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Filmmaking History of the USA Essay

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Updated: May 27th, 2020


Filmmaking has developed over the years into what the citizens of United States see today in the form of blockbuster and/or independent films. Blockbuster films refer to the big budget films that hinge their success on the identity of the stars in the films as well as the advertisements surrounding the release of the films for extended periods that ensure that the attention of the audience is pegged on the worldwide launch of such films. On the other hand, independent films refer to the supplementary low-budget film productions that require the input of talent and creativity by directors and production teams, which often rely on critical reviews for the definition of their success. They comprise many of the films that are produced by studios annually.

The blockbusters may only be six or so throughout the year. This marks the type of production regime that is prevalent in today’s Hollywood. However, there are also other factors that define part of the makeup of films in the twenty-first century that are either a slight reflection or a complete variation with respect to some aspects of films in the early to mid twentieth century, or more specifically for the period that is christened the ‘silent era’ in the film history. These aspects include the political influence on films, the relationship between films and the economic market both locally and internationally, and the exact nature of film production with specific attention to socio-cultural factors that influence the types of films produced in both eras. This study will carry out a brief but comprehensive review of the history of films during the silent era. It will then compare this information with the present state of the film industry in Hollywood.

History of Film from 1920s to 1945

In the 1920s, ‘colored’ films dominated the film industry. These films were a marked break from the black and white films that had been from the beginning of film production. It is noteworthy that the 1920s marked the era where most of the foundational elements of the film industry were laid. Another remarkable element is that the colored films ought to be distinguished from natural colored films. Colored films refer to those films that have been colored arbitrarily at the point of production to suit the tastes of the individual director or producers.

Natural colored films refer to those films that have been taken in the natural occurrence of events. Thus, they are a natural and accurate reflection of the chromatic environment of the action. They are not products of painted or dyed film, but a manifestation of the actual colors in nature. Colored films were often disappointing and strenuous to watch, as they caused ‘general color fatigue’, which is a condition where the eye of the viewer became exhausted after seeing the same color for an extended period of time. The person who was linked to their production was Charles Pathe. Pathechrome, which was his brand, only went out of business in 1928 (Read, 2009, p. 11).

A reflection of this phenomenon is evident in graphic effects in today’s films (Read, 2009, p. 16). With the advent of graphic tools such as Photoshop, producers and directors are able to manipulate a certain element into their desired outcome, which is often removed from the reality of the action. In some instances, this strategy has a captivating effect. However, in situations where their attempts backfire, the result is unsettling clearly ‘off’ to the viewer. The film industry took off in 1894. Over the next five decades, it developed from a lab experiment into the refined product of the 1920s that was used to entertain, educate, and incite the numerous citizens of both the United States and the rest of the world. It developed from an experimental stunt into the embracing of the uniquely American cinema themes of prosperity, individualism, and social mobility (Johnson, 2010, p. 38).

The various trends that marked the film industry in the silent era included a range of documentaries, horror films with German origin or film noir as they were then called, musicals, cartoons, avante garde films, political spots, and fictitious films including romance and action films. The inclusion of Shakespeare, as well as other classical artists’ work, was a common feature in the creation of the silent films. Good examples include Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights produced by Samuel Goldwyn in 1939, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet reproduced by George Cukor in 1936, and The Phantom of the Opera based on Gaston Leroux’s French novel, “Le Fantôme de l’Opéra” among others.

The major film studios in the silent era can be categorized according to their capacities and production traffic. Since the 1920s marked the intermediate period of peace and affluence that is calibrated by the end of the World War I and the beginning of the great depression, neither mild effects are evident in the style or extent of production within the 1920s. In fact, this period is noted historically as the pacesetter in terms of the economic organization of the film studios. The most prolific of all production studios at the time included Warner Bros Pictures (1923), Paramount Pictures (1935), Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKA 1928), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1924), and 20th Century Fox (1935).

It is remarkable that these studios are still the major producers of films in Hollywood despite the eight decades that have passed. At the time, they were busy with making acquisitions and mergers of cutting out competition. Consequently, most of the other studios were swallowed up or were driven out of business by monopolies. Universal Pictures is among the less recognized production studios both in the silent era and in today. However, the studio specialized in the production of horror movies. Critics described this studio’s strategy of that day as German expressionalism. Initially, the first horror movies were depicted from German studios. Later, American producers caught the drift and began to produce horror stories from scratch. This made them unique and relevant. Therefore, studios such as Universal Pictures have remained in business despite the ravages of history such as the great depression, World War II, and other events that have threatened to submerge the industry.

The film industry grew to be the fifth in the economy of the United States by the late 1920s. This situation sparked the interest of the political players. Political candidates were teaming up with the stars in the film to increase their popularity. Political parties were looking into Hollywood for the money and influence that it could give. Reagan was initially an actor who became a politician and later the president of the United States. Arnold Schwarzenegger also went on to become a governor. This aspect of politicization of Hollywood is still evident today.

In the silent era, the film industry made first friends with the Republican Party, although it is notable that the paradigms of politics were slightly different then both in name and in nature. In any event, the film industry players felt that since they were in a field that was most vulnerable to political tyranny in the form of censorship, it would be best to form close alliances with them and have them in their corner. This attitude has been carried forward to date. In fact, it was evident when Barrack Obama recently organized a campaign dinner for celebrities where a single plate was going for $2300.

The concept of contractual obligations among users, the luxurious and extravagant costs of production, and production houses were first experienced in this era, which has since become the way of business for the film industry. Stars also emerged in this era with their wealthy contracts and aspects of fanatic obsession with their autographs. A good example is Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926) who starred in “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (1921) and several other movies (Colvin, 2013, p. 93). American women immediately took to his eroticism and clandestine love appeal. When he passed on, his fanatics who comprised mostly female Americans of varied ages stormed the streets and became violent when they were disallowed to view the body (Brownell, 2012, p. 520).

Other characteristics of the silent era included the borrowing of works from foreign lands. As noted above, the German expressionalism wave hit the United States together with several films including the director Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse of The Gambler (1922), which was responsible for the debut of his evil genius talent after the film, was adopted and translated into English by an American studio. Another imported works included Lang’s futuristic drama Metropolis (1927). The era also saw the birth of comedy with geniuses and legends such as Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe. Roscoe is responsible for the debut of Fatty’s ‘Arbuckle’ as both the director and screenwriter. Chaplin’s works are notable in the Pilgrim (1923) and the Gold Rush (1925) (Roberts, 2010, p. 1011). In the former, he mimes David and Goliath whereas the latter contains both pathos and comedy.

In 1927, the Warner Bros’ studio produced the first ‘talkie’. Although one of the Polish brothers, Sam, died one day to premiere, the Jazz Singer was still a masterpiece. Its budget was the greatest that the studio had ever incurred in production at $500000. However, the successive profits were a justification of the production of another talkie. Perhaps this one production also spurred on the advent of independent film since it was at this time that the Warner Bros decided they would produce according to the success of the previous film. Soon afterwards, Warner Bros produced an experimental talkie christened April Showers, which was very successful (Lupo, 2011, p. 221). Paramount pictures soon saw the imminence of the sound film culture, thus entering an agreement with a local sound producer for a standard line of sound that has since marked their productions to set them apart from their rivals in the same field.

Administrative actions that punctuated the silent era include the formation of a film that was known as the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) whose creators intended to lobby for support from politicians. The film also intended to quell scandals that surrounded film personalities such as the Fatty Arbuckle rape – murder of 1921 and to regulate the quality and content of the industry (Roberts, 2010, p. 1014). Secondly, there was the institution of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) in 1927 to award talent and ingenuity of production within the film industry itself. David Fairbanks was the first president of this charitable vehicle that was both an incentive and cause for internal conflicts among the film industry players.

1930 to1948 marked what history has come to accept as the golden age of Hollywood. Many novels occurring prompted this title including the initiation into film of young actresses and even child stars. The Hollywood Repertoire as a daily newspaper was introduced, with the RKO studio winning the first academy award for the production of the film Cimarron (1931). Generally, the audiences throughout loved the theatres. It is notable that the film’s popularity went through and beyond the WWII. One theory to explain this rare occurrence is the lethargic effect that most productions of this age had in common.

Unique Concepts of Film Today

Most of the concepts of films that were there during the silent era have remained remarkably similar even for today’s films. The difference is in the form of a newer version of the old movies. An example to support this claim is in the most prominent film studios back then remaining just as prominent even to date with the only remarkable changes being the names and composition of directors and producers. However, the issue of the digital age has remarkably taken the film industry to new heights (Roberts, 2010, p. 1008). In 2010, Hollywood declared that it was looking to adopt a new business model that would allow consumers to buy the films online and/or download them to local devices for home entertainment.

A remarkable effect of digitalization is the escalated occurrence of piracy of the original work by skilled hackers on the World Wide Web. This situation is very different from the situation back in the 1930s where the public would have to await the show in the theatre for them to obtain the content. Back then, theatres and studious had a monopoly over film- centered entertainment because they could determine when to show and who to show their work. Regardless of the audience, reproduction of films was difficult for the untrained an unskilled people. Therefore, in case one wanted to re-watch or even watch any sort of entertainment, he or she would have to purchase a ticket to the theatre for every showing he would enjoy.

However, this strategy is no longer the case with the advent of globalization. Production may still be underway. However, the information and images could easily leak to the net and be available to the entire world through a viral release. This has greatly reduced the bargaining power previously commanded by producers and directors in Hollywood and any other production houses around the globe. Moreover, if one goes to a restricted movie viewing where the film being viewed will not be made publicly available, he or she only needs to record the viewing on his or her iPhone and post it online. Whereas the quality may be awful, the contents will still be disclosed.

The matter of content is another new feature in the present film conception. Whereas people priced the chance and opportunity to go to the opera and the theatre alike nine decades ago, today, it is not such a big deal. In the 20th century, theatre and opera incidents were a mark of class or even nobility. Those that made it to the theatre would have to pay exorbitantly for tickets. They would get to sit in various stratified locations depending on their station in life or their ticket price. Today, most theatres do not have such an arrangement, as all tickets have the same price. Moreover, movies are no longer perceived with the romanticism of those of past decades. As long as one gets to enjoy the show, it matters less where he or she is viewing it.

Since many youths have various options of viewing film contents ranging from their smart phones, to their tablets, laptops, and PCs, the notion of going to the movies is no longer so novel or attractive. It becomes even less attractive when a movie ticket is priced at a hundred dollars whereas the content of the explicit show will go viral and become available at absolutely no cost in approximately two hours after the initial viewing. Sources of streaming and torrents are multiple as practically anyone can upload content to the World Wide Web. Even certified sites such as YouTube can be hacked into, with copyrighted work being pilfered by internet bandits for cheaper or free distribution.

To make lemonade out of this situation, most Hollywood production studios are beginning to prefer internet streaming to pay TV as a medium for relaying their productions (Schroeder, 2008, p. 41). In 2011, DreamWorks SKG, Inc concluded its contract with HBO and signed up with Netflix, an internet-streaming firm that has committed to displaying online DreamWorks Films from 2013 through 2016. Another production studio that severed links with its cable station with preference for internet streaming is the 20th Century Fox, which just signed up with Amazon recently.


This study has conducted a brief history on the film industry from 1920 to 1945. This period is commonly referred to as the silent era in most film circles. The term ‘silent’ came from the fact that most of the films that were produced in this era had no sound. Additionally, most of them had no color. They were black and white in production. It is notable that the actual production of sound films did not occur in a wide range and acceptable scope until the late 1930s and early 1940s although Warner Bros produced the first talkie film in 1926. Most of the films that were produced in this era were not from a specific genre.

In fact, since the silent era marked the beginning of the film industry, it is characterized by the production of various genres of film including comedy, horror, avant-gardes, documentaries, cartoons /animations such as Mickey Mouse, which made its debut in the 1930s, and other genres that sometimes comprised imported work adopted to meet local tastes. Production often took many resources and investment in both money and social graces as politicians formed the top of the list of possible enemies. Consequently, they had to be swayed into accepting and even vouching for the film industry.

Reference List

Brownell, K. (2012). Movietime U.S.A”: The Motion Picture Industry Council and the Politicization of Hollywood in Postwar America. Journal of Policy History, 24(3), 518 -542.

Colvin, J. (2013). Examining Ethnic Exhibition: The Success of Scandinavian-Language Films at Chicago’s Julian Theatre in the 1930s. Film History, 25(3), 90–125.

Johnson, J. (2010). Saving the Silents. Humanities, 6(7), 37-42.

Lupo, J. (2011). Loaded Canons: Contemporary Film Canons, Film Studies, and Film Discourse. The Journal of American Culture, 34(3), 219 -233.

Read, P. (2009). Unnatural Colours: An introduction to colouring techniques in the silent era movies. Film History, 21(9), 9–46.

Roberts, M. (2010). AHR Forum: The Price of Discretion: Prostitution, Venereal Disease, and the American Military in France, 1944–1946. American Historical Review, 8(10), 1002 -1031.

Schroeder, P. (2008). Latin American Silent Cinema Triangulation and the Politics of Criollo Aesthetics. Latin American Research Review, 43(3), 33-60.

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