From Plutarch's Lives , and from Shakespeare's history plays, with their focus on the tragic fate of monarchs, to erudite and popular biographies, the fascination with the lives of the rich, the famous, and the infamous persists, as does the question of the source of this fascination. In the evolution of cinema, individuals of "consequence" were not slow to appear onscreen: short films were produced in the United States, France, Russia, and Italy, featuring monarchs, political dignitaries, military heroes, dancers, and celebrities. Early documentaries such as The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots (1895), President McKinley Taking the Oath of Office , President McKinley Reviewing the Troops at the Pan American Exposition , and Funeral of President McKinley (all United States, 1901), The King and the Queen at the Royal Castle at Monza (Italy, 1897), The Assassination of the Duc de Guise (France, 1908), The Coronation of Czar Nicholas II (Russia, 1896), Queen Elizabeth (France, 1912), and Garibaldi and His Times (Italy, 1926) were vignettes of visual history, a harbinger of the power of the cinema to engage audiences with images of prominent people that previously they only could read about in books and, more unlikely, see at public ceremonies. These films assumed that the spectator had some prior knowledge of the subjects filmed, but the pleasure resided in the experience of actually seeing these noteworthy individuals. The main characteristic of these short films was their documentation, their soliciting of the spectator's attention, but they were not docudramas that developed the psychology and motivation of the biographical figures.
By the middle years of the twentieth century's second decade the cinema had turned from an artisanal mode of production to an industrial one with greater industrial and technological standardization. The opportunities for the creation of complex narratives were in place, and biopics such as Joan the Woman (1917), Madame Dubarry (1919), and Anna Boleyn (1920) became part of the cinematic landscape. What technological, economic, and formal changes meant for the biopic is seen in the lengthy Joan the Woman (125 minutes) by Cecil B. DeMille (1881–1959). The film's creation of the historical context relied on huge panoramas based on replicas taken from paintings, sketches, lithographs, and photographs of villages, towers, castles, and cathedrals such as Rheims Cathedral, as well as on the use of weapons purchased from museums. Starring the opera diva Geraldine Farrar, the film was enhanced by hand-tinted shots and the use of double-exposure effects to convey her visions, and contrasts between her and the crowds. In presenting Joan as a young woman in love with a soldier who sacrifices herself to religious and national responsibility, DeMille constructed the biopic as a form of melodrama, employing monumental history that relied on spectacle to convey conflict between desire and duty, and the private and the public spheres.
Another version of Joan's life, contrasting sharply with the DeMille biopic, appeared a decade later. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889–1968), signaled another direction for the biopic. This radical cinematic experiment eschewed the epic dimensions of DeMille's Hollywood melodrama, restricting the action to twenty-four hours in the life of the saint and minimizing the use of costumes, objects, and makeup. Dreyer's film focuses on Joan's trial and execution in numerous close-ups, creating a counterexample to expansive and spectacular forms of the biopic. A year earlier, Napoléon vu par Abel Gance ( Abel Gance's Napoleon , 1927) presented yet another biopic and experimental treatment of epic, using every possible cinematic device including montage, tinting, split screen, superimpositions, dissolves, matte shots, and dramatic camera angles. The film followed the career of Napoléon Bonaparte from schoolboy to soldier, lover, revolutionary, and empire builder. Its historical sweep monumentalized Napoléon, and its encyclopedic depth established the biopic as a premier form of biography, history, and drama.