The Great Rise of Features

         American directors previous to the First World War faced enormous competition from foreign filmmakers. Artistic uses of lighting, dramatic photographic compositions, themes, elaborate and realistic sets and most important, longer films imported from Europe caught the attention of audiences and critics. It did not take long for American filmmakers to single out and incorporate what impressed them most into their own productions.

         When the French movie Queen Elizabeth starred a world-famous stage actress, along with its hour-long running time, helped give a new stature to the motion pictures in America. Before 1913, most American films were one or two reels in duration, with a few three-reel productions being made after 1911. The motion picture exhibition was based on the concept of variety. Even after dramatic and comic narratives over passed the large number of documentary and trick film subjects that had dominated the cinema’s first decade, distributors did not think audiences would sit through an hour or more of a single story. As a result, they would release multi-reel films one reel at a time to be shown on consecutive nights or consecutive weeks. At that time, movies in the United States were largely attended by the working class and immigrants who could afford their five-cent admission and easily follow the short, simple visual stories. The middle and wealthy classes were more likely to spend their leisure money on vaudeville, live theatre, and the opera.

         The imported feature-length films were often exhibited in legitimate theatres, rather than the small movie houses, in an attempt to win over a new audience. Italian film spectacles were especially influential with its fluidly moving camera rolling through gigantic sets. Movie theatre managers began to feature multi-reel productions as the main attraction for the evening, with a few shorts to round out the program instead of having an hour or more featuring a variety of short films only. As this became more prevalent, studio production patterns changed to accommodate the practice.

         There was mixed reaction from both producers and exhibitors about some of the new directions in film making. Many directors persistently believed that films should be well photographed, but mostly should concentrate on recording the actors’ performances. They found breaking up scenes into medium shots and separate close-ups of the different characters to be too distracting unless done for some special purpose.

         The release of Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in March of 1915 was a major milestone due to its extensive commercial success. From then on, short films were simply an added attraction in usually every theatre and might be dispensed with altogether in the case of such a long feature. From then on, people from all walks of life and levels of income developed the habit of movie going. The Birth of a Nation, as controversial as it was, was a must-see film that everybody went to, and substantial numbers went back to see it again and then to see other films. Producers responded with stories that would appeal to a more educated and urbane audience in order to attract them.

Matthew Whitted

Table of Contents