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Experiments in motion pictures began in the United States and Europe during the late 19th century.  American inventor Thomas Alva Edison patented the first movie machine, the Kinetoscope, in 1891.  Four years later, French inventors Louis and Auguste Lumiere demonstrated the camera-projector called the cinematographe.  American filmmaker Edwin S. Porter's eight-minute The Great Train Robbery (1903) launched the movies as mass entertainment.


American filmmakers soon became preeminent.  Major studios were situated in New York, with D.W. Griffith the medium's most influential director.  In dozens of films, he developed a grammar of shots and lighting effects to evoke audience emotion.  His highly successful The Birth of a Nation (1915) pioneered the idea of film as art.


Between 1910 and 1920, American filmmaking shifted to Hollywood.  Leading directors such as Cecil B. DeMille (The Ten Commandments, 1923), Ernst Lubitsch (The Marriage Circle, 1924), and John Ford (The Iron Horse, 1924) offered a variety of genres---epics, romantic comedies, and westerns.  Mack Sennett pioneered film slapstick with the Keystone Cops and introduced English comic Charlie Chaplin.  Portraying the forlorn "tramp" in The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), and others, Chaplin became one of the first international movie stars.


Several other countries established themselves as filmmaking centers.  Germany was the birthplace of the expressionist movement, embodied in Robert Weine's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919).  In Russia, Sergei Eisenstein's Potemkin (1925) epitomiozed the idea of montage.  France became a rich film source, with such humanistic directors as Rene Clair and Abel Gance.


The 1927 U.S. film The Jazz Singer introduced sound to movies, revolutionizing the industry worldwide.  Genres requiring witty or action-oriented dialogue, such as gangster movies and screwball comedies, gained primacy, as did extravagant musicals.  The American studios, including Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount, and Warner Bros., honed a "studio system" that produced a steady stream of films and stars for Depression-era audiences seeking escape.  American stars of the period included James Cagney, Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, and Katharine Hepburn.  The system reached its apex in 1939, with dozens of now-classic films, including the Civil War epic Gone With the Wind (1939).


High artistic achievements marked European cinema during the years before WWII.  Notable films included Jean Renior's antiwar classic Grand Illusion and Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi paean Triumph of the Will (1935).


WWII and its aftermath also brought heightened realism to international filmmaking.  Italian directors Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio DeSica ushered in neorealism with, respectively, Open City (1949) and  The Bicycle Thief (1945).  Countering the trend toward realism were such stylized, idiosyncratic filmmakers as Italy's Federico Fellini (La Dolce Vita, 1960) and Swedish psychological master Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal, 1956).


In the 1950s and 1960s, a group of French directors (many of them film critics), initiated the nouvelle vogue (new wave).  This movement of quirky, original films included Francois Truffaut's The Four Hundred Blows (1959) and Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960).  German cinema reinvented itself after WWII with the varied social critiques of directors Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder (The Marriage of Maria Braun, 1979).


Nonwestern cinema gained an international following after World War II through the works of Japanese directors Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon, 1950) and Yasujiro Ozu (The Tokyo Story, 1953) and Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray (Pather Panchali, 1955).  National cinemas that have come to prominence since the1970s include those of Australia and New Zealand, the former offering such filmmakers as Peter Weir and the latter, Jane Campion. 


Changing tastes, decreased film attendance, and corporate takeovers effectively destroyed the American studio system by the end of the 1960s.  In its wake came increased experimentation and independence through filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.  In recent years, independent studios have grown in stature, becoming known for supporting high-quality original filmmaking. 


American films since the 1970s have been distinguished by the big-budget blockbuster.  Primarily special-effects-laden fare for an increasingly younger target audience, the blockbuster has been dominated by two directors: George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.


(Source: N.Y. Public Library Desk Reference, p. 205.)

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