United States Cinematography from its Origins to the 1920s

United States Cinematography from its Origins to the 1920s

If cinema is a French invention, its radical exploitation in a spectacular sense undoubtedly belongs to the United States. The greatest American inventor, Thomas Alva Edison, even tried to attribute the authorship to himself, since as early as 1888 he had begun experiments to combine phonograph and photography in motion. However, his assistant William KL Dickson would have invented the kinetoscope (in the US peep show), an optical device through which one could watch short actions and cartoons with a few pennies.

Adopted, however, the French invention, another associate of Edison, Edwin Stanton Porter, made the first real films from across the Atlantic: in particular The great train robbery (1903; The assault on the train), an archetypal western equipped with tracking shots and a close-up (completely unusual procedures at that time). An absolute innovator who broke away from Edison, Porter soon brought to completion the split screen technique, that is, multiple images in the same frame.

The inevitable literary nature of early cinema, however, found in Edison its greatest representative: from Frankenstein (1910) to Treasure Island (1912) both by J. Searle Dawley, the new medium found nourishment for his stories in the very rich tradition fiction of world literature.

Soon other production houses arose, attracted by the enormous success that cinema was gathering among the lower strata of the population (a class imprint that would have weighed on the new medium for decades, regarded with disdain by intellectuals): among these the Edison Vitagraph Company, (v. Vitagraph Company of America), which would have closed its doors in 1925), for which famous actors of Rudolph Valentino and Larry Semon (Ridolini) later worked, and who launched the comic character of Happy Hooligan (Fortunello), played by the same founder of Vitagraph, James Stuart Blackton; the Kalem Company, whose activity began in 1907, celebrated for the visual care of its production and one of the few to not own studios (it only opened one in California, when the production epicenter was stabilizing in the extreme west of Paese), to whom we owe films such as Ben Hur (1907) and From the manger to the cross (1913), both by Sidney Olcott, but whose major production was short films (about 200 per year) until 1919. its catalog was purchased by Vitagraph; the Essanay of Chicago,

It was at this point that a phenomenon (and a concept) entered the new US cinema that would play a fundamental role – albeit for different causes and in different ways – throughout its history: that of independent cinema.. In 1908, all the major American and French production companies joined the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), a trust that required the payment of production and distribution rights in the country to producers who intended to use their technologies. In 1909 an emanation of the MPPC, the General Film Company, undertook to distribute the films only to theaters with a license granted by General Film itself. In short, a monopolistic coup, which was followed by the birth of producing and distributing companies defined as ‘illegal’. These include American Flying A., specializing in westerns adventurously shot in California; the Fox Film Corporation, which sued, winning, the MPPC and which soon became a gigantic enterprise, launching, among others, the largest vamp of the time, Theda Bara; Carl Laemmle’s Independent Motion Picture Corporation, also the winner of a lawsuit against the MPPC, which he managed to snatch from Vitagraph Mary Pickford and which in 1912 would take the name of Universal Pictures, opening only three years later the huge studio known like Universal City (250 films in the first year of life).

These hints are sufficient for some considerations on US cinema as a whole. First of all, its narrative vocation. This naturally applies to much of the early world film production, but it is also true that if early cinema often turned to literature and theater to find thematic sources of inspiration, no national cinema, in the course of time, has remained quantitatively so faithful to this vocation: to such an extent that US cinema is proverbially considered an industry based on fiction. From this point of view, the cinema has done nothing but welcome and amplify a cultural tradition that has its roots in the historical development of the US as a nation. In particular, drawing on the incomparable quantity of stories in which the American nineteenth century is rich, especially on the frontier side, namely that aspect of the development of the nation more linked to a simple, naive and sometimes crude culture, for which the narrative had been for for a long time the only moment of entertainment in a dangerous and wild environment and in often very precarious living conditions. There is something symbolic in the fact that national cinema, born on the East coast, soon moved in the direction of the West, finding in California’s Hollywood its exemplary place: as if cinema had retraced the path that a century earlier had led the pioneers to build a new civilization in the most remote parts of an unexplored continent.

Secondly, the extraordinary vocation, both financial and technical, shown by the first pioneers of that industry remained as a trademark on it, regardless of the events, sometimes turbulent and dramatic, experienced over the course of a century and witnesses of enormous changes.

Thirdly, US cinema showed its popular roots from the very beginning, a fundamental component that can be found both in a proto-twentieth-century short film and in a sophisticated hyper-technological blockbuster from a hundred years later. the result of a tension between powerful trusts and daring independents, between gigantic investments and adventurous private initiatives of an amateur nature, not infrequently destined for a qualitative leap that would have led them to replace the former. Independent cinema (see below) in the US not only fulfilled the function of guaranteeing a product that was intellectually and artistically different from that provided by the great popular cinema, but also and above all contributed in a fundamental way, on specific occasions,

What has been defined as the technical vocation of American cinema soon found its central figure, in the silent era, in David Wark Griffith. In short, Griffith realized that cinema could and should be more than just the visual recording medium of a scene and that the camera could and should build strong added value to the dramatic action. Not only that: he articulated first of all a rhetoric of lens and camera movement, thus founding cinema as an art. In the approximately 500 films that Griffith shot for another important house, Biograph, from 1908 to 1913, the ferment of his thought and experimentation is evident. But, out of Biograph, it was in 1915 that the director provided the first great proof that a new art was finally born: the feature film The birth of a nation marked this birth date, while at the same time causing enormous controversy over the racist components of the work. Controversies of great importance, not only for their civil value, but also because they showed that cinema, in the space of a few years, had become a means of communication superior to what most of the intellectuals of the time had sufficiently considered. . In 1918, in response to Griffith’s work, what the press of the time called “the most grotesque chimera in the history of cinema” was released: The birth of a race, a long film promoted by reformist-integrationist African Americans Booker T. Washington and Emmett J. Scott, who intended to show the contribution of the black people to the construction of the America and rejecting the racial stereotypes of the time, but precisely because of these burning issues, production difficulties followed one another, until the total exhaustion of the group of blacks from the direction and production of the film, which was released by John W. Noble. It was also a failure of the public and critics. But it was an attempt to make films by African Americans, who had already made the first film in 1912, The railroad porter, directed by William Foster. In the meantime, embittered, Griffith had published an anti-censor pamphlet, but above all he had begun to shoot a long film that intended to respond to criticism right from its title, Intolerance (1916) and to be a manifesto – as indicated by the subtitle – of the “struggle of love throughout the ages “. blockbuster. Griffith further elaborated his extraordinary linguistic inventions in the following films, dying forgotten in 1948. With him the cinema found nobility and pride, coinciding with a mature capacity for artistic expression. Alongside his name it is traditional to mention that of Thomas Harper Ince, in some sense the equivalent of Griffith on a production level. Working with Laemmle as a director in 1910, he soon left New York for California to distinguish himself in the production of westerns, often entrusted to Francis Ford, brother of the later famous John. In 1913 he produced and directed The Battle of Gettysburg, in which eight cameras were employed together. In 1916 Ince, who by now had eight directors employed by him, produced his most ambitious film, Civilization, clearly inspired by Griffith’s almost contemporary masterpiece. Ince, however, deserves a mention here not for the grandeur of his productions or his unquestionable entrepreneurial ability: he was in fact the first producer to exercise absolute control over films, both in pre-production and in the making, and also the first to ensure the so-called final cut, the final version of the film (as well as all decisions regarding any changes to be made).

The first twenty years of American cinema had laid solid foundations for what this industry would become over time, starting a tradition which in the course of its development would never fail; not even repairing some of the original defects, in the sense that black cinematography, then in its early days, developed while continuing to be substantially invisible in the productive and above all distributive monopoly regime. Ignored, for example, were the brothers George and Noble Johnson, founders of their production company, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, in 1915, which debuted with Harry A. Gant’s The realization of a negro’s ambition (1916), with protagonist Noble Johnson himself, and who disappeared after a period of productive activity during the Depression. L’ the only name among black filmmakers who somehow managed to establish itself was that of Oscar Micheaux, novelist and intellectual, who with The Homesteader (1919) offered an extraordinary insight into the American black world with black cowboys and an unusual attention to the hierarchies of class and social mobility among American blacks. And his 1920s films, The symbol of the unconquered and the recently recovered Within our gates, which also offered elements of extreme social interest and, by showing open criticism of the Ku Klux Klan, could actually present themselves as the anti Griffiths, not instead they got the attention they deserved, as well as being, in a sense, erased from the history of cinema. who with The Homesteader (1919) offered an extraordinary insight into the American black world with black cowboys and an unusual attention to class hierarchies and social mobility among American blacks. And his 1920s films, The symbol of the unconquered and the recently recovered Within our gates, which also offered elements of extreme social interest and, by showing open criticism of the Ku Klux Klan, could actually present themselves as the anti Griffiths, not instead they got the attention they deserved, as well as being, in a sense, erased from the history of cinema. who with The Homesteader (1919) offered an extraordinary insight into the American black world with black cowboys and an unusual attention to class hierarchies and social mobility among American blacks. And his 1920s films, The symbol of the unconquered and the recently recovered Within our gates, which also offered elements of extreme social interest and, by showing open criticism of the Ku Klux Klan, could actually present themselves as the anti Griffiths, not instead they got the attention they deserved, as well as being, in a sense, erased from the history of cinema.

The other face of early American cinema is the comic one. Much loved by the public, it boasted not directorial innovations comparable to Griffith’s, but figures no less great for their ability to construct irresistible visual gags. In this area too, the path was long. From the first comic attempts of Edison himself since 1894 up to the early 1920s (when the art of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton came to a perfect completion) the field of comedians is dotted with actor names of various sizes, from Al Christie to Hal Roach (who later went on to direct), from Fatty Arbuckle to Charlie Chase. And yet the most remembered is not an actor but a director, the Canadian Mack Sennett, who joined the Keystone Film Company (the most famous house of comic short films) in 1912 and destined to become not only the director of Mabel Normand (excellent comic actress released from Griffith’s school, as well as the forgotten director of twenty-three films, of which seven have been recovered; among the recoveries also Molly-O ‘, produced by Sennett and Normand, who starred in 1921 under the direction of F. Richard Jones), but above all the creator of a comedy based on the whirling speed of acrobatic gags. Sennett’s secret came from a shrewd use of the technique Griffith was developing: editing. The juxtaposition of the scenes charged the various images, already exceptionally dynamic in themselves, with a breathtaking rhythm: a model that Sennett imposed on anyone who intended to make comic cinema. Hunts, chases, mad runs aboard improbable vehicles, fallen from dizzying heights, Sennett stopped at nothing. Once again, therefore, cinema was joined to more ancient spectacular arts,

Sennett, however, had limited himself to an ingenious use of montage as a function of rhythm. Soon other comic artists took up the inheritance by adding a sentimental and / or moral depth that allowed them to rise to much greater heights than those of their master.

In 1919 Charlie Chaplin, now famous, had founded with the actors Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, together with Griffith, the United Artists Corporation, under whose aegis he became a full-fledged artist with The kid (1921; Il monello), a work evidently autobiographical, full of pathos and sentimentality. The entire decade saw his star shine with masterpieces that redeemed comic cinema from the superficiality to which the original short films had confined it.

Together with him – and very different from him – the genius of Buster Keaton. Extraordinary acrobat (always without stunt double), he too had great success starting from the 1920s with short films that remain among the masterpieces of the entire comic cinema of the US (Neighbors, 1920; The high sign, 1921; Cops, 1922, all directed with Eddie Cline). Keaton’s central gimmick was his imperturbable mask of seriousness even in the most difficult, unpredictable, absurd situations. From The navigator (1924; The navigator) directed in collaboration with Donald Crisp to The cameraman (1928; I… and the monkey, also known as The Cameraman) by Edward Sedgwick, Keaton’s feature films prevent any identification between the protagonist and the public, allowing the latter to maintain a autonomous possibility of judgment on characters, events and situations. He contrasted Chaplin’s ‘hot’ cinema with ‘cold’ cinema, but precisely for this reason intellectually more rigorous and admirable. The third avenue of US comic cinema was finally indicated and beaten by a hugely popular duo, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. In a certain sense, this path was the result of the intersection between the cinema of Chaplin and Keaton: on the one hand the excitement, the click, the bustle and on the other the phlegm, the rhythmic interlude, the planned slowdown of the action that leads to chaos. Of the three, the most realistic was certainly Chaplin’s cinema, whereas Keaton’s, despite its unpredictable whirlwind, appears more cerebral. The cinema of Laurel and Hardy, on the other hand, has a surreal effect, it emanates a timeless and sometimes even metaphysical quality which, not by chance, contributed to making the couple an icon beloved by contemporary French surrealists. All subsequent comic cinema revolved around these three models (and their combinations), so that some names, although loved in their time by the public, such as Harold Lloyd or Harry Langdon, were only minor contemporary variations.

In short, the 1920s are a fundamental decade in the formation and development of American cinema, a sort of ‘first figure’ that ideally contains all the others; moreover, in that period the big manufacturers imposed two models: the studio system on themselves and the star system on the public.

The first is summarized in a production organization of an industrial nature centered on the subdivision of national cinema into genres, that is to say, in types of films capable of a common classification on the basis of a series of easily recognizable components. Given this subdivision, the space and the scenography itself of the studios found a consequent diversification, so that for the set of western films or exotic films the drawings, costumes and props could and should have been used several times, adding only superficial ones. variations. This allowed the studios to be used in the same way as an assembly line, thus aligning Hollywood with the production models of the now booming US industry.

The second was instead a publicity stunt that tended to attract the interest of the public towards film actors considered as models of appearance, fashion, behavior, habits, life (see also stardom.). The star system founded an Olympus in which actresses and actors shone like semi-divine beings whose press offices competed to invent stories about their lives to feed to a greedy and unscrupulous press. It is no coincidence that those were the years in which the first specialized journalists (indeed, often journalists) appeared, on whose column the very future of Fox or Universal seemed to depend, as well as obviously of the individuals concerned; and the films were not attributed to this or that director, but to the leading actors (a film by ‘Garbo’, ‘Valentino’ and so on). A difficult phenomenon to define, the star system always played on the brink of an abyss, advertising extravagant habits and heterodox behaviors such as to appeal to the average public, but at the same time powerless in the face of events that too disruptively offended the morals of the time (think of the scandal that overwhelmed the comedian Fatty Arbuckle): an era in which, in the face of protests of the right-thinking, the association of producers and distributors felt it was necessary to give themselves a self-regulatory code of ethics before it was imposed from the outside. The code was written by Will H. Hays (v. censorship: United States) and led to the banning of any roughness of a sexual nature and any situation that could even remotely upset the sensitivity of the viewer. Perhaps also for this reason the 1920s saw the rise, but also the decline of directors with an ambiguous and erotic vocation: the case of Erich von Stroheim, former actor and assistant of Griffith, author of strong morality, was sensational, who nevertheless offered a harsh treatment and direct of his subjects of adultery, decadence, wickedness in films of exorbitant length. In less than ten years (he had made his debut in 1919 with Blind husbands, Blind Husbands) Stroheim found himself banned from the studios, which only occasionally re-accepted him as a character actor.

Stroheim also opened a very important gallery in the history of Hollywood cinema, that of European expatriates, for at least twenty years the backbone of that industry and the first but not least example of the exceptional American ability to optimize talents from different backgrounds.. The 1920s saw the arrival from Europe of personalities such as Josef von Sternberg (the discoverer of Marlene Dietrich) and Ernst Lubitsch, master of erotic comedy, elegant and sophisticated. Even in the 1920s, however, not all talents were optimized, and black cinematography – sparse but always lively – did not even in that period find sufficient space to make itself known and establish itself on the national market.

United States Cinematography from its Origins to the 1920s