February 5, 2016

WATCH ME IF YOU CAN | Humble Beginnings: Cinema in America

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If not for the strong desire to assimilate into American culture, the film world would have struggled to launch itself.  Immigrants came to America and found it easier to adopt these values instead of embracing their own culture.  However, the content of film was just as important.  With this, there was an ability to make, edit and distribute movies.

There was a drive in the technological world, thanks to Thomas Edison and Eadweard Muybridge.  Edison created the Kinetoscope, a viewing machine placed in penny arcades.  These Kinetoscopes would show short films for only a cent or two.  Muybridge takes credit for the famous galloping horse images that capture the animal galloping, having studied motion photography heavily.  Their combined efforts brought the conception of a world that could make pictures move.

Photo Courtesy of Eadweard Muybridge

Photo Courtesy of Eadweard Muybridge

The film industry emerged as the wave of new immigrants hit America.  Millions of people came from southern and eastern Europe, most of whom did not know any English.  There was also an increase in leisure time available for Americans, and with more money and time, people would spend them, increasingly, at the movies.

Originally, movies were thought of as fads in the leisure world of Americans.  The business was volatile, and Thomas Edison didn’t know what to do with them.  He wanted to establish a monopoly, but that could potentially make film a very limited and difficult industry to get into.

The heads of every major film studio during this time were immigrants. They oversaw the implications, content, structure, and organization of the industry.  They tried to assimilate themselves and make films that revolved around the Americanization of immigrants, almost seeming to live vicariously through them.  Their goal was to create quintessential American films.

Movies were shown in nickelodeon storefronts.  Up until 1927, movies were silent and accompanied by an orchestra.  Any dialogue or ambiguous plot pieces were made clear by subtitles on the screen.  Aside from the occasional flash of text, no language was needed to understand the films. On that account, silent movies became unbelievably popular.

Initially, they were about one minute long, since the technology was so new and people were still unsure where it would go. A century later, films lasted, more often than not, at least two hours. Therefore, you didn’t need a lot of money (initially) to get into the industry and invest. Immigrant banks were more than willing to fund fellow immigrants in order to make these movies.

Immigrants were the original heads of the studios and embraced this power structure.  They adopted early American values, abandoned their immigrant past and were the engines for assimilation.  They moved to California to establish themselves, as an effort to escape the Edison Patent Trust.  By 1910, Hollywood, California was established as the movie capital of the world.  And over 100 years later, it still stands.

Movies reaffirmed traditional American values.  Film became the most distinctive industry in the history of the United States and was responsible for so much of popular culture, from the birth of the celebrity figure to the multiple annual awards ceremonies just for movies.  New immigrants’ desires to be assimilated translated into the movies that they created and sustained, creating a harmony between the classes in films.

America then became a magical place, where there was always a “Hollywood Ending.”

Marina Caitlin Watts is a senior studying Communication. In addition to writing for The Sun, she has also been published on various film websites along with The Daily Beast. She loves Frank Sinatra and hates decaf coffee. If you need her, she is waiting for Godot. Watch Me If You Can appears on alternate Fridays this semester. She can be reached at mwatts@cornellsun.com.

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