The history of the cinema in its first thirty years is one of unprecedented expansion and growth. Beginning as a novelty in a handful of big cities -- New York, Paris, London, and Berlin -- the new medium quickly found its way across the world, attracting larger and larger audiences wherever it was shown and displacing other forms of entertainment as it did so. As audiences grew, so did the places where films were shown, culminating in the great 'picture palaces' of the 1920s which rivalled theatres and opera-houses for opulence and splendour. Meanwhile films themselves developed from being short 'attractions', only a couple of minutes long, to the feature length that has dominated the world's screens up to the present day.
Although French, German, American, and British pioneers have all been credited with the 'invention' of cinema, the British and the Germans played a relatively small role in its world-wide exploitation. It was above all the French, followed by the Americans, who were the most ardent exporters of the new invention, helping to implant the cinema in China, Japan, and Latin America as well as in Russia. In terms of artistic development it was again the French and the Americans who took the lead, though in the years preceding the First World War Italy, Denmark, and Russia also played a part.
In the end it was the United States that was to prove decisive. The United States was -- and has remained -- the largest single market for films. By protecting their own market and pursuing a vigorous export policy, the Americans achieved a dominant position on the world market by the eve of the First World War. During the war, while Europe languished, the American cinema continued to develop, pioneering new techniques as well as consolidating industrial control.
Meanwhile, in the United States itself, the centre of film-making had gravitated westwards, to Hollywood, and it was films from the new Hollywood studios that flooded on to the world's film markets in the years after the First World War -- and have done so ever since. Faced with the Hollywood onslaught, few industries proved competitive. The Italian industry, which had pioneered the feature film with lavish spectaculars like Quo vadis? ( 1913) and Cabiria ( 1914), almost collapsed. In Scandinavia, the Swedish cinema had a brief period of glory, notably with the powerful sagas of Victor Sjöström and the brilliant comedies of Mauritz Stiller, before following Denmark into relative
Annette Benson in the British comedy Shooting Stars ( 1928), directed by A. V. Bramble and (uncredited) Anthony Asquith
obscurity. Even the French cinema found itself in a precarious position. In Europe, only Germany proved industrially resilient, while in the new Soviet Union and in Japan the development of the cinema took place in conditions of commercial isolation.
Hollywood took the lead artistically as well as industrially. Indeed the two aspects were inseparable. Hollywood films appealed because they had betterconstructed narratives, their effects were more grandiose, and the star system added a new dimension to screen acting. Where Hollywood did not lead from its own resources it bought up artists and technical innovations from Europe to ensure its continued dominance over present or future competition. Sjöström, Stiller, and the latter's young protégé Greta Garbo were lured away from Sweden, Ernst Lubitsch and F. W. Murnau from Germany; Fox acquired many patents, including that of what was to become CinemaScope.
The rest of the world survived partly by learning from Hollywood and partly because audiences continued to exist for a product which corresponded to needs which Hollywood could not supply. As well as a popular audience, there were also increasing audiences for films which were artistically more adventurous or which engaged with issues in the outer world. Links were formed with the artistic avant-garde and with political groupings, particularly on the left. Aesthetic movements emerged, allied to tendencies in the other arts. Sometimes these were derivative, but in the Soviet Union the cinema was in the vanguard of artistic development -- a fact which was widely recognized in the west. By the end of the silent period, the cinema had established itself not only as an industry but as the 'seventh art'.
None of this would have happened without technology, and cinema is in fact unique as an art form in being defined by its technological character. The first section of Part I of this book, ' The Early Years', therefore begins with the technical and material developments that brought the cinema into being and helped rapidly to turn it into a major art form. In these early years this art form was quite primitive, and uncertain of its future development. It also took some time before the cinema acquired its character as a predominantly narrative and fictional medium. We have therefore divided the history of the first two decades of cinema into two: an early period proper (up to about 1905); and a transitional period (up to the emergence of the feature film shortly before the First World War), during which the cinema began to acquire that character as a
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Publication information: Book title: The Oxford History of World Cinema. Contributors: Geoffrey Nowell-Smith - Editor. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Place of publication: Oxford. Publication year: 1997. Page number: 3.
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