Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Cinema of the United States
The cinema of the United States, sometimes simply called—correctly or not—Hollywood, can perhaps be summed up by the title American film critic Pauline Kael gave a 1968 collection of her reviews: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. By way of explanation, she said that the words, which came from an Italian movie poster, were "perhaps the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of movies." Certainly, they sum up the raw energy of many American films.
Thomas Alva Edison played an important role in the invention of motion pictures, but his heavy-handed patent enforcement caused early filmmakers to look for a new location to practice their craft. In Los Angeles, California, the studios spawned in a sleepy section of the town, known as Hollywood. 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 David Wark 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 racial 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 the industry employs a huge number of foreign-born "creatives"—from Swedish actress Greta Garbo to Australian actress Nicole Kidman, from Hungarian director Michael Curtiz to Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón—the American film industry has many faults, but it has never silenced the world's filmic voices.
Other moviemakers arrived from Europe after World War I: directors like Ernst Lubitsch, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, and Jean Renoir; 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.
During the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, the 1930s and 1940s, movies issued from the Hollywood studios rather 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. 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 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.
What is remarkable is how much quality entertainment emerged from such a regimented process. 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 the greatest of all American movies, 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.
The studio system 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. The number of movies being made dropped sharply, even as the average budget soared, because Hollywood wanted to offer audiences the kind of spectacle they couldn't see on television. However, the competition by this rival medium inadvertently benefitted the film industry. This is because public opinion about the quality of television content soon declined, and by contrast, cinema's status began to rise to become a more respected artform.
This blockbuster syndrome has continued to affect Hollywood. Added to the skyrocketing salaries paid actors, studio heads, and deal-making agents, it means that movies released today tend to be either huge successes or huge failures, depending on how well their enormous costs match up with the public taste.
The studios still exist, often in partnership with other media companies, but many of the more interesting American movies are now independent productions. The films of Woody Allen (1935- ), for example, fall into this category. Critics rate them highly and most of them make a profit, but since good actors are willing to work with Allen for relatively little money, the films are inexpensive to make. Thus, if one happens to fail at the box office, the loss is not crushing. In contrast, a movie featuring Tom Cruise or Bruce Willis typically begins with a cost of $10 million or more just for the star's salary, partly as a result of the rise of powerful agents and managers. With multiples of a sum like that at stake, Hollywood studio executives tend to play it safe.
A major change to American filmmaking occurred during the 1970s when a new breed of young directors who had degrees from film schools and had absorbed the techniques developed in Europe in the 1960s emerged. Directors like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola came to produce fare that was often both critically acclaimed and successful at the box office.
1990s saw another significant development. The full acceptance of video by studios opened a vast new business to exploit. 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 rise of so-called "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 megabucks.
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
Iconic American actors include Marlon Brando, James Cagney, Bette Davis, James Dean, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Harrison Ford, Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Julia Roberts, Jimmy Stewart, Meryl Streep, Shirley Temple, Denzel Washington and John Wayne.
- History of cinema
- Arts and entertainment in the United States
- Culture of the United States
- List of movie-related topics
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