The Pioneers of Film

         Griffith, Chaplin, Welles, Hitchcock and Cocteau are the pioneers of film. Their contributions to film have been diverse and important to the history of the cinema because it made the cinema what it is today, an entertaining art form.

         D.W. Griffith started the cinema with his epic movie Birth of a Nation (1915). Through his camera techniques, plot development and special effects; he made film shift from being a novelty to an art form. The audience, at that time, marveled at the effort put forth in this extensive film. The audience now marvels at the controversy it creates. Griffith was able to entertain and shock the audience in the early 1900’s, with his special effects (such as in the accurate battle scenes), and then his shock lasted to today (and still into the future) because of its controversial racist tones. The film started the movie making business, as well as the film critic business.

         Charlie Chaplin was known for his character “The Tramp.” He directed his movies to appeal to the humor of his audience. The important contribution made by Chaplin was due to his stubborn will. Chaplin was famous in the silent era. When sound was introduced in 1928, Chaplin refused to change. He tried to continue making silent movies like City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936). The films were successful but did not compare to the success of other 1930’s movies like King Kong (1933). Chaplin slowly adapted to the technological changes of the cinema. In City Lights and Modern Times he used a musical score, and sound effects but no spoken dialogue. Finally in 1940 he made The Great Dictator, a full talkie that was a hit with the audience, but not with the critics. Chaplin’s contribution to the cinema was that he showed filmmakers to adapt and not to be afraid of the technology or the social situations. Chaplin was an avid political speaker and spoke out against war, causing him to become blacklisted and move to Switzerland. He helped the cinema to become more than a movie, but a way to show the actors’ emotions and thoughts. Film makers and movies, after Chaplin, began to be seen as important figures, and were more than what was seen.

         Orson Welles picked up on Chaplin’s contribution. He made Citizen Kane, a movie that breaks the rules and breaks the boundaries of film. Kane (1941) was a film based off a newspaper mogul’s life, William Randolph Hearst. Hearst threatened to ruin Welles if he made the movie, but Welles did it anyway. The movie not only stood up to the bullies of critics (who were probably paid by Hearst to say negative things), but also stood up for the art form. Welles employed numerous new techniques when creating the film, including angle lens and a creation of visual and aural depth through the use of the camera. This was a major contribution to the cinema because it was a movie that went beyond the boundaries of filmmaking. Hearst ruined Welles, but the movie prevailed and is a major monument in the history of cinema.

         Alfred Hitchcock contributed emotion and feeling to the history of cinema. Hitchcock was a master of creating suspense, and making your heartbeat quicken as if you were the one being chased. In Psycho (1960), Hitchcock manipulates the audience to feel for Janet Leigh’s character even though she is a thief. In North by Northwest (1959), the audience is thrown into a chase, where in the climatic scene on Mt. Rushmore, the viewer’s stomach actually feels that it will give way. Hitchcock made the cinema an entertaining rollercoaster, and a commercial cash crop. Without Hitchcock, movies would still be seen as just art; with Hitchcock movies are thrill rides.

         Jean Cocteau is another film maker who made a major contribution to the cinema. In La Belle et La Bęte (1946), Cocteau asks the audience to suspend reality with the film. With the use of special effects that could even blow James Cameron away, he creates this magical dream world that seems totally possible if the viewer would just allow him or herself to believe. Cocteau’s contribution is that of special effects and storytelling. He made the cinema the place where people could escape from the troubles of the world and live happily ever after, or at least until the Disney-like high wore off. He made the cinema into a living storybook by doing the impossible. He influenced the children’s films of today, where animal’s talk and people can transport themselves through walls. Unlike Hitchcock, who asked the audience to get involved with the film, Cocteau asked the audience to relax and enjoy.

         Griffith began the history of the cinema through his courage to do a full length movie complete with special effects that swooned the audience. Chaplin continued the history by showing film makers the need to adapt to the technological advances, and through the ability to give films a political/social voice. Welles, influenced by Chaplin, stood up for movies and went beyond the boundaries of film making with his techniques. Hitchcock and Cocteau got the audience involved, and made movies into an entertaining escape from reality. Without these geniuses, the history of the cinema would still be limited to novelty filmstrips played at nickelodeons.

Susie Shircliff

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