motion pictures: American Film

The first American studios were centered in the New York City area. Edison had claimed the patents for many of the technical elements involved in filmmaking and, in 1909, formed the Motion Picture Patents Company, an attempt at monopoly that worked to keep unlicensed companies out of production and distribution. To put distance between themselves and the Patents Company's sometimes violent tactics, many independents moved their operations to a suburb of Los Angeles; the location's proximity to Mexico allowed these producers to flee possible legal injunctions. After 1913 Hollywood, Calif., became the American movie capital. At first, films were sold outright to exhibitors; later they were distributed on a rental basis through film exchanges.

Early on, actors were not known by name, but in 1910, the star system came into being via promotion of Vitagraph Co. actress Florence Lawrence, first known as The Vitagraph Girl. Other companies, noting that this approach improved business, responded by attaching names to popular faces and fan magazines quickly followed, providing plentiful, and free, publicity. Films had slowly been edging past the 20 minute mark, but the drive to feature-length works began with the Italian spectacle film, of which Quo Vadis (1913), running nine reels or about two hours, was the most influential.

Directors of the day, including D. W. Griffith, Thomas Ince, Maurice Tourneur, J. Stuart Blackton, and Mack Sennett, became known to audiences as purveyors of certain kinds, or genres, of subject matter. The first generation of star actors included Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Marie Dressler, Lillian Gish, William S. Hart, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Claudette Colbert, Rudolph Valentino, Janet Gaynor, Ronald Colman, Clara Bow, Gloria Swanson, Lon Chaney, and Will Rogers. During World War I the United States became dominant in the industry and the moving picture expanded into the realm of education and propaganda.

In the post–World War I period the production genius of such men as Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Adolph Zukor, and Jesse L. Lasky, and the innovative talents of Cecil B. De Mille, Erich Von Stroheim, and Ernst Lubitsch were dominant. The year 1926 brought experiments in sound effects and music, and in 1927 spoken dialogue was successfully introduced in The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson. A year later the first all-talking picture, Lights of New York, was shown. With the talkies new directors achieved prominence—King Vidor, Joseph Von Sternberg, Rouben Mamoulian, Frank Capra, and John Ford. Sound films gave a tremendous boost to the careers of some silent actors but destroyed many whose voices were not suited to recording. Among the most celebrated stars of the new era were Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, W. C. Fields, and the Marx Brothers.

Also in 1927 The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences was formed and began an annual awards ceremony. The prize, a figurine of a man grasping a star, was later dubbed Oscar. These awards did much to confer status upon the medium in that they asserted a definable quality of excellence analogous to literature and theater, other media in which awards are given for excellence. The Academy Awards also offered the bonus of gathering many stars in one place and thus attracted immediate and widespread attention. The star system blossomed: actors were recruited from the stage as well as trained in the Hollywood studios.

From the 1930s until the early 1950s, the studios sponsored a host of talented actors, foremost among whom were Ingrid Bergman, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Charles Laughton, Barbara Stanwyck, William Powell, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Leslie Howard, Gary Cooper, James Stewart, Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Edward G. Robinson, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, James Cagney, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, James Mason, Fred Astaire, and Gene Kelly. Producers and directors such as David O. Selznick, Darryl F. Zanuck, Mervyn LeRoy, William Wyler, George Stevens, and Billy Wilder made significant contributions to cinematic art.

The medium had, after nickelodeon days, converted many legitimate theaters into movie houses. Later, during Hollywood's golden age, thousands of sumptuous movie palaces were erected all over the United States, and drive-in movie theaters became popular outside urban centers. Since their inception the movies have always been termed an industry, with good reason. In 1938 there were more than 80 million single admissions per week (65% of the population). To meet the huge box-office demand, more than 500 films were produced that year.

The industry in its heyday (1930–49) was managed by a number of omnipotent studios, including Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Warner Brothers, RKO, Paramount, Twentieth Century-Fox, and Universal. They produced endless cycles of films in imitation of a few successful original types. The range of themes included the criminal underworld, behind-the-scenes newspaper dramas, westerns, musicals, costume romances, character series such as the Charlie Chan films, prison stories, mysteries, comedies, and Broadway shows. Because of their enormous investments and gargantuan rewards (the film industry's gross income for 1946, its best year, was nearly $2 billion), the studios were encouraged to repeat conventionalized formula pictures.

In the 1950s, two developments ended the studios' grip on the entertainment business: the overwhelming popularity of television began to eat into studio profits and the studios were forced by the federal courts to yield the control of distribution and exhibition that they had maintained by means of massive conglomerate corporations. In 1962 box-office receipts were only $900 million; by 1968 only 20 million people per week were going to a movie (10% of the population). Independent distributors and theaters took a huge cut of the industry's income after World War II, and the studios cut wages and laid off employees in a struggle to survive.

In order to compete with television the studio heads strongly urged technological innovation. In the 1950s experiments abounded with wide-screen processes, such as CinemaScope and Cinerama and stereophonic sound systems. The movies of the 1950s and 60s traded a bit of glamour for an increased sense of realism, providing vehicles for new directors, including Elia Kazan, John Frankenheimer, Stanley Kubrick, and Sidney Lumet, and for a great number of popular film stars, including Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Judy Holliday, James Dean, Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Charlton Heston, Doris Day, George C. Scott, Audrey Hepburn, and Sidney Poitier.

Eventually, c.1956 many studios began to produce material especially for television, including commercials, and to sell their old films for television reruns. Independent production became the norm, with the studios acting as distributors only, and new kinds of films emerged: horror, science fiction, and rock 'n' roll stories aimed at teen-agers proliferated. Concurrently, larger studio-backed films eschewed romanticism and sentimentality, fighting the long-imposed bans on depictions of a harsher reality and a more explicit sexuality.

The trend away from the glamorous celebrity image that began in the 1960s gained momentum in the 70s. The principal stars of these years include Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Dustin Hoffman, Steve McQueen, and Woody Allen. Important American directors of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s include Peter Bogdanovich, Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, and Martin Scorsese.

A change came with the release of Jaws (1975), an unassuming suspense picture that unexpectedly grossed over $100 million by appealing to all ages and both sexes. Filmmakers were now encouraged to speak to the widest possible audience. The result was a series of films given over to spectacle. Star Wars (1977) cracked the $200 million barrier, and E.T. (1982) earned over $300 million. While many of these films aroused criticism for representing the triumph of special effects over any kind of human values, the net effect was to draw the audience back into movie theaters, and many movies, including those without spectacular elements, succeeded during this period. This trend has continued into the 21st cent. The leading directors are Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the latter more active as a producer.

Two developments that greatly enhanced profitability in the 1980s were the development of low-cost videocassette recorders (VCRs), which allow films to be shown at home, and the government's relaxation of the decrees separating production from distribution. The studios first felt that videocassettes would weaken the theatrical market; the reverse was true, as viewers became more interested in movie entertainment in general. Of the latter, studio co-ownership of various theater circuits assured wider distribution of films.

Beginning in the 1960s, many of the old movie palaces began to be divided into two or more auditoriums due to weakening attendance. When audiences returned in the 1980s, multiplexes, or theaters with multiple auditoriums, became the norm and mushroomed in suburban shopping malls and urban centers. In the early 1990s, however, the recession was reflected in movie attendance. By the turn of the decade, two major studios, MGM and Orion, suffered financial difficulties, and two others, Columbia and Universal, were bought by Japanese electronics companies, although Universal later became part of a French conglomerate.

One of the few positive motion-picture trends during the late 20th and early 21st cent. was the development and proliferation of IMAX. The format, which debuted in Japan in 1970, utilizes special film and projectors, features a gigantic screen and huge sound system, and has been used to take viewers on ultrarealistic trips to earthly (e.g., Everest, 1998) and outer-space (e.g., Destiny in Space, 1994) destinations. The province of museums for roughly two decades, the system was later extended to theaters and a number of films were reformatted to fit IMAX screens. By 2002, 180 IMAX films had been made, some in 3-D, and 225 large-screen IMAX theaters were in operation, 110 of them in the United States.

After several scandals led to the fear that the immorality perceived to be rampant in Hollywood might appear on screen, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, headed by Will H. Hays, was established in 1922 as a film review board. The Production Code, popularly known as the Hays Code, a highly restrictive set of guidelines for movie content, was promulgated in 1934 and complied with by virtually every Hollywood producer. In the late 1960s, the determination of what constituted pornography was turned over to the states for enforcement at the same time that filmmakers were attempting to break away from the Production Code's bans on sexuality and violence.

In 1966, the Production Code was abandoned completely and succeeded by the Motion Picture Code and Rating Program. Adopted to avoid a threatened state-controlled system, the program has characterized itself as providing guidance for parents, not for filmmakers. The program initially assigned each film one of four ratings: G (general audiences, without restrictions), M (mature audiences, parental guidance advised), R (restricted audiences, no one younger than 18 admitted without a parent or guardian), and X (no one younger than 18 admitted). The age limit may be adjusted by individual state rulings. M was eventually supplanted by PG (parental guidance suggested), PG-13, was introduced for films that might contain material inappropriate for pre-teenagers, and NC-17 replaced X, which had become associated with pornographic films.

See G. Battcock, The New American Cinema (1967); K. Brownlow, The Parade's Gone By (1968); R. Manvell, New Cinema in the USA (1968); R. Adler, A Year in the Dark (1970); D. Shipman, The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years (1970); P. Trent, The Image Makers: Sixty Years of Hollywood Glamour (1972); P. Gilliatt, Unholy Fools (1973); C. Higham, The Art of the American Film, 1900–1971 (1973); P. Kael, I Lost It at the Movies (1965), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (1968), Going Steady (1970), Deeper into Movies (1974), and For Keeps (1994); E. Mordden, The Hollywood Musical (1981) and The Hollywood Studios (1988); A. Brower and T. L. Wright, Working in Hollywood (1990); R. Barrios, A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film (1995); K. M. Cameron, America on Film (1997); W. K. Everson, American Silent Film (1998); J. Basinger, Silent Stars (1999); T. Doherty, Pre-Code Hollywood (1999); M. A. Vieira, Sin in Soft Focus (1999); D. Bardwell and K. Thompson, Minding Movies (2011); S. Griffin, ed., What Dreams Were Made Of: Movie Stars of the 1940s (2011); D. Thomson, The Big Screen (2012).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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