The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview

General Introduction


The cinema, wrote the documentarist Paul Rotha in the 1930s, 'is the great unresolved equation between art and industry'. It was the first, and is arguably still the greatest, of the industrialized art forms which have dominated the cultural life of the twentieth century. From the humble beginnings in the fairground it has risen to become a billiondollar industry and the most spectacular and original contemporary art.

As an art form and as a technology, the cinema has been in existence for barely a hundred years. Primitive cinematic devices came into being and began to be exploited in the 1890s, almost simultaneously in the United States, France, Germany, and Great Britain. Within twenty years the cinema had spread to all parts of the globe; it had developed a sophisticated technology, and was on its way to becoming a major industry, providing the most popular form of entertainment to audiences in urban areas throughout the world, and attracting the attention of entrepreneurs, artists, scientists, and politicians. As well as for entertainment, the film medium has come to be used for purposes of education, propaganda, and scientific research. Originally formed from a fusion of elements including vaudeville, popular melodrama, and the illustrated lecture, it rapidly acquired artistic distinctiveness, which it is now beginning to lose as other forms of mass communication and entertainment have emerged alongside it to threaten its hegemony.

To compress this complex history into a single volume has been, needless to say, a daunting task. Some developments have to be presented as central, while others are relegated to the margins, or even left out entirely. Certain principles have guided me in this work. For a start, this is a history of the cinema, not of film. It does not deal with every use of the film medium but focuses on those which have concurred to turn the original invention of moving images on celluloid into the great institution known as the cinema, or 'the movies'. The boundaries of cinema in this sense are wider than just the films that the institution produces and puts into circulation. They include the audience, the industry, and the people who work in it-from stars to technicians to usherettes -- and the mechanisms of regulation and control which determine which films audiences are encouraged to see and which they are not. Meanwhile, outside the institution, but constantly pressing in on it, is history in the broader sense, the world of wars and revolution, of changes in culture, demography, and life-style, of geopolitics and the global economy.

No understanding of films is possible without understanding the cinema, and no understanding of the cinema is possible without recognizing that it -- more than any other art, and principally because of its enormous popularity-has constantly been at the mercy of forces beyond its control, while also having the power to influence history in its turn. Histories of literature and music can perhaps be written (though they should not be) simply as histories of authors and their works, without reference to printing and recording technologies and the industries which deploy them, or to the world in which artists and their audiences lived and live. With cinema this is impossible. Central to the project of this book is the need to put films in the context without which they would not exist, let alone have meaning.

Secondly, this is a history of cinema as, both in its origins and in its subsequent development, above all popular art. It is popular art not in the old-fashioned sense of art emanating from the 'people' rather than from cultured élites, but in the distinctively twentieth-century sense of an art transmitted by mechanical means of mass diffusion and drawing its strength from an ability to connect to the needs, interests, and desires of a large, massified public. To talk about the cinema at the level at which it engages with this large public is once again to raise, in an acute form, the question of cinema as art and industry -- Paul Rotha's 'great unresolved equation'. Cinema is industrial almost by definition, by virtue of its use of industrial technologies for both the making and the showing of films. But it is also industrial in a stronger sense, in that, in order to reach large audiences, the successive processes of production, distribution, and exhibition have been industrially (and generally capitalistically) organized into a powerful and efficient machine. How the machine works (and what happens when it breaks down) is obviously of the greatest importance in understanding the cinema. But the history of the cinema is not just a history of this machine, and certainly


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The Oxford History of World Cinema
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Contributors ix
  • Contents xi
  • Special Features xv
  • List of Colour Illustrations xvii
  • General Introduction xix
  • 1 - Silent Cinema 1895-1930 1
  • Origins and Survival 6
  • Early Cinema 13
  • Transitional Cinema 23
  • The Hollywood Studio System 43
  • The World-Wide Spread of Cinema 53
  • The First World War and the Crisis in Europe 62
  • Tricks and Animation 71
  • Comedy 78
  • Documentary 86
  • Cinema and the Avant-Garde 95
  • Serials 105
  • French Silent Cinema 112
  • Italy- Spectacle and Melodrama 123
  • British Cinema from Hepworth to Hitchcock 130
  • Germany- The Weimar Years 136
  • The Scandinavian Style 151
  • Pre-Revolutionary Russia 159
  • The Soviet Union and the Russian émigrés 162
  • Yiddish Cinema in Europe 174
  • Japan- Before the Great Kanto Earthquake 177
  • Music and the Silent Film 183
  • The Heyday of the Silents 192
  • 2 - Sound Cinema 1930-1960 205
  • The Introduction of Sound 211
  • Hollywood- The Triumph of the Studio System 220
  • Censorship and Self-Regulation 235
  • The Sound of Music 248
  • Technology and Innovation 259
  • Animation 267
  • Cinema and Genre 276
  • The Western 286
  • The Musical 294
  • Crime Movies 304
  • The Fantastic 312
  • Documentary 322
  • Socialism, Fascism, and Democracy 333
  • The Popular Art of French Cinema 344
  • Italy from Fascism to Neo-Realism 353
  • Britain at the End of Empire 361
  • Germany- Nazism and after 374
  • East Central Europe before the Second World War 383
  • Soviet Film under Stalin 389
  • Indian Cinema- Origins to Independence 398
  • China before 1949 409
  • The Classical Cinema in Japan 413
  • The Emergence of Australian Film 422
  • Cinema in Latin America 427
  • After the War 436
  • Transformation of the Hollywood System 443
  • Independents and Mavericks 451
  • 3 - The Modern Cinema 1960-1995 461
  • Television and the Film Industry 466
  • The New Hollywood 475
  • New Technologies 483
  • Sex and Sensation 490
  • The Black Presence in American Cinema 497
  • Exploitation and the Mainstream 509
  • Dreams and Nightmares in the Hollywood Blockbuster 516
  • Cinéma-Vérité and the New Documentary 527
  • Avant-Garde Film- The Second Wave 537
  • Animation in the Post-Industrial Era 551
  • Modern Film Music 558
  • Art Cinema 567
  • New Directions in French Cinema 576
  • Italy- Auteurs and after 586
  • Spain after Franco 596
  • British Cinema- The Search for Identity 604
  • The New German Cinema 614
  • East Germany- The Defa Story 627
  • Changing States in East Central Europe 632
  • Russia after the Thaw 640
  • Cinema in the Soviet Republics 651
  • Turkish Cinema 656
  • The Arab World 661
  • The Cinemas of Sub-Saharan Africa 667
  • Iranian Cinema 672
  • India- Filming the Nation 678
  • Indonesian Cinema 690
  • China after the Revolution 693
  • Popular Cinema in Hong Kong 704
  • Taiwanese New Cinema 711
  • The Modernization of Japanese Film 714
  • New Australian Cinema 722
  • New Zealand Cinema 731
  • Canadian Cinema/Cinéma Canadien 731
  • New Cinemas in Latin America 740
  • New Concepts of Cinema 750
  • The Resurgence of Cinema 759
  • Index 785
  • List of Picture Sources 823


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