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Once upon a time…between 1927-1941.

By 1927 the film industry was barely 30 years old but great strides artistically and its popularity grew. Filmmaking which started in the United States and France was now happening in Russia, Germany, Italy, Britain, Sweden and beyond. Film technique grew more sophisticated and the audiences simply grew.

Movie theaters became known as picture palaces sometimes the size of cathedrals. In the larger cities the plush carpet, dome ceilings with artwork, and seating for 2,000- 4,000 per theater was not unheard of. They were often grand and sometimes gaudy. Ushers were needed for crowd control. Keep in mind this was not only long before the invention of television, but before the great depression.

There was around 20 movie studios by the end of the 1920s and many people don’t realize that  the 800 films produced per year was at an all-time high. (Compare that today with about 400 feature films being made these days on average. Granted many of these films were shorter.)  Director like D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille were respected.

Stars like Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, William S. Hart, and Lillian Gish were well paid for their talent. But they were not paid to talk. Because until 1927 films were silent. The Jazz Singer changed all of that. Though largely a silent picture it did employ sync sound. Within two years most American movies were talkies.

If you think the industry is going through shift now can you imagine the changes than occurred at that time? Famous and glamourous actors for various reasons were done. Career over. Directors and cinematographers who had the freedom to move the camera freely down had larger cameras and cumbersome sound issues to deal with. And the poor pianist and organist across the country who played the scored music at theaters were now out of the business.

But audiences didn’t care about all of that. By 1929 movie attendance was averaging 90 million tickets sold per week. Even the stock market crashing in 1929 at the start of The Great Depression did not really show down the movie industry. And some would say people during the great depression was a boom to the movie industry as people look for hope and diversion in cheap entertainment. The 30s and into the early 40s are known as the golden age of cinema.

The movie making system was controlled by studios where writers, directors and actors were under contract  so not free to work on any movie they desired and filmmakers had to work under the restriction of  they Hays Code which put restraints on what could and could be on screen. In perhaps a nod to the belief that creativity is best expressed when limitations are set rather than allowed total freedom, the Hollywood golden era produced what many believe to be the finest films ever made.

And even if you disagree with that it’s hard to disagree with scholars who believe that 1939 was the single best year for movies. Check out the lineup:

Gone with the Wind
The Wizard of Oz
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Stagecoach
Goodbye Mr. Chips
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Ninotchka
Gulliver’s Travels
Jesse James
Dark Victory
Gunga Din
Wuthering Heights

Though personally I think 1941 was the single best year for movies (Citizen Kane, How Green Was My Valley, The Maltese Falcon, Meet John Doe, Dumbo, Sullivan’s Travels, Suspicion, Sergeant York, The Little Foxes, The Lady Eve). The truth is whatever year you pick around that time there is an amazing list of great films.

I honestly don’t know why that short studio era was so prolific. But I do know we’ve never been able to return. Perhaps it was just a shear numbers game in that they were making twice as many films as they are today. (There was no competition from TV, Internet, video games, etc.) Or maybe creating fine work in the hyper-studio controlled era has something to do with an old T.S. Elliot quote;

“When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost—and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.”

Every decade since then has turned out some great films, but there has been a lot of sprawl. Of course, maybe all that sprawl from the 1930s has just been long forgotten.

What I do know is that on December 7, 1941 the United States was attacked on Pearl Harbor and followed by the U.S. joining World War II. A war that only lasted a few years but where between 50-70 million people died. Things have never been the same. Including movies.

Hollywood side note: Edwin S. Porter, a lead pioneer in the early film business who gave D.W. Griffith his first acting job and who in 1903 directed highly the successful The Great Train Robbery , resisted the changes in the film business and was working in the appliance business in 1930.

Scott W. Smith

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