B 3 France
In terms of commercial filmmaking, France’s film industry—the world’s strongest before World War I—occupied a struggling, marginal role after the war. Yet no other country had so firm a commitment to the medium as an art form or so rich a culture of journals and clubs devoted to criticizing and viewing innovative film work. In this atmosphere film took on a unique significance in intellectual life and among the other arts.
French film theorists coined such terms as photogenie and cinegraphie to express their views that cinema must emphasize images and their flow, rather than conventions used in the theater to convey dramatic action. They put their ideas into action in mostly short films, of which perhaps the most noted in critical writings has been La souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet, 1923), by female filmmaker and theorist Germaine Dulac.
The artistic movement called surrealism, which incorporated bizarre images and saw itself as an assault on everyday reality, also brought new concepts to filmmaking. Entr’acte (1924), directed by René Clair, used early cinema’s techniques of trick photography in the service of avant-garde art. Visual artists created films by animating designs and objects—painter Fernand Léger made Le ballet mécanique (1924) and Marcel Duchamp made Anémic Cinema (Anemic Cinema, 1926). A filmmaker who brought experimental ambitions to commercial feature efforts was Abel Gance, whose Napoléon (1927) was a five-hour film showing images in different combinations on three side-by-side screens.
Filmmakers from other countries also made important works in France. Carl-Theodor Dreyer of Denmark directed La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928), considered a classic for its unprecedented attention to psychological realism. Spaniards Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí made a surrealist film, Un chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929), which became famous for its unusual and disturbing imagery.
C The Mature Silent Film
By the mid-1920s the United States had the largest film industry and American films dominated the international market. Germany and Japan also had substantial industries, although Japanese films were produced primarily for domestic consumption. Many nations sought to foster film production as a matter of importance to national culture, sometimes by placing quotas on film imports. Meanwhile, film became an international medium, with filmmakers creating works outside their homeland, as did Dreyer and Buñuel, or emigrating to take up their careers elsewhere. Germany’s Murnau, for example, moved to Hollywood and made one of the era’s most critically acclaimed American films, Sunrise (1927).
The consequences for society of this proliferating new medium were much debated. Movie stars such as Chaplin, Greta Garbo, and Rudolph Valentino were seen by millions and their glamour and sophistication had unprecedented impact on popular styles and behavior. Through the movies stories of sophisticated living and scenes of large-scale criminal activity were brought to rural areas and small towns as never before. Censorship bodies tried to control the influence of films by editing them before exhibition, or by proposing rules and standards for producers to follow.
As Hollywood and film industries elsewhere produced hundreds of films each year, certain standardized forms took precedence over individual creative inspiration. Movies adopted categories, known as genres, from earlier arts and popular entertainment. These included comedy, the Western, mystery, horror, romance, melodrama, and the war story. Within these genres were many variations and combinations, for example, the comedy-drama. Their hallmark was familiarity: Makers and spectators alike understood a genre’s conventions of story, character, setting, and costume.
D The Silent Documentary
Films of current events, which had been prominent in the early days of cinema, receded in importance as narrative fiction became the dominant mode of commercial filmmaking in the 1910s and 1920s. They were gradually replaced by the newsreel, a compilation of short news and feature clips that became a standard part of movie theater programs. Nonfiction films, known as documentaries, were largely confined to educational use, or were made for propaganda purposes in wartime.
Meanwhile, filmmakers continued to explore the world, recording people and places unknown to most spectators. One such figure was American Robert Flaherty, a miner and prospector in northern Canada who shot footage of Inuit people to preserve images of a vanishing way of life, though he created controversy by sometimes staging “traditional customs” that were by then obsolete. Flaherty made a feature documentary, Nanook of the North (1922), that was released commercially and became the greatest popular and critical success of any nonfiction film since the days of actualities. A Hollywood studio sent him to the South Pacific islands of Samoa for his second feature documentary, Moana (1926). Americans Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper, who later became famous as creators of the fictional King Kong, launched their careers with Chang (1927), a spectacular travel documentary set in Siam (now Thailand).
European experimental filmmakers also became interested in nonfiction film as a way of interpreting modern life. Their works have been called city symphonies, a name taken from a German documentary made by Walter Ruttmann, Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grossstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, 1927), which traces a day of urban activity. In the USSR Dziga Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera was another such city symphony, about Moscow. In France, Jean Vigo and Boris Kaufman (Vertov’s brother) made A propos de Nice (On the Subject of Nice, 1930).
V Sound Films
The advent of recorded sound in the late 1920s changed motion pictures forever. Years of experimentation resulted in two different recording systems: sound on disc, modeled on the phonograph, and sound on film, which involved recording a soundtrack directly onto the celluloid strip. At the same time, engineers achieved an effective amplification system for theaters by drawing on the new technology behind radio. First demonstrated in 1926, recorded sound was in almost universal use by 1930. By 1930 the sound-on-film method had become standard because of problems with the discs.
A Early Talkies
The first years of recorded sound forced a retreat from the sophisticated style of late silent cinema. Camera movement was curtailed because sound cameras had to be enclosed in stationary boxes so the noise of their motors would not be recorded. Actors’ movements were similarly contained because they could not stray too far from microphones strategically hidden on the set. In addition, there was the question of whether silent stars’ voices would be suitable for talkies. In Hollywood, a new wave of stage performers was brought out from Broadway.
These initial impediments were quickly overcome through technological innovations. To restore their mobility, cameras were covered with sound-insulating materials and mounted on dollies with rubber tires. Microphones were hung from long arms, called booms, and dangled over the action out of camera range, which reanimated the performers. As early as Applause (1929), American director Rouben Mamoulian demonstrated a rich variety of new aesthetic possibilities with recorded sound. Mamoulian overlapped sound from different sources, used sound to signal a scene change, and shifted sound emphasis within a scene. The impressionistic effects he sought contrasted with the industry’s efforts to develop a natural or realistic standard for film sound.