Go far enough back into movie history, and you can’t trust dates; or much of anything else, for that matter. Still, the best I’ve been able to come up with is that 23 February, 1914, was the date that The Squaw Man opened. And traditionally – Lord knows if tradition has much of anything to do with reality – The Squaw Man was the first feature-length film shot in the suburban wilderness known as Hollywood, California, a neighborhood of the growing city of Los Angeles.
Whether that’s true or not, it makes for a convenient signpost. Let us call this date the centennial of the Hollywood feature.
(Of course, the short/feature distinction meant something very different in the 1910s, and were I honest at all, I’d be walking us through this conversation on the 100th anniversary of the first film shot in Hollywood: D.W. Griffith’s In Old California from spring of 1910. The reason why I’m not is pathetically simple: I didn’t think to research the dates until the autumn of 2011).
With that being the case, and with Antagony & Ecstasy being always up for arbitrary games and marathons, it pleases me to announce that 2014 is hereafter to be set up as an investigation, celebration, and critique of the Hollywood feature as it has changed and evolved for better and for worse over the 100 years of its existence. During that time, the American film as artform and industry moved from being centered in New York to being centered in Los Angeles; it grew from being one of several distinctly identifiable national cinemas in the 1910s and ’20s to being the dominant template for narrative cinema throughout the entire world. This is not, by any means, an unambiguously good thing; nor even an ambiguously good one. But that makes it no less important to study the evolution of that style over the years and decades as it found its present shape.
Tonight begins a chronological survey, kicking off with the 100-year-old The Squaw Man itself; a survey that’s necessarily arbitrary and limited in focus, but hopefully no less useful and interesting because of it. Every few days, without a set schedule (other than to have it wrapped up by Christmas), I’m going to step forward one year, and pluck up one example of Hollywood filmmaking from that period. Sometimes it will be a well-loved consensus classic, and sometimes a lost masterpiece. Sometimes an ill-made but important signpost in the course of mainstream cinema history, sometimes a forgotten piece of commercial junk food. Directors from the greatest auteurs to the most ignoble hacks (never more than one appearance each), and every studio of significance I can fit will show up along the way. I flatter, such a catholic approach to what constitutes representative Hollywood filmmaking will allow me to sketch a broader picture of how the industry has operated and how it has wished to present itself than a simple “greatest hits” tour could permit.
If my knowledge of certain periods, or mere availability of older films, makes it harder for me to avoid the obvious titles by the obvious filmmakers starring the obvious actors, I make no defense for my limitations other than to acknowledge that they exist. I also point out that this project is intended to be more about inspiring others to join in their own historical inquiries into the evolution of the Hollywood film, than about lecturing and presenting my own conclusions as definitive. We live in a world, after all, where from Los Angeles itself down to small towns on every continent, Hollywood’s priorities dictate how popular cinema is made and experienced, and having a good idea of how those priorities came to be fixed is of utmost value for anyone who believes that the intersection of humans and their art is a matter of importance.