[To read previous parts of this essay, click the highlighted link: 1, 2, 3, 4a, 4b]
The Birth of The Feature Film
After the release of Edwin Porter's classic short film The Great Train Robbery in 1903, the motion picture industry evolved rapidly, but until D.W. Griffith developed a film "language" that made complex storytelling possible (read about that effort here), the change was primarily a matter of quantity, not quality.
In the United States, thousands of nickelodeons—theaters where patrons paid a nickle to watch the latest movie—sprang up nationwide, and with them came a need for something to show in them. Maybe that explains why so many of the early studio moguls—Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor, Louis B. Mayer, the Warner Brothers—got their start in the industry not as filmmakers but as theater owners.
The interest of these theater-owners-turned-movie-makers was almost purely about profit, and art only entered into the equation as a means to increase ticket sales. Which is okay with me. I mean, why, for example, should Adolph Zukor, who immigrated to the United States with $40 in his pocket, give away what little money he had in order to entertain and enlighten theatergoers for free? He opened a theater to put food on the table and, I can assure you, nobody else was going to do it, at least not without the same motive in mind.
But the result was a flood of derivative and undistinguished hackwork, and when Porter (and his boss, Thomas Edison) flinched from the high-risk-high-reward proposition of The Great Train Robbery and retreated back into the safe, bland product they had produced before, American theaters saw little else. By 1914 directors such as Cecil B. DeMille, Charlie Chaplin and Mack Sennett would arrive on the scene and along with Griffith catapult American studios to a commercial dominance they have yet to relinguish. But until that time, it was the ambition and artistry of foreign studios that largely defined cinema.
While the best and most successful of the foreign filmmakers during this era were the "entertainers"—Georges Méliès, Max Linder—a handful of filmmakers aspired to tell more complex stories. But intentions aren't the same as results, and while you'll find plenty of adaptations of Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, theater productions and the Bible, these films amounted to little more than densely-worded intertitle cards accompanied by a handful of moving pictures.
Directors needed both a technique to tell stories in a purely visual way, and more elbow room than a single reel (eight-to-twelve minutes) of film could afford. Griffith would eventually solve the first problem. The feature-length film would solve the other.
What qualifies as the first feature-length film depends on what you think of as a feature film. In 1903, French movie-makers Lucien Nonguet and Ferdinand Zecca directed a series of interrelated short films covering events in the life of Christ, from the annunciation through the resurrection and ascension. At a time when individual theater owners had more control over the product shown on the screen than the studio that produced it, La vie et la passion de Jésus Christ a.k.a. The Passion Play was sometimes exhibited edited together into a single 44-minute film.
And then there was Alice Guy Blaché who covered the same subject in a single, 33-minute film, La vie du Christ, a.k.a. The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ. Guy is one of the more interesting figures of the early silent era—the first woman director in history, she started as a secretary at Gaumont, wrote film scenarios because she had access to a typewriter and became a director because the studio had more cameras than people who knew how to operate them. She later emigrated to the United States and founded her own studio at Fort Lee, New Jersey, at that time the hub of the American film industry. Of the 350 films she directed during her career, La vie du Christ remains one of her best known.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences now defines a "feature" as a film over forty minutes in duration. By those terms, most film historians cite Australia's The Story Of The Kelly Gang as the first feature-length film. Released in 1906, The Kelly Gang clocked in at a then-astounding 70 minutes. Written and directed by Charles Tait, the film tells the story of Ned Kelly, an Irish-Australian bushranger who battled British authority and was eventually hanged for his trouble. The film was thought lost until one reel turned up in a Melbourne garbage dump; in 2006, additional footage was discovered in the UK, bringing the restored total to 17 minutes. What's left plays like an extended-length version of The Great Train Robbery—no knock, I assure you.
Europe Takes The Lead
It was the Italians, though, who proved most willing to experiment with the long-form film. Italian filmmakers had come late to the party, with the country not producing its first fiction film until 1905. To distinguish their product from the French films that dominated the early marketplace, they focused on subjects with a distinctly Italian flavor, such as the country's recent unification, well-known historical events such as the last days of Pompeii, and notorious figures from Rome's glory days such as Nero and Messalina.
The first of the feature-length Italian films was an adaptation of Dante's epic poem about a man's journey through hell, 1911's L'Inferno. Over three years in the making, L'Inferno was a spectacle in the tradition of Méliès, Segundo de Chomón and Wladyslaw Starewicz, mixing imaginative costumes, set designs and special effects to create unforgettable visual images.
"[F]ilm historians have overemphasised early silent cinema's technical innovations over its imagistic brilliance," the author of Film: Ab Initio wrote recently. "For there are four or five scenes in this film which are as breathtaking as any I have encountered in cinema." (If you haven't checked out Film: Ab Initio, you really should—it's an audacious project, proposing to watch every major film from the beginning of time in chronological order—and I can tell you from my own personal experience that when you watch movies that way, you see things you would have otherwise missed.)
The film was a blockbuster, taking in more than $2 million at the box office, and encouraged the Italians to continue experimenting with the long form. Between 1911 and 1914, when they would make their single greatest contribution to the silent era, Cabiria, Italian studios released a dozen feature-length films, more than any other country during that period.
Throughout the era, directors explored new methods for telling stories on film—Lois Weber's use of split-screen, tracking and extreme close-ups in Suspense, Harold Shaw and Dorothy Shore's successful in-camera effects in The Land Beyond the Sunset, and of course D.W. Griffith's own experiments in The Musketeers of Pig Alley—and as they did, their output began to resemble what we now think of motion pictures. These innovations reached a critical mass in 1913 and seemingly overnight, directors the world over adopted these new camera and editing techniques as the industry-wide standard.
"[T]hat year," film historian David Bordwell has written, "seemed to be when filmmakers in several countries simultaneously seized upon what they had already learned of technique and pushed their knowledge to higher levels of expressivity."
Once directors had solved the matter of how to tell stories, longer, more complex movies began turning up everywhere—Russia, France, Germany, the United States. In fact, as many feature-length films hit theaters in 1913 alone as had been produced in the entire decade that proceeded it—more than fifty in all.
Among these features were films by some of the most important directors of the silent era. Victor Sjöström and Yevgeni Bauer, for example, were pioneers of Sweden and Russia cinema, respectively (I'll write more about them in the future). Both produced films that in later years would probably have been derided as "women's pictures" (or worse, "chick flicks"). Sjöström's Ingeborg Holm is a tragic look at a woman forced to give up her children after her husband's sudden death leaves her destitute. Bauer's Twilight of a Woman's Soul also focuses on a woman, but while she may be an aristocrat, her life is no happier—raped while volunteering at a homeless shelter, she is shunned by her fiance, a Russian prince.
Although neither film is the director's best—Sjöström would go on to direct The Outlaw and His Wife, The Phantom Carriage and The Wind, while Bauer would direct The Dying Swan before his untimely death in 1917—both made effective use of visual storytelling for the first time in their careers.
One of my favorite of the early silent directors, Louis Feuillade, made a big splash in France with Fantômas, five interlinked feature films (each running between fifty and ninety minutes) based on a series of novels about the eponymous master criminal, one of film history's first anti-heroes. Feuillade alone of the great early directors anticipated the chief maladies of the coming century—violence, anxiety, paranoia, alienation—and even this century's scourge, terrorism. His film serials Fantômas, Les Vampires and Judex directly influenced filmmakers as diverse as Luis Buñuel, Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock. Throw in the fact that Feuillade's films are extraordinarily entertaining—not just as film history but in a 21st century sense—and he winds up, along with Charlie Chaplin, as my favorite director of the first three decades of film history (1888-1918).
We'll talk more about him when I reach 1915.
The best of the feature-length films released in 1913 was probably Der Student von Prag (a.k.a. A Bargain With Satan, the first noteworthy film to emerge from the fledgling German film industry. Paul Wegener (with an assist behind the camera from Stellan Rye) directed and starred in this adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe short story about a university student who sells his soul to the devil to win the love of a beautiful woman. On a limited budget Wegener and Rye created one of the first convincing horror films, establishing a tradition that would later give us The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, Faust and Metropolis. Rye died in the fighting during World War I, but Wegener went on to direct one of the classics of silent German cinema, Der Golem in 1920, and continued to act and direct until his death in 1948.
The most influential film of 1913, however, was one that didn't even make into the theaters until the following year. Giovanni Pastrone's epic Cabiria was a landmark achievement in style and spectacle, and the first truly great long-form film. The culimination of the long-form movement in Italy, Cabiria took two years to film and boasted mammoth sets and elaborate special effects. Its epic scope influenced Griffith's Intolerance and anticipated the pomp of De Mille's later Bible and history spectacles.
"The film was made with limitless scope and ambition," Roger Ebert wrote for his Great Movies series, "with towering sets and thousands of extras, with stunts that (because they were actually performed by stuntmen) have an impact lost in these days of visual effects."
Set during the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage—a subject of great interest to Italian audiences on the eve of World War I—Cabiria is an epic on a grand scale, tracing the life of young woman from childhood to early adulthood against the backdrop of Rome's struggle to establish an empire of its own. The movie opens with the spectacular eruption of Sicily's Mt. Etna, and boasts a tracking shot of refugees trekking across the face of the erupting volcano that rivals any image previously filmed.
"For Cabiria," wrote Cole Smithey, the self-styled "smartest film critic in the world, "Pastrone pioneered the use of deep-focus filming and the since-ubiquitous 'tracking-shot'—two years before D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation would employ similar techniques."
The movie includes kidnappings, piracy, ritual sacrifices, slave revolts and even Hannibal and his elephants. It also introduced the "Maciste" character—the Herculean hero played here by Bartolomeo Pagano in a star-making performance, and later by such actors as Steve Reeves—who proved so popular in low budget sword-and-sandal films between 1914 and the 1970s.
Even though the finished film wouldn't premiere in theaters until April 1914, word of Pastrone's project leaked out of Italy and directors worldwide scrambled to make their own long-form films.
The Americans At Last
According to Turner Classic Movies' series Moguls and Movie Stars, the first American producer to see the value in feature-length films was Adolph Zukor, the self-same Adolph Zukor who started life with $40 and limitless ambition. He believed that movie-makers shouldn't limit themselves to ten-minute shorts and the working class audiences that patronized them, but should instead aim for the same quality, prestige—and paying customers—as the theater productions running on New York's Broadway.
To that end, in 1912 Zukor obtained the distribution rights to Les Amours de la Reine Élisabeth, a 45-minute film about the life of Britain's Queen Elizabeth I. Starring Sarah Bernhardt, the film's success in America allowed Zukor to found his own studio, Famous Players, and commit the company to producing six feature-length pictures a year.
Meanwhile, in 1913, Carl Laemmle a German immigrant who owned a chain of nickelodeons in Chicago, embarked on a feature-length project of his own. Seeking to cash in on the then-current scandal of forced prostitution among the newly-arrived immigrant population of New York City, Traffic In Souls was a sensation upon its release, earning $500,000 on its $25,000 investment and encouraged Laemmle to found Universal Studios.
"[A]bout twenty minutes into Traffic in Souls, [cinematographer Henry Alder] Leach does something extraordinary," writes Daniel Eagan in America's Film Legacy. "He anticipates action, panning the camera from William Powers standing on the shore to Flora Nason and Vera Hansey, two in a crowd of passengers on a ferry pulling into a dock. It was a planned, choreographed shot, one hat predicted the future of cinematography."
Traffic in Souls is preserved in the National Film Archive. (It was the first film to inspire a "novelization," the practice of turning a film into a book.)
That same year, vaudeville performer Jesse Lasky teamed up with struggling Broadway playwright Cecil B. DeMille to found the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Film Company. Reluctantly bankrolled by Lasky's brother-in-law, Samuel Goldwyn, Lasky and DeMille set out to make a feature-length film version of the stageplay The Squaw Man—an audacious undertaking consider that none of them had ever made a movie before.
The Squaw Man is the story of a British aristocrat who find success in the American west after being falsely accused of embezzlement. Lasky and DeMille insisted on filming on location and headed west to film it. The pair stopped initially in Flagstaff, Arizona, but DeMille envisioned open spaces rather than the mountainous, heavily-forested terrain around Flagstaff, so they journeyed on to Los Angeles where they scouted filming locations and settled on a sleepy village named Hollywood.
Legend has it that DeMille and Lasky set up shop in a barn, but legend neglects to mention that the barn already housed a complete movie studio before they got there.
Nevertheless, The Squaw Man was the first feature filmed in Hollywood. It's reception at the box office encouraged both Lasky and DeMille, with the former eventually merging with Zukor's Famous Players to found Paramount Pictures, while the latter went on to become one of the most successful producer-directors in Hollywood history.
Perhaps the most important of the early American feature films was D.W. Griffith's Judith of Bethulia. Filmed in 1913 but released a year later thanks to a contract dispute between Griffith and his employer, the Biograph Company, Judith is one of the earliest examples of what is known as "classical continuity editing" or "classical Hollywood narrative"—the practice of cutting within a scene to make clear to the viewer at all times where the characters are in relationship to each other and to their surroundings, both in terms of the physical space and the chronology of the film story.
Already the most influential director in the world, Griffith's development of classical continuity editing would become the industry standard by 1917 and is the single most common editing style in use by film and television directors today.
The film proved to be pivotal for Griffith, not, however, because it was a financial success. Judith was expensive and Biograph balked at financing additional feature films.
Biograph, wrote Lillian Gish later, "thought that a movie that long would hurt [the audience's] eyes."
Rather than settling for his paymasters' limited artistic vision, Griffith left and joined the Mutual Film Company. There, he directed his second feature-length film, The Avenging Conscience (1914). Not as well known as Judith of Bethulia but perhaps even better, The Avenging Conscience was based on Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" and is a taut psychological drama involving love, obsession, murder and finally madness. Griffith's technical expertise is on full display here, with parallel compositions used to convey parallel emotions, and an increasingly frantic cutting style that anticipates Eisenstein's use of montage a decade later.
With two feature films under his belt, Griffith was ready to tackle the biggest project of his career, The Birth of a Nation, the most lucrative and most controversial film of the entire silent era.
Finally, I'll mention Mack Sennett and the first feature-length comedy in movie history, Tillie's Punctured Romance. I've previously written at some length about Tillie here, but I would like to point out that the film's enormous box office appeal further underscored the commercial viability of the long form.
Shorts and features would continue to compete with each other on an equal footing until the 1920s when comedians Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd began making feature films—not, ironically, because their short comedies weren't as popular as feature films, quite the opposite actually, but because theater owners paid rental fees based on the length of the film. By the time talkies arrived in theaters in the late 1920s, feature films had thoroughly eclipsed shorts, and would dominate the artistic and commercial landscape for decades to come.