The Birth of Hollywood

02.05.2016 |

By 1905, five-cent movie theatres called “Nickelodeons” provided an affordable way for people of all walks of life to enjoy motion pictures. Whereas traditional theater was often associated, rightly or wrongly, with the upper crust of society, cinema remained a working man’s art form. Regional film industries flourished across the world, with each enjoying modest success. The First World War (1914-1918) produced some of the earliest examples of propaganda films to boost morale at home and overseas. But it wasn’t until the post-war economic boom of the 1920s that the film industry really hit its stride.

The sun shines in Los Angeles, California for almost 80% of the days in a year. More sunshine means more shooting days, faster productions, and lower costs. Little wonder, then, that LA became the home of a young industry on a seemingly endless upward trajectory. From 1912 onward, the Hollywood neighborhood became home to several movie studios: huge plots of buildings and land with stockpiles of men and materials needed to mount massive productions.

The original Big 5 studios were Warner Brothers Pictures, Paramount, RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum), MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), and 20th Century Fox. Each of the Big 5 owned expansive lots for productions as well as many theaters to exhibit films to the paying public. The second tier of studios included Universal Pictures, United Artists, and Columbia Pictures. Lesser studios included Monogram, Republic, and the animation studio Walt Disney Pictures.

Early Hollywood film set

Early Hollywood film set

One of the first major Hollywood films was the Civil War epic Birth of a Nation, produced by DW Griffiths. With a runtime over three hours, the film was a monster. It was also controversial for its overtly racist messages. At this time, motion pictures still lacked sound. Films often included title cards with written dialogue to explain important plot elements. Otherwise, stories were conveyed visually. To set the mood for each scene, silent films were accompanied by live music ranging from a lone pianist to a full orchestra.

By the 1920s, Hollywood was the fifth largest industry in the United States. It was around this time that the area became known as Tinseltown because of the glitz and glamor closely associated with the Roaring Twenties period. Movies made studio heads and producers extremely rich. The director developed into the most prominent “behind the scenes” production role, while the idea of “movie stars” brought many actors and actresses great fame and fortune. Following the First World War, European filmmakers like Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, and Jean Renoir arrived in Hollywood to collaborate with homegrown talent.

By the mid-20s, engineers from Warner Brothers-owned Vitaphone had developed a way to sync audio recordings with motion pictures. Movies now included what is considered diegetic and non-diegetic sound. Diegetic sound includes the sounds of the story’s physical world—specifically, dialogue and all sounds the characters can theoretically hear. Non-diegetic sound refers to sounds the characters would be unaware of, such as the film’s soundtrack.

Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin

The arrival of “talkies” put many silent era actors out of business, either because they lacked strong voices or they could not remember their lines. With sound to boost the story, directors could explore more complex angles and editing techniques. Cinematography, the composing of motion pictures, gained recognition as a major form of art. Film crews organized and their hierarchy developed into the format we know today.

With the combined might of sound and picture to tell stories, cinema was entering a phase of unprecedented growth as 1930 loomed closer. The film industry had survived infancy and was now moving into adolescence. Hollywood’s Golden Age was about to begin.


Did You Know?

Almost all of the sound you hear in a movie is fake. Jack Foley pioneered the sound effects movement in Hollywood, lending his name to what we now call Foley sounds. Check out this video for an explanation, and you’ll never watch (or hear) movies the same way again.


Five Films to Watch

The Jazz Singer

The Kid

Orphans of the Storm

The Three Musketeers

Hell’s Angels/


Recommended book

“The Oxford History of World Cinema” by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith


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