By Kenneth Turan
Times Staff Writer
May 21, 2006
Think of the movie business for a moment not as an entertainment enterprise but as an enormous cargo ship. Turning on a dime is not this vessel's specialty; even attempting to change direction is a herculean task that may take a while to show results.
But there have been moments in Hollywood history when the opposite has happened, when lightning has struck and films have come around that so shattered existing paradigms that change was inevitable. The question is: Which films are they?
For one of the secrets that historians would rather not talk about is that their field is as much about theories as it is about facts, as much about suppositions concerning significant events as it is about places and dates.
What that means specifically is that no two lists of 10 films that changed Hollywood are going to be the same. The one offered here is no exception: It has some obvious choices and some decidedly eccentric ones.
Other people will point to different changes as being more important, or to different films to emphasize the changes I've identified. It matters not; that's just the way the game is played.
It's also important to point out that naming a film as one that changed Hollywood doesn't necessarily mean it was any good or that audiences would enjoy watching it today. Something influential is not necessarily perennially entertaining, and vice versa.
In chronological order, my list is:
'The Great Train Robbery'
Shot in New Jersey, not Hollywood (which was still a few years away from movie production), this Edward S. Porter effort is considered, along with the director's earlier "Life of an American Fireman," to be the first film to make creative use of editing by cutting back and forth between parallel actions. An argument could also be made for it as the new medium's first western, its first major hit and the source of its first memorable shock moment: A cowboy in close-up fires a pistol directly at the audience. Not bad for 12 minutes of screen time.
Though we tend to self-centeredly think that all significant and influential films are American, that has been far from the case, especially in the years before World War I shattered Europe's film industries. Along with the earlier "Quo Vadis," this three-hour Italian adventure opened America's eyes to the possibility of spectacular epic filmmaking. Filled with sequences like Hannibal's crossing of the Alps and making early use of tracking shots, "Cabiria" became a hit in New York and was the first film to be shown at the White House.
'The Birth of a Nation'
Its execrable and enduringly painful racism notwithstanding, D.W. Griffith's epic take on the Civil War and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan became an influential landmark not only because of its unprecedented scope, ambition and technique but also because it showed that the infant medium could have a social impact and get away with charging the then-unheard-of admission price of $2 a seat.
'The Jazz Singer'
Contrary to popular belief, individuals had sung on screen before this celebrated film and Al Jolson had even said his trademark "You ain't heard nothin' yet" on a Vitaphone short a full year earlier. And "Jazz Singer's" sound on disc technology was soon replaced by sound on film. But this was the first film where the spontaneous use of sound so completely captured the public's imagination that a return to the days of completely silent pictures was out of the question.
Color in the form of hand-tinted frames had been around almost as long as projected films, and audiences had loved Disney's full-color Silly Symphonies cartoons and the studio's 1934 color short "La Cucaracha." It fell to this dramatization of William Makepeace Thackeray's "Vanity Fair," starring an unstoppable Miriam Hopkins in the title role, to become the first full-length production to be filmed in glowing three-strip Technicolor. Black-and-white never went completely away, but once color caught the public fancy, there was no stopping it.
It would be misleading to call this Richard Burton-Jean Simmons-Victor Mature drama about the events surrounding the Crucifixion the "Passion of the Christ" of its day, but now that I've got your attention, you should know that this was the first film in CinemaScope and the centerpiece of Hollywood's fascination with wide screen as a way to combat the inroads television had made into the box office. In a dig at rival 3-D movies, theater marquees proclaimed "The Modern Entertainment Miracle You See Without the Use of Glasses."
'I Was a Teen-age Werewolf'
"They laughed when I turned the projectors on to show 'I Was a Teen-age Werewolf' back in 1957," Samuel Z. Arkoff wrote in his autobiography. "But when the cash registers started ringing, all of Hollywood took notice." And how. As co-founder of American International Pictures, Arkoff was the first to recognize the spending power of the teenage audience, which he catered to with numerous horror and beach pictures ("Beach Party" was the first of many to star Frankie Avalon and comely former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello). As a look at any weekend's box office statistics shows, for better or worse, we are still living in Sam's World.
Once upon a time, even the most popular films had platformed releases, starting in major cities and working their way around the country. "Jaws" changed all that. It's generally considered to be the first major film to open in what's now known as wide release (though a persuasive case can also be made for 1971's "Billy Jack"), opening on an impressive 400-plus screens nationwide and ending up with a $100-million-plus gross. "Jaws" also began the studio's fixation on the opening weekend gross as the be-all and end-all of a film's success, an addiction that shows no sign of letting up.
This Disney science fiction film was so shellacked when it was released that it almost seemed as if its title might be Klingon for "fiasco." But as the first feature to put computer-generated visuals on the screen, "Tron" is having the last laugh. As Pixar guru John Lasseter told me in a 1999 interview, "What excited me was not the images, it was that for the first time there was a dimensionality to them. There were shadows, there was shading, you could move a camera in and around objects with the kind of control that was incredible. At the Disney studio, Walt had always strived to get more dimension in animation with a multipoint camera, he wanted a little bit more depth, and when I saw this I immediately said, 'This is it, this is the tool we've been looking for.' "
'sex, lies, and videotape'
When these unheralded films made a ton of money and won Cannes' prestigious Palme d'Or in their respective years, they jointly announced the arrival of the American independent movement as both a box office and cultural force. Today every major studio has its independent division and independent films win major Oscars as often as not. Not every change in Hollywood is a good one (sorry, Sam), but the rise of the independents has got to be the most hopeful sign out of the business in the last 20 years. Would that there were more of them.