In the later part of the 1800's the public's attention and imagination
was captured by a new art form - motion pictures. When the Lumiere
Brothers, George Melies and Thomas Edison began placing images
on film they captured not just a slice of life but the imagination
of viewers throughout the world. From films that were as simple
as Fred Ott's "The Sneeze," to imaginative science fiction
that placed men on the moon, to the innovative birth of that most
basic of American artistic endeavors the Western in "The
Great Train Robbery" (1903), movies had a revolutionary impact
on the societies in which they were made. So much so that they
continue engender a debate as to whether film is a reflection
of the values of the society in which it was made, or whether
it is film that in fact, determines what that society values.
Although the efforts of the Lumiere Brothers, George Melies and
Thomas Edison can not be discounted (they were, after all, the
creators of the medium), the man who is frequently identified
as having shepherded the transformation of film into an art form
in its own right was D. W. Griffith. Certainly one of the most
ingenious film makers in the history of the art form, Griffith
has been credited with being the first to utilize close ups, cross
cutting / quick cuts, flashbacks and a host of other innovative
cinematic techniques. In addition to being a superlative technician
Griffith was at heart a brilliant story teller ("Birth of
a Nation" (1915) and "Intolerance" (1916), with
an eye for talent, working with such early talents as Mary Pickford
and Lillian Gish. It was Griffith's collaboration with Pickford,
Gish, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin that led to the formation
of United Artists in 1919. United Artists was designed to provide
greater artistic / creative freedom for the big name talents of
the day who were chaffing under the studio's star system. It was
in the early years at United Artists that the studio produced
some of the best films of the silent era. Most notable among these
were Fairbanks's classic swashbucklers "Robin Hood (1922),
and "The Thief of Baghdad" (1924), and the Charlie Chaplin
classic "The Gold Rush" (1925).
The Silent Era has often been referred to as the Golden Age of
Comedy. It was this period that produced such comic geniuses as
Charlie Chaplin (whose antics as the Little Tramp delighted audiences),
Harold Lloyd (the original daredevil whose antics in "Safety
Last" (1923) explain why film makers are required to post
a bond before production starts), and Buster Keaton (whose stoically
grateful characterizations in such films as "The General"
(1926) are stuff of which legends are made).
While the previously mentioned artists supplied the creative drive
for American film making the media was also being advanced in
other countries. Indeed, the American cinema was quickly being
surpassed creatively by its cinematic European cousins. It was
during this time that German Expressionism was flourishing. Expressionism
was an influential early twentieth century artistic movement which
rejected the simple reproduction of reality. This movement applied
nonnaturalistic forms in an abstract symbolic approach to
thematic material. Most films created during this period were
produced in studios which encouraged a stylized approach and allowed
for total control of the film's visual elements. Expressionism
strove to visibly display the inner turmoil of the film's characters
and was characterized by highly artificial utilizing stylized
and distorted sets and decor, unnatural lighting that created
deep shadows and sharp contrasts, visual compositions that emphasized
the grotesque, and an exaggerated acting style, meant to externalize
the characters' psychological torment. The three best examples
of this style are "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1919),
"Nosferatu" (1922), and "Metropolis" (1926).
It was during the latter part of this period that the Surrealistic
movement was also having an impact on European film making. This
iconoclastic style featured the prominent use of symbolism and
was heavily influenced by the prominent artist Salvador Dali (who
often appeared in films by the legendary Luis Bunuell producing
such classics as "Un Chien Andalou" (1928), and "L'
Age D'Or" (1930).
The Russian cinema was also experiencing tremendous artistic growth.
During this time the Russian cinema was primarily used as propaganda
to serve the interests of the state (a pattern that has continued
throughout much of Russia's history) . Under the stewardship of
the great Russian director Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian cinema
flourished. Eisenstein is best known for his theory of montage.
Specifically he believed that it was possible to create a visually
dramatic and emotional moment by utilizing judicious editing.
This technique is best exemplified in Eisenstein's "Battleship
Potempkin" (1925) during the now famous Odessa Steps sequence.