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The complete but concise history of Motion Picture Movies – from fad to modern-day entertainment (1920’s)

Although the principle for moving pictures had existed for decades, the popularity of motions pictures (aka movies or “films”) did not explode until the 1920’s. At this time, most United States film production occurred in Hollywood with some minor movie productions still being made in New Jersey and Long Island (e.g., Paramount). By the mid-1920’s, theaters were operating in full swing with some offering double features and selling seats for as low as a nickel a piece. By the end of the 1920’s, there were more than twenty Hollywood studios and together, in a ten-year span, they created the greatest output of motion picture feature films in history.

The discovery of film and motion picture cameras – Eadweard Muybridge takes twenty-four pictures of a horse

the horse in motion by eadweard muybridge 1878

The discovery of cellulose nitrate (which was extremely flammable and soon replaced by much safer media material) and the invention of celluloid film for photography opened the door for the capture of people and objects in motion. In 1877, Eadweard Muybridge used twenty-four cameras to produce a series of images on celluloid film of a horse galloping down a track.

Filmed on June 11, 1877, in Palo Alto, California, the purpose of the film was to determine if a running horse ever had all four legs lifted off the ground at the same time (they do). The shutter of each of the twenty-four cameras was triggered by a trip wire that was activated by the horse’s hooves as it crossed over the wire. The world’s first “motion picture film” had been created. To view the series of photos, viewers had to look into a drum that was turned by a hand crank that sequentially showed the twenty-four images, rapidly, in the sequence that they were filmed.

The Horse in Motion anim

By the 1880’s, the motion picture camera was invented, and individual component images could be captured and stored on a single reel of film. Eventually this led to the development of the motion picture projector, the mechanism that shines light through the processed and printed film to magnify and project the picture on a flat surface where it could be viewed by many people at once. Films created in this period were projected at various speeds using a hand cranked camera. The generally accepted speed was sixteen frames per second but sometimes twenty-three frames per second were used. The reels of film contained instructions that specified how fast each scene should be shown.

Louis Le Prince attempts to film movement

120px The accordion Le Prince captation gif

On October 14, 1888, Louis Le Prince created a film device that took up to ten photographs recorded on a single roll of perforated celluloid film. Unfortunately, a frame rate of 10 frames per second was too slow and the resulting motion picture was unpleasant to view. While Prince worked to improve his movie camera, others around the world were working to develop similar devices.

Thomas Edison creates the first successful motion picture device, the Kinetograph

charles kayser of the thomas edison laboratory with an early version of the kinetograph ca 1891 94

That same year, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, working for and under the direction of Thomas Alva Edison, developed a device called the Kinetograph. The Kinetograph took a series of photographs on standard Eastman Kodak photographic emulsion (that was invented by George Eastman) coated on a transparent celluloid strip that was 35mm wide. The images could be viewed, one person at a time, by using a separate device called a Kinetoscope.

The Kinetoscope produced the animated motion picture by moving a strip of perforated film bearing the sequential images over a light source with a high-speed shutter activated to display each individual image in rapid succession. The Kinetoscope was commercialized and marketed to vendors. The general public could view motion pictures through the Kinetoscope device by inserting a coin into the machine.

The Phantoscope, Cinematographe, and Vitascope

phantascope 1896

Several years later, Charles Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat invented a device called the Phantoscope. The Phantoscope was a projector device that would allow an entire audience to view the film at the same time. This was a vast improvement over prior devices that allowed only a single viewer at a time. The first showing of a film using a Phantoscope was in June 1894 in Richmond, Indiana.

Louis Lumiere and his brother Auguste Lumiere worked to perfect the Phantoscope projector. Their Cinematographe was a portable three-in-one device that served as the camera, printer, and projector. The Cinematographe projected film at 16 frames per second and was first shown to audiences in Paris in December 1895. The Lumiere brothers sent cameras all over the world to shoot films to promote and popularize the device. There were nearly a thousand Cinematographe films made up to 1901.

advertisement edison greatest marvel the vitascope

Later Jenkins and Armat approached Thomas Edison about selling the device. Edison agreed to the deal on one condition: in classic Edison style, he would henceforth be credited with the invention of the machine that he renamed the “Vitascope”. Thomas Edison, using the Phantoscope as a base to design off of, subsequently developed his own form of projector he called the Vitascope. For a while, the Vitascope and Cinematographe competed head-to-head. After a few years, theater owners evaluated both technologies and Edison’s 35mm film format and Lumiere’s 16 frames per second projection speed became the standard for all projectors.

The film industry matures

the great corbett fight at tallys theater

The cinematic inventions that were developed during the early 20th century occurred at a rapid pace and served to fuel the growth and popularity of the moving picture industry. But this flurry of inventions that set the motion picture industry in motion also led to a litany of legal lawsuits as inventors fought over patent rights of the various components used to construct the camera and projection machines.

By 1900, films had advanced beyond a mere novelty and had begun developing a narrative structure by utilizing many shots and scenes to tell a story. Filmmakers experimented with different techniques such as breaking films into multiple shots of varying angles and distances and shooting with a moving camera (initially all shots were made with still cameras mounted on stationary tripods).

the first nickelodeon harry davis pittsburgh pennsylvania

By the early 1900’s, a few cinemas existed throughout the country. Tally’s Electric Theatre was opened in 1902 in Los Angeles. 1905 saw the opening of the Nickelodeon Theater in Pittsburgh. These theaters came to be known as nickelodeons because admission to the motion picture viewing typically cost a nickel (five cents). Outside of the nickelodeon theaters, the general public could view films at travelling exhibits or as a part of the acts in vaudeville programs.

Throughout most of the 1920’s, silent films, many with themes derived from vaudeville shows, were the predominant form of motion picture and projectors used in the 1900’s were very noisy. To hide the sound of the noisy projector, theater owners hired a pianist or organist, or sometimes even a full orchestra, to play during the showing of the movie. Most films came with a list of sheet music prepared for this purpose.

The movie industry moves to Hollywood and begins to innovate

interior of the first nickelodeon in the united states

Up until 1913, most film production occurred in the New York and New Jersey area, but Thomas Edison’s monopoly of film patents prompted filmmakers to move to Southern California hoping to escape the litany of lawsuits that the Edison Company had been bringing against the competition. In addition, Western films were popular during this time and California’s sunny weather and varied scenery worked well for this type of show.

As production companies moved to California, they began to construct “dark studios”, a major innovation that took many years to reach other parts of the world. Artificial lighting was used on indoor sets which allowed them to shoot at all hours regardless of weather conditions or available sunlight. As a result, films soon became longer, costlier, and more polished.

Technological innovations aside, Hollywood’s organization of the film industry, combined with a new breed of hero (i.e. movie stars), propelled the motion picture industry forward. Taking the lead from Thomas Ince, Hollywood centered production companies began breaking production down and organized into various components such as writing, costumes, makeup, directing, in-house publicity departments, etc. Using Thomas Ince’s “factory system” of production, the studio system was born and included long-term employment contracts for up and coming movie starts.

inceville california 1919

It was in Hollywood that Ince built his studio. The studio was the first of its kind. It featured stages, offices, labs, commissaries (which had to be large enough to serve hundreds of workers their noonday meal), dressing rooms, props houses, elaborate sets, and other necessities all in one centralized location. While the site was still under construction Ince also hired the Miller Brothers Wild West Show, including many cowboys, horses, cattle and a whole Sioux Indian tribe, who set up their teepees on the studio property. When construction was finally completed the streets were lined with many types of structures, from humble cottages to mansions, designed in the style and architecture of different countries such as Mexico and Japan. Extensive outdoor western sets were also built and used on the site for a number of years. According to Katherine La Hue in her book, Pacific Palisades: Where the Mountains Meet the Sea:

“Ince invested $35,000 in building, stages and sets … a bit of Switzerland, a Puritan settlement, a Japanese village … beyond the breakers, an ancient brigantine weighed anchor, cutlassed men swarming over the sides of the ship, while on the shore performing cowboys galloped about, twirling their lassos in pursuit of errant cattle … The main herds were kept in the hills, where Ince also raised feed and garden produce. Supplies of every sort were needed to house and feed a veritable army of actors, directors and subordinates.”

The Big Five and Little Three studios

In addition to westerns, the major genres included swashbucklers, historical films, and melodramas. Eight studios, named the “Big Five” and “Little Three”, controlled most of the productions.

The Big Five studios had vast studios and elaborate sets. They owned their own film theaters while independent theater owners were required to rent a block of films which often included cheaply made, less desirable B-pictures in the rental block in addition to one prestige, feature A-level picture. The rental business model typically included one high quality A-picture which was rented by the theater for a lump sum and a “B” picture of lower quality which was rented for a percentage of the theater’s gross sales receipts. In the late 1940’s, an antitrust case was brought against them that required that they divest their theater segments of the business.

Warner Bros.

poster for the american film where the north begins 1923

After running a small theater using a projector the brothers purchased together, Warner Bros. Pictures was incorporated in 1923 by Polish brothers Jack, Harry, Albert, and Sam.

Their first principal asset, and the one that ensured their success as a big-time Hollywood studio, was Rin Tin Tin, a dog they brought from France. They also created big hits with their cartoons Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, and of course, Bugs Bunny. Warner Bros. also specialized in gangster films.

Famous Players/Paramount Pictures

logo owned by paramount pictures for famous players film company

Famous Players studio was created when two small film companies merged to form Famous Players. In 1927 they renamed the company Paramount and in 1934 became Paramount Pictures. In 1926, Paramount spent $1 million on United Studios properly located on Marathon Street in Los Angeles. Paramount stars included Rudolph Valentino, Mae West, W.C. Fields, Bing Crosby, and Bob Hope.

RKO Pictures

low res image of original poster for the film rio rita 1929

RKO Pictures, short for Radio-Keith-Orpheum Pictures, was established as a subsidiary of RCA in 1928. Several of the studio owners were former vaudeville theater and vaudeville circuit owners. RKO was the smallest of the Big Five studios and made their name with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals, King Kong, and the hit Citizen Kane movie. They were later acquired by millionaire Howard Hughes.


a night at the opera

Loews Inc., created by Marcus Loew in 1904, is the oldest film production theater. Loews later became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) when Metro Pictures Corporation, Goldwyn Pictures Corporation, and Louis B. Mayer Pictures Company merged.

Their famous MGM lion roar was first recorded in 1928 and played to silent film viewers via a gramophone record. Hits from MGM included Mutiny on the Bounty, A Night at the Opera, Gone with the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz. Tarzan films and Tom and Jerry cartoons were their bread and butter product and favorites with fans. Stars for MGM included Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and Spencer Tracy.

Fox Film Corporation/20th Century Fox

fox studio 1918

Fox Film Corporation was founded in 1912 by nickelodeon owner William Fox. Best known for Fox Movietone news and “B” Westerns, they later became 20th Century Fox through the merger of 20th Century Pictures Company and Fox Film. 20th Century Fox was best known for their Shirley Temple films and Betty Grable musicals.

The Little Three Studios

The Little Three Studios included Universal Pictures, United Artists, and Columbia Pictures. Universal Studios was founded in 1912 by Carl Laemmle. W.C. Fields, Abbott and Costello comedies, Flash Gordon serials, and Woody Woodpecker cartoons were their mainstay products.

United Artists was formed in 1919 by movie icons Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and movie director D.W. Griffith. Spurred by Hollywood producers and distributors who were tightening their control over actors, the idea for the venture began a year earlier when the four stars began to talk of forming their own company to better control their own work efforts. United Artist owned an 18-acre property called Pickford Fairbanks Studio which later became United Artists Studio.

Columbia Pictures was originally known as C.B.C. Film Sales Company. Founded by brothers Jack and Harry Cohn and Joseph Brandt, they propelled their studio to the top eight with their hit It Happened One Night, Rita Hayworth films, and their Batman serials.

Small studios in Hollywood

early poverty row studios

Other smaller studios existed in Hollywood at the time. Located on “Poverty Row” near the corner of Sunset Blvd and Gower Street, they made cheap films with low budgets, stock footage, and second tier actors. Many films produced by the second-tier studios were horror movies, westerns, science fiction movies, and thrillers.

Some of the minor studios eventually grew to become major players in the business, including Disney Studios. Disney Studios began in the back of the Holly-Vermont Realty office in Los Angeles by Walt and Roy Disney. They later relocated to a 51-acre lot in Burbank and changed their name to Walt Disney Productions.

Famous theaters during the 1920’s

walt disney studios on hyperion avenue

During the 1920’s, studios built extravagant movie houses designed for orchestras to play music to accompany the projected silent films. The Strand Theater in New York City, a 3,000-seat hall, opened in 1914. The Roxy Theater in New York City, built by Samuel Lionel Roxy Rothafel at a cost of $10 million, opened in 1927 with 6,200 seats available for moviegoers.

Sid Grauman, a failed prospector during the California gold rush, opened a series of successful theaters in the Los Angeles area. The Egyptian Theatre located on Hollywood Boulevard, inspired by the discovery of King Tut’s tomb that year, opened in 1922 with 1,760 seats. The opening film was Robin Hood. After his success with the Egyptian Theatre, Sid Grauman secured a long-term lease on property located at 6925 Hollywood Blvd. and contracted the architectural firm of Meyer & Holler (who also designed the Egyptian) to design a “palace type theatre” of Chinese design. Grauman’s Theather, now Grauman’s Chinese Theater, established the tradition of having stars place their prints in cement in front of the theater.

Stars are born, and lost

aerial view of pickfair in beverly hills california 1920

During the 1920’s, the general public veritably worshipped the stars, much as the public does today. Douglas Fiarbanks and Mary Pickford were two of the biggest silent movie stars during the 1920’s. Mary Pickford, known as the Queen of Hollywood, became the first star to become a millionaire in 1916. Her marriage to Douglas Fairbanks in March 1920 was a major cultural event. The wedding gift was a twenty-two-room mansion in what was then the agricultural area of Beverly Hills and marked the start of Hollywood stars moving to lavish homes in the suburbs of West Hollywood.

Douglas Fairbanks starred in films such as The Mark of Zorro, Robin Hood, The Thief of Bagdad, The Iron Mask, and the Taming of the Shrew. Many modern-day stunts, such as riding down the ships sail using the blade of a knife cutting through the sail, were first performed by Douglas Fairbanks.

greta garbo in the torrent 1926

Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford eventually divorced after Pickford discovered Fairbanks was involved in an affair with another woman. Pickford developed alcoholism and died a recluse while Fairbanks died later in life of a heart attack after vigorously working out, against medical advice, in an attempt to regain his youthful appearance.

Other stars of the day included Greta Garbo who starred in The Torrent (1926) and The Temptress (1926) and Lon Chaney, known as the man of a thousand faces, who starred in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera.

Another big star during the 1920’s movie craze was Clara Bow. The red-haired girl from Brooklyn was launched to stardom through carefully orchestrated movie studio promotions. In 1928, Bow became the highest paid movie star earning $35,000 per week. Unfortunately, when talkies came out, the public disliked her heavy working-class Brooklyn accent and she immediately fell out of favor.

Hollywood organizes

suite 1221 of st francis hotel shortly after arbuckle party

As Hollywood rose during the 1920’s, the film industry worked to form self-controlled organizations needed to lobby politicians to gain favor and to counter negative publicity from a rash of scandals that were occurring. The infamous Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle rape and murder case caught the public eye in September of 1921. In 1922, Mabel Normans had three criminal cases ongoing including one involving the murder of her lover and millionaire William Desmond Taylor. In 1923, the drug overdose of morphine addicted silent film actor Wallace Reids sent seismic waves through the industry as the public saw movie stars with more money on their hands than they knew what to do with, leading lifestyles conducive to drug addiction and participating in morally questionable activities.

In 1922, the Hollywood studios formed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). The MPPDA’s main purpose was to re-shape the industry’s public image, to settle issues or common problems, and to keep the industry afloat amidst growing concern to shut it down.

A few years later, in 1927, the non-profit organization, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was created by Douglas Fairbanks as president. Their main objective was to judge and offer awards for major accomplishments in the motion picture industry. The Academy Awards that were offered eventually came to be known as “Oscars”

Sound is introduced in “talkies”

advertisement for the american film don juan 1926 from the june 1926 film fun

Up until the mid 1920’s, the only sounds heard during a silent film were musicians, sound effects, and occasionally live actors delivering dialog. In 1925, Warner Bros. introduced Vitaphone, a synchronized sound system that used sound recorded on a phonograph record that was electronically linked and synchronized with the film projector. The synchronization, which was intended to play only sound effects and not actor dialog, was problematic and very difficult to sync with the actor’s dialog. The first film to use Vitaphone technology was Don Juan.

In 1926, William Fox of Fox Film Corporation introduced the Movietone sound system. Developed in a partnership with General Electric, the Movietone method used a soundtrack that was placed directly onto the film strip. The first movie to use the Movietone process was Sunrise which played in 1927. Fox also introduced the Fox-Movietone News which was the first newscast to feature sound. The first Movietone-News film was one showing the takeoff of Lindbergh on May 20, 1927, from New York on its way across the Atlantic.

Even Disney introduced sound in their cartoons with 1928’s Steamboat Willie cartoon debuting Mickey Mouse (although Mickey himself did not speak until his ninth short).

Many studios studied the Vitaphone and Movietone technologies and most preferred the Movietone format. The Movietone sound system eventually replaced the Vitaphone method because it did not have the synchronization problems that Vitaphone did. Theaters quickly began converting their halls to sound, and expensive endeavor because the theaters had to be completely rewired for sound.

sunrise a song of two humans 1927

The first sound productions were difficult to make. Some silent actors did not have the voice needed for talkies and fell out of favor with the public. Many actors with heavy accents saw their careers suddenly end and many stars were brought in from Broadway to act in talkie films.

In addition, the process of recording sound along with the video was difficult. It was hard to hide sounds such as a rolling camera and actor movement was difficult when trying to remain within distance of the microphone and record their dialog at the same time. Thus, the first talkies were crude without much actor movement. Soon rolling cameras and microphones mounted on long booms that could be held out of camera range were developed. By 1930, silent movies had disappeared forever.

Color films were even slower to appear. By the mid-1930’s, various color techniques were attempted, and color films began appearing in the theaters. Unlike the introduction of sound, the number of color films increased slowly year after year. It was not until the early 1950’s, as black and white televisions began to make their way into the living rooms of the American public, that the film industry sought the use of color as a way of winning back audiences.

Image Credits

In-Article Image Credits

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans - 1927 via San Francisco Silent Film Festival by Fox Film Corporation with usage type - Public Domain
Advertisement for the American film Don Juan (1926) from the June 1926 Film Fun. via Wikipedia Commons by Internet Archive with usage type - Public Domain
Suite 1221 of St. Francis Hotel shortly after Arbuckle's party via Wikipedia Commons by Dagospia Archive with usage type - Public Domain. Taken on 5 September 1921
Greta Garbo in The Torrent (1926) via Greta Garbo - The Ultimate Star with usage type - Public Domain.
Aerial view of Pickfair in Beverly Hills, California, 1920. via Wikipedia Commons by Los Angeles Public Library with usage type - Public Domain
Walt Disney Studios on Hyperion Avenue via NHD Project 2013 Sara Clark with usage type - Public Domain
Early Poverty Row Studios via Arts Meme with usage type - Public Domain
Fox Studio 1918 via Wikipedia Commons by Theatre Magazine with usage type - Public Domain. June 1918
A Night at the Opera via Into Film with usage type - Public Domain
Low-res image of original poster for the film Rio Rita (1929) via Wikipedia Commons by RKO Pictures with usage type - Public Domain
Logo owned by Paramount Pictures for Famous Players Film Company via Wikipedia Commons with usage type - Editorial use (Fair Use)
Poster for the American film Where the North Begins (1923) via Wikipedia Commons by Warner Bros-Lithograph by Otis Lithograph, Cleveland with usage type - Public Domain
Inceville, California 1919 via Wikipedia Commons by Ferd J. Zettler with usage type - Public Domain
Interior of the first Nickelodeon in the United States via Pennsylvania Center for the Book by Moving Picture World with usage type - Public Domain. Moving Picture World, Nov. 30, 1907
The First Nickelodeon - Harry Davis - Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania via Pennsylvania Center for the Book by The Implet with usage type - Public Domain. Charmaine Zoe, from a 1911 issue of The Implet
“The Great Corbett Fight” at Tally’s theater via The Daily Mirror with usage type - Public Domain. “The Great Corbett Fight” at Tally’s theater.
Advertisement - Edison's Greatest Marvel--The Vitascope via Wikipedia Commons by Metropolitan Print Company with usage type - Public Domain. Metropolitan Print Company; Copyright 1896 by Raff & Gammon
Phantascope 1896 via Wikipedia Commons by Scientific American with usage type - Public Domain. Scientific American 1896 October 31, page 325
Charles Kayser of the Thomas Edison laboratory with an early version of the Kinetograph ca. 1891–94 via Wikipedia Commons by National Park Service with usage type - Public Domain
The Horse in Motion by Eadweard Muybridge 1878 via Wikipedia Commons by Library of Congress Prints with usage type - Public Domain. 19 June 1878
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