From Chapter 5 of Revolutions in Communication

Cinema clobbers the senses, influencing the way people perceive each other and their environment like no other medium.

It’s a “hot” medium, in the sense that a well-crafted succession of images leads people to “suspend disbelief” with little effort. Nothing else requires so little personal involvement or can deliver content so deeply into the human psyche.

Cinema is hotly controversial as well, and films generate heated debate for decades, while their great moments are so warmly remembered that they have become generation-spanning clichés. Although other media have the power to reflect, deflect and drive social change, none have achieved it with the artistic sweep and social force of cinema.

The story of cinema, from the Lumière brothers to the Cohn brothers, from Hollywood to Bollywood, from the Oscars to the Cannes Film Festival, is a story that parallels the social revolutions of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

When it first arrived, cinema was instantly seen as more powerful than any other media. The first glimpse of a “movie” in the early 1890s so frightened and astonished people that they would duck to avoid a head-on locomotive, or shout out warnings to images of endangered actors flickering across theater screens.

Cinema drew from existing media, especially theater and photography, also making use of the “persistence of vision” phenomena well known in toys like flip books, the Zoetrope (US) and the Daedalum (Britain).

An early glimpse of what cinema could become was provided by Eadweard Muybridge, a San Francisco photographer, who used glass plate photos to sequence images. California governor Leland Stanford hired Muybridge in 1877 to settle a bet about the way horses run. Stanford bet that there is a moment when a horse, at a full gallop, is not touching ground. Muybridge set up an experiment involving a series of cameras with shutters hooked to trip wires, showed that a galloping horse does leave the ground, and helped the governor win the bet.

Muybridge inspired other inventors, but glass plates would not work for moving images. The introduction of flexible celluloid film in the mid-1880s led to a flurry of invention and two important film systems.

Around 1894, Auguste and Louis Lumière patented the cinématographe system in France and began showing films in theaters. And, somewhat earlier, Thomas Edison patented a kinetoscope peep show system and introduced it at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

It’s not unusual for inventions to be simultaneous. Radio, television, computer chips and many other inventions emerged from dozens, or sometimes hundreds, of people competing to solve technical problems, as we will see in future chapters.

Edison as well as the Lumière brothers originally shot films of less than one minute on small enclosed stages. The very first films shot at Edison’s Black Maria studio showed people doing rather ordinary things—sneezing, dancing, talking. These short films were shown in converted stores with individual “peep show” projectors, which would give a single person a minute’s worth of film for a nickel (five US cents). “Nickelodeon” halls, as they came to be called, quickly spread in the United States, much like video game parlors in the 1980s. In 1907 there were 18 Nickelodeon halls in downtown Chicago. By 1910 there were over 500 in New York.

The experimental era took a different direction in France. The Lumière brothers were the first to take a film camera outside, shooting scenes of everyday life in Paris. They even sent camera crews around the world, and the films that came back thrilled audiences. Unlike Edison’s “Black Maria” films, these travel films were carefully composed, organized narratives.

By 1900, theatrical-sized projectors had been introduced commercially in the United States, and theaters began showing films, often before or after live entertainers.

The new theater

Until the 1890s, theater had always been confined to actors on a stage or to slideshows of photographs using glass plate photos in a “magic lantern” projector.

Watching an early silent film was usually a lot like watching a theatrical performance. The camera may have provided the best view in the house, but it was usually fixed in one place. In George Méliès’s 1903 Trip to the Moon, for instance, there are no closeups, no medium shots, and only a few transitions from one scene to the next.

This is typical of the early stages of a media revolution, in which the new media starts by following the form of the old media. As we have seen, the first printed books were designed to look like hand-lettered books, and the first photographs were often taken in the style of portraiture or landscape paintings. Similarly, radio followed the theatrical variety show format in the early years, and the first web pages resembled the prefabricated formats of internet service providers.

The earliest movies featured visualizations of then-familiar themes, including the life of religious figures, Jules Verne’s science fiction and educational topics. But as the commercial prospects for film mushroomed, the topics became riskier—burglaries, train robberies, or stolen kiss in a shoe store—and these themes were threatening to the old cultural elites. The very fact that young people were congregating in dark, crowded theaters instead of churches or lecture halls was alarming to advocates of refined culture, especially in the older generation.

Some, like social reformer Jane Addams, worried that the “corrupt” art of movies was replacing true drama, which was needed to satisfy the craving for a higher conception of life. If young people “forecast their rose colored future only in a house of dreams,” Addams said, society would founder on a “skepticism of life’s value” (Czitrom, 1983, p. 52).

A more immediate cause for trouble was the carnival atmosphere and sexually suggestive songs and dances found in movie districts. The showdown came on Christmas Day, 1908, in New York. Reacting to testimony from religious groups that movies involved “profit from the corruption of the minds of children,” the mayor revoked the licenses of 540 motion picture halls. Mayors in other cities quickly followed suit. In response, movie theater owners formed an association and sued the city. “This sort of treatment can go in Russia, but it can’t go in this country,” one of the theater owners said (“Mayor Makes War on Sunday Vaudeville,” New York Times, December 29, 1908).

By January 7, 1909, the moralists lost the first round when the courts ruled that the mayor had no power to close all movie theaters, even though reasonable regulations over fire hazards and indecency could be imposed (New York Times, January 7, 1909).

Another round in the early fight over film censorship involved the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson. In a well-publicized July 1910 match, Johnson won the title, beating James Jeffries, a white boxer who had been styled as the “great white hope.” Word of a black man’s victory led to rioting in many US cities and at least eight deaths. Historian Robert Niemi called it an “exceedingly ugly episode in the appalling annals of American racial bigotry” (Niemi, 2006, p. 192). The film’s ideological significance alarmed racists in Congress who passed a federal ban on interstate sales of all boxing films in 1912 (Berry and Berry, 2007 ; Streible, 2008).

Another controversy blew up over films about prostitution a few years later. Film makers used the pretext of a 1912 report on vice in New York to show supposedly moralistic films depicting the evils of the “white slave trade.” These “vice films” outraged moralists in the media. Films like Damaged Goods, The House of Bondage and Guilty Man “will pour oil upon the flames of vice,” the New York Times said (“Vice and Motion Pictures,” New York Times, November 4, 1913).

The contrast with newspapers is interesting. When newspaper publishers used the same sensationalistic tactics a generation before, they were rewarded. Thomas Stead, who published London’s Pall Mall Gazette, made an enormous profit exposing the “virtual slave trade” of London in 1883, treating the subject as a moral lesson but providing plenty of salacious detail. Pulitzer and Hearst also used the cloak of morality to expose shocking tales of vice and intrigue.

But film was new, and as a New York judge said in 1913, “tends to deprave the morals of those whose minds are open to such influences” (“More Vice Films Are To Be Withdrawn,” New York Times, December 29, 1913). Although film makers said they were fighting for a principal, newspapers cast the issue in terms of films being “withdrawn” rather than “censored.”

The Edison “Trust”

Around this time, Thomas Edison, a social conservative who owned many US patents for film cameras and projectors, attempted to control both the business and its cultural impacts by forming the Motion Picture Patents Company in 1908. Like other monopolies at the time, the MPPC was known as a “trust.”

The MPPC “Edison Trust” included US filmmakers like Biograph and Vitagraph, and French filmmakers like Méliès and Pathé. But it did not include independent US film makers. The MPPC tried to stabilize a chaotic industry by setting standards and sharing patents, but as a monopoly, they were also able to keep independents from exhibiting in theaters or using their equipment. At the same time, the MPPC also formed a national censorship board to exclude anything that seemed immoral, leading the crusade for “moral purification” of movies.

The Edison Trust’s attempt to control the business failed. The independents, especially the founders of Universal, Paramount and Twentieth Century Fox studios, moved away from the East coast to California, where mild weather and distance from the Edison company allowed feature film expansion. Then too, the dominance of European films from Méliès and Pathé ended abruptly with the outbreak of World War I in 1914. But more importantly, the emerging film industry once again went to the courts for protection.

In 1915, independent producers, contending that Edison’s MPPC was an illegal monopoly, won a Supreme Court decision in United States v. Motion Picture Patents Company. That same year, the court also eased the fears of social conservatives in a related case, Mutual Film v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, ruling that films are not protected by the First Amendment. States were then free to set standards and film censorship boards of their own, and many did.

The silent film era

Freed from the hobbles of Edison’s monopoly, and with competition from European films now halted by World War I, US film makers embarked on an era of innovation and development.

The most innovative and controversial film of the silent era was D. W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation, a film that told the story of families torn apart in the aftermath of the Civil War. It depicted Reconstruction-era African Americans in the worst possible light, as drunkards, rapists and murderers, who were only thwarted when a heroic white vigilante group, the Ku Klux Klan, rode out to oppose them. Critics said it was “unfair and vicious” (Outlook, 1915 ). Riots broke out at theaters in major cities (“Race Riot at Theater,” The Washington Post, April 18, 1915). Performances were shut down in eight states, and many others were picketed by the emerging National Association for Colored People.

Some histories attribute an approving remark about “history written with lightning” to then-President Woodrow Wilson, who watched the film at a White House performance. However, the source for the remark is Thomas Dixon, college friend of Wilson and the author of The Clansman, the book on which Birth of a Nation was based. While Wilson did write approvingly of the Klan as an historian, before he was president, whether or not he actually approved of the movie is an ongoing controversy. Film critic Roger Ebert said: “My guess is that Wilson said something like it in private, and found it prudent to deny when progressive editorialists attacked the film” (Ebert, 2003).

Charlie Chaplin

The most famous icon of the silent era was Charlie Chaplin, whose “tramp” character delighted audiences worldwide. He created the character for film producer Mack Sennett when he was asked to put on a comic costume for a 1914 film.

Chaplin delighted fans worldwide with the tramp’s down-at-the heels costume and his refined but bewildered demeanor. Two years later, he became one of the first great stars of the Silent Era, signing a contract with Mutual Films for over half a million dollars. At that point, Chaplin owned his own studios, producing classic silent films like The Gold Rush and The Kid. Chaplin would often begin filming with only the barest outlines of a concept and no written script. His film The Immigrants, for example, began as a comedy sketch about restaurant waiters, but ended as a film about a family’s difficult journey across the Atlantic, through US immigration and a reunion in the restaurant. At one point, Chaplin gives a US immigration official a sneaky kick in the pants and then whistles innocently as the official looks in vain for the culprit. The scene expressed Chaplin’s own frustrations with the US government, but also endeared him to a generation of downtrodden workers.

Some of Chaplin’s other work, such as Modern Times, showed frustration with the dehumanizing pace of modernization. His humane approach is also seen in the way he made fun of the stuffy and overwrought high culture in sketches like “Dance of the Cleaning Ladies.”

Chaplin was also an innovator in business, founding United Artists in 1919 along with D. W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. The distribution company provided an important alternative to the studio system, through which a few executives at five big studios dominated the industry in its early years. By the late 1940s, United Artists pioneered the backing of independent films—a business model that eventually toppled the big studios (Balio, 1987).

Charlie Chaplin’s celebrity reached such heights that he could set off near-riots by his mere presence.

Historian Corey Ross described a visit to Berlin in 1931 in which frenzied crowds surrounded the hotel and besieged the train station when he arrived. Left wing newspapers of the day celebrated the working class genius, conservative newspapers said it was inappropriate that he should be so highly celebrated, and Nazi papers said they were disgusted by the reception given to the “Jewish film clown.”  (Chaplin was not Jewish, but when asked, he would respond: “I do not have that honor.” )

The point is that the political parties were defining themselves in relation to the film star, not the other way around. “Chaplin’s trip to Berlin . . . highlights not only the vital importance of the media to social and cultural life in the 1930s, but also their political impact, the challenge they posed to traditional values, their transcendence of social and national boundaries, and the complex relationship between cultural producers and their audiences” (Ross, 2008).

Chaplin’s competitors such as Buster Keaton are also remembered fondly. Keaton’s specialty involved daring stunt techniques executed flawlessly but often at a great risk to his own life. Keaton’s “Steamboat Bill” was so successful that it was parodied by Walt Disney in his first Mickey Mouse cartoon, “Steamboat Willy” in 1928.

By the 1920s cinema had begun to blossom as a serious art form. New techniques in storytelling emerged, for example in Russia, where Sergei Eisenstien created a film of John Reed’s book Ten Days That Shook the World. But Eisenstein is best remembered for Battleship Potemkin. The film glorified an early episode in the Russian Revolution and was among the first to use montage, which is a compilation of shots, including extreme closeups and details, to convey a strong impression. Eisenstein and other directors found that film had its own language and logic, and that apparently unrelated film cuts could be related in many ways. For example, Eisenstein would continue the motion of different objects from one shot into the next, or punctuate the visual impression of a shot with music written specifically to accompany the montage.

In Germany, the expressionist movement in film embraced new and dramatically different styles of film production, as seen in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a dream about an insane doctor; in Nosferatu, an unauthorized 1922 adaptation of the Dracula story; and in Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis. The Nazi rise to power put an end to this creative era, and many talented filmmakers fled to Hollywood.