At the turn of the 20th century, inventions by Thomas Edison and others introduced a new art form to the world: motion pictures.  From the early era of Nickelodeons and silent films to the era of “talkies” and the growth of Hollywood, movies went from a mere fad to an industry. Now, with the introduction of streaming services like Netflix, films are evolving once again.  Join Active Minds as we roll out the red carpet and tell the story of movies.

Key Lecture Points

  • In the second half of the 19th century a series of technological advances led to the invention of the motion picture.  During the silent film era, from the 1890s to the 1920s, movies evolved from a novelty to an art form.  Silent film also became a big business, providing cheap entertainment that overcame the language barrier for the millions of immigrants coming to America in the early 20th century.  By 1927, movie theaters in the US were selling 100 million tickets per week.
  • As corporations fought to capitalize on the burgeoning film industry. innovative actors and directors, including Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplain developed the art form of cinema.  In 1919, the formed United Artists as a means to maintain artistic control of their works (and profit from them).
  • The Jazz Singer (1927) was the first “talkie.”  Sound introduced new technological changes for the industry and created challenges for its stars to make the transition.
  • American movies have always reflected their times in different ways.  During the Great Depression, there were both movies that reflected the social issues of the day, as well as escapist fare.  Later, movies aiding the war effort during World War II.  Studios reacted to the Communist scare of the 1950s by backlisting talent and creating safe fare at the same time that television was entering American households.
  • These trends and other factors led to the demise of the studio system and the growth of smaller and independent makers of movies at the time that society was changing once again during the late 1960s. Influenced by innovations in foreign cinema, a new class of American film directors created works that contained violence, language, and sex that would have been unheard of in previous eras.
  • The issue of diversity, both in front of, and behind the camera, has gained prominence in recent years.  Women have gained a more prominent role as directors and producers, which in turn has driven more stories featuring women.  Members of minority communities have demanded greater representation, and this has extended to other marginalized communities like the LBGT+ and disabled.
  • Staring in the 1980s continuing technological changes have once again transformed the industry.  Consumers have new ways of viewing movies at home, which accelerated in reach during the Covid lockdown of 2020.  Streaming services have become significant producers of content while more traditional movie companies have inaugurated streaming services of their own.

Exploration Questions

  • How did the early pioneers of the movie industry shape it?
  • How did and do movies reflect social and political changes?
  • Do you think people will continue “going to the movies”?

Reflective Questions

  • Why do you think movies continue to be such a popular form of entertainment?
  • Why do you think we are so fascinated with movie stars and their lives?
  • What is the earliest memory you have of going to the movies?  How was that experience different from going to the movies today?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Schroeder, Wallace, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis. The New York Times Book of Movies: The Essential 1,000 Films to See.  Universe, 2019.  1,296 pages.  Brief analysis of recommendations by the New York Times film critics.
    Click here to order
  • Silver, Alain and James Ursini.  Film Noir Fatal Women.  Silman-James Press, 2022.  336 pages.  Images of the various women featured in the iconic American film genre.
    Click here to order