestige during the
1920s was the Western. Previously, Westerns had been
cheap, short features shown primarily in small-town theaters. Then, in 1923, Paramount released The Covered
Wagon (James Cruze), an epic of the westward trip of a
wagon train. With a large cast, including major stars, and
a thrilling scene of the wagons crossing a river, the film
was a hit. The low-budget Western continued to be a staple
of Hollywood production, but for decades the large-scale
Western would command respect.
John Ford had made his start directing stylish, modest Westerns (p. 64). Just Pals (1920) was an unconventional film, the story of a loafer in a small town who
befriends a homeless boy and eventually becomes a hero
by exposing a local embezzler (7.3â€“7.11). In 1921, he
moved from Universal to the Fox Film Corporation. His
first major success there was The Iron Horse (1924), a
high-budget Western made in the wake of The Covered
Wagon. This story of the building of the first transcontinental railroad exploited Fordâ€™s feeling for landscape
(7.35). He soon became Foxâ€™s top director, working in a
variety of genres. Fordâ€™s other Western at Fox was 3 Bad
Men (1926), with an impressive land-rush sequence. Surprisingly, he did not return to the genre until Stagecoach
(1939), but he was identified with Westerns throughout
his long career.
Frank Borzage had also directed a number of lowbudget Westerns during the 1910s. These include The Gun
Woman (1918), the story of a rugged dance-hall owner
who shoots the man she loves when he turns out to be a
stagecoach bandit. Like Ford, Borzage moved into more
prestigious filmmaking at the larger studios during the
1920s, though he quickly abandoned Westerns. Today he
is often thought of in connection with melodramas, such
as Humoresque (1920), a sentimental account of a Jewish
violinist wounded in World War I. Some of Borzageâ€™s best
films of the decade, however, were in other genres. The
Circle (1925, MGM) was a sophisticated romantic comedy. In 1924, Borzage moved to Fox, where he joined Ford
as a leading director. His first film there, Lazybones
(1925), was a rambling, low-key comedy about a lazy
young man whoâ€”unlike most Hollywood protagonistsâ€”
has no goals but sacrifices his already shaky reputation to
raise a child for the sister of the woman he loves.
After The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was shown in the
United States in 1921, horror films gradually became a
minor American genre. Universal pioneered this type of
film, primarily because one of its main stars was Lon
Chaney. Chaney was a master of makeupâ€”â€œthe Man of a
Thousand Facesâ€â€”and had a flair for macabre roles. He
played Quasimodo in the original adaptation of The
Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923, Wallace Worsley), for
which Universal built extravagant sets recreating medieval
Paris, and the Phantom in the 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian). Chaneyâ€™s most consistently disturbing films, however, were made at MGM with
director Tod Browning, whose taste for stories with perverse twists matched his own. In The Unknown (1927), for
example, Chaney played a circus knife thrower, Alonzo,
who pretends to be armless as part of his act. His beautiful
partner (played by the young Joan Crawford) has a pathological fear of being touched by men and trusts only
Alonzo. To gain her lasting love, he actually has his arms
amputated, only to discover that she has now fallen in love
with another man (7.36). Chaney died prematurely in
1930, but Browning went on in the 1930s to make some
notable horror films, such as Dracula (1931) and Freaks
(1932). The horror film also received a boost in the late
1920s, when more German directors began moving to
7.35 A dynamic composition in depth against distant
mountains as Indians ambush a supply train in John Fordâ€™s
The Iron Horse.
7.36 Lon Chaney as the protagonist of The Unknown sits
with his feet, instead of his hands, on the table.
138 CHAPTER 7â€ƒThe Late Silent Era in Hollywood, 1920â€“1928
Another unconventional director of this period was
William C. de Mille, who has been overshadowed by his
brother Cecil B. (the two spelled their family names
differently). A former playwright, William made several
distinctive films during the decade after World War I,
mostly centering on gentle idiosyncratic characters. In
Conrad in Quest of His Youth (1920), for example, a British
soldier returns from India to find himself without any aim
in life. In an amusing scene, he reunites his cousins in an
attempt to recreate exactly their childhood existence. Miss
Lulu Bett deals with a plain spinster forced into a subservient position to earn her keep with her sisterâ€™s family.
Jolted out of her unquestioning acceptance by a false marriage to a bigamist, she rebels (7.38).
One isolated, but noteworthy, talent of the period was
Karl Brown, a cinematographer who had worked with
Griffith in the 1920s. For Paramount he directed Stark
Love (1927), a film outstanding for its realism. Stark Love
was a rural drama, filmed entirely on location in North
Carolina with nonactors. It went against gender stereotypes of the period, telling the story of a backwoods culture in which women are utterly oppressed. A young man
receives a scholarship but gives it up to send a neighbor
girl to college in his place (7.39). After Stark Love, Brown
returned to cinematography.
Unconventional films were not ruled out in Hollywood, but they had to make money. The American production companies also proved their willingness to
experiment by importing many successful foreign
The gangster genre had not been particularly important in American filmmaking before the mid-1920s. There
had been some films about petty gang crime, such as
Griffithâ€™s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) and Walshâ€™s
Regeneration (1915). The rise of organized crime associated with Prohibition, however, helped make the flashily
dressed, heavily armed gangster a prominent image in
Hollywood films. One film did a great deal to establish the
genre: Josef von Sternbergâ€™s Underworld (1927), made for
Von Sternberg had started by independently producing and directing a gloomy naturalistic drama, The Salvation Hunters (1925), on a shoestring budget. It was
championed by Charles Chaplin, but it failed at the box
office. Von Sternberg codirected a few features without
being credited. In 1927 he had his breakthrough film with
Underworld. It was a big hit, in part due to its offbeat stars.
Its odd hero is a homely, lumbering jewel thief, played by
George Bancroft. He picks up a drunken Britisher (Clive
Brook) and makes him into a refined assistant. The heroâ€™s
world-weary mistress (Evelyn Brent) falls in love with the
Britisher. Von Sternberg filmed this story with the dense,
dazzling cinematography that was to become his hallmark
(7.37). Von Sternberg went on to make another quirky
gangster film starring Bancroft, an early talkie called
Thunderbolt (1929). He also worked in other genres during
the 1920s. The Docks of New York (1928) was a sordid
story of a shipâ€™s stoker (Bancroft again) and a prostitute
redeemed by each otherâ€™s love; again the crowded scenery
and textured, atmospheric lighting set von Sternbergâ€™s
work apart. The Docks of New York prefigured the romantic melodramas that were to be the directorâ€™s specialty in
7.37 Josef von Sternberg used backlight and smoke to create
this atmospheric moment as the protagonist of Underworld
guns down a rival. The filmâ€™s style anticipated the later
broodingâ€‰ films noirs (â€œdark filmsâ€) of the 1940s.
7.38 In Miss Lulu Bett, Luluâ€™s brother-in-law complains about
her buying a small plant out of her meager earnings.
Studio Filmmaking 139
7.40 The large sets and deep stagings of Rosita made it more
a Lubitsch film than a Mary Pickford star vehicle.
Story of GÃ¶sta Berling in Berlin signed its two stars, Greta
Garbo and Lars Hansen, to contracts and also brought its
director, Mauritz Stiller, to Hollywood. Similarly, Harry
Warner saw two of Hungarian director MihÃ¡ly KertÃ©szâ€™s
early films in London and wired him an offer that led to
his lengthy career at Warner Bros. under the name
Michael Curtiz. Since Germany had the most prominent
foreign film industry, the largest number of Ã©migrÃ© filmmakers came from that country.
Lubitsch Comes to Hollywoodâ€ƒThe regular flow of
European talent to Hollywood began after Ernst Lubitschâ€™s
Madame DuBarry was released in the United States (as Passion, see p. 88) to great success. Star Pola Negri was soon
acquired by Paramount. Lubitsch followed her to Hollywood in 1923. Already the most successful director in
Germany, Lubitsch quickly adapted his style to incorporate the classical approach. He became one of the most
highly respected filmmakers in Hollywood. Mary Pickford
asked him to direct her in her 1923 production, Rosita.
Although it allowed Pickford many amusing scenes, the
film had the grandiose manner of Lubitschâ€™s German
Despite Rositaâ€™s success, UA was in financial difficulties and could not fund further Lubitsch productions.
Surprisingly, he moved to Warner Bros. and became the
minor studioâ€™s most prestigious director. Inspired by
Chaplinâ€™s A Woman of Paris, he made a series of sophisticated society comedies that hinted at sexual appetites and
rivalries bubbling behind polite veneers. This suggestiveness and Lubitschâ€™s clever visual jokes became known as
â€œthe Lubitsch touch.â€ He mastered continuity editing and
could indicate charactersâ€™ attitudes simply by how they
shifted position in the frame or through the directions of
their glances from shot to shot (7.41â€“7.44). Lubitschâ€™s
main films for Warner Bros. were The Marriage Circle
Foreign Filmmakers in Hollywood
Before 1920, a few directors from abroad came to work in
the American industry, mostly from France. Ã‰clairâ€™s
Maurice Tourneur made the move in 1914, PathÃ©â€™s Albert
Capellani in 1915, and Gaumontâ€™s LÃ©once Perret in 1917.
The 1920s, however, were the first decade during which
American firms systematically sought foreign talent and
in which Ã©migrÃ©s had a major influence on Hollywood
As important filmmaking trends emerged in Sweden,
France, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe, American studio executives realized that these countries could be a
source of fresh talent. Moreover, hiring the best European
personnel was a way of ensuring that no country would
grow powerful enough to challenge Hollywood in world
American firms also bought the rights to European
plays and literary works and in some cases brought their
authors to work as scriptwriters in the United States. A
Paramount advertisement boasted
Every form of printed or spoken drama that might be suitable for Paramount Pictures is examined. Everything useful
published in Italian, Spanish, German or French is steadily
translated. Synopses are made of every stage play produced
in America, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, London and Rome.1
Studio representatives regularly visited Europe and
viewed the latest films, looking for promising stars and
filmmakers. In 1925, MGM executives who had seen The
7.39 Location photography in a scene where the hero of
Stark Love teaches the heroine to read.
140 CHAPTER 7â€ƒThe Late Silent Era in Hollywood, 1920â€“1928
â€œGermanicâ€ camera movements that involved placing the
camera on an elaborate elevator system. It did not recapture the wit or intensity of his Swedish films, however, and
after a few more aborted projects, Stiller returned to
Sweden, where he died in 1928.
In 1923, Victor SjÃ¶strÃ¶m also accepted an offer from
MGM, which renamed him Victor Seastrom. His first
American film, Name the Man, was a bit stiff but contained
several shots that displayed feeling for natural environments. He Who Gets Slapped (1924) was a vehicle for Lon
Chaney; another Scandinavian-influenced circus film, it
proved highly popular. Seastrom then made two films starring Lillian Gish, who had recently come to MGM after her
long association with Griffith. She wanted Seastrom to
(1924; see 7.2), Lady Windermereâ€™s Fan (1925), and So
This Is Paris (1926). He also returned to his old genre, the
historical film, with The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg
(1927) at MGM and The Patriot at Paramount (1928). He
later proved to be one of the most imaginative directors of
the early sound era.
The Scandinavians Come to Americaâ€ƒHollywood, and
specifically MGM, also picked up on the important Scandinavian directors of the 1910s and early 1920s (pp. 52â€“56).
The studio imported Benjamin Christensen, whose first
American film, appropriately enough, was The Devilâ€™s Circus
(1926); it harked back to the circus genre that had been so
common in Scandinavian films of the 1910s (7.45). Christensen went on to make several gothic thrillers, most notably Seven Footprints to Satan (1929) before returning to
Mauritz Stiller was hired by MGM after the success
of The Story of GÃ¶sta Berling in Berlin. With him went
Greta Garbo, whom Stiller had discovered. MGM set the
pair to work on The Torrent, but Stillerâ€™s eccentricities and
inability to conform to strict accounting methods soon led
to his replacement. German producer Erich Pommer,
then working in a brief stint at Paramount, hired him to
make Hotel Imperial, starring Pola Negri. This was Stillerâ€™s
most notable Hollywood production, including some
7.41â€“7.44 Four shots from the racetrack scene of Lady Windermereâ€™s Fan (1925),
during which the views of various characters through binoculars reveal their attitudes
toward a woman of shady reputation.
7.45 This trapeze scene in The Devilâ€™s Circus exemplifies the
kinds of â€œEuropeanâ€ special effects and daring camera angles
the Hollywood cinema was beginning to adopt in the
Studio Filmmaking 141
direct an adaptation of The Scarlet Letter. He seemed
perfectly suited to Nathaniel Hawthorneâ€™s tale of love and
retribution. His sense of landscape emerged even more
strongly here (7.46). Similarly, the performances of Gish
and Swedish actor Lars Hansen were strong, but MGM
insisted on a comic subplot that vitiated the austere drama.
Gish and Hansen starred again in Seastromâ€™s final
American film, The Wind (1928). The story involves a
woman who moves to the desolate, windswept Western
frontier to marry a naive rancher. She kills and buries a
would-be rapist but then is driven to the brink of madness
by visions of the wind uncovering his body. Despite a
hopeful ending imposed by the studio, The Wind was a
powerful, bleak film. Its grimness and its release as a silent
film when sound was coming in doomed it to failure, however, and Seastrom returned to Sweden, to his original
name, and to a long career acting in sound films.
European Directors at Universalâ€ƒUniversal, one of the
larger studios among the Little Five, lent prestige to its production output by hiring several European directors. Among
these was Paul Fejos, a Hungarian who had made his mark
in Hollywood by directing an experimental independent feature, The Last Moment (1927). It consisted primarily of a
drowning manâ€™s final vision, portrayed in a lengthy, rapidly
edited passage almost certainly influenced by the French
Impressionist style. Lonesome (1928) was a simple story of a
working-class coupleâ€™s romance, portrayed with a naturalism
that was unusual for Hollywood. His next film, the elaborate
early musical Broadway (1929) used a huge Expressionist-style nightclub set through which the camera swooped on
a giant crane built for this production (7.47). After a few
minor Hollywood projects, including the foreign-language
versions of some early talkies, Fejos returned to work in
various European countries in the 1930s.
Universal also hired Paul Leni, director of one of
the main German Expressionist films, Waxworks. Leniâ€™s
dark, vaguely expressionist adaptation of the hit Broadway gothic thriller The Cat and the Canary (1927)
became an enormous success. The Man Who Laughs
(1928) was a big-budget historical epic with overtones of
the horror genre. It starred German actor Conrad Veidt
in an Expressionist performance as a man whose mouth
has been cut into a permanent grotesque grin. These
two films reinforced Universalâ€™s orientation toward horror filmsâ€”a tendency that had begun with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera and
which was to intensify in the sound era with such films
as Dracula and Frankenstein. Leniâ€™s death in 1929, however, meant that others would take over the exploration
of the genre.
Murnau and His Influence at Foxâ€ƒAside from Lubitsch,
F. W. Murnau was the most prestigious European director to
come to Hollywood in the 1920s. Fox hired him in 1925, in
the wake of the critical acclaim for The Last Laugh. Murnau
lingered at Ufa only long enough to make Faust (1926). Fox
allowed him an enormous budget to make its biggest picture
of 1927, Sunrise. Scripted by Carl Mayer, who had written so
many German Expressionist and Kammerspiel films, and
designed by Rochus Gliese, who had worked with Murnau
in Germany, the film was virtually a German film made in
America. It was a simple but intense psychological drama of
a farmer who plans to murder his wife in order to run away
with his lover from the city. The film was full of Germanic
mise-en-scÃ¨ne with Expressionist touches (7.48). Even the
American stars, Janet Gaynor and George Oâ€™Brien, were
induced to give Expressionist-style performances.
Sunrise was perhaps too sophisticated to be really
popular. Its huge city sets (7.49) made it so costly that it
through a forest of
stumps in The
7.47 In Broadway, the camera pulls far back from the hero
during a musical number in the Expressionistic nightclub.
142 CHAPTER 7â€ƒThe Late Silent Era in Hollywood, 1920â€“1928
did only moderately well for Fox. As a result, Murnauâ€™s
fortunes declined. He went on to increasingly modest projects: Four Devils (1929), yet another circus film, now lost;
and City Girl (1930), a part-talkie that was taken out of
Murnauâ€™s control and altered. His last film began as a collaboration with documentarist Robert Flaherty (pp. 164â€“
165). They worked on a fiction film about Tahiti, Tabu
(1931). After Flaherty abandoned the project, Murnau
completed a flawed but beautiful love story made on location in the South Seas. He died in a car accident shortly
before the filmâ€™s release.
Despite Murnauâ€™s lack of popular success during his
Hollywood career, Sunrise had an enormous impact on
American filmmakers, especially at Fox. Both John Ford
and Frank Borzage were encouraged to imitate it. Fordâ€™s
sentimental World War I drama Four Sons (1928) looks
very much like a German film, and signs of Ufaâ€™s studio-bound style were to crop up in his sound films, such as
The Informer (1935) and The Fugitive (1947).
Borzageâ€™s late-1920s films show even more directly
the influence of Murnauâ€™s work. Borzageâ€™s 7th Heaven is
an affecting melodrama about a forlorn Parisian prostitute, Diane, and a woman-hating sewer cleaner, Chico,
who gradually gain each otherâ€™s love only to be separated
by World War I. None of the film crew was European, but
the set designs by Harry Oliver incorporated the sorts of
false-perspective backgrounds that Murnau had used in
Sunrise and some of his German films (7.50).
German-style virtuoso camera movements were imitated,
most spectacularly in a vertical shot made from an elevator (7.51).
Borzage followed up the tremendous success of 7th
Heaven with a similar film, Street Angel (1928), starring
the same actors, Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. They
7.48 Deep space and skewed false perspectives create an
Expressionist composition in Sunrise.
7.49 The huge city square constructed for Sunrise (with help
from German false-perspective techniques that made it seem
7.50 Diane and
her sister in their
in 7th Heaven. The
floor shows the
7.51 In 7th Heaven, an elevator allows the camera to move
with Diane and Chico seven flights up as they approach his
apartment, which their love transforms into â€œheaven.â€
Films for African American Audiences 143
became the ideal romantic couple of the late 1920s. She
won the first Best Actress award from the Academy of
Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for these two films
and Sunrise (at a time when an actorâ€™s entire yearâ€™s output could be nominated). They starred together again in
Borzageâ€™s film Lucky Star (1929), a dark, romantic love
story that again displayed German influence and
remained one of the rare Hollywood films with a
European films, and especially those from Germany,
also affected Hollywood filmmaking more generally. Flesh
and the Devil (1926), directed by the well-established filmmaker Clarence Brown, was full of fancy camera movement, subjective camera effects, and other techniques
derived from European avant-garde cinema (7.52). It also
starred the single most successful of the imported European stars, Greta Garbo. Here she was teamed with
matinee idol John Gilbert (7.53). Flesh and the Devil was
only one production of the 1920s to borrow from European cinema. Many other Hollywood films of the late
1920s and the 1930s also reflected influences from European films, particularly those of the French Impressionist,
German Expressionist, and Soviet Montage movements.
FILMS FOR AFRICAN
In Chapters 4 through 6, we saw how alternatives to classical Hollywood cinema arose in the form of stylistic movements. Other alternatives to mainstream Hollywood fare
also appeared. In the United States, such alternatives have
usually been specialty films aimed at specific audiences.
During the silent era, a small circuit of theaters for African
American audiences developed, along with a number of
regional producers making films with all-black casts.
In 1915, the release of Griffithâ€™s The Birth of a Nation
led to many protests and boycotts on the part of African
Americans. Some envisioned the creation of blackcontrolled production firms that could provide an alternative perspective on race relations. A few sporadic attempts
at production were initiated during the latter half of the
1910s, but the results were usually short films that were
relegated to a minor role on programs. They either showed
positive images of black heroism during World War I or
perpetuated traditional black comic stereotypes.
During the 1920s, black roles in mainstream Hollywood films were minor and still based on stereotypes.
African Americans usually appeared as servants, wastrels,
comic children, and the like. Black actors seldom found
regular work and had to fill in with other jobs, usually
menial, to survive.
As moviegoers, African Americans had little choice
but to attend theaters that showed films designed for white
audiences. Most theaters in the United States were segregated. In the South, laws required that exhibitors separate
their white and black patrons. In the North, despite
civil-rights statutes in many localities, the practice was for
the races to sit in different parts of auditoriums. Some
theaters, usually owned by whites, were in black neighborhoods and catered to local viewers. In such theaters, any
films with black-oriented subject matter proved popular.
There were even a small number of films produced
specifically for African American audiences. These used
all-black casts, even though the directors and other filmmakers were usually white. The most prominent company
of this kind in the 1920s was the Colored Players, which
made several films, including two particularly significant
7.52 The duel scene in Flesh and the Devil, handled with a
rapid tracking movement back from a silhouetted scene. The
opponents end offscreen at either side, with puffs of smoke
coming into the frame, briefly leaving the result uncertain.
7.53 In Flesh and the Devil, a tiny spotlight created a
romantic moment as John Gilbert lights a cigarette for Greta
Garbo; the pair were cast as lovers in several more films.
144 CHAPTER 7â€ƒThe Late Silent Era in Hollywood, 1920â€“1928
ones. The Scar of Shame (1927, Frank Perugini) dealt with
the effects of environment and upbringing on black peopleâ€™s aspirations. The hero, a struggling composer, strives
to live a respectable middle-class existence; he is â€œa credit
to his race,â€ despite the attempts of sordid characters to
corrupt him (7.54).
The Colored Players also made a less preachy film
that has survived, Ten Nights in a Barroom (1926, Charles
S. Gilpin), an adaptation of a classic stage melodrama
that had traditionally been played by white casts. Its complex flashback structure tells the story of a drunkard who
reforms when he accidentally contributes to the death of
his daughter in a barroom brawl (7.55). Despite its low
budget, Ten Nights in a Barroom was skillfully lit and
edited in the classical style.
In rare cases, black filmmakers were able to work
behind the camera. Oscar Micheaux was for several
decades the most successful African American producerdirector. He began as a homesteader in South Dakota,
where he wrote novels and sold them door to door to his
white neighbors. He used the same method to sell stock to
adapt his writings into films, creating the Micheaux Book
and Film Company in 1918. Over the next decade, he
made thirty films, concentrating on such topics as lynching, the Ku Klux Klan, and interracial marriage.
The energetic and determined Micheaux worked
quickly with low budgets, and his films have a rough,
disjunctive style that boldly depicts black concerns on
the screen. Body and Soul (1924) explores the issue of
the religious exploitation of poor blacks. Paul Robeson,
one of the most successful black actors and singers of
the century, plays a false preacher who extorts money
and seduces women (7.56). Micheaux went bankrupt in
the late 1920s and had to resort to white financing in
the sound era. Nevertheless, he continued to average a
film a year up to 1940 and made one more in 1948.
Although much of his work is lost, Micheaux demonstrated that a black director could make films for black
The opportunities for African Americans would
improve somewhat during the sound era. Talented black
entertainers were in greater demand in musicals, and
major studios experimented with all-black casts. As we
shall see in Chapter 9, one of the most important early
sound films, King Vidorâ€™s Hallelujah!, attempted to
explore African American culture (pp. 177â€“178).
THE ANIMATED PART
OF THE PROGRAM
The basic techniques of animated films had been invented
during the 1910s (pp. 31â€“32), and the postâ€“World War I
period saw a boom in animation. New independent animation studios appeared, creating greater output and applying a division of labor that made the process of animation
more efficient. Typically, head animators laid out the basic
poses for the scene, the â€œin-betweenersâ€ filled in the movements with additional drawings, other workers traced the
drawings onto cels, still others filled in with paint, and a
cinematographer photographed the images frame by
frame. The result could be a series of cartoons released
monthly or even biweekly.
Most animation companies produced series with
continuing characters or themes. These films would be
7.54, leftâ€ƒThe conservatively dressed
hero of Scar of Shame confronts the
villainous gambler, marked by his sporty
7.55, rightâ€ƒThe hero of Ten Nights in a
Barroom holds his fatally wounded
7.56 Paul Robeson as the villain in Body and Soul.
The Animated Part of the Program 145
released through an independent distributor, but that distributor might sign a contract with one of the big Hollywood firms to put the cartoons on its own program. The
most successful independent distributor of this era was
Margaret J. Winkler Mintz. By the early 1920s, she was
financing and releasing the decadeâ€™s three most popular
series: the Fleischer brothersâ€™ â€œOut of the Inkwellâ€ films,
the cartoons based on Bud Fisherâ€™s beloved â€œMutt and
Jeffâ€ comics, and some of Walt Disneyâ€™s earliest efforts.
The Fleischer brothers, Max and Dave, had experimented with a new film technique called rotoscoping in the
mid-1910s. The rotoscope allowed a filmmaker to take
live-action films, project each frame onto a piece of paper,
and trace the outlines of its figures. Although the rotoscope was patented in 1915, World War I delayed further
development of it. After the war, the brothers returned to
the device, using it to animate cartoon figures. They used
a live-action prologue for each film in their series, featuring Max Fleischer as a cartoonist who creates Koko, a
clown who pops â€œout of the inkwell.â€ The first cartoon
was released in late 1919, and several others followed sporadically through 1920.
Rotoscoping was not intended to increase efficiency,
as earlier inventions in cartooning were. Instead, by tracing the action one image at a time on cels, the cartoonist
could easily produce characters that moved naturally as
whole figures, rather than stiffly, moving only one or a few
parts of their bodies, as in the slash and other simple cel
systems (p. 66). The Fleischerâ€™s new character, Koko the
Clown, swung his limbs through space freely, and his
loose outfit swirled about him as he went (7.57).
The Fleischers also employed the standard techniques
of cels, slashing, and retracing, but rotoscoping gave these
devices new freedom. The â€œOut of the Inkwellâ€ series
prospered during the 1920s. In the early sound era,
however, the Fleischers replaced Koko with the equally
popular Betty Boop and Popeye.
The â€œMutt and Jeffâ€ series had begun as a comic strip
in 1911. Its hapless stars were two moustached fellows,
one tall, one short. The stripâ€™s artist, Bud Fisher, agreed in
1916 to allow the celebrated strip to be animated. His
name was invariably given as the creator of the cartoon
series, even though over the years animation veterans actually drew the cartoons. Distributor Mintz contracted the
series for release through Fox, and it remained popular
through the 1920s (7.58).
The young Walt Disney and his friend Ub Iwerks
started their own commercial-arts firm in Kansas City in
1919. Failing to make money, they then worked for an ad
agency, creating simple animated films. There they started
â€œNewmanâ€™s Laugh-O-Grams,â€ a series of short animated
films for local exhibition. After this venture also failed,
Disney moved to Hollywood. In 1923, he received backing
from Mintz to create a series of â€œAlice Comedies,â€ which
proved to be his first success. With his brother Roy, he
formed the Disney Brothers Studios, which would eventually grow into one of the worldâ€™s biggest entertainment
During the 1920s, the staff of the firm included several of the major animators who would create series for
Warner Bros. and MGM in the 1930s: Hugh Harman,
Rudolf Ising, and Isadore â€œFrizâ€ Freleng. They all worked
on the Alice series, which combined live action and cartoon images (7.59). In 1927, the Disney studio switched
to full animation with the â€œOswald the Rabbitâ€ series. In a
legal battle, however, Charles Mintz, husband of Disneyâ€™s
distributor, seized control of the character. Waltâ€™s solution
was to invent a new character called Mickey Mouse. The
first two Mickey cartoons failed to find a distributor. A
third, Steamboat Willie, incorporated the new sound
7.57 In The Clownâ€™s Little Brother
(1920), Koko struts across the frame in a
rotoscoped motion that seemed effortless
and lively in the context of 1910s
7.58 Muttâ€™s attempts to help Jeff get
out of the pot attached to his head soon
leads to dizzy escapades on a half-built
skyscraper in Where Am I? (1925).
7.59 In Alice in the Wooly West (1926),
animated exclamation points express the
live-action heroineâ€™s astonishment as she
confronts the world of cartoon
146 CHAPTER 7â€ƒThe Late Silent Era in Hollywood, 1920â€“1928
technology and proved a huge hit. It helped catapult Disney to the head of the animation business in the 1930s.
Other series of this period proved highly popular.
Paul Terry, who had worked at various animation studios
during the 1910s, started his own firm, Fables Pictures
Inc., in 1921. He launched a series called â€œAesopâ€™s Fables.â€
For these modern retellings of the classic fables Terry
used a virtual assembly-line division of labor to turn out
one film per week; the results were amusing but usually
conventional (7.60). Terry left the company in 1928 to
create Terrytoons, a firm he ran until 1955, when he sold
it to television producers.
The most popular series of the 1920s starred Felix
the Cat. Its nominal creator, Pat Sullivan, had opened his
own studio in 1915, making ads and animated films. He
began making Felix cartoons for Paramount around
1918. Although Sullivan signed all the films, the head of
animation was actually Otto Messmer, who originated
the character of Felix and handled the animation process. Mintz signed to distribute the series in 1922. The
films were hugely successful, partly through the appeal of
the feline hero and partly through the flexible animation
style. In these films, Felixâ€™s tail could fly off his body
and become a question mark or a cane for him to lean
on (7.61). By the mid-1920s, the films had achieved a
huge audience. Sullivan was also a pioneer in the use of
tie-in products like dolls to further exploit the success of
his cartoon character. Like most of the major animated
series of the 1920s, Felix did not carry over well into the
The US film industryâ€™s push into foreign markets
during World War I gave it an enormous economic base
for its expansion and consolidation in the 1920s. Most
national film industries were too small to offer significant
resistance to American domination. Yet the cinema continued to be an international phenomenon, and many
countries managed to make at least a few films of their
own. Some European countries were strong enough to
support national industries and even to consider banding
together to challenge American power. Moreover, for the
first time, filmmakers in several countries were creating
short experimental films that challenged the classical
narrative approach of Hollywood cinema.
1. Advertisement, Paramount Pictures, Photoplay 19, no. 4
(March 1921): 4.
7.60, leftâ€ƒThe nightclub in which the
protagonist fritters away his paycheck in
The Spendthrift (1922), with the moral
â€œA spendthrift blames everybody but
himself for his misfortune.â€
7.61, rightâ€ƒFelix politely tips his ears in
Felix the Cat in Futuritzy (1928).
We discuss some topics in this chapter further on our blog, Observations on Film Art:
On Ford in the 1920s: â€œEverybodyâ€™s Irishâ€
On Von Sternbergâ€™s three final silents: â€œNever too late silentsâ€
As we saw in Chapters 4 to 6, major alternatives to the classical
filmmaking style of Hollywood arose in the years after World War I:
French Impressionism, German Expressionism, and Soviet Montage. These
three movements occurred within the context of a general reaction against
the domination of international markets by Hollywood films. Some European companies united to resist American encroachment. At the same time,
artists in other media and dedicated filmmakers worked outside the commercial establishment to create alternative types of cinema, both experimental and documentary. Less dramatically, several countries tried to
compete with the United States by producing films more regularly.
Directly after World War I, nations competed against each other as well as
against Hollywood, hoping to prosper in the international film market. The
German government fostered the growth of its film industry by continuing
the wartime ban on imported films. In France, despite many efforts, adverse
conditions kept production low. For a few years, Italy continued to produce
many films but could not regain its strong pre-1914 position. Other countries sought to establish even a small amount of steady production.
Postwar Animosities Fade
This competition was exacerbated by lingering animosities. Great Britain
and France were determined to block German films from being shown
abroad. Theater owners in both countries agreed not to show German films
INTERNATIONAL TRENDS OF THE 1920s
Ghosts Before Breakfast
The Passion of Joan of Arc
148 CHAPTER 8â€ƒInternational Trends of the 1920s
into a single continental market, it would be comparable
in size to that of the United States. What if European film
industries could cooperate by guaranteeing to import each
otherâ€™s films? European films might make as much money
as Hollywood films did. Then their budgets could be
raised, their production values would improve, and they
might even be able to compete with American films in
other world markets. This idea was gradually formulated
as the â€œpan-Europeanâ€ cinema, or â€œFilm Europe.â€
Concrete Steps toward Cooperation
During 1922 and 1923, European film trade journals were
calling for such cooperation, and, in 1924, the first steps
were taken to create a practical cooperation among
European producing nations. Erich Pommer, head of the
powerful German company Ufa, concluded a pact with
Louis Aubert, a major Parisian distributor. Ufa agreed to
release in Germany French films provided by the Aubert
company, in exchange for Aubertâ€™s distribution of Ufa
films in France. Previously, French-German deals had
meant the sale of a film or two, but now mutual distribution became regular. Pommer declared: â€œIt is imperative to
create a system of regular trade which will enable the producers to amortise their films rapidly. It is necessary to
create â€˜European films,â€™ which will no longer be French,
English, Italian, or German films, but entirely â€˜continentalâ€™
films.â€1 The Ufa-Aubert agreement provided the model
for later transactions. Exchange of films among France,
Germany, Britain, and other countries increased during
the second half of the 1920s.
Firms across Europe devised tactics for making
â€œEuropean films.â€ They imported stars, directors, and
other personnel to give an international flavor to their output. Similarly, a coproduction, in which a film would be
financed and made by companies in two countries, guaranteed release in at least those two markets. Two firms
contributing financing plus a larger market meant projects
could have higher budgets and better compete with
For example, British producer-director Graham Wilcox made Decameron Nights (1924), with Ufa providing its
studio facilities and half the financing (8.2). Actors from
several countries participated, including American star
Lionel Barrymore, English actress Ivy Close, and Werner
Krauss (famous as Dr. Caligari). The result was highly
popular in several countries, including the United States.
Producers and filmmakers from abroad often worked in
Germany, since the production facilities there were the
best in Europe. In 1924, the young Alfred Hitchcock
after the war, for a period of five years in Britain and for
fifteen in France. Unofficial boycotts existed in Belgium
and other countries that had suffered during the war.
Yet by 1921, glowing reviews of German films such
as Lubitschâ€™s Madame DuBarry and Wieneâ€™s The Cabinet
of Dr. Caligari made French and British audiences feel
that they were missing important developments. Louis
Delluc held a Paris screening of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
(at a charity benefit, to forestall objections). It created a
sensation, and a distributor quickly bought the French
rights. Caligari opened in March 1922 and became an
enormous hit. The exhibitorsâ€™ ban was forgotten, and a
vogue for German Expressionist films developed (8.1).
In late 1922, Madame DuBarry premiered in London,
breaking that countryâ€™s boycott. Postwar hostility was
Moreover, by the early 1920s, European producers
realized that American competition was too great for any
one country to counter. The United States, with around
15,000 theaters, was the worldâ€™s largest film market.
American producers garnered a huge, predictable income
from domestic rentals alone. They could afford to sell
films cheaply abroad because most foreign income was
pure profit. Commentators noted, however, that if the
movie theaters of all European countries were gathered
8.1 A 1922 French advertisement for F. W. Murnauâ€™s
Nosferatu called it â€œmore powerful than Caligari.â€
â€œFilm Europeâ€ 149
production sector to grow to meet the demand. Even
countries with more limited production created quotas. In
Portugal, one-tenth of screen time had to be reserved for
domestic filmsâ€”usually newsreels or travelogues preceding
an imported feature. Although these quotas were purportedly directed against all imported films, it was common
knowledge that their main target was Hollywood films.
Such quotas bolstered the Film Europe drive.
Between 1924 and 1927, the Europeans, led by Germany, Britain, and France, built the base for a continental
market. Slowly their efforts reduced the number of American film imports and replaced them with European ones.
This table shows the percentage of feature films released
in Germany, France, and Britain in 1926 and 1929, by the
main countries of origin.
PERCENT OF FILMS RELEASED IN
GERMANY FRANCE BRITAIN
1926 1929 1926 1929 1926 1929
United States 45 33 79 48 84 75
Germany 39 45 6 30 6 9
France 4 4 10 12 3 2
Britain 0.4 4 0.4 6 5 13
Germany, already the strongest film industry, benefited most from cooperative efforts. France, struggling in a
production crisis, gained least; the decline in American
films there was largely offset by other imports. Still, Film
Europe might gradually have improved Europeâ€™s situation
had the effort continued.
Abrupt changes cut it short. Most important was the
introduction of sound in 1929. Dialogue created language
barriers, and each countryâ€™s producers began to hope that
they could succeed locally because English-language
imports would decline. Several countries did benefit from
audiencesâ€™ desire for sound films in their own languages,
and some national industries became major forces as a
result of sound. Competitiveness among European nations
In addition, the Great Depression began to hit Europe
in 1929. Faced by hard times, many businesses and governments became more nationalistic and less interested in
international cooperation. The rise of extreme left-wing
and right-wing dictatorships in Europe and Asia increased
divisiveness and territorial rivalries, a trend that would
eventually lead to another global war. Film Europe was
moribund by the early 1930s, but some of its effects lingered. Some films still circulated internationally, and
firms collaborated on coproductions.
began his career as a designer on British films made at
Ufa, where he watched Murnau working on The Last
Laugh (p. 94). His first two films as a director, The Pleasure Garden (1925) and The Mountain Eagle (1926), were
British-German coproductions shot in Berlin.
Success Cut Short
By mid-decade, Germanyâ€™s film industry was the leader in
an increasingly cooperative pan-European effort. To be
sure, many big coproductions failed to gain the anticipated
international success, since cautious producers tended to
use standard formulas. â€œInternational appealâ€ also too
often meant imitations of Hollywood-style films, with a
loss of the distinctive national qualities that attracted viewers to movies like Caligari and Potemkin. Coproductions
and international casts, however, gradually made European films more competitive internationally. Cross-border
arrangements created Spanish-French, German-Swedish,
and other multinational films.
The Film Europe effort also led to import quotas in
some countries. After Germany lifted its import ban in
1921, it had strictly limited the number of films admitted
to the country. In 1925, it changed to a system whereby a
distributor could import one film for every German film it
had circulated the previous year. In 1928, France introduced a less ambitious limit of seven imported films for
each French one distributed.
In 1927, Great Britain instituted a cautious quota calling for a small percentage of British footage to be distributed and exhibited in the United Kingdom. Over the years,
this percentage was to increase gradually, allowing the
8.2 Ufaâ€™s large, technically sophisticated studios permitted
the construction of epic-style sets of Renaissance Venice for the
British-German coproduction, Decameron Nights.
150 CHAPTER 8â€ƒInternational Trends of the 1920s
and mise-en-scÃ¨ne that were reminiscent of Expressionist
films (8.6). In turn, from 1926 onward, Soviet Montage
films wielded influence abroad. Leftist filmmakers in
Germany embraced the Soviet style to make politically
charged cinema. A shot from the final march scene in
Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins GlÃ¼ck (â€œMother Krausenâ€™s
Journey to Happiness,â€ 1929, Piel Jutzi; 8.7) echoes the
climactic demonstration scene in Pudovkinâ€™s Mother (see
6.46). Soviet influence intensified in the 1930s, when
leftist filmmaking responded to the rise of Fascism.
French, German, and Soviet techniques had an
impact in many countries. Two of the most notable
English directors of the 1920s reflected the influence of
French Impressionism. Anthony Asquithâ€™s second feature,
Underground (1928), used a freely moving camera and several subjective superimpositions to tell a story of love and
jealousy in a working-class milieu (8.8). Alfred Hitchcockâ€™s boxing picture, The Ring (1927), demonstrated his
absorption of Impressionist techniques in its many subjective passages (8.9). Hitchcock also acknowledged his
debts to German Expressionism, an influence evident in
The Lodger (1926). For decades, he would draw on avantgarde techniques he learned in the 1920s.
The international influence of the commercial avantgarde reached as far as Japan. By the 1920s, Japan was
absorbing European modernism in its arts, primarily literature and painting. Futurism, Expressionism, Dada, and
Surrealism were all welcomed. One young filmmaker,
Teinosuke Kinugasa, was already well established in commercial production, having made over thirty low-budget
pictures. He was also associated with modernist writers in
Tokyo. In 1926 with their help, he independently produced a bizarre film. A Page of Madness carried Expressionist and Impressionist techniques to new extremes.
Taking a cue from Caligari, Kinugasa set the action in a
THE â€œINTERNATIONAL STYLEâ€
The Blending of Stylistic Traits
Stylistic influences also circulated among countries.
French Impressionism, German Expressionism, and
Soviet Montage began as largely national trends, but soon
the filmmakers exploring these styles became aware of
each otherâ€™s work. By the mid-1920s, an international
avant-garde style blended traits of all three movements.
Caligariâ€™s success in France in 1922 led French directors to add Expressionist touches to their work. Impressionist director Marcel Lâ€™Herbier told two parallel stories
of famous characters in Don Juan et Faust (1923), using
Expressionist-style sets and costumes in the Faust scenes
(8.3). In 1928, Jean Epstein combined Impressionist camera techniques with Expressionist set design to create an
eerie, portentous tone in The Fall of the House of Usher,
based on Edgar Allan Poeâ€™s story (8.4).
At the same time, French Impressionist traits of subjective camera devices were cropping up in German films.
Karl Gruneâ€™s The Street, an early example of the street
film (p. 99), used multiple superimpositions to show the
protagonistâ€™s visions (8.5). The Last Laugh and Variety
popularized subjective cinematographic effects that had
originated in France (see 5.23â€“5.25). By the mid-1920s,
the boundaries between the French Impressionist and
German Expressionist movements were blurred.
The Montage movement started somewhat later, but
imported films soon allowed Soviet directors to pick up on
European stylistic trends. The rapid rhythmic editing pioneered by Epstein and Abel Gance in 1923 was pushed
further by Soviet filmmakers after 1926 (p. 116). Grigori
Kozintsev and Leonid Traubergâ€™s 1926 adaptation of
Gogolâ€™s The Cloak contained exaggerations in the acting
8.3 Expressionist mise-en-scÃ¨ne in
Lâ€™Herbierâ€™s Don Juan et Faust.
8.4 A corner in a room of Usherâ€™s
mansion in Epsteinâ€™s The Fall of the
House of Usher displays the influence of
8.5 In The Street, Impressionist-style
superimpositions depict the heroâ€™s
visions of delights that await him in
The â€œInternational Styleâ€ 151
madhouse, with distorting camera devices and Expressionist mise-en-scÃ¨ne frequently reflecting the deranged
visions of the inmates (8.10; compare this with shots
from Caligari and other German Expressionist films in
Chapter 5). The plot that motivates these strange scenes is
full of flashbacks and fantasy passages. Kinugasaâ€™s next
film, Crossroads (1928), was less difficult but still reflected
influences from European avant-garde films. It was the
first Japanese feature to receive a significant release in
Carl Dreyer: European Director
The epitome of the international director of the late silent
era was Carl Dreyer. He began in Denmark as a journalist
and then worked as a scriptwriter at Nordisk from 1913
on, when the company was still a powerful force (p. 25).
Dreyerâ€™s first film as a director, The President (1919), used
traditional Scandinavian elements, including eye-catching
8.9 In The Ring, Hitchcock used
distorting mirrors in this shot of dancers
to suggest the heroâ€™s mental turmoil
during a party.
8.11 In The President and other early
films, Dreyer often calls as much
attention to the set and incidental
props as to the main action (compare
8.10 An enigmatic scene in A Page of
Madness, in which an inmate obsessed
with dancing appears in an elaborate
costume, performing in an Expressionist
set containing a whirling, striped ball.
8.6 The Cloak contains grotesque
elements that recall German
Expressionism, such as this giant
steaming teapot that heralds the
beginning of a strange dream sequence.
8.7 In Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins GlÃ¼ck,
a low angle isolates the major characters
against the sky in Soviet Montage
fashion as they march in protest.
8.8 As the heroine (not shown) of
Underground looks up at a building, a
superimposition reminiscent of French
Impressionism conveys her vision of the
sets (8.11), a relatively austere style, and dramatic lighting. His second film, Leaves from Satanâ€™s Book (1920), was
also made for Nordisk; influenced by D. W. Griffithâ€™s
Intolerance, it told a series of stories of suffering and faith.
At this point, one of the pioneers of Nordisk, Lau
Lauritzen, departed, and the company declined. Both
Dreyer and Benjamin Christensen left to work in Sweden
for Svenska, Christensen making Witchcraft through the
Ages while Dreyer did a bittersweet comedy, The Parsonâ€™s
Widow (1920). Over the next few years, Dreyer moved
between Denmark and Germany, making Michael (1924)
at the Ufa studio. Back in Denmark, he moved to the rising Palladium firm and made Thou Shalt Honor Thy Wife
(aka The Master of the House, 1925). This chamber comedy shows a family deceiving an autocratic husband in
order to make him realize how he has bullied his wife. It
established Dreyerâ€™s reputation internationally and particularly in France. After a brief sojourn in Norway making a
Norse-Swedish coproduction, Dreyer was hired by the
152 CHAPTER 8â€ƒInternational Trends of the 1920s
financial difficulties after NapolÃ©onâ€™s extravagances and
was unable to support another Dreyer project. Since Danish production was deteriorating, Dreyer turned to a strategy common among experimental filmmakers: he found a
patron. A rich nobleman underwrote Vampyr (1932) in
exchange for being allowed to play its protagonist.
As the name suggests, Vampyr is a horror film, but it
bears little resemblance to such Hollywood examples of
that genre as Dracula (which Universal had produced the
previous year). Instead of presenting bats, wolves, and
clear-cut rules about vampiresâ€™ behavior, this film evokes
unexplained, barely glimpsed terrors. A tourist who stays
at a country inn in a foggy landscape encounters a series
of supernatural events as he wanders around the neighborhood (8.14). He finds that the illness of a local landownerâ€™s daughter seems to be connected with her
mysterious doctor and a sinister old lady who appears at
intervals. The protagonistâ€™s investigation brings on a
dream in which he imagines himself dead (8.15). Many
scenes in Vampyr give a sense of dreadful events occurring just offscreen, with the camera tracking and panning
just too late to catch them. Dreyer used lighting, misty
landscapes, and camera movement to enhance the macabre atmosphere.
Vampyr was so different from other films of the period
that it was greeted with incomprehension. It marked the
end of Dreyerâ€™s international wanderings. He returned to
prestigious SociÃ©tÃ© GÃ©nÃ©rale de Films (which was also
producing Ganceâ€™s NapolÃ©on) to make a film in France.
The result was perhaps the greatest of all internationalstyle silent films, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). The
cast and crew represented a mixture of nationalities. The
Danish director supervised Hungarian cinematographer
Rudolph MatÃ© and designer Hermann Warm, who had
worked on Caligari and other German Expressionist films.
Most of the cast was French.
Joan of Arc blended influences from the French,
German, and Soviet avant-garde movements into a fresh,
daring style. Concentrating on Joanâ€™s trial and execution,
Dreyer used many close-ups, often decentered and filmed
against blank white backgrounds. The dizzying spatial
relations emphasized the actorsâ€™ faces. Dreyer used the
newly available panchromatic film stock (pp. 128â€“129),
which allowed for the actors to do without makeup. In the
close framings, the images revealed every facial detail.
RenÃ©e Falconetti gave a sincere, intense performance as
Joan (8.12). The sparse settings contained touches of
muted Expressionist design (8.13), and the dynamic low
framings and the accelerated subjective editing in the torture-chamber scene suggested the influence of Soviet
Montage and French Impressionism.
Despite criticisms that Joan of Arc depended too much
on lengthy conversations for a silent film, it was widely
hailed as a masterpiece. The producer, however, was in
8.12, leftâ€ƒA decentered close-up against
a blank background in The Passion of Joan
of Arc both disconcerts and allows us to
watch Falconettiâ€™s moving performance in
the title role.
8.13, rightâ€ƒMismatched windows in the
courtroom set of The Passion of Joan of
Arc recall Hermann Warmâ€™s earlier career
in German Expressionist filmmaking.
8.14, leftâ€ƒIn Vampyr, the hero trails the
disembodied shadow of a wooden-legged
man and sees it rejoin its owner.
8.15, rightâ€ƒThis shot shows the â€œdeadâ€
protagonistâ€™s point of view through a
window in his coffin as the vampiric old
woman he has been investigating peers
down at him (Vampyr).
Film Experiments outside the Mainstream Industry 153
superimpositions in ways that may have anticipated the
French Impressionists and later avant-garde filmmakers. A
commercial producer made two films directed by Anton
Bragaglia, a Futurist photographer: Il perfido canto and
Thais (both 1916). The first, which Bragaglia claimed contained innovative techniques, is lost. Thais survives, but it
is less radical than the others, using a continuing narrative
and sets, blurred focus, and costume designs that lend it a
mildly Futuristic look.
Lacking sufficient evidence about these early experimental films, we must start our account of the independent avant-garde cinema with the 1920s. There were six
major trends in experimental filmmaking: abstract animation, Dada-related production, Surrealism, cinÃ©ma pur,
lyrical documentaries, and experimental narrative.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,
artists had moved toward works with increasingly nonobjective styles. Sometimes only the title enabled the viewer
to tell what the shapes in a painting represented. In 1910,
Wassily Kandinskyâ€™s Abstract Watercolor made the final
break: the painting contained shapes and colors, but it
depicted nothing. Other artists quickly followed suit, and
pictorial abstraction became one of the major trends of
The nonrepresentational style took some time to
make its way into film. In the late 1910s in Germany, a
few artists believed that since film was a visual art like
painting, its purest form would be abstract. One of them,
Hans Richter, had studied art and worked with an Expressionist group. During World War I, Richter encountered a
group of Dadaists in Switzerland, including a Swedish artist, Viking Eggeling, who had also lived in Germany.
Eggeling was fascinated with the idea of using art as a
universal means of spiritual communication. Richter and
Eggeling returned to Germany, and each worked on
â€œscrolls,â€ long strips of paper containing slightly different
drawings. Both sought ways of transforming these into
moving images that would be a sort of â€œvisual music.â€
The pair was allowed to use Ufaâ€™s facilities, and from
1920 to 1921, they experimented with animating short
strips of frames photographed from the scrolls. Richter
claims to have made the first abstract animated film,
Rhythmus 21, in 1921, but it was not shown publicly until
The earliest abstract animated film was apparently
made in Germany by Walter Ruttmann. Ruttmann had
also studied as a painter, working in abstract and
Denmark and, unable to find backing for another project,
resumed life as a journalist. During World War II, he
recommenced feature filmmaking.
FILM EXPERIMENTS OUTSIDE
THE MAINSTREAM INDUSTRY
As specialized art films became distinct from the popular
entertainment cinema during the 1920s, an even more
radical type of filmmaking appeared. This was experimental, or independent avant-garde, cinema. Experimental
films were usually short, and they were produced outside
the film industry. Indeed, they were often deliberate
attempts to undercut the conventions of commercial
To support their work, filmmakers might use their
own money, find a rich patron, or work part-time within
the mainstream industry. Moreover, the cinÃ©-clubs and
specialized theaters that had arisen to promote and exhibit
art cinema also provided venues for more experimental
cinema (see box). As with other types of alternative filmmaking, experimental trends emerged soon after World
War I as isolated phenomena in different countries before
becoming more international.
During the early decades of the century, painters and
writers innovated a wide variety of modernist styles,
including Cubism, abstract art, Futurism, Dadaism, and
Surrealism. In many cases, artists already established in
these movements made one or two films. In other cases,
young filmmakers became enchanted with the idea of creating an alternative, noncommercial cinema.
During the 1910s, a few experimental films resulted
from these stylistic movements, but none of these is
known to survive. Even before 1910, Italian artists Bruno
Corra and Arnaldo Ginna reportedly made short films
using hand-colored abstract shapes. In 1914, a group of
Russian Futurist painters made a parodic film called
Drama in the Futuristsâ€™ Cabaret No. 13, but little is known
about this intriguing work.
A few Futurist films were made in Italy. One was Vita
futurista (â€œFuturist Lifeâ€), by a group of Futurist artists
during 1916 and 1917. The movement was concerned with
celebrating the new â€œmachine age.â€ Artists avoided conventional logic and were fascinated with capturing rapid
actions, even portraying successive events as happening
simultaneously. Vita futurista consisted of several unconnected, absurd segments, including the painter Giacomo
Ballaâ€™s courting and marrying a chair. Surviving illustrations show that the film used distorting mirrors and
154 CHAPTER 8â€ƒInternational Trends of the 1920s
THE SPREAD OF â€œART CINEMAâ€ INSTITUTIONS
During the years after World War I, French Impressionist
and German Expressionist films led many observers to distinguish between mainstream commercial cinema and a
separate art cinema. Valid or not, the distinction has been
widely used ever since.
Art films, with their more limited appeal, gave rise to a
new set of institutions during the 1920sâ€”what one historian has termed â€œthe alternative cinema network.â€2 Intellectually oriented journals, cinÃ©-clubs, small art cinemas,
exhibitions, and lectures all aimed at promoting film as an
art form. Filmmakers often supported these endeavors,
writing essays, lecturing clubs and art houses, and even
making films aimed solely at these small, elite venues.
The origins of this network can be traced to Louis
Delluc, who wrote theoretical essays and criticism for a
serious fan magazine called Le Film, which he edited from
1917 to 1918. In it he championed early Impressionist films
by Abel Gance and Marcel Lâ€™Herbier and published the latterâ€™s first theoretical writings on the cinema. In 1919, Delluc
called for the formation of a cinÃ©-club devoted to artistic
films, and in 1920 he started Le Journal de CinÃ©-Club.
After three sporadic meetings of the first cinÃ©-club, Delluc
started another journal, CinÃ©a, which he later sold to
finance his shoestring filmmaking. It became CinÃ©a-CinÃ©
pour tous and published many essays by the Impressionists and by critics sympathetic to the movement.
In 1921, the author Ricciotto Canudo organized the
Club des Amis du SeptiÃ¨me Art (â€œClub of Friends of the
Seventh Artâ€), known as CASA. The membership included
artists and critics from Parisâ€™s artistic elite, and the meetings
mixed discussions of films with programs of music, poetry
readings, and dance: film had gained a high-art cachet.
Canudo tirelessly promoted the cinema, and, through
his connections in the Paris art world, he persuaded the
prestigious annual arts exhibition, the Salon dâ€™Automne, to
devote two evenings to the cinema annually from 1921 to
1923. These evenings included lectures and clips from
important filmsâ€”often from the French Impressionist and
German Expressionist movements. Despite Canudoâ€™s premature death in late 1923, and the subsequent decline of
CASA, his colleagues continued his work. In 1924, the cinema moved up another step in respectability when a Paris
art gallery, the MusÃ©e Galliera, held an exhibition on the
art of the French cinema. Besides offering lectures and
screenings, the exhibit displayed designs, posters, photographs, costumes, and other artifacts from recent French
filmsâ€”again, many of them Impressionist in style.
The climax of cinemaâ€™s participation in exhibitions
came in 1925, when one of this centuryâ€™s major art events,
the Exposition Internationale des Arts DÃ©coratifs et
Industriels Modernes, was held in Paris. This exposition
was like a worldâ€™s fair of decorative arts, and it popularized
the modernist Art Deco style throughout the world. The
cinema had its own gallery space, and a new film society
was formed to show major recent films. Again, the Impressionistsâ€™ work featured prominently.
Alternative cinema networks appeared in other countries as well. In 1924, a prestigious German art show, the
Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung, included a cinema section consisting of original set designs and models. Many
Expressionist films, like Caligari and Destiny, were represented. The following year, a large exposition devoted
entirely to photography and the cinema was held in Berlin.
The Kino und Photo Ausstellung (or Kipho), mixed commerce and art. The big companies publicized forthcoming
films, and visitors saw displays of German Expressionist
film design, including the full-sized dragon from The
In keeping with the Film Europe effort, exhibitions in
the later 1920s were more international. A major event in
the Hague in 1928, the Internationale Tentoonstelling op
Filmgebied, helped introduce the young Soviet Montage
movement more fully to Europeans. In 1929, the Deutsche
Werkbund organized a big exposition in Stuttgart, Film und
Foto. Here several programs of features and shorts surveyed the history of the avant-garde cinema, from Caligari
on. By the end of the silent era, the important art films
were already gaining the status of classics.
Another major component of the alternative cinema
network appeared in 1924, when Jean Tedesco opened
the first of Parisâ€™s salles specialisÃ©es (â€œspecialized theaters,â€ known today as art theaters). Tedesco, a critic, had
bought Dellucâ€™s magazine CinÃ©a and transformed it into
CinÃ©a-CinÃ© pour tous. He had long campaigned for a theater that would revive classics and show new offbeat films.
His ThÃ©Ã¢tre du Vieux-Colombier created a repertory of
classics that were shown in rotation; a few films that could
find no commercial distributor premiered there. In 1928,
that theater even produced Renoirâ€™s Impressionist film The
Little Match Girl. By the second half of the 1920s, there
were several specialized cinemas like the ThÃ©Ã¢tre du
Vieux-Colombier, as well as a growing number of cinÃ©clubs in Paris and provincial towns. Soon cinÃ©-clubs and
small specialized cinemas could be found abroad.
In 1925, a group of London intellectuals, including Iris
Barry, who later headed the Museum of Modern Artâ€™s film
archive, and filmmaker Ivor Montagu, started the Film Society. It showed old films, imports without distributors, and,
Film Experiments outside the Mainstream Industry 155
especially, given Englandâ€™s strict censorship laws, films
that were not approved for public screening. The Film
Society and other clubs became vital in showing banned
Soviet films in Britain. The group lasted until 1938. By the
early 1930s, some art cinemas, including the long-lived
Academy, had made it easier to see special-interest films
and film clubs existed in many parts of Britain.
The art-cinema trend reached the United States in
1925, when Symon Gould began the Film Arts Guild, renting a small New York theater for Sunday matinees of
imported films. Within the next three years, the guild was
able to move to full-time screenings, and additional art cinemas opened in New York and other cities. In 1928, the
Filmarte opened in Hollywood, giving filmmakers there
increased access to European avant-garde cinema. These
theaters initially relied heavily on Expressionist and other
German films, both new and old. Late in the decade, Soviet
films became a staple of art-house programs. Ã‰migrÃ© moviegoers helped support these theaters, and by the early
1930s, there was a healthy alternative cinema market in
the United States.
CinÃ©-clubs and art theaters spread to Belgium, Japan,
Spain, and many other countries. A filmmaker who failed
to find a distributor could deal directly with these groups,
shipping prints around the globe. As long as films
remained fairly cheap to make, this limited circulation
could generate a modest profit.
A growing number of journals promoted art films.
Tedescoâ€™s CinÃ©a-CinÃ© pour tous continued to offer a forum
for discussion of Impressionism and other artistic tendencies. It was supplemented by other French journals,
including Lâ€™â€‰Art CinÃ©matographique, which published
only eight issues but served as an important outlet for
Impressionist theory. The main international periodical of
the era, Close Up, ran from 1927 to 1933. Its driving forces
were editor Kenneth Macpherson and his wife Bryher,
wealthy Britishers living in Switzerland. Frequent contributors included their friends, notably the American poet
H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), who wrote passionate, personal
accounts of European art films. Close Up championed
unconventional cinema of all types, including the films of
G. W. Pabst and the Soviet cinema, on which Bryher wrote
the first book in English. Many small journals came and
went during this period.
Art theaters, clubs, expositions, and publications
helped support alternative types of films. Moreover, they
affected decisions about which films would be saved as
classics. During the 1930s, several major archives were
formed, including the National Film Archive in London, the
Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the CinÃ©mathÃ¨que
FranÃ§aise in Paris. Most people working in these archives
were sympathetic to alternative movements of the 1920s.
Thus many films of this era were preserved, revived, and
circulated in later decades.
Expressionist styles. From an early date, however, he was
also interested in film. In 1913, he condemned the
Autorenfilm (pp. 46â€“47) as a pointless attempt to inject
quality into the cinema by drawing on literature:
You canâ€™t turn film into a work of art by augmenting and
exalting it with â€œquality.â€ You can gather together the best
mimes in the world, you can let them perform in the most
exquisite paradise, you can adorn the programs of your film
dramas with the names of the most eminent poetsâ€”art will
never result that way. A work of art will result only if it is
born of the possibilities and demands of its material.3
Ruttmannâ€™s attitude would be shared by many experimental filmmakers in the 1920s. In 1918, he too became
intrigued with the idea of â€œmoving paintingsâ€ and began to
cast about for a means of creating them through film.
Apparently knowing little of commercial animation
techniques, Ruttmann painted with oil on glass, wiping
off portions of the wet paint and repainting them. He photographed each change from above with illumination
placed beneath the glass. His Lichtspiel Opus 1 was previewed in Frankfurt in early April 1921 and given a gala
premiere in Berlin later that month. Ruttmann went on to
make three similar short films, Lichtspiel Opus 2 (1921),
Ruttmann Opus 3 (1924), and Ruttmann Opus 4 (1925).
(These are now known as Opus 1, Opus 2, and so on.) In
each, abstract forms grow, shrink, and transmute in a
lively fashion (8.16). Ruttmann intended that his films be
shown with original musical scores and with hand-coloring. These delightful short films earned him commissions
to make theatrical commercials and special sequences in
feature films, such as Kriemhildâ€™s â€œDream of the Falconâ€
in Fritz Langâ€™s Siegfried.
156 CHAPTER 8â€ƒInternational Trends of the 1920s
Diagonal Symphony, three of Ruttmannâ€™s Opus shorts, and
Richterâ€™s Rhythmus series. Also on the program were two
French films, RenÃ© Clairâ€™s Entrâ€™acte and Dudley Murphy
and Fernand LÃ©gerâ€™s Ballet mÃ©canique (see 8.28). German
filmmakers recognized a fresh experimental impulse.
Richter and Ruttmann abandoned abstract animation to
make films using real objects, and the tradition nearly disappeared at this point.
It resurfaced unexpectedly in 1929. The London
Film Society provided a young New Zealander, the
abstract painter and poet Len Lye, with the funds for a
short film. The drawings occupied Lye from 1927 to
1929, while he supported himself as a curtain drawer in a
theater. Tusalava, which premiered at the Film Society in
1929, baffled most spectators with its esoteric imagery
(8.19). Despite the filmâ€™s reception, Lye went on to
become one of the most important abstract animators of
the sound era.
Dada was a movement that attracted artists in all media. It
began around 1915, as a result of artistsâ€™ sense of the vast,
meaningless loss of life in World War I. Artists in New
York, Zurich, France, and Germany proposed to sweep
aside traditional values and to elevate an absurdist view of
In the meantime, Richter had managed to make three
similar short animated films, the Rhythmus series (tentatively dated 1921, 1923, and 1925). His partner, Eggeling,
met an experienced animator, Erna Niemeyer; she traced
his scroll drawings and photographed them to make
Symphonie diagonale (Diagonal Symphony). Eggeling saw
his images as the equivalent of music, dictating that the
short film be shown without any sound accompaniment
(8.17). Diagonal Symphony was first shown in late 1924, a
year before Eggeling died.
The technique of abstract animation influenced commercial cinema, most notably in the work of a distinctive
filmmaker, Lotte Reiniger. Trained as an actress during
the 1910s, she was also skilled at cutting out delicate silhouettes. During the early 1920s, she did special-effects
sequences and advertisements. From 1923 to 1926, she
created her most important film, The Adventures of Prince
Achmed, assisted by Ruttmann and others. Prince Achmed
was the first major animated feature (preceding Disneyâ€™s
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). Prince Achmed told an
Arabian Nights fairy tale by means of silhouette figures
photographed against subtly shaded backgrounds (8.18).
Reiniger made such silhouette fantasy films for decades in
On May 3, 1925, an important matinee of abstract
films was held at an Ufa theater in Berlin. It included
8.16, leftâ€ƒIn Opus 2, Ruttmann creates
subtle gradations of texture as abstract
shapes slide across each other, blending
and separating rhythmically.
8.17, rightâ€ƒIn Diagonal Symphony,
complicated curved shapes swirl around
the basic diagonal motif that organizes
the abstract patterns throughout the film.
8.18, leftâ€ƒIn The Adventures of Prince
Achmed, shades of gray suggest the depth
in a setting; the moving figures consist of
jointed silhouette puppets.
8.19, rightâ€ƒLen Lye based the abstract
figures in Tusalava on Australian
Film Experiments outside the Mainstream Industry 157
music for the entire show. The evening began with a brief
film prologue (seen as the opening segment of modern
prints of Entrâ€™acte) in which Satie and Picabia leap in slow
motion into a scene and fire a cannon directly at the audience. The rest of the film, appearing during the intermission, consisted of unconnected, wildly irrational scenes
(8.21). Picabia summed up the Dada view when he characterized Clairâ€™s film: â€œEntrâ€™acte does not believe in very
much, in the pleasure of life, perhaps; it believes in the
pleasure of inventing, it respects nothing except the desire
to burst out laughing.â€4
Dada artist Marcel Duchamp made one foray into
cinema during this era. By 1913, Duchamp had moved
away from abstract painting to experiment with such
forms as ready-mades and kinetic sculptures. The latter
included a series of motor-driven spinning discs. With the
help of Man Ray, Duchamp filmed some of these discs to
create AnÃ©mic cinÃ©ma in 1926. This brief film undercuts
traditional notions of cinema as a visual, narrative art. All
its shots show either turning abstract discs (8.22) or discs
with sentences containing elaborate French puns. By
emphasizing simple shapes and writing, Duchamp created an â€œanemicâ€ style. (AnÃ©mic is also an anagram for
Entrâ€™acte and other Dada films were on the 1925
Berlin program, and they convinced German filmmakers
like Ruttman and Richter that modernist style could be
created in films without completely abstract, painted
images. Richter, who had been linked with virtually every
major modern art movement, dabbled in Dada. In his
Ghosts before Breakfast (1928), special effects show objects
rebelling against their normal uses. In reverse motion,
cups shatter and reassemble. Bowler hats take on a life of
their own and fly through the air, and the ordinary laws of
nature seem to be suspended (8.23).
Riven by internal dissension, the European Dada
movement was largely over by 1922. Many of its members
formed another group, the Surrealists.
the world. They would base artistic creativity on randomness and imagination. Max Ernst displayed an artwork
and provided a hatchet so that spectators could demolish
it. Marcel Duchamp invented â€œready-madeâ€ artwork, in
which a found object is placed in a museum and labeled;
in 1917, he created a scandal by signing a urinal â€œR. Muttâ€
and trying to enter it in a prestigious show. Dadaists were
fascinated by collage, the technique of assembling disparate elements in bizarre juxtapositions. Ernst, for example,
made collages by pasting together scraps of illustrations
from advertisements and technical manuals.
Under the leadership of poet Tristan Tzara, Dadaist
publications, exhibitions, and performances flourished
during the late 1910s and early 1920s. The performance
â€œsoirÃ©esâ€ included such events as poetry readings in which
several passages were performed simultaneously. On July 7,
1923, the last major Dada event, the â€œSoirÃ©e du â€˜Coeur Ã
Barbeâ€™â€ (â€œSoirÃ©e of the â€˜Bearded Heartâ€™â€), included three
short films: Manhatta by American artists Charles Sheeler
and Paul Strand (see 8.34), one of Richterâ€™s Rhythmus
abstract works, and the American artist Man Rayâ€™s first
film, the ironically titled Le Retour Ã la raison (â€œReturn to
Reasonâ€). The element of chance certainly entered into
the creation of Le Retour Ã la raison, since Tzara gave Ray
only twenty-four hoursâ€™ notice that he was to make a film
for the program. Ray combined some hastily shot live
footage with stretches of â€œRayogramsâ€ (8.20). The soirÃ©e
proved a mixed success, since Tzaraâ€™s rivals, led by poet
AndrÃ© Breton, provoked a riot in the audience.
This riot was symptomatic of the disagreements that
were already bringing Dada to an end. By 1922, it was in
serious decline, but key Dada films were still to come. In
late 1924, Dada artist Francis Picabia staged his ballet
RelÃ¢che (meaning â€œperformance called offâ€). Signs in the
auditorium bore such statements as â€œIf you are not satisfied, go to hell.â€ During the intermission (or entrâ€™acte),
RenÃ© Clairâ€™s short film Entrâ€™acte was shown, with accompaniment by composer Erik Satie, who had done the
8.21, rightâ€ƒClairâ€™s Dadaist fantasy
Entrâ€™acte concludes with an irreverent
funeral scene in which the hearse is
pulled, often at dizzying speed and over
roller-coaster tracks, by a camel.
8.20, leftâ€ƒMan Ray created â€œRayogramâ€ images without a camera by
scattering objects like pins and tacks
directly on the film strip, exposing it
briefly to light, and developing the result
(Le Retour Ã la raison).
158 CHAPTER 8â€ƒInternational Trends of the 1920s
denounced the film as containing too little narrative. Rayâ€™s next film, Lâ€™Ã‰toile de mer (â€œThe Starfish,â€
1927), hinted at a story based on a script by Surrealist
poet Robert Desnos. It shows a couple in love, interspersed with random shots of starfish, trains, and other
Germaine Dulac, who had already worked extensively in regular feature filmmaking and French Impressionism, turned briefly to Surrealism, directing a
screenplay by poet Antonin Artaud. The result was The
Seashell and the Clergyman (1928), which combines
Impressionist techniques of cinematography with the
disjointed narrative logic of Surrealism. A clergyman
carrying a large seashell smashes laboratory beakers; an
officer intrudes and breaks the shell, to the clergymanâ€™s
horror. The rest of the film consists of the priestâ€™s pursuing a beautiful woman through an incongruous series of
settings. His love seems to be perpetually thwarted by
the intervention of the officer (8.25). The initial screening of the film provoked a riot at the small Studio des
Ursulines theater, though it is still not clear whether
the instigators were Artaudâ€™s enemies or his friends, protesting Dulacâ€™s softening of the Surrealist tone of the
Perhaps the quintessential Surrealist film was created in 1928 by novice director Luis BuÃ±uel. A Spanish
Surrealism resembled Dada in many ways, particularly in
its disdain for orthodox art. Like Dada, Surrealism sought
startling juxtapositions. AndrÃ© Breton, who led the break
with the Dadaists and the creation of Surrealism, cited an
image from a work by the Comte de LautrÃ©amont: â€œBeautiful as the unexpected meeting, on a dissection table, of a
sewing machine and an umbrella.â€5 The movement was
influenced by the emerging theories of psychoanalysis.
Rather than depending on pure chance for the creation of
artworks, Surrealists sought to tap the unconscious mind.
They wanted to render the incoherent narratives of dreams
directly in language or images, without the interference of
conscious thought processes. Max Ernst, Salvador DalÃ,
Joan MirÃ³, and Paul Klee were important Surrealist
The ideal Surrealist film differed from Dada works
in that it would not be a humorous, chaotic assemblage
of events. Instead, it would trace a disturbing, often
sexually charged story that followed the inexplicable
logic of a dream. With a patronâ€™s backing, Dadaist Man
Ray moved into Surrealism with Emak Bakia (1927),
which used many film tricks to suggest a womanâ€™s mental state. At the end she is seen in a famous image, her
eyes closed, with eyeballs painted on them; she opens
her eyes and smiles at the camera. Many Surrealists
8.22, leftâ€ƒOne of the spinning discs
that create the â€œanemicâ€ form of AnÃ©mic
8.23, rightâ€ƒIn Ghosts before Breakfast, a
manâ€™s head flies off his body as a target is
superimposed over him.
8.24, leftâ€ƒMan Rayâ€™s Lâ€™Ã‰toile de mer uses
split-screen cinematography to create
Surrealist juxtapositions of starfish in jars,
roulette wheels, and other objects.
8.25, rightâ€ƒA split-screen technique
creates a bizarre effect in The Seashell and
the Clergyman: the officer, dressed in baby
clothes, seems to split in two.
Film Experiments outside the Mainstream Industry 159
In 1924, a casual collaboration of artists resulted in an
abstract film that did not use animated drawings but
rather everyday objects and rhythmic editing. American
set designer Dudley Murphy had decided to mount a
series of â€œvisual symphonies,â€ the first of which was a
rather literal-minded ballet film, Danse macabre (1922).
In Paris, he encountered Man Ray and modernist poet
Ezra Pound, who inspired him to do a more abstract
work. Ray shot some footage, but the French painter
Fernand LÃ©ger completed the filming of Ballet
mÃ©canique. Murphy did the cinematography, and LÃ©ger
directed a complex film juxtaposing shots of objects
like pot lids and machine parts with images of his own
paintings. There were prismatic shots of womenâ€™s faces,
as well as an innovative shot of a washerwoman climbing a flight of steps, repeated identically many times.
LÃ©ger aspired to make a film about Charlie Chaplin,
and he opened and closed Ballet mÃ©canique with an
animated figure of the comedian in his own painting
In the wake of works like Ballet mÃ©canique, some filmmakers realized that they could organize nonnarrative
films around abstract visual qualities of the physical world.
Since commercial cinema, especially that of Hollywood,
was strongly associated with narrative, such abstract films
seemed untainted, owing nothing to literary or theatrical influences. These filmmakers were not unified by
membership in any modernist movement, like Dada or
Surrealism. Indeed, they largely avoided the irreverence of
Dada and the psychic explorations of Surrealism. These
diverse, widely scattered filmmakers wanted to reduce
film to its most basic elements in order to create lyricism
and pure form.
Indeed, French proponents of this approach soon
termed it cinÃ©ma pur, or â€œpure cinema.â€ One of these was
film enthusiast and modernist poet, BuÃ±uel had come
to France and been hired as an assistant by Jean
Epstein. Working in collaboration with Salvador DalÃ,
he made Un Chien andalou (â€œAn Andalusian Dogâ€). Its
basic story concerned a quarrel between two lovers, but
the time scheme and logic are impossible. The film
begins with a sequence in which a man inexplicably
slices the heroineâ€™s eye with a razorâ€”yet she appears,
unharmed, in the next scene. As the quarrel goes on,
ants crawl from a hole in a manâ€™s hand, the hero hauls
a piano stuffed with rotting mulesâ€™ carcasses across a
room, and a pair of hands protrudes through the wall to
shake a cocktail (8.26). Throughout, intertitles
announce meaningless intervals of time passing, as
when â€œsixteen years earlierâ€ appears within an action
that continues without pause.
DalÃ and BuÃ±uel followed this film with a longer,
even more provocative one, Lâ€™Age dâ€™or (â€œThe Age of
Gold,â€ 1930). The tenuous plot concerns two lovers kept
apart by the womanâ€™s wealthy parents and a disapproving
society. An early scene shows a pompous seaside ceremony in which presiding bishops wither to skeletons.
Later, a man who is shot falls up to the ceiling, and the
heroine sucks on the toes of a statue to express her sexual frustration. The film teems with erotic imagery
(8.27), and the ending portrays a figure clearly intended
to represent Christ emerging from a sadistic orgy. Lâ€™Age
dâ€™or provoked riots during its initial screenings and was
banned. It remained almost impossible to see for over
During the early 1930s, Surrealism as a unified movement was breaking up. Some artists became involved in
leftist or anarchist politics, and DalÃ earned their wrath
through his fascination with Hitler. By 1933, the European phase of the movement was over, but, as with Dada,
Surrealismâ€™s influence was felt strongly in the era after
World War II.
8.27, rightâ€ƒDuring an elegant party,
the heroine of Lâ€™Age dâ€™or finds an ox in
8.26, leftâ€ƒIn Un Chien andalou,
a doorbell is inexplicably represented
by hands shaking a cocktail.
160 CHAPTER 8â€ƒInternational Trends of the 1920s
he was teaching at the Bauhaus. The title is a pun:
Lichtspiel means both â€œmovieâ€ and â€œplay of lightâ€ (8.32).
American photographer Ralph Steinerâ€™s H2O (1929)
consisted of increasingly abstract images of water
(8.33). Steiner made two similar films and then went on
to photograph some of the most important documentaries of the next decade. The pure-cinema impulse has
had a strong influence on experimental filmmakers since
Lyrical Documentaries: The City Symphony
Some filmmakers experimented by taking their cameras
outdoors and capturing poetic aspects of urban landscapes. Their films formed another new genre, the city
symphony. These works were part documentary, part
The earliest known city symphony, and, indeed, perhaps the first experimental film made in the United States,
was created by modern artist Charles Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand in 1920. It was shown as a scenic short
in a commercial theater in New York the following year
under the title New York the Magnificent, but the filmmakers later dubbed it Manhatta, the title by which it came to
be known. The pair filmed scenes near the Battery Park
area of Manhattan, creating evocative, often nearly
abstract views of the city (8.34). Although the film had
Henri Chomette, who had worked as an assistant director for commercial filmmakers like Jacques de Baroncelli
and Jacques Feyder. In 1925, a rich count commissioned
an experimental short, Jeux des reflets et de la vitesse
(â€œThe Play of Reflections and Speed,â€ 1925). For the
â€œspeedâ€ portion Chomette mounted his camera at various angles on a moving subway car, often filming in fast
motion. He juxtaposed these shots with views of a series
of shiny objects. His next film, Cinq minutes de cinÃ©ma
pur (â€œFive Minutes of Pure Cinema,â€ 1926), was made
for the growing circuit of specialized cinemas (8.29;
compare with 8.17). After these two films, Chomette
became a commercial director.
Following her venture into Surrealism, Germaine
Dulac embraced cinÃ©ma pur in Disque 927 (1928), ThÃ¨me
et variations (1928), and Arabesque (1929). As the titles
suggest, Dulac equated her short, lyrical studies to musical pieces (8.30, 8.31). With the coming of sound, Dulac
could not finance her films independently, and, unwilling
to return to mainstream filmmaking, she worked primarily
in newsreels after 1929.
The concept of pure cinema surfaced in other countries, though seldom under that name. Some photographers experimented briefly with cinema. LÃ¡szlÃ³, a
Hungarian photographer and sculptor, created several
films. Among these was Lichtspiel, schwarz-weiss-grau
(â€œPlay of Light, Black-White-Gray,â€ 1930), made while
8.28, leftâ€ƒMurphy and LÃ©gerâ€™s Ballet
mÃ©canique pays tribute to Chaplin with
a moving puppet designed by LÃ©ger.
8.29, rightâ€ƒCinq minutes de cinema pur
begins by dissolving among shots of glass
objects in changing patterns against a
8.30, 8.31 ThÃ¨me et variations
alternates machine parts and plants
(not shown) with a ballerinaâ€™s dance,
suggesting an abstract graphic similarity
between different kinds of movements
Film Experiments outside the Mainstream Industry 161
the abstract qualities of machines, building faÃ§ades,
store-window displays, and the like. Ruttmann includes
social commentary, as when he cuts from a homeless
woman with her children to plates of food in a fancy
restaurant. Berlin circulated widely in commercial theaters and was one of the silent eraâ€™s most influential
The poetic city symphony proved fertile ground for
young filmmakers working for the art-cinema and cinÃ©club circuit. For example, the Dutch documentarist Joris
Ivens began as cofounder of a major club, the Filmliga, in
Amsterdam in 1927. His first completed film was a lyrical,
abstract study of a drawbridge, The Bridge (1928). Its success in art-film circles led to other films, including Rain
(1929). Rain explores the changing look of Amsterdam
before, during, and after a shower: the sheen of water on
tile roofs and windows and the spatter of raindrops in the
canals and in puddles (8.38). Again, Rain was well
received among art-cinema audiences across Europe and
inspired many imitations.
little distribution initially, it was revived in art theaters
during the second half of the decade and probably inspired
By that era, the city symphony had become more
common. In 1925, Brazilian director Alberto Cavalcanti,
working in France, made Rien que les heures (â€œNothing
but the Hours,â€ 1926). It juxtaposes two different types of
material: candid documentary shots and staged scenes.
Shopkeepers open their shutters, patrons eat at cafÃ©s, a
pimp kills a woman, an old lady staggers through the
streets (8.35). Cavalcanti refuses to develop any of these
situations into a coherent plot, instead weaving together
motifs to suggest the passage of time all over Paris.
Cavalcantiâ€™s film was followed by Walter Ruttmannâ€™s
feature, Berlin: die Sinfonie der Grossstadt (Berlin, Symphony
of a Great City, 1927). It also provided a cross section of
life in a city during one day. Coming from the tradition of
abstract animation, Ruttmann begins the film with some
geometric shapes, matching them graphically with documentary images (8.36, 8.37). Subsequent shots explore
8.34 A dramatic view of the street
far below through a balustrade in
8.33 In this shot from Steinerâ€™s H2
the reflections on the surface of the
water create an image so abstract that
we can barely recognize its subject.
8.35 A drunken, perhaps dying, old
woman wandering the streets forms one
motif in Rien que les heures.
8.36, 8.37 In Berlin, Ruttmann cuts from an abstract moving image of bars forming
an â€œXâ€ to a similar composition created by a railroad crossing gate.
8.32 Filming one of his own kinetic
sculptures, the Light-Space Modulator,
Moholy-Nagy created shifting patterns of
shadows and reflected light, produced by
its moving metallic parts, for Lichtspiel,
162 CHAPTER 8â€ƒInternational Trends of the 1920s
Hollywood Extra (aka Life and Death of a Hollywood
Extra). This ingenious film, made for a reported $100,
combined close shots of actors against black backgrounds with stylized miniature scenes, made of simple
paper cut-outs and erector-set objects, shot with an ordinary light on a kitchen table (8.39). The film was a witty
satire on Hollywoodâ€™s uncaring treatment of aspiring talent. Floreyâ€™s cinematographer, Gregg Toland, went on to
photograph many major films, including Citizen Kane.
The special effects were devised by Slavko Vorkapich,
another Ã©migrÃ© fascinated with avant-garde technique;
during the 1930s, he created elaborate montage
sequences for several Hollywood movies. Florey went on
to make three more experimental shorts. The only one
that survives, The Love of Zero (1928), contains many
innovative camera techniques. Florey soon moved back
into commercial production, directing many stylish
middle- and low-budget features, ranging from the Marx
Brothersâ€™ first film, The Cocoanuts (1929), to the horror
film Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932). Some of these
show the influence of German Expressionism.
Almost simultaneously, some filmmakers hit on the
idea of using German Expressionism to bring stories by
Edgar Allan Poe to the screen. Amateur director Charles
Kleinâ€™s The Tell-Tale Heart (1928) imitated Caligari by
explicitly presenting its story as the vision of an insane
man (8.40). Kleinâ€™s film circulated among the newly
formed art cinemas. In Rochester, New York, two film
and photography enthusiasts, James Sibley Watson and
Melville Webber, codirected The Fall of the House of
Usher (1928). This filmâ€™s oblique narrative technique
depends on the spectatorâ€™s foreknowledge of Poeâ€™s story.
Impressionist-style subjective camera techniques and
Expressionist decor are combined in an attempt to capture
the eerie atmosphere of the original (8.41). Watson and
Webber went on to make an even more obscure story, Lot
in Sodom (1933), replete with superimpositions, painted
faces, and black backgrounds.
The city-symphony genre was diverse. The film might
be lyrical, displaying the effects of wind and water. Henri
Storck, who had formed the cinÃ©-club for the Belgian seaside town of Ostende, recorded the townâ€™s summertime
sights in his Images dâ€™Ostende (1929). In contrast, Dziga
Vertovâ€™s Man with a Movie Camera commented on Soviet
society by weaving together several cities in a â€œday-in-thelife-ofâ€ documentary. Vertov demonstrated the power of
the cinema by showing the filmmaking process within his
film and by using extensive special effects (see 6.51). The
city symphony has proved an enduring genre among
documentarists and experimental filmmakers.
By the late 1920s, filmmakers in several countries were
using the techniques and styles of the independent experimental cinema to question narrative conventions. In the
United States, some experimental directors adapted techniques from German Expressionism and French Impressionism into cinematic forms suited to low-budget,
independent production. During the late 1920s, noncommercial European filmmakers pushed both narrative and
abstract techniques still further.
In the United States, some filmmakers outside the
commercial industry wanted to treat film as a modern art.
Few of the more radical experimental films made in
Europe during this era were shown in America, however.
Experimental filmmakers were inspired mainly by German
Expressionist and French Impressionist films.
Like Dreyer, Robert Florey was an international
director, though on a more modest scale. Born in France,
he was thoroughly familiar with both the Impressionist
and the Expressionist movements. He came to Hollywood in 1921, serving as United Artistsâ€™ technical
adviser on French subjects and eventually directing
minor features. In 1927, he turned to experimental filmmaking, directing the short The Life and Death of 9413â€”a
8.38, leftâ€ƒIvens captures the effects of
the last few drops of a shower in a puddle
on a brick pavement in Rain.
8.39, rightâ€ƒA split-screen effect in The
Life and Death of 9413â€”a Hollywood
Extra juxtaposes the heroâ€™s naive face
with his abstract vision of Hollywood.
Film Experiments outside the Mainstream Industry 163
scenery, and a set of three swinging abstract blocks. No
two of these elements is ever seen in the same shot.
Although the film seems to hint at a minimal narrative
situation (perhaps the woman is riding the motorcycle
through the mountains?), it simply shows us the same
sorts of shots over and over (8.43).
Histoire de detective is even more complex. Purportedly a film made by a detective investigating why a man
has lost all interest in life, it consists mainly of lengthy
written passages, punctuated by banal images of the lives
of the man and his wife, which add little to the intertitles.
In a period when cinematic stories were supposed to be
told visually, Dekeukeleireâ€™s film was widely condemned.
He made one more silent film, Flamme blanche (â€œWhite
Flame,â€ 1931), a semidocumentary story of police brutality during a Communist party rally. Faced with an uncomprehending reaction to his work, Dekeukeleire turned to
documentary filmmaking during the sound era. His two
silent masterpieces, however, were indications of how far
experimental films could go in defying the norms of narrative cinema.
Independent avant-garde cinema depended on the fact
that silent filmmaking was relatively inexpensive. The
advent of sound increased costs considerably, and even
cinÃ©-clubs and art cinemas usually preferred to show sound
films. The rise of Fascism led several experimental directors to move toward political documentaries. Still, the tradition of experimentation outside commercial institutions
continued, albeit in changed form, in the 1930s and beyond.
A few European works pushed even further in exploring narrative conventions. In 1930, the short feature
Borderline was created by the group around the international intellectual journal Close Up (p. 155). Its editor,
Kenneth Macpherson, directed, and the poet H. D. was
one of the actors. Borderline centers on two couples, one
black, one white, living in a small Swiss town. When the
white man begins an affair with the black woman, sexual
and racial tensions escalate. The film mixes objective and
subjective scenes without clear-cut transitions. The
African American stage actor and singer Paul Robeson
played the black husband, and H. D. gave an intense performance as the jealous white woman. Dynamic compositions reflected the influence of the Soviet cinema (8.42),
but the film was unique in its elliptical style. It remained
the Close Up groupâ€™s only completed experiment.
The Belgian Charles Dekeukeleire discovered the
cinema through the work of the French Impressionists.
After working as a critic, he turned to filmmaking in
1927, just as the cinÃ©-club movement was spreading.
Planning, shooting, and even processing his own footage, he made four silent experimental films over the
next few years. Outstanding among these were Impatience (1929) and Histoire de detective (â€œDetective
Story,â€ 1930), bold films that had little precedent in
any artistic tradition. Impatience lasts nearly forty-five
minutes but consists of relentless repetitions of only
four elements: a woman (alternately naked and dressed
in a motorcyclistâ€™s outfit), a motorcycle, mountain
8.40, leftâ€ƒThe hero of The Tell-Tale
Heart sits on the floor of his apartment,
the design of which is modeled on that
of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
8.41, rightâ€ƒAn Expressionist set,
apparently depicting a crypt, in The Fall
of the House of Usher.
8.43, rightâ€ƒImpatience seems to suggest
a narrative situation, yet its insistent
repetition of shots like this one of the
woman against a blank background also
forces us to see it as abstract.
8.42, leftâ€ƒPaul Robeson in Borderline.
164 CHAPTER 8â€ƒInternational Trends of the 1920s
Nanook. Flaherty would not complete another film for
Nanookâ€™s triumph also enabled the producerdirector-photographer team of Ernest B. Schoedsack and
Merian Cooper to create their first feature, Grass: A
Nationâ€™s Battle for Life (1925). Financed and distributed by
Paramount, it recorded a dangerous migration of Iranian
nomads seeking pastures for their flocks (8.45). Grass was
popular enough to permit Schoedsack and Cooper to
make Chang (1928), a staged account, shot on location, of
a peasant family battling dangers in their native Siamese
jungle. Chang reflected a move toward fiction-based filmmaking, and Schoedsack and Cooper were to push their
interest in exoticism completely into fiction by producing
the immensely successful King Kong in 1933.
The documentary form was particularly important in
the Soviet Union. There all three types of documentaryâ€”
exoticism, recording of reality, and compilationâ€”found
Dziga Vertov had taken charge of Soviet newsreel
filmmaking during the Russian Revolution. By the early
1920s, he had formulated his theory of the â€œkino eye,â€
claiming that the camera lens, because of its recording
abilities, was superior to the human eye. He put this claim
to the test in 1922, establishing a new newsreel series,
Kino-Pravda. (The name was derived from the national
Bolshevik newspaper, Pravda [â€œTruthâ€], started by Lenin
in 1912.) Each installment of the newsreel focused on two
or three episodes of current events or ordinary life. Vertov
also, however, believed that special effects were part of the
cameraâ€™s superior ability to report the truth. Thus he
often used split-screen effects or superimpositions to
Before the 1920s, documentary filmmaking had largely
been confined to newsreels and scenic shorts. Occasional
feature-length documentaries had been made, but these
had not established the genre as significant. During the
1920s, however, the documentary achieved new stature as
it increasingly became identified with artistic cinema. We
can distinguish three main tendencies in the documentaries of this era: the exotic film, the attempt at direct
recording of reality, and the compilation documentary.
The exotic documentary came dramatically to public
attention in 1922 with the release of Robert Flahertyâ€™s
Nanook of the North. An explorer and prospector in Alaska
and Canada, Flaherty determined to make a feature film
following the life of an Eskimo family. Eventually, in 1920,
a fur company agreed to finance the venture. Flaherty
spent sixteen months in the region of Hudson Bay, filming
Nanook and his wife and son. Every scene was planned in
advance, with Nanook making many suggestions about
what sorts of action to include (8.44). Flaherty balanced
authenticity with arranged scenes, as when the Eskimos
built an oversize igloo with one side open so that the family could be filmed going to bed.
The major Hollywood film firms refused to distribute
Nanook, but the independent PathÃ© Exchange released it.
It met with great success, in part because of the engaging
personality of its hero. As a result, Paramount supported
Flaherty in an expedition to Samoa to direct a similar
film, Moana. He set out in 1923, only to find that the
natives had adopted Western-style customs. Flaherty persuaded his â€œactorsâ€ to return to traditional clothing and,
in order to inject drama into the film, to reenact an obsolete tattoo ritual. Flaherty had by now fallen into his lifelong habit of running far beyond schedule and shooting
immense amounts of footage. Moana was not ready for
release until 1926 and did not duplicate the success of
staged action in
Nanook of the
North as the hero
prepares to launch
his kayak and join
his friends in the
8.45 A documentary spectacle as thousands of nomads brave
frigid mountains in a search for pastureland in Grass.
Commercial Filmmaking Internationally 165
but beautiful detail the efforts to bring salt to a remote
mountain village near the Black and Caspian Seas.
The work of Flaherty, Schoedsack and Cooper, Vertov,
Shub, and others would have a considerable impact during
the 1930s, when the documentary format became more
As we emphasized in Part One, the cinema has always
been an international phenomenon. Even while Hollywood dominated world markets and some countries developed distinctive styles, hundreds of other films aimed at a
popular market continued to be made annually worldwide.
Some countriesâ€™ industries imitated Hollywood cinema
fairly directly, while a few devised recognizable (though
not avant-garde) styles. Several countries that previously
had only sporadic production began making films more
regularly, while production in some declined.
One of the most powerful studio systems grew up in
Japan, where filmmakers forged a distinctive style. The
first studios were built during the Russo-Japanese War
(1904â€“1905). Japanâ€™s victory in the conflict established it
as a world power. Soon industrial growth intensified.
Japan supplied the warring nations of Europe with
matÃ©riel and began dominating Asia with consumer
goods. US films entered the market, but Japanese audiences, though fond of American films, preferred the
domestic product and sustained local production.
comment on his subjects (8.46). Vertov also made feature-length documentaries, mixing footage photographed
directly from life with special effects that conveyed ideological points (see 6.51). When sound was introduced in
the Soviet Union, Vertov insisted on having a mobile
recording machine that could be taken on location in factories and mines for use in making Enthusiasm (1931), a
documentary on the First Five-Year Plan in steel
During this era, Soviet filmmaker Esfir Shub virtually single-handedly invented the compilation film. She
had reedited foreign films for Soviet release during the
early 1920s. Her real interest, however, was in documentary. She aspired to assemble scenes from old newsreels
into new films. The Soviet authorities refused to give
her access to such footage until 1926. Among the old
reels, she found the home movies of Tsar Nicholas II,
around which she based The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty
(1927; 8.47). The favorable reception of this film
allowed her to make two additional features: The Great
Road (1927), on the Russian Revolution, and The Russia
of Nicholas II and Leo Tolstoy (1928), on the prerevolutionary era. Having used much of the footage she had
discovered, Shub continued her career as an editor in
the sound era.
Aware of the many ethnic groups living in the new
Soviet Union, directors fostered an exoticism not unlike
that of Flahertyâ€™s Nanook. In 1929, Viktor Turin made
Turksib, chronicling the epic construction of the
Turkestan-Siberian railway. Although the film emphasized
the achievements of the Soviet state, it also recorded the
reactions of the indigenous peoples living along the railwayâ€™s route (8.48). This exotic appeal made Turksib popular on the art-cinema circuit in the West. Similarly, in Salt
for Svanetia (1930) Mikhail Kalatozov recorded in sparse
8.46 In Kino-Pravda (number 21, 1925),
Leninâ€™s face is superimposed in the sky
above his tomb.
8.47 In The Fall of the Romanov
Dynasty, Esfir Shub includes newsreel
footage of the destruction of the statue of
Tsar Alexander III in Moscow in 1921.
8.48 The new railroad is used to tether
a camel in Turksib.
166 CHAPTER 8â€ƒInternational Trends of the 1920s
The two most powerful companies were Nikkatsu and
Shochiku. Nikkatsu (short for Nippon Katsudo Shashin)
was organized in 1912 out of several smaller firms.
Shochiku was founded in 1920 by two brothers who ran a
conglomerate of kabuki theaters and vaudeville houses.
Both Nikkatsu and Shochiku were vertically integrated,
owning distribution companies and theaters. The industry
gained a professional identity by forming a trade association and by publishing a film magazine, Kinema Jumpo
In September 1923, an earthquake devastated Tokyo,
but the movie business emerged stronger than before. In
rebuilding theaters, exhibitors expanded and modernized
them. Japanese exhibitors profited from American
Shooting a feature in two weeks or less, Shochiku,
Nikkatsu, and dozens of smaller studios pumped out 600
to 800 films per year. By 1928, Japan was producing more
films than any other country, a position it would hold for
a decade and reassume after World War II. Production
was sustained through tight vertical integration, the big
firmsâ€™ investments in other entertainment businesses, and
an eager urban audience.
As in other countries, the earliest Japanese features
drew upon indigenous theater. The two major genres were
the jidai-geki, or historical film, and the gendai-geki, or the
film of contemporary life. Jidai-geki borrowed heavily
from the kabuki theater, particularly in the swordfight
films (chambara) featuring bold samurai and acrobatic
action. Gendai-geki films were typically melodramas of
romance or family life, influenced by the shimpa theater,
which was modeled on nineteenth-century European
drama. All genres adhered to the kabuki convention of
having womenâ€™s roles played by men.
Film exhibition also bore the marks of traditional theater. Exhibitors had to compete with kabuki performances,
which consumed half a day or more. Movie programs in
the largest cities tended to be long, sometimes running
over five hours. In addition, all films were accompanied by
a commentator, the katsuben or benshi. Standing near the
screen, the benshi (usually a man) would explain the
action, imitate the dialogue of all the characters, and comment on their behavior. Carrying on the tradition of
onstage narrators in kabuki and puppet theater, the benshi
added the excitement of live performance to the film
show. Some benshi became stars, attracting audiences
regardless of what film was playing.
After World War I, companies cast off theatrical traditions and started to modernize their films. In the early
1920s, women began playing female parts. The fast-paced
US imports encouraged directors to break with the
predominant long-shot style. Directors adopted Hollywood continuity principles, and close-ups and shot/
reverse-shot editing became widespread. The jidai-geki
directors, notably Masahiro Makino, intensified action
sequences by using American-style rapid editing. Some
directors, such as Kaoru Osanai and Minoru Murata in
their Souls on the Road (1921), blended theatrical performance with more American-style cutting and flashback
New genres sprang up as well. With the modern
reconstruction of Tokyo after the 1923 earthquake, the
urban comedy of manners became an important genre.
American imports also accelerated modernization, as
when Yutaka Abe modeled Woman Who Touched the Legs
(1926) on Lubitschâ€™s The Marriage Circle (1924). A genre
of sarariman (â€œsalarymanâ€) comedies portrayed the tribulations of the downtrodden company employee trying to
The few films that survive from this period indicate
that, despite low budgets, Japanâ€™s studios created one of
the worldâ€™s most innovative cinemas. Kinugasaâ€™s A Page of
Madness (pp. 150â€“151) represents an experimental
extreme, but mainstream films also displayed great pictorial dynamism. Swordfight scenes relied on fast-motion,
abrupt cutting, hand-held camera movements, and carefully choreographed swordplay (8.49); and many films
flaunted deep-space compositions and striking angles and
lighting (8.50). The imaginative storytelling and style pioneered in the 1920s would be elaborated in the outstanding accomplishments of Japanese cinema in the following
In the postwar years, the British film industry also optimistically set out to compete with Hollywood, largely by
imitating its methods. Pioneer producer-director Cecil
Hepworth expanded his company in 1919, and a few
other important firms, such as Stoll and Ideal, both
formed during the war, made ambitious films that they
hoped would be released in the United States. Among
these, Hepworth was the main figure to make distinctively British films. As he put it, â€œIt was always in the
back of my mind from the very beginning that I was to
make English pictures, with all the English countryside for
background and with English atmosphere and English idiom
throughout.â€6 His own favorite was Cominâ€™ Throâ€™ the Rye
(1924), which exploited the beauties of the English countryside to tell an old-fashioned love story (8.51). Despite
its location photography, however, the film proved unable
to compete with the livelier Hollywood films that still
Commercial Filmmaking Internationally 167
commanded around 90 percent of British screen time.
Shortly after its completion, Hepworthâ€™s firm was
bankrupt, and he turned to running a film laboratory. As
we have seen, the young man who would become
Englandâ€™s most famous director, Alfred Hitchcock, was
making films that were more European than British in
style (p. 150).
Other British filmmakers, imitating Hollywood films
but unable to command the high budgets of American
productions, also found it difficult to compete. By the
mid-1920s, production slumped. Finally, in 1927, the government passed a quota to support British production.
Investment picked up slowly in the last years of the decade,
though the expenses connected with the introduction of
sound in 1929 set the recovery back somewhat. The
growth of the British industry into a mature studio system
would occur during the 1930s.
A somewhat similar situation existed in Italy after the
war. Initially producers tried to revive the palmy days of
Italian prewar production, mostly by relying on the formulas of that period. Expensive costume pictures remained a
staple. In 1923, the Unione Cinematografica Italiana
(UCI), a large firm started four years earlier, produced a
lavish remake of the 1913 hit Quo Vadis? Drawing on tactics associated with the budding Film Europe movement,
UCI brought in a German, Georg Jacoby, to codirect with
Gabriellino Dâ€™Annunzio. A German cinematographer
was also imported, and the cast was multinational (8.52).
The filmâ€™s lukewarm reception suggested that epics would
not regain Italy its former glory. Further attempts were
made, however. In 1924, one of the most important
Italian directors, Augusto Genina, made Cirano di
Bergerac, from Edmond Rostandâ€™s play Cyrano de
Bergerac. The producers took the unusual step of adding
hand-stenciled color to the entire lengthy feature (Color
Plate 8.1). Another genre prominent in this period was
the strongman film, including Maciste allâ€™inferno
(â€œMaciste in Hell,â€ 1926).
The competition from American and other imported
films was too great, however. During the early 1920s,
Italian films made up only 6 percent of those screened. In
1926, output sank to a mere twenty features.
In 1922, the government was taken over by the Fascist party, whose leader, Benito Mussolini, considered
the cinema â€œthe strongest weaponâ€ of the state. In 1923,
the government formed Lâ€™Unione Cinematografica Educativa (LUCE) to make documentaries. Fiction films
responded little to the Fascist regime, however, until the
One notable event occurred at the end of the silent
era. Alessandro Blasetti, the leader of a group of young
critics and theorists who opposed the continued reliance
on old formulas, made his first film, Sole (â€œSunâ€) in
1929. For this tale of the reclamation of marshes for
farmland, Blasetti drew heavily on influences from
Soviet Montage films and other European avant-garde
cinema. The brief surviving portion displays rapid editing for maximum conflict, subjective techniques, and
unusual camera angles, all combined with dazzling photography of the marshland settings. Blasettiâ€™s film
received considerable praise as the first major Fascist
fiction film. During the next few years, when the introduction of sound and increasing government support
revived Italian filmmaking, he became one of Italyâ€™s
most important directors.
8.49 Dyamic swordfighting in
Komatsu Riyuzo (1930).
8.50 The blind factory owner in
Town of Love (1928, Tomotaka Tasaka)
is given hard crosslighting.
8.51 The rye field Hepworth planted
for Cominâ€™ Throâ€™ the Rye. Its cycle, from
plowing to harvesting, creates a bucolic
background for key scenes of the central
168 CHAPTER 8â€ƒInternational Trends of the 1920s
Some Smaller Producing Countries
A number of countries began producing on a more stable
basis. Often their films were inexpensively made and
designed primarily for the domestic market. Such industries continued to draw heavily on national literature and
to use local scenery and customs to set their films apart
from the dominant Hollywood product.
For example, although films had regularly been made
in Czechoslovakia since 1908, the first well-equipped
filmmaking studio was not built until 1921. In 1924,
actor-director Karel LamaÄ constructed a second, the
KavalÃrka studios. Here LamaÄ made The Good Soldier
Schweik (1926), which helped create a national film tradition. It was based on Jaroslav HaÅ¡ekâ€™s popular satire on
militarism: LamaÄ chose a few episodes from the sprawling tale and found an actor who resembled the Schweik of
the original illustrations (8.53).
Spanish cinema also expanded slightly during this
period. During the 1910s, Spanish films were usually
adaptations of plays. Small firms came and went, as investors dabbled in producing a film or two. During the 1920s,
longer lasting filmmaking companies formed, notably
Film EspaÃ±ola. Among its most prolific and popular directors was JosÃ© Buchs. His Curro Vargas (1923), a costume
picture set in the nineteenth century, typifies small
national film production (8.54, 8.55). Spanish audiences
enjoyed seeing locally made films, and production rose to
fifty-nine features in 1928. The coming of sound, however,
temporarily brought the industry to a virtual standstill.
Production was even more sporadic in Belgium, but a
few small companies made occasional features. In 1919,
AndrÃ© Jacquemin formed a firm, Le Film CinÃ©matographique Belge, which produced the feature Le Portrait de
lâ€™amiral (1922, directed by FranÃ§ois Le Forestier).
Adapted from a Belgian novel, the film used local settings
to enhance its appeal (8.56). Although this film was
aimed mainly at the domestic audience, it also did well in
other French-speaking markets.
Occasionally, a firm in a smaller producing country
would make a big-budget costume picture in order to break
into the world market. The Austrian producer Alexander
Joseph â€œSaschaâ€ Kolowrat-Krakowsky took this tack. He
had formed the Sascha firm in 1914. In 1918, Kolowrat
8.52, leftâ€ƒGerman Emil Janningsâ€”one
of the foreign actors imported for Quo
8.53, rightâ€ƒThe bumbling hero of The
Good Soldier Schweik stands to attention
after squatting in an open-air latrine.
A passing officer awards him a medal,
prompting him to comment, â€œThis shows
that, no matter where, luck can smile on
8.54, 8.55 Curro Vargas mixes
picturesque exterior locales with interior
sets built on old-fashioned open-air
stages, as when the hero moves from the
street to a starkly sunlight room.
Brussels in Le
for international appeal. Based on an adventure novel by
H. Rider Haggard, it highlighted crowds of extras and
large sets (8.57), as well as impressive special effects
depicting Moses parting the Red Sea. Such films occasionally succeeded on world markets, but they were not
enough to form the basis for regular production in a minor
The introduction of sound at the end of the decade
massively altered many countries filmmaking, sometimes
adversely, sometimes positively.
1. C. de Danilowicz, â€œChez Erich Pommer,â€ CinÃ©magazine
4, no. 27 (4 July 1924): 11.
2. Richard Abel, French Film: The First Wave, 1915â€“1929
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985),
3. Quoted in Walter Schobert, The German Avant-Garde
Film of the 1920â€™s (Munich: Goethe-Institut, 1989),
4. Quoted in Rudolf E. Kuenzli, Dada and Surrealist Film
(New York: Willis Locker & Owens, 1987), p. 5.
5. Quoted in Patrick Waldberg, Surrealism (New York:
McGraw-Hill, n.d.), pp. 24â€“25.
6. Cecil Hepworth, Came the Dawn: Memories of a Film
Pioneer (London: Phoenix House, 1951), p. 144.
Emphasis in original.
8.57 An Egyptian crowd scene in Die SklavenkÃ¶nigin.
We discuss some topics in this chapter further on our blog, Observations on Film Art:
On a 1925 Japanese martial-arts film: â€œBando on the runâ€
visited the United States to study production methods. He
decided that making spectacles was the way to succeed in
the Austrian and even the US markets. He produced two
big-budget spectacles, Sodom and Gomorrah (1922) and
Die SklavenkÃ¶nigin (Moon of Israel, 1924), both directed
by Hungarian MihÃ¡ly KertÃ©sz. (By the end of the decade,
he would go to work in Hollywood under the name
Michael Curtiz, directing many films, including Casablanca.) Die SklavenkÃ¶nigin was a typical epic designed
THE DEVELOPMENT OF
SOUND CINEMA, 1926â€“1945
T wo major social upheavals dominated the period from 1930 to 1945:
the Great Depression and World War II.
On October 29, 1929â€”Black Tuesdayâ€”the Wall Street Crash signaled
the beginning of the Depression in America. The slump quickly spread to
other countries and lasted through most of the 1930s. Countless workers
lost their jobs, banks failed in record numbers, farms were foreclosed, manufacturing declined, and currencies plunged in value. Fierce competition on
international markets shattered the cooperative spirit that had been developing among European countries during the 1920s.
These economic disturbances took place in a threatening political climate. Italy had had a Fascist government since 1922. In 1933, Adolf Hitler
became chancellor of Germany, instituting the Nazi regime. The Japanese
government was also moving to the extreme right and asserted its imperialist goals by invading Manchuria in 1931. In many countries, socialist partiesâ€™ resistance to the spread of Fascist led to political polarization.
The United States and its Western European allies tried to appease
Hitler, but Germanyâ€™s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, precipitated
World War II. The German-Italian-Japanese Axis powers would battle the
United States, Western European countries, and other Allies until 1945.
Although the war caused massive destruction in some parts of the world, it
boosted the US economy, as the country recovered from the Depression
partly by expanding its armaments industry.
The spread of sound in the cinema coincided with the early years of the
Great Depression. Warner Bros. had successfully added music and sound
effects to some of its films in 1926 and 1927. By 1929, sound had been
adopted throughout the American studios, and theaters were quickly being
converted. During that same year, early American sound films were enjoying
Source: long runs in European capitals. Warner Brothers Studio
PART 3â€ƒThe Development of Sound Cinema, 1926â€“1945 171
Inventors in several countries had been working
simultaneously on sound systems, and sound was introduced in various ways around the world. Crude sound
equipment initially rendered many films static and talky.
From the beginning, however, resourceful filmmakers
injected visual and auditory interest into their sound pictures (Chapter 9).
During the 1930s, most of the big Hollywood companies encountered financial difficulties; some went bankrupt. Nevertheless, they continued to make hundreds of
films a year and to develop new technologies and genres
Sound boosted some national film industries. Britain
built up a studio system that imitated Hollywoodâ€™s. Japan
developed its own successful variant of the Hollywood system and managed to control its domestic market. Indiaâ€™s
already healthy production sector grew during the 1930s
by offering its diverse population films in regional languages and containing musical sequences (Chapter 11).
The politically extreme regimes of the period, both
right wing and left wing, led some governments to take
control of entire film industries. The Soviet Union completed its consolidation of its nationalized industry,
instituting strict policies for subject matter and style. The
Nazis moved more circumspectly but also gradually
absorbed the German film business and installed strict
censorship. The Italian government adopted a different
approach, offering financial incentives to film companies
and encouraging them to provide the public with light
entertainment (Chapter 12).
The French cinema remained in its ongoing crisis. Its
patchwork of small production companies did not form a
coherent studio system. Some individual filmmakers created a lyrical style known as Poetic Realism. During the
middle of the decade, leftists made optimistic films in support of the short-lived Popular Front government. Once
the war began, however, Germany quickly overran much
of France, and French filmmakers who did not go into
exile found themselves working under the tight control of
Nazi occupiers (Chapter 13).
The growing power of Fascist regimes resulted in a
move toward political documentary in Western countries,
where some governments sponsored factual films. A few
experimental filmmakers were able to continue working
independently, creating works that remained far outside
mainstream cinema (Chapter 14).
Most silent films were accompanied by live music, ranging from a
piano or an organ to a full orchestra. Sound effects were roughly
matched to the screen action. In addition, from the cinemaâ€™s beginning,
inventors attempted to join the image to mechanically reproduced sound,
usually on phonograph records. These systems had little success before the
mid-1920s, primarily because sound and image proved difficult to synchronize and because amplifiers and loudspeakers were inadequate for theater
The introduction of synchronized sound is often dated from 1927,
when Warner Bros. released the enormously successful The Jazz Singer. But
the process of inventing and disseminating sound technology occurred at
different rates in different countries and involved many competing systems
Sound also affected style. Some critics and directors feared that extensive dialogue scenes in adapted plays would eliminate the flexible camera
movements and editing of the silent era (see â€œNotes and Queriesâ€ online).
Most filmmakers soon realized, however, that sound, used imaginatively,
offered a valuable new stylistic resource. In 1933, Alfred Hitchcock commented on the difference between musical accompaniment for silent films
and musical scores in sound films: â€œI was greatly interested in music and
films in the silent days, and I have always believed that the coming of sound
opened up a great new opportunity. The accompanying music came at
last entirely under the control of the people who made the picture.â€1
Now sound and image could be combined in predictable ways during
THE INTRODUCTION OF SOUND
The Star Witness
Sound in the United States 173
recorded music but no dialogue. The showing was successful, and Warners made more shorts and features with
On October 6, 1927, The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland)
premiered. Most sequences had only orchestral accompaniment, but in four scenes vaudeville star Al Jolson sang
and even spoke briefly (â€œYou ainâ€™t heard nothinâ€™ yetâ€).
The filmâ€™s phenomenal success suggested that sound
might provide more than a cheap way of reproducing stage
acts and music. Warners made more â€œpart-talkies,â€ and in
1928 the first â€œall-talkie,â€ The Lights of New York (Bryan
Foy), became another hit.
Sound-on-Film Is Adopted
Warner Bros. was first into the field of sound, but
another firm was a close second. As Western Electric
was developing its sound-on-disc system, two engineers,
Theodore Case and Earl Sponable, created a sound-onfilm system, partly based on de Forestâ€™s Phonofilm. Fox
Film Corporation invested in the Case-Sponable system.
Like Warner, Fox was a small but expanding company
that hoped sound would give it a competitive advantage.
Fox renamed the Case-Sponable system Movietone and
demonstrated it in 1927 with short films of vaudeville
acts and musical numbers. The showing was a success,
but Fox soon found that most big-name theatrical talent
had signed contracts with Warner Bros. Fox then concentrated on sound newsreels, including highly popular
coverage of Charles Lindberghâ€™s solo flight to Paris. Fox
used a Movietone musical score for F. W. Murnauâ€™s 1927
feature Sunrise (pp. 141â€“142) and made some parttalkies in 1928.
The next major system was another sound-on-film
technology developed by the Radio Corporation of
America (RCA, a subsidiary of General Electric and
Westinghouse). Dubbed Photophone, it was demonstrated
in early 1927 and for a short time promised to rival the
most successful system to date, Warnersâ€™ Vitaphone, in
becoming the industry standard.
The five largest producing companies in Hollywood at
this pointâ€”MGM, Universal, First National, Paramount,
and Producers Distributing Corporationâ€”proceeded cautiously in relation to sound. If firms acted individually,
they might choose incompatible equipment. Since each
firmâ€™s theaters had to show other companiesâ€™ films, the
lack of a common standard would hurt business. In
February 1927, they signed the Big Five Agreement, pledging to act together in adopting whichever sound system
proved most advantageous. The two leading choices
were the Western Electric sound-on-disc and the RCA
SOUND IN THE UNITED STATES
Of the three countries that dominated the worldâ€™s conversion to soundâ€”the United States, Germany, and the
USSRâ€”the US film industry was the first to move successfully into sound production. Film executives had long
anticipated the introduction of sound. But which system
would be technically viable and profitable? Several alternatives were put on the market.
Lee de Forest first demonstrated his Phonofilm in
1923. This sound-on-film process converted sound into
light waves reproduced on a photographic strip running
alongside the images on regular 35mm film (see the left
edge of 9.9). This system offered synchronization advantages. If the film broke and was repaired, the same number
of frames of image and sound would be cut out. Since
de Forest was determined to be independent, his company
remained small, though the sale of Phonofilm patent
rights abroad promoted the spread of sound in some
During the 1910s and early 1920s, Western Electric,
a subsidiary of one of the worldâ€™s largest companies,
American Telephone & Telegraph, was developing recording systems, amplifiers, and loudspeakers. Heavily funded
researchers combined these components so that sound on
phonograph records could be kept in satisfactory synchronization with the images. In 1925, Western Electric marketed its sound-on-disc system, but most Hollywood studios
were too cautious to adopt it.
Warner Bros. and Vitaphone
The Western Electric system was offered at a time when
the small firm of Warner Bros. was expanding. Using Wall
Street financing, Warner Bros. invested in distribution
facilities and theaters, trying to become vertically integrated. It also created a radio station in Los Angeles to
promote its films. The radio equipment came from
Western Electric, which also managed to interest Sam
Warner in its film recording system.
Initially Warner considered sound a cost-cutting substitute for live entertainment on film programs. By recording vaudeville acts and using orchestral accompaniment
for features, they could save on labor in their own theaters and offer similar savings to other exhibitors. They
signed major singers, comics, and other performers to
exclusive contracts. Warner Bros. tested the Vitaphone
process in a series of short films. The first public screening, on August 6, 1926, began with eight shorts, including
a speech by Will Hays and an opera aria. The feature, Don
Juan (Alan Crosland), starring John Barrymore, had
174 CHAPTER 9â€ƒThe Introduction of Sound
the Western Electric system, many theaters in the United
States bought Photophone equipment, and the system
enjoyed considerable success abroad.
Once the Hollywood studios decided what systems
to adopt, they quickly began installing equipment in theaters. Independent theaters often used one of the
cheaper sound systems. Many smaller theaters could not
afford to buy any sound equipment at all, especially
since the spread of sound coincided with the onset of
the Depression. As a result, many American films were
released in both sound and silent versions. Still, by
mid-1932, the conversion to sound was virtually
complete in the United States.
Sound and Filmmaking
Filmmakers and technology workers struggled to cope
with the unfamiliar, often clumsy, new technology.
Microphones were insensitive and hard to move; it was
difficult to mix sound tracks; and scenes frequently had
to be shot by multiple cameras in soundproof booths
While many early sound films were static and full of
dialogue, some filmmakers responded to the limitations
imaginatively. The musical, a genre made possible by the
new invention, offered opportunities for resourceful uses
of sound. Even a pedestrian backstage musical like the
immensely successful The Broadway Melody (1929, Harry
Beaumont) had clever moments. The opening, set in a
block of music rehearsal rooms, creates a cacophony of
different pieces being played simultaneously, as well as
abrupt cuts from one sound to another as the editing
moves in and out of the soundproof rooms. Another
show-business musical, Rouben Mamoulianâ€™s Applause
(1929) helped restore extensive camera movements to
the sound film.
Ernst Lubitsch brought the wit of his silent films to
The Love Parade (1929), a costume musical set in a
mythical Eastern European country. In a comedy of
gender role reversals, Count Albert marries Queen
Louise, only to discover that he has no authority, either
in his marriage or in state affairs. Although the film
was shot primarily in the studio, Lubitsch avoided
multiple-camera shooting in most scenes. He simply
had the character complete a line a few seconds before
the cut and resume speaking a few seconds into the next
shot. With no dialogue carrying over the cut, sound was
more easily edited.
Some musical numbers avoided multiple cameras by
using the suggestive â€œLubitsch touch.â€ As the Count
stands in his window singing, â€œParis, Please Stay the
sound-on-film systems. By 1928, Western Electric also
had a sound-on-film technology availableâ€”and it offered
more favorable contracts. The Big Five opted for Western
Because many theaters had already installed
phonograph-style projectors, the Hollywood firms continued for a few years to release two prints of most films:
some with phonograph discs and some with sound-on-film
(9.1). Only Warners continued to use discs during production. In 1931, however, it joined the rest of the industry by
switching to sound-on-film.
The rejected RCA system, Photophone, did not vanish.
David Sarnoff, RCAâ€™s general manager, created a new vertically integrated motion-picture company. He bought the
Film Booking Office, thus acquiring a distribution outlet
and a studio, and he purchased the Keith-Albee-Orpheum
circuit of vaudeville houses to provide a theater chain. In
October 1928, Sarnoff formed Radio-Keith-Orpheum,
known as RKO. Since Photophone was compatible with
9.1 In the early years of sound, many theaters had projectors, like this Western Electric model, that could play
both sound-on-disc and sound-on-film. (Source: Western Electric)
Sound in the United States 175
EARLY SOUND TECHNOLOGY AND THE CLASSICAL STYLE
Early sound technology posed stylistic problems for the
film industry. The first microphones picked up any noise on
the set. Cameras whirred as they filmed and had to be
placed in soundproof booths. Moreover, initially all the
sounds for a single scene had to be recorded at once; there
was no â€œmixingâ€ of sound tracks recorded separately. If
music were to be heard, the instruments had to play near
the set as the scene was filmed. The microphoneâ€™s placement limited the action. It was often suspended over the set
on heavy rigging; a technician moved it about within a limited range, trying to point it at the actors (9.2).
The photograph below shows three cameras filming a
simple scene of two people on a bench. This technique,
multicamera shooting, was widely adopted because each
scene had to be filmed straight through in its entirety.
Although it would have been easier to shoot all the action
in a lengthy take with one camera, filmmakers were reluctant to surrender the flexibility and emphasis that the continuity editing system had given them in the silent era. In
order to be able to use devices like establishing shots, cutins, and shot/reverse shots and still match sound and lip
movement smoothly from shot to shot, directors filmed the
scene from a variety of vantage points. One camera might
have a normal lens and make the long shot while another
in the next booth made medium shots with a telephoto
lens and a third filmed the action from a slightly different
angle. At times, more than three cameras were used.
Even Warner Bros.â€™s Vitaphone shorts, which primarily
displayed classical music and vaudeville acts, used multiple cameras to permit shot changes (9.3). For example,
Behind the Lines, from the second Vitaphone program
(shot in August 1926), shows popular wartime entertainer
Elsie Janis leading a group of soldiers in a series of songs;
the seven-minute filmâ€™s action was shot straight through,
using two camera positions. The finished film cuts back
and forth between these two positions (9.4, 9.5).
In feature films, multiple-camera shooting did not
exactly duplicate silent-film style. The presence of the
bulky booths made it difficult to get precise framings; in a
conversation scene, for example, one shot might be taken
at an angle to the characters, while the reverse shot is in
profile (9.6â€“9.8). Also, since the cameras tended to be
lined up in front of the scene, portions of the space often
overlapped between shots (9.9â€“9.11). Incidentally, during
9.2 In a Warner Bros.
sound studio, an exterior
dialogue scene for an early
talkie is shot. The orchestra
plays at the side, and three
cameras in booths face the
couple on the bench. Note
the man on top of the
booth, center, moving the
microphone slightly to
catch the pairâ€™s voices. Two
additional microphones are
suspended above the
orchestra. Cables carry
the sound from all three
microphones to a soundrecording booth not
visible here. (Source: Warner
176 CHAPTER 9â€ƒThe Introduction of Sound
9.3 The crew and
equipment, including four
camera booths, at Warner
Bros.â€™s Vitaphone sound
studio in Brooklyn, c. 1926.
The man in the dark suit,
second from left, has
his hand on a single
microphone hanging from
the ceiling. The empty set
for a musical short involving
a piano is visible at the rear.
(Source: Warner Brothers Studio)
EARLY SOUND TECHNOLOGY AND THE CLASSICAL STYLE, continued
the early years of sound, the track occupied part of the left
of the rectangular frame used just for the image in the
silent era. Thus many early sound films had square images
(see 9.9). The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and
Sciences soon recommended putting black strips at the
top and bottom of the image to re-create a rectangular
frame; this Academy ratio (or Academy aperture) remained
standard until the advent of widescreen ratios in the 1950s.
9.4, 9.5 In Behind the Lines, a perfect match on action as the view shifts from one camera to a second covering the scene:
a soldier climbing onto a truck bed being used as a stage. Note the theatrical-style backdrop in Warnersâ€™ sound studio.
Sound in the United States 177
Other aspects of early sound technology limited filmmakersâ€™ choices. The camera booths had wheels, but these
usually served to move the camera between setups. Generally they were too noisy and awkward for tracking shots.
Instead, camera operators could make short panning movements through the booth windows to keep the action centered. As a result, short reframing pans became a more
common stylistic feature than they had been in the silent era.
The microphones initially were insensitive, and hence studios often insisted that actors take diction lessons and speak
slowly and distinctly. Many early talkies move at a slow pace,
and the performances seem stilted to modern ears.
Technicians worked quickly to solve such problems.
Studios soon built padded metal blimps that silenced the
camera but were far less awkward to use than booths.
9.6â€“9.8 In a scene from The Lights of New York made with multiple-camera shooting, one camera shows the Hawk and his two
thugs, a second uses a telephoto lens to take a closer view of the thugs from an angle, and a third, also with a telephoto lens,
frames Hawk in profile.
9.9â€“9.11 In Hallelujah (1929, King Vidor), three shots show the action from similar standpoints; note how the central character is seen
at one side of the frame in the second shot and then at the other side in the third.
Next came microphone booms, poles that moved the
microphone overhead to follow moving sources or swing
from actor to actor (9.12). Perhaps most important, from
1931 on it became increasingly possible to record more
than one track of sound for a scene and to mix them into
a single final track. This new technology facilitated
recording the nondiegetic atmospheric music for a film
after its images had been shot and edited; sound effects
could be added to a scene, or prerecorded songs could
be played back for singers to lip-sync during the shooting. Combining and recombining sounds became as easy
as selecting and arranging shots, and multiple-camera
shooting ceased. During the 1930s, Hollywood moved
further toward overcoming the stylistic limitations that
sound had created.
178 CHAPTER 9â€ƒThe Introduction of Sound
9.12 William Wellman directing The Star Witness (1931). The
camera is muffled in a studio-built blimp, and the microphone
hangs on a boom above the actors.
Significantly, some filmmakers, primarily in other
countries, avoided the constrictive multiple-camera
shooting system or employed it sparingly. Sacrificing the
polished lip synchronization and matches on action that
the Hollywood technology provided, these filmmakers
shot much of their footage silent and dubbed in sound
later, however loosely it fit the images. This permitted
camera movements, fast cutting from a wide range of
angles, and other techniques seldom used in early Hollywood sound films.
Same,â€ Lubitsch cuts to reverse shots showing attractive
women watching him from other windowsâ€”presumably
some of his many lovers. The scene switches to another
window, where the Countâ€™s valet sings another verse, and
we see reverse shots of maids watching him, also with
romantic overtones. Then, in yet another window, the
Countâ€™s dog barks a bit of the same tune, with female dogs
emerging from nearby bushes to listen.
Hallelujah (1929, King Vidor) circumvented stylistic
obstacles in other ways. Vidor persuaded MGM to make a
musical featuring only African Americans. No portable
sound equipment was available, so roughly half the footage was filmed silent on location, with sound added
later. Unhampered by booths, Vidor could move the camera freely outdoors (9.13). Hallelujah did employ
multiple-camera shooting in some scenes (see 9.9â€“9.11).
Even these studio scenes, however, have a distinctive quality, since the actors improvised much of the dialogue,
whether postsynchronized or shot directly. They often
speak quickly, even interrupting each other, creating a livelier pace than that of most early talkies.
Although the studio insisted on including two
Irving Berlin songs, the filmâ€™s sound track emphasizes
African American folk music and spirituals. The
performers play banjos, kazoos, and a church harmonium. Despite Hallelujahâ€™s somewhat melodramatic
treatment of southern black religious and sexual mores,
its attempt to deal with a milieu largely neglected by
Hollywood, as well as its creative use of sound, made it
GERMANY CHALLENGES HOLLYWOOD
Dividing the International Pie
In 1918, three inventors came up with a German soundon-film system, Tri-Ergon. From 1922 to 1926, they tried
to introduce the process, and the giant firm Ufa took an
option on it. Probably because of Ufaâ€™s mid-1920s
financial woes, however, the firm did not move into sound
9.13 A tracking
shot through a
cotton field as
the family sings
and carries in
their crop in
EARLY SOUND TECHNOLOGY AND THE CLASSICAL STYLE, continued
Germany Challenges Hollywood 179
central Europe, and a few other countries. American manufacturers gained control of Canada, Australia, India, the
USSR, and other regions. Some countries, such as France,
remained open to free competition. Anyone distributing
sound films in any territory had to pay a fee to the appropriate member of the cartel. Although there were countless
patent cases and battles over high licensing fees internationally, the global sound-film cartel operated until 1939, when
World War II put an end to it.
The Early Sound Era in Germany
Despite the departure of many German filmmakers for
Hollywood during the 1920s, the early sound era saw a
last flowering of creativity before the Nazi regime took
control in 1933. Both veteran silent directors and important newcomers found imaginative ways to use sound and
to retain the stylistic flexibility of the moving camera and
The first sound film of Fritz Lang, who had been central to the German Expressionist movement of the 1920s
(pp. 91â€“94), was one of his finest. M (1931) tells the story
of the search for a serial killer of children. The police
dragnet so inconveniences the underworld of Berlin that
the criminals decide to capture the killer. Lang chose to
avoid all nondiegetic music, concentrating on dialogue
and sound effects. Not lingering on any one character, he
used crisp editing to move quickly among many.
Far from creating static, lengthy scenes, Lang used
sound to rapidly stitch together disparate actions and
locales. He experimented with sound bridges, carrying over
the sound, particularly voices, from one scene into the
nextâ€”a technique that would not be commonly used until
the modern Hollywood cinema (9.14). In portraying the
two manhunts, Lang used sound and image to create
In August 1928, several international companies
pooled their sound patents, including those for Tri-Ergon,
and formed the Tonbild-Syndikat (â€œSound Film Syndicateâ€), usually referred to as Tobis. A few months later,
major electronics and recording firms created a second
company, Klangfilm, to promote another sound-on-film
system. In March 1929, the two companies merged into
Tobis-Klangfilm, soon to be the most powerful sound firm
outside the United States. Spurred by news of Vitaphoneâ€™s
successes, Ufa signed a contract with Tobis-Klangfilm and
began building sound studios.
The interests controlling Tobis-Klangfilm, which
included powerful Swiss and Dutch financial groups, were
determined to compete with the American firms. When
Warners opened its immensely successful The Singing Fool
(1928, Lloyd Bacon) in Berlin in 1929, Tobis-Klangfilm
obtained a court injunction to stop the filmâ€™s run. The
firm claimed that the Vitaphone equipment Warners had
installed in the theater infringed its patents. When it
became apparent that Tobis-Klangfilmâ€™s officials were
bent on keeping American sound systems out of Germany,
the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America
(MPPDA) declared that all American firms would stop
sending films to German theaters and stop importing
German films to the United States.
This period of uncertainty slowed the German transition to sound. Producers were reluctant to make sound
films, for lack of wired theaters and for fear of being
unable to export to the United States. Reciprocally, exhibitors hesitated to buy expensive projection systems when
there were few sound films available. The first German
talkie, The Land without Women (Carmine Gallone) was
finished in 1928, but it was not until early 1930 that sound
production and exhibition accelerated. By 1935, virtually
all of Germanyâ€™s theaters were wired.
In the meantime, the American firms discovered that
their boycotts were not working. Both Warner Bros. and
RKO started paying licensing fees to Tobis-Klangfilm in
order to bring their films and equipment into Germany.
Tobis-Klangfilm also set up foreign subsidiaries and made
patent-sharing agreements with sound firms in several
countries. By obtaining further court orders to block
American equipment shipped from Switzerland,
Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere, Tobis-Klangfilm threatened to control large portions of the world market.
Soon the MPPDA and firms linked to the Western
Electric system reached a settlement with Tobis-Klangfilm.
On July 22, 1930, at a meeting in Paris, all parties agreed to
an international cartel that would divide up the world market. Tobis-Klangfilm received exclusive rights to sell sound
equipment in Germany, Scandinavia, most of Eastern and
9.14 In M, as a police psychologist dictates a profile of the
unknown criminalâ€™s abnormal mental state, Lang cuts to the
killerâ€™s home, where he experiments with grotesque expressions
in a mirror as the psychologistâ€™s voice continues.