Updated: 05/03/2013

Film, Radio and TV - 2




The Early Days

of Film



Big Profits Loom as Motion

Pictures Become Mainstream

>>By 1910, Nickelodeon theaters were attracting 26-million viewers each week.  Five years later that number had more than doubled.

The popularity of films soon attracted the attention of those seeing the potential for big profits.  And what better way to insure big profits than to try to create a monopoly in an attempt to control everything.

>>Led by Thomas Edison, several companies formed a trust called the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC). The plan was to use their combined patents to control things such as the production of raw film stock, projection equipment, and film distribution and exhibition; in other words, almost everything in the motion picture industry.

Independent (not studio affiliated) film companies tried to compete -- but at considerable risk. MPPC people raided the independent studios that attempted to make films. Equipment was smashed and employees were threatened.

Their strong-arm tactics aside, the MPPC did establish film standards and create an internationally competitive motion picture industry.

Among the other things that the MPPC did to try to hold onto control (and profits) was to forbid the use of actor's names in film credits.

It was assumed that if audiences became familiar with leading characters that the actors would achieve a star status and demand more than the minimal wages they were earning.  

As we will see, this was pretty shortsighted.


D. W. Griffith

>>In 1915, one of the most noteworthy films in the history of motion pictures was released: Birth of a Nation.  

The three-hour film was made to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the ending of the Civil War in the United States. It cost less than $110,000 to make and earned more than $18 million.

It also made pioneer film maker D. W. Griffith famous for introducing sophisticated film and storytelling techniques. Griffith had started out trying to be an actor, and when that didn't work out he decided to try his hand at directing. Interestingly, the entire film was shot without a script.

The film chronicled a part of U.S. history from pre-Civil War days through the Reconstruction.  It was accompanied by a complete musical score performed live in theaters by symphony orchestras.

>>Even though Birth of a Nation represented a quantum leap in film techniques, because of its racist theme it was highly controversial. The film was said to have, "a flawed, sentimental attachment to the Old South." (Griffith was from the South.) Among other things, violent, anti-Negro Ku Klux Klan members emerged as heroes.

The showing of the film resulted in race riots in major cities and put new life into the Ku Klux Klan. If there was any doubt about the influence of this new medium the issue was settled with Birth of a Nation.

Even today, some colleges that have tried to screen the film for historic reasons have met with major opposition.

>>Griffith's second film, Intolerance, in 1916, had a message of love, tolerance, and the futility of war.  It cost almost 20 times as much to make as Birth of a Nation and in terms of technique was more impressive. (Note one of the elaborate scenes on the left.)

It was a box-office flop.

Not only was it ahead of its time in terms of technique, but people didn't want to hear a message about tolerance—especially when the United States was preparing to go to war.

As a result, Griffith, who in part wanted to address criticism for Birth of a Nation (and who had invested his own money in Intolerance), was almost wiped out financially.

>>As we've noted, films were originally shot on the East coast of the United States where the film business originated. This soon changed, primarily for two reasons.

First, many films were shot outside—a lot of light was needed to accommodate the slow speed (light sensitivity) of the film in those days—and the weather on the East Coast often didn't cooperate.

But, "It never rains in Southern California" (at least according to the song), and "out West" there was sunshine and wide open spaces available for making films—not to mention a very big ocean and lots of picturesque mountains.

Independent film companies fighting the stranglehold of the East Coast MPPA trust, moved to the West Coast — primarily Southern California.  On the West Coast they were much farther away from MPPA control. (And it should be noted, close to Mexico, in case they had to quickly close up operations and make a hasty retreat to a safer terrain!)

>>Once the independent film companies were established in California, they started turning out films that were as good as, and often better than, the ones being produced by MPAA companies.

But even more bad news for the MPPC trust was on the horizon.  

In 1915, the U.S. government finally acted to break up the trust under antimonopoly laws.  (But, lest anyone feel sorry for these companies, within a few years the East Coast film moguls would soon be back with an even bigger monopoly.)

Before we get to that we need to mention how "Hollywood" came into being.

>>For those not familiar with the Los Angeles, California area, Hollywood (which eventually became known as "the film capital of the world") is geographically a part of Los Angeles.

Interestingly, the name "Hollywood" rests on an illusion, just as "motion" pictures do.  

A real estate agent who had moved to the Los Angeles area from the East Coast had brought with him a lot of holly trees.  Not being troubled with such things as botany and geographic differences, he optimistically planted them, thinking that he would introduce a new species of trees to the area.

They all died.

Not to be deterred (real estate people tend to be an optimistic lot), he still named the area "Hollywoodland" and put up a large sign on the side of a mountain to advertise the area.  Later the name was shortened to "Hollywood," as shown here.

Holly trees or no holly trees, the area ended up being an ideal site for early motion picture studios.


The Star System Is Born

Studio Script >>As we've noted, the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC) didn't want to list the names of actors in their films because they feared that the actors would become well known and would subsequently want more money.

The independent studios that had set up shop on the West Coast saw things differently.  They immediately recognized an advantage in developing popular stars that audiences would pay to see time and time again.

The fact that this approach would draw audiences away from rival MPPC films didn't escape their notice either.

One of the first actors to be promoted in this way was Florence Lawrence—yes, Florence Lawrence!  She is credited with being the first movie star.  (A nice trivia question!)

>>Two stars from this early era whose names are definitely famous in the annals of film history are Mary Pickford (known at the time as "America's Sweetheart") and Charlie Chaplin, (the comic genius whose plight we'll discuss later).

If you walk along the "Walk of Fame" on Hollywood Boulevard between La Brea and Vine Streets in Hollywood, you will see their names embedded in the sidewalk along with bronze stars.  (Note photo.) 

They are just two of scores of film, radio and TV notables spanning almost a century of history who are commemorated in this way.

Here are some more.


The Rise of Comedy

>>Do the names Hal Roach, Mack Sennett, and Laurel and Hardy ring a bell?  They are also noted on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and they were the comedy teams of the silent film era—slapstick comedians who packed theaters.  

Their physical humor didn't need dialogue, so the tens of thousands of U.S. immigrants of the period, along with people around the world regardless of language, could appreciate their antics.  

>>The first 20th Century superstar was Charlie Chaplin, the undisputed comic genius of silent comedy.  He started out working at $150 a week, and by 1917 was making more than a million a year.  

His character was best displayed in the film, The Tramp, in which he played a vagabond in baggy pants and a tight coat who comes to rescue a C. Chapmanpretty girl. Disaster and disappointment befall him at every turn. (In Module 9 we'll see that another film that is considered by some critics to be his best work.)

>>There was more than just empty-headed humor in his work; Chaplin used his films to subtly communicate messages about good and evil in society—and especially the disparity between the haves and have-nots.

Although Chaplin's work was immensely popular, some of the "haves" didn't appreciate his pointing out the social problems resulting from the financial inequities of the early 1900s. It didn't help that Chaplin led a bit of a freewheeling, lascivious life. 

" For the first half of the 20th century, Charlie Chaplin was the most famous movie comedian in the world...."
Los Angeles Times, 10/20/2010

When the perceived threat of Communism loomed in the United States, Joseph McCarthy, a Republican Senator from Wisconsin, would capitalize on this public fear by instigating a Communist "witch hunt," referred to as "The McCarthy Hearings."

Chaplin, who was born in Britain, would be one of McCarthy's targets.


The McCarthy Hearings

>>From the outset, it's important to note that after months of investigations and the outlay of huge sums of money by the U.S. government, no real Communist plot was ever uncovered by the McCarthy investigation.

Even so, the threat of Communism throughout the world was real. Although McCarthy alleged that Communist infiltration had reached high levels of the U.S. government and the military, he could never substantiate his claims. (You might rent the 2005 film, Good Night and Good Luck for a perspective on this.)

>>Led by Senator McCarthy, an aggressive anti-Communist witch-hunt was launched in 1947 by conservative members of congress under the jurisdiction of House Un-American Activities Committee. The group included Richard M. Nixon, a Republican congressman from California, who later became a U.S. president.  You might recall that Nixon was also the only U.S. president to be forced to resign because of illegal activities while in the White House. (The award-winning 2008 film, Frost-Nixon, documents some of this.)

McCarthy went after the easy targets that he could drag in front of TV cameras. The fact that McCarthy was largely trying to score political points seemed to be born out by the fact that those who could stand up to him during his 160 closed-door hearings tended not be called and grilled at the televised hearings.  

But the 1940s represented the dawn of television. Since people were fascinated by the new television medium at that time, McCarthy quickly became a celebrity and something of a national hero.

" Many people had simply gone to a meeting (later branded "communist") out of curiosity or because they were invited by a friend -- never dreaming that this could land them in jail and spell the end of their professional careers."

The fear of Communism became so great that the individual freedoms on which the United States was founded were pushed aside with little opposition.

>> In mid-2003, the U.S. government released a 4,232 page transcript of the McCarthy proceedings. After reviewing the documents, one historian boiled it all down to seven words: "McCarthy smeared thousands, but nailed no one."

Although the investigations had centered on "Hollywood," the committee's list of "suspected activities" was far reaching. Even the new, RSV (Revised Standard Version) of the Bible became an issue when it was alleged it was Communist-inspired.

During the investigations McCarthy and other committee members pointed their fingers at scores of people in the film business—including Chaplin.

Chaplin saw the dark clouds looming and returned to his native country of England. (If upstanding Americans were being accused of being Communists, what chance did someone born in another country have?)  

Everyone in the creative side of the film business feared the McCarthy hearings. No one knew if they might suddenly be branded a Communist or Communist sympathizer.  How did you spot a Communist? Consider these words of a key person of the time.

>> Communist writers can be spotted because they portray bankers and senators as villainous characters.

 - Film Producer Sam Wood during the McCarthy Hearings

Note: throughout these modules boxes (such as the one above) with a a red border indicate things said by "experts" -- things that were later shown to be totally wrong. Clearly, there's a lesson here.

>>During the hearings a Warner Brothers spokesman suggested that whenever film writers made fun of rich men or American politics they were engaging in Communist propaganda.

He further stated that movies sympathetic to "Indians and the colored folks" were also suspect.

It's also relevant in understanding the McCarthy hearings that studio heads were upset because they felt that writers, unions and actors were getting too much power, so there was motivation derail their success by suggesting they were Communist sympathizers. Plus we also have to factor in the perception that some members of society had (and have) about "film people."

" Creative film people tend to push social boundaries and touch upon controversial issues.

This is one of the things that makes their work popular and thought provoking—and creates a love-hate relationship with much of the public."


The Hollywood Ten  

>>The most famous members of the film community that were under attack ended up being branded The Hollywood Ten. This group consisted of nine screenwriters and one director.  

The 10 were singled out and subpoenaed; but, on a matter of principle, they refused to answer questions about their political views, which they thought were invasive and improper.

 All 10 were given prison sentences.  In addition, some were fined up to $10,000.

Studio heads, seeing economic consequences in using people tainted from the McCarthy inquisition, blacklisted 214 of Hollywood's most talented people. As a result, these people could not work in the industry for more than a decade.

One of the blacklisted writers wrote a screenplay under a different name—virtually giving it away—and subsequently won an Academy Award. Since he had been blacklisted, he couldn't make a public appearance at the awards ceremony to receive his Oscar.

Murrow Confronts McCarthy

>>Eventually, Edward R. Murrow, a famous CBS radio and TV newscaster, Edward R. Murrow(Note Time magazine cover.) did a well-reasoned TV documentary on the McCarthy led paranoia.

Even though this resulted in Murrow being put at the top of McCarthy's Communist enemy's list, his exposé (tellingly revealed in McCarthy's own recorded words) marked the beginning of the end of the senator's political career. (This is documented in the award-winning 2005 theatrical film, Good Night and Good Luck.)

Considering the times, deciding to do this documentary was a high risk venture for Murrow. Many people thought McCarthy was a hero who was dedicated to saving the country from Communism and they didn't want a lowly TV newscaster to question that. But, it wasn't Murrow who revealed the politically-motivated witch hunt; it was simply  McCarthy's own words and actions that were used against him.

Murrow, who both had a way with words and a dramatic on-camera presentation, concluded this historic live 1954 telecast in part with: 

"We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.

The actions of [McCarthy] the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies.

And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it—and rather successfully."


>>It was not until 20-years after the McCarthy hearings that Charlie Chaplin—by then recognized as one of the greatest superstars and film talents of the 20th century—returned to the United States to receive an honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards Ceremony.

Chaplin received one of the longest standing ovations in the history of the Academy Awards.

Click on TO NEXT MODULE below for the next part of film history.

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