Early American Film: 1915-1937

In the introduction to the periodical Experimental Cinema, Dr. George Amberg discusses the term experimental and places it within the greater context of the development of cinema: “The customary, restrictive usage of the term, experimental, requires the qualification that experimental cinema is not the exclusive prerogative of the avant-garde. From long-range view, the whole development of the cinema is the result of continual experimentation within the establishment, often as radical and daring as any of the discoveries of the self-styled independents” (Amberg iii). This is not to say that experimental film is better than others, just that it is one way to view the world. The first three decades of commercial film in America brought a great variety of films and filmmakers to the business.

The emerging film industry became one of America’s biggest businesses of all time and throughout history film shifted from foreign import to profitable export. I will explore the ways in which commercial and art filmmakers defined and executed their varying approaches focusing specifically on how early films had an impact on the development of the avant-garde and experimental genres. Film did not originate in America but our individualistic point of views were perfect for the medium. Pioneering directors capitalized on the power of the human face with the revolutionary use of the close-up shot to ensnare audiences. Film developed as an outgrowth of photography and other traditional art forms. Early films borrowed from established literature, theatre, biography and even paintings and illustrations for their inspiration.

I will examine several films including D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of A Nation,” Herman G. Weinberg’s “Autumn Fire” and “Even As You and I” an early avant-garde parody film created by directors Roger Barlow, Harry Hay and LeRoy Robbins who also starred in the twelve minute feature as their own actors, writers, cameramen, directors and editors.

Early American avant-garde films were usually not original, they were often inspired by successful attempts of experimental films abroad. As the genre developed in stark opposition to the formulaic plots of Hollywood, independent filmmakers went back to the basics of film and gained inspiration from artwork and reflected on the process of film making itself—start to finish. Films like “Even– As You and I” were viewed as “a clear alternative to the generic conventions of Hollywood” (Horak 389). The filmmakers are seen on-screen actually making the movie that the audience later views. This allows them to participate in the “magic” of movie making.

Steven J. Ross places the birth of radical film making twenty years before most film scholars. Before the avant-garde art films of the late 1920s and 1930s, the newest medium of mass culture, film, was used as a political weapon in struggles for power in an increasingly mixed population society. According to Ross, scholars focus on three main themes in film theory: “mass culture as a form of social control or escapism, the extent to which movies shape or reflect society, and the presentation of “images” on the screen of women, blacks, immigrants, or ethnic groups” (Ross 334). This allows workers to be “portrayed as passive consumers of culture and rarely as actors capable of producing culture” (Ross 334).

This is contrary to the independent, entrepreneurial spirit of avant-garde film and experimental cinema overall. Films were not just made for entertainment or financial gain, they were tools used by the emerging consumer culture for the transmission of class related information. Ross believes this new medium could also be used to empower the working class as new filmmakers used perfected techniques to get their messages across. The roots of radical film making can be found in the earliest manifestations of the medium because the medium itself was an amalgamation of all previous art forms.

Sharon S. Kleinman and Daniel G. McDonald focused more on social changes in America during the 1890s and early 1900s, believing immigration trends impacted movie going audiences and preferences. They point out specifically the effects of urbanization and immigration on the emerging American film industry and the advantage of silent film to the international interest in film.

Immigrants were largely illiterate and so the trend in film was to cater to the lowest common denominator. This caused film to go through a short period of almost exclusively low-status popularity. Movies became local entertainments dominated by immigrant audiences and filmmakers who took to the new medium in which they could participate therefore becoming American. It provided affordable entertainment which got them away from their poor living conditions. It also allowed them an opportunity to see more of America and the world because until 1908 most movies seen in the United States were made abroad, mostly in France.

The depiction of movement was the primary characteristic that attracted attention from all social classes. It was seen as a novelty. Silent film was a key socialization device, “unhindered by the complex plots and characters that were to appear with sound films, silent films, as well as the movie going experience, provided immigrants with a glimpse of this new country, including what to expect, how to behave, and what to feel” (Kleinman and McDonald 79).The lack of spoken language meant body language and facial expressions were used so that everyone could follow the story.

Thomas C. Carlson differs somewhat because he is not concerned with immigration or urbanization but he is interested in the way in which film can change perceptions like no other medium. I am interested in the “power of the movies” and the way they can shape contemporary attitudes about current or past events or figures. Carlson discusses avant-garde related genres in relation to the changing attitudes toward Edgar Allan Poe in the early 1900s.

Poe is transformed from a strange outcast to a tortured artist with a few repetitive, positive manifestations of him on screen. “Edgar Allan Poe” was the first film biography which was popular in its beginnings and remains so today. The abundance of films reflecting the previously “un-American” life and works of Poe allude to a shift in the cultural perception of Poe as a literary figure and American. He was the subject of 17 films made from 1909-1915, 11 of which were made by Americans. This is evidence that Poe was more accepted and understood in this age, an age of images that connected audiences to Poe’s work more than words ever had.

Poe is now seen as a champion for the cause of “art for art’s sake” as well as a “brilliant victim.” These attributes of Poe are demonstrated in the films and however flawed they may seem for biographies it is astounding that masses of people were now keenly interested in and aware of the “history” an American writer. A writer who up until that point had been accused of being “diseased” and morbidly depraved by the prevailing middle class ethos of conservative Protestantism.

By 1910, demographically mixed movie audiences were the norm. High, middle and working classes all participated together in a democratic commercial activity which also gave them a shared sense of being an American and accelerated the influence of popular culture. Carlson notes that as film experienced a growing connection to the higher art forms of literature, biography and theatre, reformers exercised their “moral duty and cultural respectability” to those of lower moral status. “Melting pot audiences,” as Carlson refers to them, entered a new phase in their socialization process. There was more incentive to learn the language now that the immigrants felt more American. Acting styles were also changing as sound became possible, the broad, overdramatic style was rejected in favor of a more natural style that better revealed individual character.

Film, the newest medium of mass communication offered collective “meanings” for its viewers to interpret. Carlson notes an important change in 1908 when film transitioned from “actualities” in favor of narratives with characters, plots and sets. The “actualities” highlighted the self-reflexive capacity of film and, in my analysis, serve as the base for documentary and biography work which are often considered related to the avant-garde and experimental genres. The popularity of imaginative, fictional plots is undeniable when considering the types of films that dominated Hollywood for decades. “Exporting an Imaginary America to Make Money,” an article in the New York Times from July 30, 1911 begins:

There is one American article of export out of which fortunes are being coined in every corner of the world, and which, under its rightful name, does not appear upon a single streamer’s manifest. This is the picturesque—what is bizarre, exciting, and unusual in American life, chiefly scenes of cowboys and Indians. This picturesque, a real, definite commodity of genuine commercial importance, goes with many another moving picture film across the seas. (New York Times)

The article supports the status of films as a marketable commodity and shows the trend for filmmakers to cater to foreign audiences who needed a lot of action and a simple story they could relate to. The act of “seeing” America, even on film is novelty enough to attract foreign audiences, “This is the America that they have long since imagined and heard about.” It is not as if fans of American films in other countries believe that is all America is but it is ingrained in their imaginations through the films and so the myth perpetuates.

This article interested me because it details how movie plots became so formulaic. Movie makers would simply ask and give people what they wanted and keep doing the same things that made money before. This is where I see a split between the avant-garde, documentary and to some extent the biography genres and the mainstream Hollywood “blockbusters” and cookie-cutter cowboy and Indian flicks. Film was able to span countries, the struggle was usually due to class tensions. The “experts” who interviewed people about their viewing habits discovered that it didn’t matter where someone came from but that what they saw “agreed with their preconceived notions. The more a series of pictures differed with what they believed the less popular it proved” (New York Times).

The article does not simply talk about reception of American films abroad but among our own citizens, “these exciting Western plains films do exceedingly well in this country, perhaps because of the many foreigners that crowd the moving picture theatres” (New York Times). This gives evidence of large percentages of immigrants among early American audiences and their preferences for easy to understand “canned dramas” that exaggerated the excitement of the American West. These fictional films were mass produced for profit and lacked artistic integrity and control.

“The Birth of a Nation” was made in 1915 and is still considered a controversial film but that is not the only reason I chose to study it. I was impressed with D.W. Griffith’s grand plan for films and his ability to pluck new stars out of obscurity. The film was based on a novel and play titled The Clansman and covered the period before, during and after the Civil War. The film is about two families, from the North and one from the South. The reason the film was so controversial was because of Griffith’s conclusion: “The former enemies of North and South are united again in common defense of their Aryan birthright.” This is not the same sentiment I witnessed reading the comments on the YouTube version of “The Birth of a Nation.” The way we are taught history is biased and rather than addressing the issues the film deals with many people wish to simply remove the film from memory. Griffith was a talented and prolific filmmaker and much of the visual language we all interpret inherently and take for granted was pioneered through his experimentation and especially his early work on biographies.

Herman G. Weinberg was the manager of a Baltimore theatre and produced two avant-garde films. His first, “City Symphony” was cut up to make “Autumn Fire” in 1931, a year later. The construction of this film sets it apart as a lose narrative was formed from essentially “found” footage. Weinberg collected beautiful moving pictures but stated that the film was not intended for public exhibition, it was a poetic offering to a young woman who he later married. “Autumn Fire” uses the classic boy meets girl story; they are apart and their landscapes seem worlds apart. The film reunites them after cutting between the natural setting of the young woman and the city where the young man resides. They reunite at a train station, a scene that “is accompanied by an orgy of flowing-water images, an obvious reference to Freud” (Horak 401). This film could be the result of urbanization and industrialization in America, the result being a romanticized view of nature. The uncorrupted young woman then becomes a symbol, as well as a reforming agent for the city dweller.

“Even– As You and I” follows three filmmakers want to enter the Liberty-Pete Smith Amateur Movie Contest. The contest is the frame for the entire narrative. At first they set out to write a script but after a night of failed attempts (seemingly all beginning the same way, with the tired “boy/girl scenario”) they favor a shoot-whatever-strikes-the-mood attitude after they are inspired by an article about Surrealism. Each man takes a different approach to his filming. They experiment with lighting, camera angles, and literally shoot everything they see. Eventually, they get a grotesque amount of footage that they then have to compile in a comical editing-room scene. The film-within-a-film is just a montage of surrealistic images put together using the latest film tricks and techniques.

In the introduction to The Movies Come from America, Charlie Chaplin discusses the impact that censorship and production codes have put on the new art form:

When the weekly periodicals, the daily Press, the novel and the theatre are free and unencumbered to comment frankly on current events, the film play is burdened with a specially imposed censorship which denies it the right to dwell on many of the issues of the day. Under normal conditions of censorship, the film play with its fictional “boy meets girl” theme, has quite a task competing with the realism of the film news weekly with its assassination of a king, the tragic accident of a Zeppelin, its graphic accomplishments of a Lindbergh. But today in this kaleidoscopic turmoil of fast and furious events, when cause and effect with increasing pace are bringing to light a more realistic view of human affairs, the film play must ignore the vital issues and deal only in such subject-matter as a child would read in a rhyming book. (Chaplin v-vi)

Censorship was deemed necessary by the morally upright of the society and was imposed on the masses. My focus is mostly on avant-garde films but they too must have been influenced by such strict codes although their status as underground or art films may have helped them get around some of the restrictions.

One reason I selected “Even– As You and I” was because it turned its eye on its own genre to poke fun at the process of film making. It contained over the top images, parodies of other films and exposure to behind-the-scenes action, things modern moviegoers demand. Editors were often invisible in the art of conventional movie making, but experimental film exposed their role in the process. One reason may be that experimental or “art” films usually do not rely on narrative but on the innovation of cinematic and editing techniques.

Watching the film-within-a-film creates a paradox. The writing session at the beginning may be part of the script but it could also be a “recreation” or a documentary about film making. The focus on the generation of an original script “comments on the pressure toward originality when a canon of avant-garde works has already been established. Furthermore, the film refers to the difficulty of becoming a filmmaker and the need to survive economically in a Depression economy. Barlow and Robbins went on to become documentary filmmakers. (Horak 400). This is a very important and interesting time in American cinema, Hollywood is just powering up and the world of film is accessible to “amateur” filmmakers. The earliest “fathers of film” were at one time its most radical students.

American avant-garde film of the 1920s seemed to focus on abstract and formalist experimentation but in the 1930s it moved toward “metaphor and parody, possibly a sign of the increasingly difficult times. “Those filmmakers who eschewed the symbolic created documentary portraits or fiction shorts infused with lyrical realism, the latter often leading directly to a Hollywood career” (Horak 396). “Even– As You and I” makes the viewer feel as through they are watching the creation of a film, because they are, because it is extremely difficult, for example, to separate avant-garde film production from the production of documentary films in the 1930s. Numerous filmmakers, including Roger Barlow, Paul Strand, Willard Van Dyke, LeRoy Robbins, Henwar Rodakiewicz, and Ralph Steiner, not only earned their livelihood during the Great Depression through organizational, governmental, and private documentary film production but actually perceived such activity as a continuation of their experimentation with cinematic form (Horak 288-9). The film that resulted was a successful parody of the avant-garde. It was shot on 16-mm film at LeRoy Robbins home:

Early American avant-garde film indeed identified itself with amateurism…The cause of both avant-garde and amateur film were advanced by the introduction in 1924 of 16-mm film by Eastman Kodak Company and the easy-to-use Cine-Kodak 16-mm camera. Most World War II experimental film movements were technologically grounded in the less expensive 16-mm format. The new technology was not only cheaper and safer than 35-mm nitrate film but also in many ways more versatile, allowing for hand-held cameras, location shooting, and filming under ambient light conditions. The Cine-Kodak allowed every man and woman to become a film artist. (Horak 389) The rapid development of more affordable, easier to use equipment made independent movie making a reality.

The independent American spirit connected with amateur filmmakers and within a generation the rules are established and beginning to be called into question. The rapid success of film and the even more rapid standardization of character, plot and technique made for a very bland future for American film.

Films have an amazing power to bring masses together, people of all different backgrounds and ideas. The editors of Experimental Cinema state “that Hollywood, while it is an almost inexhaustible source of stupefying ‘entertainment,’ is also at the same time the tool of American imperialist political policy, which it serves so faithfully and so supinely through the medium of war films, anti-USSR films, news reels, etc. The United States with its appalling rate of illiteracy is fertile soil for so direct an instrument as the film” (Statement). The publication was clearly geared toward “socialist” filmmakers and championed the pioneers of foreign films such as Eisenstein but I found it to be one of the best sources for working-class related material:

EXPERIMENTAL CINEMA in future issues will expose in its pages…the source of this capitalist propaganda in the film-industry, where a boycott is now in force on all films and news reels that reveal any evidences of the class struggle.
EXPERIMENTAL CINEMA will also endeavor in the future, as an inalienable part of the workers’ film-movement, to cooperate in the production of films of a nature which will serve to give cohesion to the movement among the masses of movie-goers and which will also serve to counteract amongst these masses the stupefying opiate of the Hollywood product.
EXPERIMENTAL CINEMA, in conclusion will reveal to students of the film, through important articles, essays, photographs, stills, etc., the means and methods whereby films of the life of the American workers will be adequately produced and presented for working-class audiences. (Statement)

The publication had five issues in the early 1930s and was edited by Seymour Stern and Lewis Jacobs. It served as a critical voice in the discourse around both European and American art film. (Horak 5) It was difficult to find film sources in the library that dealt specifically with experimental cinema but I found most early cinema had the same tools and techniques. Like any other art form there were tensions and issues with censorship but overall the impact of the movies was never questioned and it remains a major industry today.

The main issue I had was with the portrayal of art films as “other” in the context of American film history. Before the institutionalization of Hollywood and the emergence of predictable, formulaic genres, people were drawn to films simply because they moved. Throughout film’s development, entrepreneurs, directors, actors and businessmen have all left their mark and in return the movies make marks on them.

Our identities as Americans have been heavily shaped by the movies we watch and yet they remain as simple as they ever were, photographs that moved, plays that were filmed, or the story from a book or a person’s life brought to the screen. Through the years many people have loved, hated, censored and criticized movies and their effects on young people and the culture in general but the movies always grow and change with us, showing us how we should look, what we should do and how we should feel. The power of the movies is in their reception and in America we truly want to believe that what happens in them is real.

Primary Sources

Autumn Fire, DVD, directed by Herman G. Weinberg (1931; New York, NY: Kino on Video, 2005).

The Birth of A Nation, DVD, directed by D.W. Griffith (1915; New York, NY: Kino on Video, 2002).

Even As You and I, directed by Roger Barlow, Harry Hay and LeRoy Robbins (1937; New York, NY: Kino on Video, 2005).

“Exporting an Imaginary America to Make Money,” New York Times, Jul 30, 1911.
ProQuest Historical Newspapers, The New York Times (1851 – 2006) p. SM4.

Gilbert Seldes, The Movies Come From America (London: B.T. Bratsford LTD), 1937

Charlie Chaplin, “Introduction,” pp. v-vi.

“Statement,” Experimental Cinema, 1930-1934, (New York, Arno Press, 1969).

George Amberg, “Introduction,” pp. iii-iv.

Secondary Sources

Jan-Christopher Horak, “Avant-Garde Film,” History of the American Cinema, 5 (New York: Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1993), pp. 387-404. Gale Virtual Reference Library (accessed December 16, 2009).
Sharon S. Kleinman and Daniel G. McDonald, “Silent Film and the Socialization of American Immigrants: Lessons form an Old New Medium,” Journal of American & Comparative Cultures, 23 [3] (2000) pp.79-87. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (accessed October 25, 2009).

Steven J. Ross, “Struggles for the Screen: Workers, Radicals, and the Political Uses of Silent Film,” American Historical Review, 96 [2] (1991) pp. 333-367. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (accessed October 25, 2009).

Thomas C. Carlson, “Biographical Warfare: Silent Film and the Public Image of Poe,” Mississippi Quarterly, 52 [1] 5-16. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (accessed October 29, 2009).


2 thoughts on “Early American Film: 1915-1937

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