American Cinema


American Cinema, the historical development of cinema in the United States. The first 20 years of technical and organizational progress that created the standard form of cinema was a complex process that took place in both Europe and the United States, as is described in the article Early Development of Cinema. But by 1914, American cinema had become the dominant force in the world, both technically and commercially, as it has remained to this day.

During World War I, there was a major reorganization of the American film industry. Film exhibition in the cities moved over from small nickelodeons to large purpose-built cinemas holding a thousand people or more, and new production and distribution companies replaced the members of the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), who gradually went out of business because they were unable to adapt to the new type of film-making. At the same time, Hollywood became the major centre for production, almost completely displacing the studios around New York. The vast new studios built around Los Angeles were converted for filming completely in the dark, solely under artificial lighting, which made for greater efficiency and controllability of production.

New topics were added to the existing subjects dealt with in films, reflecting changes in society. “Flappers” (modern young women who behaved in unladylike ways) began to appear on the screen, science-fictional devices such as television and death-rays were used in serials, and, during World War I, American film-makers as well as European ones tackled big themes and told apocalyptic stories in their films.

For several years, the production companies which organized around a star or a director were the most prominent centres of film-making, but after the war, these were absorbed into the growing number of vertically integrated companies such as Universal and Paramount, which owned cinemas, distribution agencies, and studios. As larger and larger fees were paid to stars such as Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, their films came to be rented and exhibited at special higher prices, and the true reign of the film star was under way in the United States. Realizing their own value, the most prominent of these figures—Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith—joined together in 1919 to form their own company, United Artists.


The major American production, distribution, and exhibition companies as they are known today were all consolidated by the mid-1920s, with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Warner Bros., Columbia, and Fox (see 20th Century-Fox) joining Universal, Paramount, and United Artists, which had been formed several years before. As these companies increased in size, production methods became more regimented, and the producer system was instituted, whereby one man, working above the film directors, supervised the production of a small group of films from the scripting stage to finished film. Within the limits of mainstream cinema, a few film directors occasionally managed to produce something very individual, but only in the subject matter, they dealt with. Cecil B. DeMille continued to be more interested in social trends than most filmmakers, and his films dealt with such things as “jazz babies”, prison conditions, and Darwinism. Erich von Stroheim combined an obsessive interest in the detailed realism of his films with a taste for rather grotesque characters, as seen, for example, in Greed (1925). A more extreme instance was the collaboration between the director Tod Browning and the actor Lon Chaney in exploring human disfigurement and physical disability in a long series of films that made a star of the latter. Similarly, in slapstick comedy, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton had very individual approaches within a somewhat old-fashioned style, but by far the most popular comedian of the 1920s was Harold Lloyd, whose films, such as Safety Last (1923, Sam Taylor), were shot in the polished contemporary style, and who also played a realistic character in them. Tom Mix, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford continued as top stars, but others with a more up-to-date persona, such as Norma Talmadge, Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson, and Colleen Moore, had greater appeal for the general public.

In the mid-1920s, American film-makers were very impressed by German films made by F. W. Murnau (The Last Laugh) and E. A. Dupont (Varieté). As a result, there was a renewed interest in camera movement, superimposition effects, and montage sequences in American films. Successful examples can be seen in films such as Seventh Heaven (1927) by Frank Borzage.


Practical systems for synchronizing recorded sound with films had been demonstrated from the early 1920s when good electronic amplifiers became available, but it was only in 1926 that Warner Bros. introduced them commercially, as part of their well-funded expansion plans. The original idea was to provide a canned accompaniment for silent films for those small theatres that could not afford the usual live orchestra, but when Al Jolson spoke a few lines in The Jazz Singer (1927, Alan Crosland), the immense success of the film showed that audiences wanted to hear actors’ voices more than anything. The very costly transition to using full synchronized sound in all American films took a few years but was complete by 1930. In common with most technical developments before World War II, the sound film started in Western Europe a couple of years later than in the United States, and even later in other countries.

Synchronized sound did not change the style of American films greatly, though in 1928 and 1929 there were a number of badly paced and rather static sound films made. On the other hand, there were American directors who managed to continue the use of elaborate camera movement and Russian-style fast editing that had begun in later silent films. In general, shots did become much longer, but by 1932, when the technical problems with mixing and editing sound had been solved, the cutting in American and British films speeded up, and the flexibility of the silent film was fully regained. The greater amount of dialogue in sound films permitted plots of more complexity than had been possible in the silent period, and the number of script scenes in a film increased as well. At the same time, the use of symbolic scenes and inserts decreased, as the meanings these were intended to suggest could be more naturally implied through spoken dialogue.

The general difference between American and European films persisted, in that, on average, European films were shot at a great distance from the actors, the shots went on for longer, and there was more talk than action compared with American films. However, in these respects, British cinema alone produced films much closer to the American models.


The coming of sound gave a boost to film production in most non-English speaking countries, as audiences preferred to hear their own language spoken by native actors on the screen. Nevertheless, American films remained very popular, although they were gradually eliminated by state action in the European dictatorships towards the end of the 1930s. The economic depression of the 1930s severely reduced cinema income around 1933, and the financial difficulties produced bankruptcy and significant changes in ownership for some of the majors, but this had little effect on the type of pictures produced, other than introducing an element of defiant optimism into some screenplays. With the coming of sound, three whole new film genres developed. One of these was musical, which, after initial over-production, settled down to play an important part in production until the 1960s, when rising labour costs meant it became too expensive to make.

Initially, most film musicals reproduced the look of very lavish stage musicals shot head-on, but there were also foretastes of what was to come in the musicals with all-black casts such as Hearts in Dixie (1929) and Hallelujah! (1929), which presented their material in a more fluid and filmic way. Another purely filmic sort of musical was developed by Busby Berkeley in the early 1930s, which relied on the geometrical organization of large numbers of dancers within the flat plane of the film frame, rather than in three-dimensional space seen from head-on, as was traditional. However, the musicals of the song-and-dance duo Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers proved more popular as the 1930s went on.

Two other new genres dealing with gangsters and newspapermen merely reflected the interest in these subjects already evident in other media in the late 1920s, particularly in the stage play. There was also a new place in the movies for established stage acts and actors whose success depended on speech, particularly famous examples including the Marx Brothers. Since the cinema as an industry depended in general on appealing to the greatest audience possible, unpleasant social issues had always been largely avoided in films, but sometimes studio heads, particularly those at Warner Bros., would take a risk on a subject they believed important, such as prison conditions in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), lynchings in They Won’t Forget (1937), and labour conditions in The Grapes of Wrath (1939, John Ford).

By the late 1930s, the Hollywood studio system had reached its most regimented form, with each film under the general control of one producer during its progress down the production line. Nevertheless, there was usually one top director at each studio, and they were allowed slightly more leeway in how they made their films; some, in particular Frank Capra and Josef von Sternberg, managed to make very personal films. The numbers of each type of film were predetermined by the cinema chains under studio control, and the standard double-feature programme in the cinemas only left some room for smaller producers to provide B-films, or B-movies (the lesser features), at fixed prices for minimal profit. In fact, B-film production was rather like television production today.

The major technical development of the period was the first realization of a successful system of full-colour cinematography—Technicolor. This depended on a special camera taking three simultaneous negatives, one for each primary colour, and then making three printing “matrices” on three strips of 35-mm film, which applied the three dye colours by contact with the final print, rather like lithography. This was used in live action filming from 1934, but mainly only in very special productions such as The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind (both 1939, Victor Fleming), because of its cost.


During and after World War II there was a greater tendency for films to deal with the unpleasant side of life, largely because audiences had become more familiar with this on the screen in wartime documentaries and newsreels. There was also an increasing trend to shoot exterior scenes on real locations, rather than in the studio. New subject matter included psychoanalysis, which had become increasingly popular with the American upper-middle-class over the previous two decades. Psychological conflicts inside the mind of film characters were externalized in dream sequences, starting with Blind Alley (1939), and continuing through such better-known films as Spellbound (1945, Alfred Hitchcock). This trend interacted with the hard-boiled detective thriller, which was taken over from the pulp fiction of the late 1930s into the films of the 1940s and 1950s, becoming ever more violent and cynical, and featuring increasingly vicious characters. These films were called films noirs by French critics after World War II. Even Westerns began to be affected by this trend from the 1940s into the 1950s, giving rise to what were referred to at the time as the “neurotic” or “adult” Westerns, such as Pursued (1947).

Stylistically, the most important development in the 1940s was a movement by a small group of directors towards shooting film scenes with long takes. Leaders here included Vincente Minnelli, with films such as The Clock (1945), and William Wyler. The idea reached its culmination in Rope (1948) by Alfred Hitchcock, which had only five shots in its 80-minute length. This approach hindered the producers from altering the director’s work during the editing stage of production. However, the greatest innovations were seen in Citizen Kane (1941) by Orson Welles. This film established the idea of shooting scenes staged in depth within the deep focus of a wide-angle lens. (Deep focus meant that everything in the film image was sharp, from a head in close-up at one side of the frame to another actor standing in long shot at a distance of 9 m/30 ft). As well as providing the technical inspiration for this, the cameraman Gregg Toland also used very harsh lighting with strong chiaroscuro, which also proved influential. The construction of Citizen Kane, with the story, told in non-chronological flashbacks from the viewpoint of different characters, was another feature of the film that reintroduced artistic ambition into the prevailing Hollywood conformity.

During World War II film production decreased somewhat, but cinemagoing greatly increased, as did profits. At the end of the 1940s, however, this trend was sharply reversed, with the great move of the American population to suburban life and other forms of recreation, including television. Simultaneously, in a legal case that had been slowly proceeding for a decade, the United States government forced the major studios to separate their exhibition chains from their production and distribution companies from 1948 onwards, which gave greater room for independent film production led by individual stars and directors, rather like during World War I. In an effort to regain audiences, special methods of film presentation such as Cinerama, CinemaScope, and stereoscopic films were introduced, and much more American filming was done on foreign locations and in colour. From 1951 onwards, the Technicolor process was gradually replaced by Eastman Color and other colour systems based on Agfacolor. Foreign filming was also necessary to use profits from the exhibition of American films that were blocked in some countries. All this had very little effect on the downturn in cinema attendance, though foreign filming did have some effect on subject matter. The post-war loosening in moral attitudes and censorship permitted new subjects to be touched on in American films, mostly in adaptations of novels and plays, such as those of Tennessee Williams. Instances include homosexuality and nymphomania, as in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, Elia Kazan) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958, Richard Brooks). Other new film subjects reflecting changes in society included juvenile delinquency, as in Rebel Without a Cause (1955, Nicholas Ray), and the life of the organization man living in the suburbs and working inside large corporations, as in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956, Nunnally Johnson).

VI THE 1960S

By the 1960s the older section of the cinema audience had decreased, and this, combined with ever-increasing affluence, changed the attitudes displayed in films of the “Swingin’ ‘60s”. All over the world, the proportion of the young population in higher education increased, and the studios produced many films aimed at this audience alone. Many young film-makers got a chance to make these films, and in the later 1960s there were stylistic innovations in American films picked up from the French nouvelle vague (New Wave) directors, who had led the way some years before. These developments in film style included the filming of ordinary scenes with telephoto and zoom lenses, jump cuts, the reintroduction of inter-titles in silent film style, the inclusion of digressions unrelated to the main line of the drama, and abrupt changes of mood within scenes. Typical examples of this are You’re a Big Boy Now (1967) by Francis Ford Coppola and Greetings (1968) by Brian De Palma.

In the 1960s most of the major studios had been taken over by very large conglomerates, and from this point onwards there was a continuous change in the management of the studios as the new owners tried in vain to ensure steady maximum profits.


There have continued to be changed in the ownership of the large studios, with the newest giant multimedia and electronics companies trying to obtain products to feed their other activities. For instance, News International (see Rupert Murdoch) bought Fox in 1985 and Japan’s Sony Corporation bought Columbia in 1989, and Warner Bros. was bought by Time Life, and then in 2001 merged with the giant Internet service provider, America Online (AOL), to form AOL Time Warner. This process is well on the way to reinstating an even more extensive and worldwide vertical integration of companies supplying entertainment than existed before.

Cinemagoing increased in the 1970s, and there was also a very large increase in the number of cinemas in the United States during this decade.

The main new trend in the bulk of ordinary Hollywood production from the 1970s onwards was an increasing number of extremely expensive, big-budget, all-action pictures, many of them on science fiction subjects. In these, special effects played a bigger part than ever before, and their storylines became simpler, so they were well fitted to the young international audience. The trend was partly begun by George Lucas with Star Wars (1977), but by far the most commercially successful filmmaker in this area is Steven Spielberg, whose films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) retained the classical cinema’s complexity and variation of mood. Another connected development over the last two decades of the 20th century was the appearance of many films derived from old, low-quality television series, comic books, and computer games.

With the growth of the sale of video cassette recordings of cinema films, by the 1970s this source of income, plus sales to television, accounted for about half of film sales, and it became possible to finance the production of a cheap film from these sources alone. This has greatly increased the amount of production independent of the major studios in recent decades. This independent production falls into two parts, the first of which is cheaply made films of ordinary commercial type, such as horror films, crime films, and sex films. Given the change in social attitudes taking place in American society, the amount and intensity of violence and sex in these films increased markedly, an early landmark example being The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper).

An important development connected with these trends was the emergence of a substantial amount of production aimed purely at black Americans, who now formed about 20 per cent of the cinema audience. The film that showed there was money in this area was Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song (1971, Melvin van Peebles). Initially, these were mostly crime thrillers, but by the 1990s they were joined by more serious dramas made by black filmmakers such as Spike Lee.

The other strand of American independent production really began in the 1970s when the larger, wealthier, young, educated audience made possible a definite “art film” section of the American industry for the first time ever, for which filmmakers such as Robert Altman and Woody Allen produced distinctive films.

This latter, more respectable part of the trend was institutionalized by the Sundance Institute and Film Festival, created by Robert Redford in 1981 to encourage the production of artistically adventurous independent films. New distribution companies have also emerged to handle the increased independent production, most notably Miramax, and more recently New Line. However, after these companies became commercially successful, they were taken over by the major studios Disney and Warner Bros. respectively, so independence can only go so far in the United States. By the 1980s all the various kinds of independent production had doubled in quantity over that of the 1970s. In the 1990s the content of independent films became increasingly misanthropic, reflecting the way social attitudes have become more cynical and nihilistic in recent decades, with films that contained only stupid or despicable characters in the main parts, a leading film-maker in this respect being Todd Solondz (Happiness, 1998).


The main stylistic trend in the American cinema has been the continuing increase in the pace of the cutting, to the point where many films contain more than 2,000 shots, and the continuing increase in shooting closer and closer to the actors, to the extent that many films are mostly composed of close-ups. Other major trends have been the increasing density of music and effects on film soundtracks, and the use of more, and jerkier, gestures in acting.

One of the most important technical developments in recent times has been the Steadicam, a device for moving a camera around on a flexible arm attached to a harness strapped onto the cameraman. This gives the possibility of free-floating and fast movement to the camera over any kind of terrain, and also makes it quicker to set up moving camera shots than before. In the 1990s the major technical trend was the intrusion of computer methods into wider and wider areas of film-making. Mechanical special effects have been increasingly replaced by having parts of the shot, such as explosions, created with computer-generated images (CGI), and the recording of sound and subsequent creation of film soundtracks is now entirely carried out digitally. The beginning of the complete replacement of film as the medium for motion pictures arrived in 2002 with George Lucas’s Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones, which was shot in high definition video, edited in that form, and projected in a small number of cinemas using digital video projectors, without any use of film and photographic emulsion.

In 2001 the total cinema box-office gross for the United States was US$8.3 billion, up by 8 percent from 2000, which was partly due to increased ticket prices, since the actual number of tickets sold was 1.48 billion, an increase of 4 percent. The income from video cassette distribution and sales continued to be higher than box-office income overall.

Contributed By:
Barry Salt