Film History


The earliest film histories, like Terry Ramsaye's A Million and One Nights (2 vols., 1926; originally published in Photoplay magazine, beginning in 1921), were intended for a general audience. These works offered first-person, highly anecdotal accounts written by journalists, inventors, and filmmakers who frequently were insiders to the motion picture industry. Ramsaye, for instance, had worked as a publicist. His book and others like it set a model for a sort of film history that is preoccupied with movie personalities and filled with broad claims about the step-by-step "progress" of film as art and industry. Foregrounded in such works is the role of inventors like Thomas Edison and directors like D. W. Griffith, certain landmark films, influential stylistic innovations, and major technological advances. Much popular history concerning, in particular, classic Hollywood, carries on this tradition, offering a narrative account of movie history that features individual artists, inventors, and executives rebelling against or working securely within the demands of the commercial entertainment industry. This "great man" version of history typically goes hand in hand with a belief that the historian's task is, in part, to identify and celebrate a canon of cinematic masterworks.

Writing at the end of the silent era, the British filmmaker and critic Paul Rotha (1907โ€“1984) took a somewhat different tack in The Film till Now (1930), emphasizing distinctive national cinema traditions and giving special attention to films and filmmakers that challenged standard Hollywood practices. Both of these emphases have also frequently been features of film history textbooks. After Rotha there have been several significant attempts at world or global histories of film, like Histoire du Cinema (5 vols., 1967โ€“1980), by Jean Mitry. Until recently, with, for example, The Oxford History of World Cinema (1999), attempts at international film history have generally been plagued by a decidedly Eurocentric, if not always American, bias. The lack of full attention to non-Western film has arisen from the assumption that film history is above all concerned with film production, filmmakers, and film studios (principally the domain of Hollywood, Bollywood, and a few European companies) rather than with exhibition, reception, and worldwide film audiences.

Most typically, film history has been understood in national terms. This is reflected in the number of books devoted exclusively to Hollywood and American cinema, beginning with Lewis Jacobs's The Rise of the American Film (1939) and culminating in Scribner's ten-volume History of the American Cinema (1990โ€“2000), a towering achievement. Other national cinemas, too, have frequently been a key subject for historians, from New Zealand and Japan to Cuba and Canada. While specific details vary from country to country, this form of film history reinforces what is assumed to be a strong correlation between the cultural, economic, and social life of a particular nation and the films produced in that nation. National histories of film typically celebrate homegrown auteurs and award-winning titles, "new waves," and the sort of films that circulate on the international film festival circuit. More recently, however, the widespread interest in industry practices, government cultural policy, and popular genres has led to groundbreaking research on national cinemas that draws heavily on archival sources, as in Peter B. High's The Imperial Screen (2003), a study of Japanese film during the Pacific War era.

The 1970s and 1980s saw a major turn toward historical research in academic film studies, led in part by a new interest in early silent cinema (1895โ€“1910), which completely reshaped our understanding of the origins of the American film industry, the audience that took up moviegoing during the nickelodeon era, and the introduction of narrative film. This type of revisionist history, which makes extensive use of primary documents (including the trade press and archival motion-picture holdings) and rejects simple notions of progress and celebrations of "great men," got a major boost in Film History: Theory and Practice (1985), Robert C. Allen and Douglas Gomery's assessment of the discipline and blueprint for future research. Equally significant was the publication that year of David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson's Classical Hollywood Cinema , an exhaustively researched study based on a randomly selected body of films and a range of industry-related print material. This influential book set out to investigate Hollywood's evolving mode of production, its incorporation of technological change, and its elaboration of a cinematic style that served as the norm for American movies between 1917 and 1960.

Since the mid-1980s the study of film history has been strongly influenced by other major scholarly trends, notably, feminist, postcolonial, and cultural studies, as well as reception studies that focus on social identities and film-related public discourses. There has also been an increasing emphasis on historical case studies in article or monograph form that rely on significant primary research to focus in detail on a relatively narrow period, topic, or institutional practice. Works like Eric Schaefer's "Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!" (1999), a history of exploitation films, and Lee Grieveson's Policing Cinema (2004), an account of early film censorship, exemplify the highly focused yet still very ambitious research that has continued to enrich and complicate our understanding of film history in and out of Hollywood, within and beyond the walls of the movie theater.

SEE ALSO Canon and Canonicity

Allen, Robert C., and Douglas Gomery. Film History: Theory and Practice . New York: Knopf, 1985.

Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Modes of Production to 1960 . New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Crafton, Donald. The Talkies: American Cinema's Transition to Sound, 1926โ€“1931 . New York: Scribner's, 1997.

Gomery, Douglas. Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

Grieveson, Lee. Policing Cinema: Movies and Censorship in Early Twentieth-Century America . Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

High, Peter B. The Imperial Screen: Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years' War, 1931โ€“1945 . Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.

Jacobs, Lewis. The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History . New York: Teachers College Press, 1939.

Musser, Charles. The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 . New York: Scribner's, 1990.

Naremore, James. More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, ed. Oxford History of World Cinema . New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Ramsaye, Terry. A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture through 1925 . New York: Simon & Schuster, 1926.

Rotha, Paul. The Film till Now . London: J. Cape, 1930.

Schaefer, Eric. "Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!": A History of Exploitation Films, 1919โ€“1959 . Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

Waller, Gregory A. Moviegoing in America: A Sourcebook in the History of Film Exhibition . Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002.

Gregory A. Waller

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