Film History

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Film History


There is no single or simple history of film. As an object of both academic and popular interest, the history of film has proven to be a fascinatingly rich and complex field of inquiry. Coffee-table books, multipart documentaries, television networks that predominantly feature movies, scholarly monographs, and textbooks have cut different paths through this field. As a result, film history can look quite different, depending on whether the focus of attention is on individual films, institutional practices, national cinemas, or global trends. Indeed, the history of film's remarkable rise in the twentieth century has been told in a variety of ways: as the story of artistic triumphs and box-office winners; of movie moguls and larger-than-life stars; of corporatization and consumption; of auteur directors and time-honored genres; of technology and systemization; and of audiences and theaters. Taken even more broadly, the history of film becomes an account of the shifting roles and multiple effects of cinema—culturally, socially, and politically.

Across this range of options, film history confronts, implicitly or explicitly, a number of provocative and knotty questions: From a larger historical perspective, what is the role of the individual film and the individual filmmaker? What are the social and cultural contexts within which the movies were produced and consumed? What does the history of film have to do with other twentieth-century histories—of technology, business, commercial entertainment, the modern nation-state, globalization?


Given the fact that film is at once art, industry, mass media, and influential form of cultural communication, it is not surprising that the history of film can be approached from a number of quite distinct angles. A concern with technology, for example, raises questions about the invention, introduction, and diffusion of moving picture projection systems and cameras, as well as color, sound, and wide-screen processes. Technological history has been especially prominent in discussions of the pre-1900 period, the transformation to sound in the late 1920s and the 1930s, and the struggle to compete with television during the 1950s. To explore the history of home movies and amateur film also necessarily involves questions of so-called "small-gauge" technology (most notably, 8 mm and 16 mm), and any broader overview of film exhibition must take into account the technology of the movie theater, including the projection apparatus and, from the 1980s on, sophisticated sound systems.

Technology is intimately connected to the economics of the motion picture industry, another key aspect of film history that has received considerable interest from scholars. Most attention has been given to the internal workings and the ongoing transformations of the Hollywood studio system, both in terms of how individual studios have operated and also in terms of the concerted efforts by studios to maintain monopolistic control over the industry. Economic history also takes up labor relations and unionization, government attempts to regulate the film industry through antitrust actions, and the financial framework and corporate affiliation of major studios in the United States and Europe. Equally central to any historical understanding of the economics of the industry are the complex relations among production, distribution, and exhibition, including the role of Hollywood in exporting American films to the rest of the world. While exhibition has recently received considerable attention—as in, for example, Douglas Gomery's Shared Pleasures (1992) and Gregory A. Waller's Moviegoing in America (2002)—distribution remains understudied.

More than economics, technology also figures in what has been called formalist or aesthetic histories of film, which tend to focus on questions concerning narrative and audio-visual style and, more generally, the art and craft of cinema. This approach has tended to emphasize masterworks and great directors, celebrating their innovations and contributions to a tradition of cinematic art. The auteur theory, for example, has informed much popular film history. At the same time, more systematic (even statistically based) approaches to the history of film style have looked less at world-famous directors like D. W. Griffith (1875–1948), Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948), and Jean Renoir (1894–1979) and more at the norms and opportunities available to filmmakers under specific conditions of production, in and out of Hollywood. Such approaches consider, for example, how editing practices, camera movement, and uses of the soundtrack have changed over time.

The historical study of film genres also takes up formal concerns, as well as other topics having to do with the cultural and ideological role of popular film. American film history has sometimes been understood primarily in terms of the changing fortunes of genres like the gangster film, western, film noir, and the musical. More interesting is the considerable amount of historical work that has been done on individual genres, offering a complex picture of how genres emerge, flourish, and decline both in terms of the films produced and the reception of these films by audiences at the time and by later generations of fans and critics. The history of film genres, as presented, for example, by James Naremore in More Than Night (1998), has also raised important questions about intermedia relations, that is, the way the course of film history has been significantly affected by contemporary practices in literature, live theater, radio, popular music, and television.

Popular genres, as might be expected, often figure prominently in social or cultural histories, which seek in a variety of different ways to situate film within a broader context or to shift focus away from individual films, directors, and studios to questions about how cinema is constructed, circulated, understood, and monitored in a particular class, region, or subculture or in society at large. One prominent concern of social history is the film audience: How has it been defined and policed? What is its makeup in terms of class, race, and gender? What is its reception of particular movies and cinema in general? To explore what moviegoing has meant in specific historical situations has necessarily involved a greater attention to the practices and strategies of film exhibition. From nickelodeon and picture palace to drive-in and suburban megaplex, the movie theater has proven to be a key site for exploring the place of film in the everyday life of the twentieth century and for considering how a film experience intended for a national or global audience is presented and consumed at a local level.

Other major areas of social and cultural historical research are the ideological import of cinematic representations (of race, gender, and sexuality, for example); the formal and informal processes of censorship; the role of official government cultural policy (which is of particular import outside the United States); and the connections between cinema and consumer culture, through advertising, product tie-ins, and so on. Of crucial importance in this regard is the vast amount of written material surrounding and concerning the movies, from trade journals and promotional matter to reviews, fan magazines, and—more recently—Internet sites.


The earliest film histories, like Terry Ramsaye's A Million and One Nights (2 vols., 1926; originally published in Photoplay magazine, beginning in 1921), were intended for a general audience. These works offered first-person, highly anecdotal accounts written by journalists, inventors, and filmmakers who frequently were insiders to the motion picture industry. Ramsaye, for instance, had worked as a publicist. His book and others like it set a model for a sort of film history that is preoccupied with movie personalities and filled with broad claims about the step-by-step "progress" of film as art and industry. Foregrounded in such works is the role of inventors like Thomas Edison and directors like D. W. Griffith, certain landmark films, influential stylistic innovations, and major technological advances. Much popular history concerning, in particular, classic Hollywood, carries on this tradition, offering a narrative account of movie history that features individual artists, inventors, and executives rebelling against or working securely within the demands of the commercial entertainment industry. This "great man" version of history typically goes hand in hand with a belief that the historian's task is, in part, to identify and celebrate a canon of cinematic masterworks.

Writing at the end of the silent era, the British filmmaker and critic Paul Rotha (1907–1984) took a somewhat different tack in The Film till Now (1930), emphasizing distinctive national cinema traditions and giving special attention to films and filmmakers that challenged standard Hollywood practices. Both of these emphases have also frequently been features of film history textbooks. After Rotha there have been several significant attempts at world or global histories of film, like Histoire du Cinema (5 vols., 1967–1980), by Jean Mitry. Until recently, with, for example, The Oxford History of World Cinema (1999), attempts at international film history have generally been plagued by a decidedly Eurocentric, if not always American, bias. The lack of full attention to non-Western film has arisen from the assumption that film history is above all concerned with film production, filmmakers, and film studios (principally the domain of Hollywood, Bollywood, and a few European companies) rather than with exhibition, reception, and worldwide film audiences.

Most typically, film history has been understood in national terms. This is reflected in the number of books devoted exclusively to Hollywood and American cinema, beginning with Lewis Jacobs's The Rise of the American Film (1939) and culminating in Scribner's ten-volume History of the American Cinema (1990–2000), a towering achievement. Other national cinemas, too, have frequently been a key subject for historians, from New Zealand and Japan to Cuba and Canada. While specific details vary from country to country, this form of film history reinforces what is assumed to be a strong correlation between the cultural, economic, and social life of a particular nation and the films produced in that nation. National histories of film typically celebrate homegrown auteurs and award-winning titles, "new waves," and the sort of films that circulate on the international film festival circuit. More recently, however, the widespread interest in industry practices, government cultural policy, and popular genres has led to groundbreaking research on national cinemas that draws heavily on archival sources, as in Peter B. High's The Imperial Screen (2003), a study of Japanese film during the Pacific War era.

The 1970s and 1980s saw a major turn toward historical research in academic film studies, led in part by a new interest in early silent cinema (1895–1910), which completely reshaped our understanding of the origins of the American film industry, the audience that took up moviegoing during the nickelodeon era, and the introduction of narrative film. This type of revisionist history, which makes extensive use of primary documents (including the trade press and archival motion-picture holdings) and rejects simple notions of progress and celebrations of "great men," got a major boost in Film History: Theory and Practice (1985), Robert C. Allen and Douglas Gomery's assessment of the discipline and blueprint for future research. Equally significant was the publication that year of David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson's Classical Hollywood Cinema, an exhaustively researched study based on a randomly selected body of films and a range of industry-related print material. This influential book set out to investigate Hollywood's evolving mode of production, its incorporation of technological change, and its elaboration of a cinematic style that served as the norm for American movies between 1917 and 1960.

Since the mid-1980s the study of film history has been strongly influenced by other major scholarly trends, notably, feminist, postcolonial, and cultural studies, as well as reception studies that focus on social identities and film-related public discourses. There has also been an increasing emphasis on historical case studies in article or monograph form that rely on significant primary research to focus in detail on a relatively narrow period, topic, or institutional practice. Works like Eric Schaefer's "Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!" (1999), a history of exploitation films, and Lee Grieveson's Policing Cinema (2004), an account of early film censorship, exemplify the highly focused yet still very ambitious research that has continued to enrich and complicate our understanding of film history in and out of Hollywood, within and beyond the walls of the movie theater.

SEE ALSO Canon and Canonicity


Allen, Robert C., and Douglas Gomery. Film History: Theory and Practice. New York: Knopf, 1985.

Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Modes of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Crafton, Donald. The Talkies: American Cinema's Transition to Sound, 1926–1931. New York: Scribner's, 1997.

Gomery, Douglas. Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

Grieveson, Lee. Policing Cinema: Movies and Censorship in Early Twentieth-Century America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

High, Peter B. The Imperial Screen: Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years' War, 1931–1945. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.

Jacobs, Lewis. The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History. New York: Teachers College Press, 1939.

Musser, Charles. The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907. New York: Scribner's, 1990.

Naremore, James. More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, ed. Oxford History of World Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Ramsaye, Terry. A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture through 1925. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1926.

Rotha, Paul. The Film till Now. London: J. Cape, 1930.

Schaefer, Eric. "Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!": A History of Exploitation Films, 1919–1959. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

Waller, Gregory A. Moviegoing in America: A Sourcebook in the History of Film Exhibition. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002.

Gregory A. Waller