Questions and Answers About the History of Motion Pictures

From time to time people ask us interesting questions or we come across curiosities while doing other research.

We have listed some of them below.

There were four brothers involved with Warner Bros. in the studio’s early years:

  • Harry Warner (born 1881)
  • Albert “Abe” Warner (born 1884)
  • Sam Warner (born 1888) and
  • Jack Warner (born 1892)  

It was said that Sam got the ideas, Harry financed them, Jack and Abe implemented them. 

Historically, Warner Bros. is perhaps most famous for producing the motion picture, "The Jazz Singer", in 1927, the first feature film that utilized synchronized sound for dialogue.

The first movie to cost a million dollars was "A Daughter of the Gods", released in 1916. 

Annette Kellerman A Daughter of the Gods 1916

  • The movie was written and directed by Herbert Brenon for the Fox Film Corporation, and shot in Jamaica.
  • Brenon employed 20,000 extras during the 8 months of production, and used 2,500 barrels of plaster, 500 barrels of cement, 2 million feet of lumber, and 10 tons of paper to create vast, fantastic settings.
  • He also ended up using 220,000 feet (over 40 miles) of film to shoot the picture, which ran for 180 minutes in its final cut.
  • Once completed, an original orchestral score was written for the movie, a musical score which was said to have been the most memorable up to that time.
  • The movie created a considerable amount of controversy when it was released because of a scene in which its star, Annette Kellerman (an Australian swimming champion), appeared nude.
  • No print of this movie is known to exist.

(For more information about this film and its star, refer to the 2006 biography by Emily Gibson & Barbara Firth, "The Original Million Dollar Mermaid: The Annette Kellerman Story".)

Other Million Dollar Movies Included:

  • "Foolish Wives" (1922) cost $1,100,000
  • "When Knighthood Was in Flower" (1922) cost $1,500,000.
  • "The Ten Commandments" (1923) had a budget of $1,800,000
  • "The Thief of Baghdad" (1924) was the first film to have a budget of $2,000,000

John Wayne appeared in a multi–million dollar western early in his career. In fact, the first film in which he had a starring role, "The Big Trail" (1930), cost over $2,000,000.

John Wayne The Big Trail 1930

Directed by Raoul Walsh, the movie was released in both a standard 35mm version, and a 70mm "Grandeur" wide–screen version.

Child actors have been a cinematic staple since the beginning of the motion picture industry.

Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, for example, began their film careers when they were teenagers, and their youth and childlike innocence was emphasized in their starring vehicles.

Among the countless child actors during the silent–film era were Baby Peggy, Madge Evans, and the future director Henry Hathaway.

But...the first true child star was Jackie Coogan, who burst into stardom as Charlie Chaplin's young charge in "The Kid" (1921). Coogan was seven years old when "The Kid" was released.

Charlie Chaplin Jackie Coogan The Kid 1921

The first woman movie producer was Alice Guy Blanché (also known as Alice Guy).

Alice Guy Blanche

  • She was born in Paris in 1873 and died in 1968.
  • She became a secretary for the Gaumont Film Company in 1896, but when the firm switched from the manufacture of cameras to the production of films later that year, Mademoiselle Guy became one of its pioneer directors while still in her early twenties.
  • She married Herbert Blanché in 1907, and came with him to the U.S. when he set up a branch for Gaumont's products in Cleveland.
  • Soon after, they moved to New York where, in 1910, Alice formed her own production company, Solax, through which she produced and directed numerous films.
  • Before long she moved her small studio in Flushing, NY, to larger quarters in Fort Lee, NJ, where her company prospered for several years.

Probably the most famous woman director/producer of the silent–era was Lois Weber (1882–1939).

Lois Weber

  • Beginning as an actress, she turned to directing in 1913 and became one of the highest paid directors – man or woman – of her time.
  • Weber specialized in social topics, and her films were critically acclaimed financial successes that created huge controversies around the country.
  • In 1917 she formed her own studio, Lois Weber Productions, so that she could exercise complete control over her films, and an excellent copy of her film "The Blot", which she produced and directed, is available on DVD. (The DVD comes with an informative commentary track which provides a great deal of background on Lois Weber.)

For additional information, consult the books:

  • "Lois Weber: The Director Who Lost Her Way in History" by Anthony Slide,
  • "Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema", by Alison McMahan, and
  • "An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Women in Early American Films 1895–1930", by Denise Lowe

According to William J. Mann's out–of–print book "Wisecracker", the first openly gay Hollywood star was William "Billy" Haines (1900–1973).

William Billy Haines

Haines' film career spanned the years 1922 to 1934, and he was one of M–G–M's biggest stars in the late 1920s.

By 1930 the Production Code banned the depiction of homosexuality in any form. Because of this, the sexual orientation of actors in the early days of Hollywood was not widely revealed or publicly discussed, although such silent era stars as Ramon Novarro (1899–1968) and Alla Nazimova (1879–1945) were known to be either homosexual or bisexual.

Also see our article on Movie Censorship in the US.

 

For more information, consult the books:

  • "The Celluloid Closet" by Vito Russo,
  • "The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood" by Diana McLellan,
  • "Behind the Screen: How Gays & Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910–1969" by William J. Mann, and
  • "Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall" by Richard Barrios.

(There is also a very good documentary available on DVD called "The Celluloid Closet (Special Edition)" that came out in 1996.)

According to Vito Ruso's landmark study "The Celluloid Closet", the first gay film was Richard Oswald's "Anders als die Anderen / Different from the Others", which was presented in Berlin in 1919.

The movie starred one of Germany's most famous actors, Conrad Veidt.

Although this film was the first film to present a positive viewpoint on gay liberation, from the earliest days of the motion picture industry almost all representations of homosexuality were deemed to be shocking.

Also see our article on Movie Censorship in the US.

For more information, consult the books:

  • "The Celluloid Closet" by Vito Russo,
  • "The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood" by Diana McLellan,
  • "Behind the Screen: How Gays & Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910–1969" by William J. Mann, and
  • "Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall" by Richard Barrios.

(There is also a very good documentary available on DVD called "The Celluloid Closet (Special Edition)" that came out in 1996.)

When Heath Ledger was nominated for an Academy Award after his untimely death in 2008, he became the 7th actor to receive a nomination for a specific performance posthumously. (James Dean was nominated posthumously twice.)

However, it was Jeanne Eagels who was the first actor to receive an Academy Award nomination posthumously, and that happened in 1930.

Jeanne Eagels 1927

  • Jeanne Eagels (née Eugenia Eagles) was born in Kansas City, MO, on June 26, 1890.
  • Even as a young girl she wanted to become an actress, and after playing bit parts in local theaters she joined the Dubinsky Brother's traveling theater company as a dancer.
  • She eventually made it to New York City where she decided to reverse two letters in her last name and change "Eagles" to "Eagels" because, it was said, she felt "Eagels" would look better on a marquee.
  • In New York City she danced in chorus lines and eventually became a Ziegfeld girl, but she wanted to become a serious actress.
  • By 1915 she had begun performing dramatic roles on stage and acting in movies.
  • In 1918 she was in the hit Broadway play "Daddies".
  • By 1920 she was one of Broadway's leading ladies.
  • When she originated the role of Sadie Thompson in the 1922 Broadway play "Rain", the New York Times said that Eagels displayed "an emotional power as fiery and unbridled in effect as it is artistically restrained."

The Letter (1929)

  • In 1929 Eagels starred in her first sound film, "The Letter", which was adapted from a successful W. Somerset Maugham short story and play.
  • After screening the movie in 1977, the New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote, "Jeanne Eagels is absolutely stunning, with a face that recalls both the tough Jean Harlow and the ladylike Anne Todd, and a slightly husky voice that must have sent shivers up and down the spines in the third balcony."
  • Although "The Letter" was a Paramount production, it is said that Louis B. Mayer was so impressed by the naturalness and power of Eagels' acting style in the new medium of talking pictures that he made "The Letter" required viewing for all M–G–M stars.

On October 3, 1929, at the age of 39, Jeanne Eagels became ill and was taken to a private hospital in New York City where she suddenly had a convulsion and died.

The following year she was nominated posthumously for an Academy Award for her performance in "The Letter", but that year Mary Pickford won for her role in "Coquette". (In 1977 Peter Finch became the first actor to actually win an Academy Award after being nominated posthumously.)

The 1933 Broadway play "Shooting Star" was based on Eagels life, and in 1957 Kim Novak played the title role in the Columbia Pictures' biopic "Jeanne Eagels".

Although the term "classic" is sometimes applied to films made during one of the early decades of Hollywood's history, such as the 1920s or 1930s, there was no actual "classic era".

There are indeed films that we call "classic", but the term is customarily applied to specific movies and refers to the fact that either they are:

  • Fine examples or typical of a given genre (e.g. "Bringing Up Baby" is a classic screwball comedy);

Bringing Up Baby

  • Famous, innovative, or considered to be superbly made (e.g. "Citizen Kane" is now considered a Hollywood Classic).

Citizen Kane

We commonly use the term "classic music" for music that emphasized formal composition and performance in the European tradition of the period between 1750 and 1830, and the term "classic architecture" for buildings that use architectural elements found in the structures built by the ancient Greeks and Romans. But there is no comparable "classic era" for motion pictures.

There was, however, an era often referred to as Hollywood's "Golden Age".

  • This was a period when the basic techniques of how a movie told a story (the language of film) had been finally codified and formalized, and the studio–system, which had been established and organized to turn out movies like a factory, dominated Hollywood movie production.
  • The major Hollywood studios became so efficient during this period that each of the top five often released a new feature film every week.
  • This "Golden Age" ran roughly from the late 1920s (around the time when the new "talkies" sounded the death knell for the silent–film era) to the early 1950s (when the studios were forced to sell off their lucrative theater chains).
  • Although some historians would quibble about what the exact dates were, the period between 1930 and 1950 is generally what is meant when referring to Hollywood's "Golden Age".

The term "classic", like the terms "masterpiece", "genius", "greatest" and "work of art", are so misused and over–used in the motion picture industry that they have become meaningless.

When referring to "old movies" (which we consider to be any film made before 1960), we prefer to use the term "vintage movie" rather than "classic movie".

Whereas a classic movie implies greatness, a vintage movie might be good, bad, or indifferent.

For each vintage movie, even the worst, we know there will always be someone who will find it to be enormously entertaining.

By "mob" we assume you mean an organized group of urban gangsters rather than an outlaw gang in the Old West, or a loosely formed group of ruffians.

We also assume that by "mob" you aren't referring specifically to the Mafia.

The Musketeers of Pig Alley

Films about the mob, or "gangster films", have become a specific genre over time, and it is generally accepted that the first gangster film was "The Musketeers of Pig Alley" directed by D.W. Griffith in 1912. Griffith's film was made in the wake of a scandal about corrupt city officials, and its gun–battle in a beer–barrel–strewn alley signaled the importance Prohibition (already in force in some areas) would come to have.

The 1931 movie "Little Caesar", starring Edward G. Robinson, is generally acknowledged as having spawned the modern gangster movie. Although another gangster film, "The Doorway to Hell", was released the year before, "Little Caesar" was the film that started a brief craze for the genre in the early 1930s.

In it's opening weekend at the Warner Bros.' Strand Theater in New York, "Little Caesar" broke the theater's all–time attendance record, grossing $50,000 in eleven performances.

If you'd like to learn more about the history of gangster films, get a copy of "The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: The Gangster Film" edited by Phil Hardy. This fabulous reference book contains over 650 photos, and information on over 1,500 films.

We have decided this is the most curious question we have ever received. We can only speculate as to what was the subject of the conversation that initially prompted this question, but suspect our answer will probably go back further in motion picture history than you would suppose.

The first film we found in which a character dies with their eyes open is D.W. Griffith's 1909 movie "The Country Doctor".

The Country Doctor 1909

The movie stars Frank Powell as Dr. Harcourt, Florence Lawrence as Mrs. Harcourt, Gladys Egan as their daughter Edith, and Mary Pickford in a small role.

The title character, a prosperous husband and father, is caught in a social tragedy when his daughter falls ill and he's pulled from her side by the illness of another girl from a markedly poorer home.

Toward the end of the film, Dr. Harcourt's daughter Edith turns toward the camera and dies with her eyes open.

It is a very haunting scene, and the first that we can find where the traditional acting convention of dying by closing your eyes is ignored.

The first "Feature Film" (a film lasting at least an hour) in which a character dies with their eyes open is probably D.W. Griffith's 1919 film "Broken Blossoms".

Broken Blossoms 1919

After giving one of early cinema's most moving performances, Lillian Gish (playing Lucy Burrows) dies with her eyes open after being beaten by her father.

At this early stage in motion picture history, acting for the camera was still a developing art. Many people who appeared in front of the camera were not trained actors, and the few who were had been trained for the stage where broad gestures were often used and accepted.

Gifted directors like D.W. Griffith realized the camera was capable of catching very subtle changes in expression, and when filming dramatic stories they made increasingly greater efforts trying to tone down the expressions and gestures of their actors.

Although, even today, it is easier to accept these exaggerated gestures and expressions in a comedy, we might note that comedians like Charlie Chaplin often worked to tone down the reactions of even their co-stars, especially during a tender scene.

There are quite a few other movies from Hollywood's Golden Age in which an actor either dies or is found dead with their eyes open:

  • At the end of "The Public Enemy" (1931) a door is opened and James Cagney's trussed up, dead body is shown on the other side with his eyes still open.
  • Myrna Loy died with her eyes open at the end of "The Rains Came" (1939),
  • Laurence Olivier (playing Lord Horatio Nelson) also did at the end of "That Hamilton Woman" (1941).

There are many other examples of such a scene.

If anyone knows of an actor who "dies" with their eyes open in a film before D.W. Griffith's "A Country Doctor", please let us know.

Such a curious question deserves an accurate answer.

Long before Hollywood started assigning ratings to movies (G, PG, PG–13, NC-17, or R), 'The Motion Picture Production Code' was used to establish and enforce moral guidelines for Hollywood movies.

MPPDA Seal Of Approval

Initially adopted by Hollywood's major studios in 1930, through their trade organization 'The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America' (MPPDA), the Production Code was not rigorously enforced until the summer of 1934.

Movies that adhered to the Code's production guidelines after 1934 received a certificate from the 'Production Code Administration' (a branch of the MPPDA) allowing the studio to display a "Seal of Approval" on the film's release prints.   The Production Code Seal of Approval was a visible sign that the movie was deemed morally unobjectionable for all viewers and, therefore, eligible for exhibition in the theaters owned by the major studios.

Hollywood's major studios voluntarily agreed that their theater chains (which accounted for more than 70% of America's first–run movie houses in cities with a population greater than 100,000) would not show any movie that didn't have this Seal of Approval, and the MPPDA members who were distributors agreed not to distribute such movies.

The first movie to receive a Seal of Approval was John Ford's "The World Moves On", which was awarded certificate #1 on July 11, 1934.

From that date until today consecutively numbered certificates continue to be issued for, and displayed by, every movie shown in the United States.

Seal of Approval Certificate
The "Seal of Approval" was initially shown full-screen before the credits. Within a year the MPPDA emblem and a certificate # were made smaller and displayed at the bottom of the screen listing the production crew's credits.

The Motion Picture Production Code began by stating that, "No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it."

While acknowledging that, "Motion pictures are very important as Art", the Code made it clear that, " . . . the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin."

The Code went on to provide specific moral obligations, working principles, and production guidelines for the treatment of various plots and plot elements.

After World War II the MPPDA was renamed 'The Motion Picture Association of America' (MPAA).

Because of many changes in both the motion picture industry and American society during the 1950s and 1960s, the Production Code was gradually weakened until finally, on November 1, 1968, it was replaced by the first version of the MPAA's current movie ratings system.

These voluntary movie ratings, which are cautionary warnings to parents rather than an endorsement, continue to be administered by the MPAA, and certificate numbers continue to be issued by them.

Although film producers still place both the MPAA's seal and certificate number at the end of their film's credits, the seal and number now merely indicate that the film has been viewed by the MPAA and given a rating.

See more information in our article: Movie Censorship in the United States.

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