Before World War I, films were being made mostly European countries and in Japan. When the war interrupted European filmmaking, however, the American film industry began to dominate the world market. In the years between 1917 and 1927 the silent film reached the peak of its development. United States had the largest film industry and American films dominated the international market. Germany and Japan still had some movie industries but mostly left to domestic. Many nations found film production as a matter of importance to national culture, sometimes by limiting on film imports.
D. W. Griffith transformed early day of domestic production to an era of Hollywoods worldwide dominance. Major companies that dominated Hollywood were Fox, Paramount, Warner Brothers, MGM, Columbia, and United Artists. One of the famous MGM movies was a silent version of Ben Her. Hollywood films became increasingly expensive to make as productions became more spectacular, and the stars demanded enormous salaries. As Hollywood and film industries elsewhere produced hundreds of films each year, certain standardized forms took precedence over individual creative inspiration.
Movies adopted categories, known as genres, from earlier arts and popular entertainment. These included comedy, the Western, mystery, horror, romance, melodrama, and the war story. More and more large cinemas were built, and the major producers expanded their distributing systems and bought entire chains of theaters. Major studios attempted to produce a picture a week. A typical film show consisted of a feature starring big-name players, a short comedy, and a newsreel. The 1922 film Nanook of the North, directed by the American Robert Flaherty, is often credited as the first great achievement of documentary film.
Most of the films made during this period reflected the fast pace and materialistic concerns of the nation’s prosperous “flapper” era. While settings and costumes were often elaborate, film stories were often shallow. Most people went to the “movies” to see film stars, and it was often the star who saved a poor film from being a total failure. Some stars, seeking freedom from the mass-production methods of large studios, banded together to form distributing companies to market films they made in their own studios.
United Artists, formed in 1919 by Griffith, Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford, became known for its high standards. The production of films gained momentum once more in most European countries near the end 1920s, the most innovative and influential new filmmakers where in Germany, Scandinavia, and the Soviet Union. Germany’s films were based on history, literature, and mythology. The enormous production facilities of the government enabled most films to be made indoors. Innovators at the large German studios also created new techniques in lighting and staging.
In contrast with the Germans, Soviet filmmakers preferred natural settings and used the Russian people as cast members. From the start, Soviet films were closely related to the propaganda efforts of the Communist regime, and film was recognized by Premier Nikolai Lenin as the best way to reach the people. From the time of the first motion pictures many people tried to synchronize phonograph records with films without success. Some theaters used machines to emit sound effects behind the screen; others hired actors to read aloud during the film.
Pianists and organists, who tried to match their selections to the mood and pace of the action on the screen, provided musical accompaniments. Full orchestras in many of the large theaters accompanied some of the more spectacular silent films. Sound films became possible through the development of the means to record sound directly on film and of the audio amplifier, which provided sufficient volume of sound for large theaters. Lee De Forest, who exhibited brief sound films to the public in 1923, pioneered both of these developments.
Although the public failed to respond to De Forest’s sound films, electronics manufacturers continued to experiment with both sound on film and phonograph discs synchronized with film. In 1926, Warner Brothers released a program using synchronized discs; it included short talking and musical films and a silent feature, ‘Don Juan’, with a synchronized accompaniment. William Fox in 1927, and later that year he also released the first sound newsreels released a short sound-on-film comedy with spoken dialogue.
Public acceptance of sound came on Oct. 1927, when Warner Brothers presented Al Jolson singing and saying a few words in ‘The Jazz Singer’. The first full-length all-sound film was ‘The Lights of New York’, issued by Warner Brothers in 1928. The success of sound revolutionized the film industry. Theaters had to install sound projection equipment, and film studios had to find methods of soundproofing cameras and stages. Movement in most of the early sound films appeared static, because cameras had to be enclosed in soundproof boxes that were difficult to move.
Eventually cameras with noiseless gears were developed; microphones were put on booms, or poles, which could be extended as needed. Early cameras used a number of different speeds for exposing frames, but by the advent of sound film in the late 1920s the standard had become 24 frames per second. The sound revolution ended the careers of many silent-film performers whose voices did not record well, but it also brought new performers to the screen who had stage experience in speaking roles.
Playwrights who knew how to write dramatic dialogue were hired to replace silent-screen scenario writers, and many plays were filmed for the screen because they provided ready-made dialogue. With the coming of sound, film animation increased popularity. Walt Disney made the first animated cartoon with synchronized sound, Steamboat Willie in 1928, which was the third film to feature the popular Mickey Mouse character. The Great Depression of 1929 did a little to affect Hollywood but ironically increased the efficiency of films production.