Flickchart Film School: Pre-1920s
A few years ago, I realized that my knowledge of film history was very limited. My timeline of film began with Back to the Future, and I could tell you more about the films of Pauly Shore than those of Marlon Brando. So, with the acknowledgement that I was missing decades of great films, I decided to start way back at the beginning of film and work my way to the present, learning as much about film and watching as many movies as I could in the quest for cinematic enlightenment. Through this endeavor, I found some of the greatest films ever made, as well as learned an incredible amount about the history of film. I would like to share what I have learned so far in a chronological look at film I like to call “Flickchart Film School”.
The creation of film is mostly thanks to three men: Thomas Alva Edison, and the Lumiere brothers, Louis and Auguste. In 1891, Edison invented the Kinetograph, which was the first ever motion picture system, along with the Kinetoscope, which allowed the customer to view films in a peepshow-like contraption. Four years later, across the sea in France, the Lumieres created the Cinematographe, which would project the image given to a camera. These systems quickly caught on as in the early 1900s, and nickelodeons began to sprout up all over the place, showing single-reel short films. By the end of the decade, there would be close to 10,000, with several million viewers paying their nickels to watch these short films every day. In this decade, most films were non-fiction films that lasted about ten minutes, and would not credit the actors by name. In the middle of the decade, both churches and the press denounced films, stating they were inciting criminal behavior.
In 1908, The Motion Picture Patents Company, otherwise known as The Edison Trust, was created in order to distribute films and to regulate what is put in films, and later, attempted to keep foreign films out of America and to control the length of films. However, this led to many independent filmmakers moving to California to get away from the regulations being put forth by the MPPC. This act of rebellion not only led to the eventual destruction of the MPPC, but also made California the main haven for the creation of motion pictures, which still stands today. By the middle of the 1910s, nickelodeons were phased out as movie palaces, able to show one picture to multiple people, became the norm. By the middle of the 1910s, motion pictures were leaning towards fiction, telling original stories and lasting as long as three hours or more. Film was becoming a main attraction to the world and it was only just beginning…
According to Flickchart, the top film of the pre-1920s is the D.W. Griffith’s historical epic Intolerance from 1916. The year after Griffith created the highly controversial, albeit important film The Birth of a Nation (Flickchart users’ #2 pre-1920s film), Griffith decided to focus his next film on people’s insensitivities. Intolerance is a massive film – even by today’s standards – telling four separate stories all based around the idea of intolerance. The film jumps from 16th century Paris, to ancient Babylon, to mid-1910s America, and finally to the condemnation of Jesus Christ. Griffith became infamous by becoming a visionary through utilizing many now commonplace camera techniques such as montage, close-ups, flashbacks and interwoven storylines. While many of these ideas Griffith did use in The Birth of a Nation, he perfected them in Intolerance – only growing from his prior experience. Griffith’s influence can still be seen in such similarly pieced-together, modern films as Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel, Paul Haggis’s Crash and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. Intolerance is not only great for its historical context, but is also fascinating for the way Griffith blends the stories together, weaving a moral lesson by common themes.
Here are some suggestions for those looking for more great films from this time period:
-One of the first great film visionaries, George Melies, has been linked to the creation of the fantasy, horror and sci-fi genres and his incredible in-camera special effects still influence modern day directors such as Michel Gondry and Guy Maddin. For starters, check out his technically brilliant The Four Troublesome Heads and the famous A Trip to the Moon, an epic film – even at only 14 minutes in length.
-For some more firsts, check out The Great Train Robbery, renowned as the first western and one of the first films to actually attempt to tell a story. Also see the short, Gertie the Dinosaur, that features one of the first animated characters brought to the screen. Finally, Cecil B. Demille’s early work The Squaw Man, which is considered one of the first films made in Hollywood.
-If you like Intolerance, catch the aforementioned The Birth of a Nation, if for no other reason that it is a technological breakthrough. Also look for Broken Blossoms, which is a much simpler love story by Griffith.
-Finally, it is impossible to talk about the beginning of film without mentioning Charles Chaplin. Along with actors such as Mary Pickford and Florence Lawrence, Chaplin became one of the first actors that became a household name. He became one of the first great screen comedians, and would go on to write, direct, produce, star and score all of his own films. He also helped create United Artists along with Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Griffith. For more of this film icon, watch Kid Auto Races at Venice to see the first introduction of his infamous Tramp character, Tillie’s Punctured Romance, which became the first multi-reel comedy feature in the United States, and the great Shoulder Arms, which shows the beginning of Chaplin’s attempts to make socially conscious, yet hilarious films.
This post is part of our User Showcase series. You can find Ross as rbonaime on Flickchart. If you’re interested to submit your own story or article describing your thoughts about movies and Flickchart, read our original post for how to become a guest writer here on the Flickchart Blog.