Cinema of the United States

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Films

North American cinema
  • Canadian cinema
Quebec cinema
  • Cuban cinema
  • Mexican cinema
  • Cinema of Puerto Rico
  • Cinema of the United States

Much like American popular music, the cinema of the United States has had a profound effect on cinema across the world since the early 20th century. Its history is sometimes separated into four main periods: the silent era, Classical Hollywood cinema, New Hollywood, and the contemporary period (after 1980).


Early development

Justus D. Barnes in Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery
Justus D. Barnes in Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery

The first recorded instance of photographs capturing and reproducing motion was Eadweard Muybridge's series of photographs of a running horse, which he captured in Palo Alto, California, using a set of still cameras placed in a row. Muybridge's accomplishment led inventors everywhere to attempt forming devices that would similarly capture such motion. In the United States, Thomas Alva Edison was among the first to produce such a device, the kinetoscope, whose heavy-handed patent enforcement caused early filmmakers to look for alternatives.

In the United States, the first exhibitions of films for large audiences typically followed the intermissions in vaudeville shows. Entrepreneurs began travelling to exhibit their films, bringing to the world the first forays into dramatic filmmaking. The first huge success of American cinema, as well as the largest experimental achievement to its point, was The Great Train Robbery, directed by Edwin S. Porter.

Rise of Hollywood

Arts of the
United States

Comic books
Visual arts

In early 1910, director D.W. Griffith was sent by the Biograph Company to the west coast with his acting troop consisting of actors Blanche Sweet, Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore, and others. They started filming on a vacant lot near Georgia Street in downtown Los Angeles. The company decided while there to explore new territories and travelled several miles north to a little village that was friendly and enjoyed the movie company filming there. This place was called " Hollywood". Griffith then filmed the first movie ever shot in Hollywood, In Old California, a Biograph melodrama about California in the 1800s, while it belonged to Mexico. Biograph stayed there for months and made several films before returning to New York. After hearing about this wonderful place, in 1913 many movie-makers headed west to avoid the fees imposed by Thomas Edison, who owned patents on the movie-making process. In Los Angeles, California, the studios and Hollywood grew. Before World War I, movies were made in several U.S. cities, but filmmakers gravitated to southern California as the industry developed. They were attracted by the mild climate and reliable sunlight, which made it possible to film movies outdoors year-round, and by the varied scenery that was available. There are several starting points for American cinema, but it was Griffith's Birth of a Nation that pioneered the filmic vocabulary that still dominates celluoid to this day.

In the early 1900s, when the medium was new, many immigrants, particularly Jews, found employment in the U.S. film industry. Kept out of other occupations by religious prejudice, they were able to make their mark in a brand-new business: the exhibition of short films in storefront theaters called nickelodeons, after their admission price of a nickel (five cents). Within a few years, ambitious men like Samuel Goldwyn, Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor, Louis B. Mayer, and the Warner Brothers (Harry, Albert, Samuel, and Jack) had switched to the production side of the business. Soon they were the heads of a new kind of enterprise: the movie studio. (It is worth noting that the US had at least one female director, producer and studio head in these early years, Alice Guy Blaché.) They also set the stage for the industry's internationalism; the industry is often accused of Amero-centric provincialism, but simultaneously employs a huge number of foreign-born talent: from Swedish actress Greta Garbo to Australian Nicole Kidman, from Hungarian director Michael Curtiz to Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón.

Other moviemakers arrived from Europe after World War I: directors like Ernst Lubitsch, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, and Jean Renoir; and actors like Rudolph Valentino, Marlene Dietrich, Ronald Colman, and Charles Boyer. They joined a homegrown supply of actors--lured west from the New York City stage after the introduction of sound films--to form one of the 20th century's most remarkable growth industries. At motion pictures' height of popularity in the mid- 1940s, the studios were cranking out a total of about 400 movies a year, seen by an audience of 90 million Americans per week.

Parallel foreign-language versions

In the early times of talkies, American studios found that their sound productions were rejected in foreign-language markets and even among speakers of other dialects of English. The synchronization technology was still too primitive for dubbing. One of the solutions was the parallel foreign-language versions. Around 1930, the American companies opened a studio in Joinville-le-Pont, France, where the same sets and wardrobe and even mass scenes were used for different time-sharing crews. Also, foreign unemployed actors, playwrights and winners of photogenia contests were chosen and brought to Hollywood, where they shot parallel versions of the English-language films. These parallel versions had a lower budget, were shot at night and were directed by second-line American directors who did not speak the foreign language. The Spanish-language crews included people like Luis Buñuel, Enrique Jardiel Poncela, Xavier Cugat and Edgar Neville. The productions were not very successful in their intended markets:

  • The lower budgets were apparent.
  • Many theatre actors had no previous experience in cinema.
  • The original movies were often second-rate themselves, since studios expected that the top productions would sell by themselves.
  • The mix of foreign accents (Castilian, Mexican, Chilean for example in the Spanish case) was odd for the audiences.
  • Some markets lacked sound-equipped theaters.

In spite of this, some productions like the Spanish version of Dracula compare favorably with the original. By the mid-1930s, synchronization had advanced enough for dubbing to become usual.

Golden Age of Hollywood

During the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, which lasted from the virtual end of the silent era in the late 1920s to towards the end of the 1940s, movies issued from the Hollywood studios like the cars rolling off Henry Ford's assembly lines. No two movies were exactly the same, but most followed a formula: Western, slapstick comedy, film noir, musical, animated cartoon, biopic (biographical picture), etc, and the same creative teams often worked on films made by the same studio - for instance, Cedric Gibbons and Herbert Stothart always worked on MGM films, Alfred Newman worked at Twentieth Century Fox for twenty years, Cecil B. De Mille's films were almost all made at Paramount, director Henry King's films were mostly made for Twentieth-Century Fox, etc. And one could usually guess which studio made which film, largely because of the actors who appeared in it. Each studio had its own style and characteristic touches which made it possible to know this - a trait that does not exist today. Yet each movie was a little different, and, unlike the craftsmen who made cars, many of the people who made movies were artists. For example, To Have and Have Not (1944) is famous not only for the first pairing of actors Humphrey Bogart ( 1899- 1957) and Lauren Bacall ( 1924- ) but also for being written by two future winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature: Ernest Hemingway ( 1899- 1961), author of the novel on which the script was nominally based, and William Faulkner ( 1897- 1962), who worked on the screen adaptation.

Moviemaking was still a business, however, and motion picture companies made money by operating under the so-called studio system. The major studios kept thousands of people on salary--actors, producers, directors, writers, stuntmen, craftspersons, and technicians. And they owned hundreds of theaters in cities and towns across the nation--theaters that showed their films and that were always in need of fresh material.

Many film historians have remarked upon the many great works of cinema that emerged from this period of highly regimented filmmaking. One reason this was possible is that, with so many movies being made, not every one had to be a big hit. A studio could gamble on a medium-budget feature with a good script and relatively unknown actors: Citizen Kane, directed by Orson Welles ( 1915- 1985) and widely regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time, fits that description. In other cases, strong-willed directors like Howard Hawks ( 1896- 1977) and Frank Capra ( 1897- 1991) battled the studios in order to achieve their artistic visions. The apogee of the studio system may have been the year 1939, which saw the release of such classics as The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Only Angels Have Wings, Ninotchka, and Midnight. Among the other films in the Golden Age period that remain classics to the present day: Casablanca, It's a Wonderful Life, the original King Kong, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Decline of the studio system

The studio system and the Golden Age of Hollywood itself succumbed to two forces in the late 1940s: (1) a federal antitrust action that separated the production of films from their exhibition; and (2) the advent of television. As a result of that antitrust act, actors and technical staff were gradually released from their contracts by movie studios. Now, each film made by a studio could have an entirely different cast and creative team, resulting in the gradual loss of all those "characteristics" which made MGM, Paramount, Universal, Columbia, RKO, and Twentieth-Century Fox films immediately identifiable. But certain movie people, such as Cecil B. DeMille, either remained contract artists till the end of their careers or used the same creative teams on their films, so that a DeMille film still looked like one whether it was made in 1932 or 1956. The number of movies being made dropped, even as the average budget soared, marking a change in strategy for the industry. Studios now aimed to produce entertainment that could not be offered by television: spectacular, larger-than-life productions, while others would lose the rights to their theatrical film libraries to other companies to sell to television.

Although television broke the movie industry's hegemony in American entertainment, the rise of television would prove advantageous, in its way, to the movies. This is because public opinion about the quality of television content soon declined, and by contrast, cinema's status began to be regarded more and more as a serious art form as worthy of respect and study as the fine arts. This was complemented with the Miracle Decision in which the Supreme Court of the United States reversed its earlier position and stated that motion pictures were an artform entitled to the protection of the First amendment.

The 'New Hollywood' and Post-classical cinema

'Post-classical cinema' is a term used to describe the changing methods of storytelling in the New Hollywood. It has been argued that new approaches to drama and characterization played upon audience expectations acquired in the classical period: chronology may be scrambled, storylines may feature " twist endings", and lines between the antagonist and protagonist may be blurred. The roots of post-classical storytelling may be seen in film noir, in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and in Hitchcock's storyline-shattering Psycho.

'Post-classical cinema' is a term used to describe the period following the decline of the studio system in the '50s and '60s and the end of the production code. It is defined by a greater tendency to dramatize such things as sexuality and violence.

'New Hollywood' is a term used to describe the emergence of a new generation of film school-trained directors who had absorbed the techniques developed in Europe in the 1960s. Filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Brian de Palma, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg came to produce fare that paid homage to the history of film, and developed upon existing genres and techniques. In the early 1970s, their films were often both critically acclaimed and commercially successful. While the early New Hollywood films like Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider had been relatively low-budget affairs with amoral heroes and increased sexuality and violence, the enormous success enjoyed by Coppola, Spielberg and Lucas with The Godfather, Jaws, and Star Wars, respectively helped to give rise to the modern " blockbuster", and induced studios to focus ever more heavily on trying to produce enormous hits.


The drive to produce spectacle on the movie screen has largely shaped American cinema ever since. Spectacular epics which took advantage of new widescreen processes had been increasingly popular from the 1950s onwards. Since then, American films have become increasingly divided into two categories: blockbusters and independent films. Studios have focused on relying on a handful of extremely expensive releases every year in order to remain profitable. Such blockbusters emphasize spectacle, star power, and high production value, all of which entail an enormous budget. Blockbusters typically rely upon star power and massive advertising to attract a huge audience. A successful blockbuster will attract an audience large enough to offset production costs and reap considerable profits. Such productions carry a substantial risk of failure, and most studios release blockbusters that both over- and underperform in a year.

Independent film

Studios supplement these movies with independent productions, made with small budgets and often independently of the studio corporation. Movies made in this manner typically emphasize high professional quality in terms of acting, directing, screenwriting, and other elements associated with production, and also upon creativity and innovation. These movies usually rely upon critical praise or niche marketing to garner an audience. Because of an independent film's low budgets, a successful independent film can have a high profit-to-cost ratio, while a failure will incur minimal losses, allowing for studios to sponsor dozens of such productions in addition to their high-stakes releases.

American independent cinema was revitalized in the late 1980s and early 1990s when another new generation of moviemakers, including Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, and Quentin Tarantino made movies like, respectively, Do the Right Thing, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Clerks., and Reservoir Dogs. In terms of directing, screenwriting, editing, and other elements, these movies were innovative and often irreverent, playing with and contradicting the conventions of Hollywood movies. Furthermore, their considerable financial successes and crossover into popular culture reestablished the commercial viability of independent film. Since then, the independent film industry has become more clearly defined and more influential in American cinema. Many of the major studios have capitalised on this by developing subsidiaries to produce similar films; for example Fox Searchlight Pictures.

To a lesser degree in the 2000s, film types that were previously considered to have only a minor presence in the mainstream movie market began to arise as more potent American box office draws. These include foreign-language films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero and documentary films such as Super Size Me, March of the Penguins, and Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11.

Rise of the home video market

The 1980s and 1990s saw another significant development. The full acceptance of video by studios opened a vast new business to exploit. Films such as The Secret of NIMH and The Shawshank Redemption, which performed poorly in their theatrical run, were now able to find success in the video market. It also saw the first generation of film makers with access to video tapes emerge. Directors such as Quentin Tarantino and P.T. Anderson had been able to view thousands of films and produced films with vast numbers of references and connections to previous works. This, along with the explosion of independent film and ever-decreasing costs for filmmaking, changed the landscape of American movie-making once again, and led a renaissance of filmmaking among Hollywood's lower and middle-classes—those without access to studio financial resources.

The rise of the DVD in the 21st century has quickly become even more profitable to studios and has led to an explosion of packaging extra scenes, extended versions, and commentary tracks with the films.

Notable figures in U.S. film

Significant American-born film directors include:

  • Woody Allen
  • Robert Altman
  • Hal Ashby
  • Tim Burton
  • John Cassavetes
  • Francis Ford Coppola
  • Cecil B. DeMille
  • Brian De Palma
  • John Ford
  • Howard Hawks
  • George Roy Hill
  • John Huston
  • Jim Jarmusch
  • Stanley Kubrick
  • Spike Lee
  • Barry Levinson
  • George Lucas
  • Sidney Lumet
  • David Lynch
  • Joseph L. Mankiewicz
  • Leo McCarey
  • Alan J. Pakula
  • Arthur Penn
  • Sam Peckinpah
  • Sydney Pollack
  • Martin Scorsese
  • Steven Spielberg
  • Oliver Stone
  • Quentin Tarantino
  • Orson Welles
  • Robert Wise

Other iconic American actors include:

  • Fred Astaire
  • Humphrey Bogart
  • Marlon Brando
  • Robert De Niro
  • James Cagney
  • Claudette Colbert
  • Joan Crawford
  • Bette Davis
  • James Dean
  • Clint Eastwood (also a notable director)
  • Tom Cruise
  • Henry Fonda
  • Jane Fonda
  • Harrison Ford
  • Clark Gable
  • Judy Garland
  • Cary Grant
  • Gene Hackman
  • Tom Hanks
  • Katharine Hepburn
  • Dustin Hoffman
  • Buster Keaton
  • Gene Kelly
  • Grace Kelly
  • Steve McQueen
  • Marilyn Monroe
  • Paul Newman
  • Jack Nicholson
  • Al Pacino
  • Gregory Peck
  • Sidney Poitier
  • James Stewart
  • Meryl Streep
  • Shirley Temple
  • Spencer Tracy
  • John Wayne
Retrieved from ""