Many of the early motion picture pioneers were influenced by the great strides of invention occurring during the Industrial Revolution. While such inventions were touted as bringing easier and more comfortable lives to humankind, profit potential also helped drive many of these developments. New machines helped streamline production, churning out more items in less time for less cost (unless one counts the loss of hearing, limbs, and/or lives in factories that had no safety codes). Inventors with patents could corner the market on their invention and make a fortune. Certainly, such potential economic gain drew Thomas Edison (1847–1931) to research motion pictures and then ruthlessly try to control all the major patents of the technology.
The presumed audience for motion pictures became a matter of contention in the early decades. Edison's Kinetoscope parlors were often situated near boardwalks or amusement parks, low-cost entertainment for the new industrial urban working class. These early films seem geared toward what was thought to be popular with the working class: cockfights, boxing matches, female "cooch" dancers. On the other side of the Atlantic, though, the Lumière Brothers (Auguste [1862–1954] and Louis [1864–1948]) seemed to hypothesize a middle-class audience by making short films depicting the life of the French bourgeoisie: respectable men and women in their homes or their gardens or in town. Similarly, the British gentlemen that became known as "the Brighton school" also centered their films on middle-class lives—even to the extent of imaging the poor as vagrants intent on stealing babies from bourgeois families, as in Rescued by Rover (1905).
Cinema in the United States, though, became associated with immigrants and the working class. A number of early short narratives even sided with the poor, with films such as The Kleptomaniac (1905) and A Corner in Wheat (1909) comparing the suffering of the working class to the mendacity and privilege of the wealthy. Increasingly, middle-class reformers attempted to shut down nickelodeons as dens of iniquity filled with lowlifes and illegal activity. As a consequence, the 1910s saw the industry concertedly wooing middle-class customers, especially since they had more potential spending money. Penny-ante nickelodeons gave rise to motion picture palaces that spoke of luxury and refinement. Filmmakers aimed at legitimacy by adapting great novels or plays, spending more money on costumes and sets, and hiring major theatrical stars. The rise of narrative filmmaking during this time also tended to favor plots that reinforced middle-class morality. In particular, popular American cinema began invoking the Horatio Alger narrative of "rags to riches," supporting the idea that democracy meant a free-market economy that would reward anyone with enough energy and determination. The success of such silent comedians as Buster Keaton (1895–1966), Harold Lloyd (1893–1971), and Harry Langdon (1884–1944) were predicated on little guys succeeding against all odds. Cinderella stories of shopgirls finding love and marriage with a millionaire also became popular. The Horatio Alger narrative works to obscure the existence of class division by suggesting the ease in which someone of meager means can rise in society (even if statistics may indicate otherwise in the actual world).
The success of Hollywood cinema, both in the United States and then around the world, guaranteed that its Horatio Alger formula would be widely imitated. Yet films in other countries subtly worked to reinforce a more established class system during the first half of the century. British cinema, for example, often reinforced the barriers between the working class and the gentry by associating national identity with upper-class culture: fox hunting, the manor-born, and gentility. Working-class people were often depicted as slightly foolish, yet happy with their lot in life serving their betters. (Perhaps the greater awareness of class disparity in British culture made the US films of British-born Charles Chaplin [1889–1977] in his Tramp persona a rare exception to the Horatio Alger plots that dominated Hollywood cinema.) Similarly, early Indian cinema consistently reinforced the lines between classes, offering cautionary melodramas of individuals who dared to consider stepping outside their proscribed positions. Since the under-classes still made up the majority of the filmgoing public in these countries, such narratives worked to keep them reconciled to their place in the social structure.
Mainstream film narratives in many countries also emphasized glamour and wealth, reveling in high production values as men and women wearing high fashion lived in glorious mansions or penthouses. Such films, whether consciously or not, made the lives of the well-to-do seem more important and more desirable—and, by omission, made the lives of the poor or working class seem unimportant and inferior.
The efforts by the industry to move into middle-class respectability was also mirrored in the shift from a penny-ante concern to a thriving big business with a factory-like system. Most obviously in Hollywood, but also in countries such as Great Britain, China, India, and Japan, studios were established that placed workers on a hierarchy as a film went through a virtual conveyor belt of production. Studio executives worked strenuously to maintain total control over their workforce, and used every means at their disposal to keep workers from unionizing. At the same time, though, Hollywood public relations promoted the American film industry as itself an example of the Horatio Alger myth—a tale of immigrants rising to become the heads of major studios, or little nobodies being discovered for stardom on the silver screen.