Like Topsy, movies "just grew" since the late 1800s, when Thomas Edison discovered how to project moving pictures - at first in a little box called a Kinetoscope, then later on a big screen.
The first projected movies were one reel in length (8-10 minutes), and they entertained in between vaudeville acts. At first, they were shot in New Jersey or New York, then gravitated to a more suitable climate in California. They were silent at first, in black and white - but not really. Mood music was played for the actors on the set, but also played - most often by a versatile piano player - in the theatre, partly to enhance the mood, but also to hide the noise made by a clacking projector. And colors were added, either chemically by toning the entire print or by the addition of frame by frame hand painting.
Plots? Anything, from compressed novels to improvised dramas and comedies - all shot on open air sets in direct California sunlight. Imagine Dostoyevski's lengthy "Crime and Punishment" shrunk to one reel! It was done, the novelty of seeing the characters come to life on a big screen was enough to overlook the drastic cutting. Eventually, movies expanded to two reels and then, thanks to the father of modern filmmaking, D.W. Griffith, further expanded to full feature lengths by the early '20s.
Dialogue came in "titles," usually brief but explanatory inserts. It was the visuals that counted. Facial expressions and pantomimed movements helped communicate the story, as the actors were urged on by a director calling his directions through a megaphone.
Then, in the late '20s, technical advancements changed things. With incandescent lights, shooting moved indoors under controlled lighting, while the invention of special microphones introduced "talkies" ("Singin' in the Rain" tells the story nicely).
With sound, a new form of acting developed - dialogue becoming more sophisticated. Talented writers flocked to Hollywood to turn out plots ranging from budget quickies to films of classic importance. Think "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930), a powerful anti-war film seen from the German point of view"; "Citizen Kane" (1941), still considered the greatest American film made; "Casablanca"(1942), the great wartime love story; or the "Thin Man" (1934) series that set the tone for clever screwball comedies.
Movies were divided into genres, with rules governing each. From the Classic Period of the '30s to the '50s, films were "dramatic" with little pretense at being realistic. They all fit into the dictum set by D.W. Griffith: to be entertaining, educating and morally uplifting. Crime had to pay. Comedy had to be consistently funny. Star-crossed lovers remained star-crossed unless a moral reason could dictate otherwise.
People went to movies to be carried away from real life; especially during the Great Depression, it was the perfect, cheap escape for a few hours in the dark.
With the rise of TV in the '50s, things changed again. To compete, movies went wide screen, 3D and more suggestive. The moral code was bypassed for the sake of "realism," and even Smell-O-Vision was attempted. Foreign films made by serious auteurs were shown in "art" theatres, but despite their excellence could rarely compete with Hollywood's burgeoning talent for making money rather than good art.
With a lowering of standards, well-written scripts vanished. The new movies resorted to profanity and slang while vulgarity reigned, and improvisation masked bad writing. Plots focused on action and sensationalism to replace mature character studies. Hollywood copied TV with sequels, and action and science fiction abounded. With the introduction of new technology, more of the same flourished. And, finally, with a steady dumbing down, audiences accepted it.
Now, only a handful of filmmakers desperately struggle to grip audiences with the old standards: Films from "The Descendants" and "The Help" to "Hugo" to the Canadian "Strangers in Good Company" are among the latest. Can they swing us back to memorable movies once again? Only time will tell.
Rotten Tomatoes average: "The 3 Stooges," C-