Ah, the Oscars are upon us yet again. It’s hard to believe, but this year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hits the big nine-oh, which is a pretty impressive milestone. Speaking of milestones, I think it would be great if the Academy added the “First” category, a special award given to films that dare to be new or unique. There have been quite a few motion pictures throughout cinema history that have taken movie-making to the next level. Some of them, like Snow White, are recognized by the Academy, but a lot of times they aren’t for various reasons, such as a heavyweight blockbuster sweeping the big awards. Or they may just fly under the radar. To be fair, some of them came out before there was an Academy Awards ceremony, but that doesn’t diminish their significance. Anyway, without further ado, here are a few films worthy of a “First”…
First Movie With Multiple Shots: Come Along, Do! (1898)
Well, two shots to be precise. Directed by British filmmaker, R.W. Paul, Come Along, Do! is nothing more than an elderly couple having lunch and visiting a museum, but it marked one of the first times that a film had more than one scene in the same reel. Before that, each scene was sold or rented separately to theater owners. According to the British Film Institute, only one of the two scenes in this film survive, the second represented by stills. Come Along, Do! is easily accessible on YouTube and is definitely worth a view.
First Science Fiction Movie: A Trip To the Moon (1902)
Anyone who’s ever seen the movie, Hugo, is no doubt familiar with Georges Melies’s (very) early twentieth-century tour-de-force, and anyone who hasn’t is in for a treat. Moon has everything we expect from a sci-fi flick: explosions, space travel, aliens, and most importantly, suspension of disbelief. Speaking of the latter, the space travelers in this film are able to go to the moon and back without rocket propulsion. They can get around the moon just fine sans space suits. And their fancy Edwardian frock coats never get mussed, no matter how many scuffles they have with moon-people. It never gets old.
First Action Movie: The Great Train Robbery (1903)
The Great Train Robbery is an Edwin Porter film produced by the Edison company, and its title says it all: Some guys get together, pull their kerchiefs over their faces, and rob a train. It was one of the first American movies to follow a narrative arc, and the first action movie as we know them. Robbery covers all the bases. Kinda. Hostages, heists, hijinks, not to mention throwing Momma from the train. Except it isn’t Momma, but a dummy. It even breaks the fourth wall. And it crams it all into twelve memorable minutes. I can only imagine what it was like for audiences to see this film in 1903, considering they weren’t nearly as jaded as we are over a century later.
First Epic: Birth of A Nation (1915)
Ugh. I wish any movie but The Birth of A Nation could have been the first epic. Any movie at all. Orphans of the Storm. He Who Gets Slapped. Foolish Wives. Not The Birth of A Nation. I tried watching this thing in college and barely made it halfway through. It is brazenly revisionist, racist, and repulsive (Heh. More alliteration.), with a glowing portrayal of the KKK. Still, it makes the cut because D.W. Griffith pioneered modern transitioning, close-ups, inserts, and how to make a crowd of hundreds look like a cast of thousands–basically everything that’s still done in film-making. Too bad there are all those bright, shiny Klansmen running around.
UPDATE (March 3): Mmmkay, 2017 must be the year for award flubs. I was reading Fritzi Kramer’s blog today and she happened to mention that The Birth Of A Nation was not the first epic. This is correct–the first one was Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria, an Italian film released in 1914. The film paved the way for what Griffith would later do, and was a major influence on his film, Intolerance. So…oops. My bad. Sorry, Mr. Griffith.
First Full-length Talkie: Lights of New York (1928)
While The Jazz Singer is rightly touted as the first talking picture, in reality it was only a few musical numbers and a little bit of dialogue inserted into a silent movie. Studios weren’t sure if talking pictures were merely a fad or not, and New York was originally intended to be a two-reeler. However, the cast and crew quietly expanded the movie until it was just under an hour long, and the public ate it up, even if the critics didn’t. The film seems crude and awkward by today’s standards, as most of the scenes confine the actors around (presumably) hidden microphones, but the novelty factor is off the charts.
First Musical: Broadway Melody (1929)
M-G-M further upped the talkie ante with their all talking, all singing, all dancing extravaganza about two sisters who try to make it on Broadway. Even though the acting is not so good and there are some silent-era holdovers like intertitles, this film marked both talkies and musicals coming into their own. Unlike Lights of New York, however, Broadway Melody really was a feature-length film, and scenes suddenly had much more vista instead of actors just huddling around a microphone. Also unlike New York, critics and public alike loved Broadway. The film garnered a Best Picture Oscar.
First Integrated Musical Film: The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The Wizard of Oz is a “First”no-brainer. It broke a lot of untrodden ground in terms of special effects and makeup, among other factors, but its format may have been the most major move. Prior to The Wizard of Oz, musical films were primarily revues or backstage stories with a selection of random numbers. Wizard moves between music and dialogue seamlessly, due to the efforts of its lyricist E.Y. Harburg, who had initially used rhyming dialogue to set up his songs on Broadway. It’s tough to imagine this movie being done any other way and coming off as well. Wizard won Best Song and Best Score Oscars, and Judy got her Juvenile Oscar, but some think it would have won more if Gone With the Wind hadn’t dominated the proceedings.
First Feature-length Cartoon: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
In 1937, film industry insiders thought no one would pay movie ticket prices to see a cartoon. Well, Snow White proved that idea wrong, to the tune of $3.5 million gross in its original release, or $58.6 million in today’s money. Not only did Snow White go off-road in terms of length, but it featured realistic movement and graceful, lilting songs throughout instead of flip-floppy strutting and little jingles. It was warmly received by everyone and Disney won an honorary full-sized Oscar for it, along with seven tiny ones. It also, of course, inspired M-G-M to produce The Wizard of Oz. Eighty years later, Snow White is as beloved and charming as ever.
First Movie To Revive Symphonic Scores: Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
The first-ever Star Wars movie has so many firsts to its credit. It jolted the film industry and the movie-going public out of what had been a long lethargy, and it single-handedly made symphonic scores cool again. The majority of movies released in the early to mid-seventies used rock music or pretty much phoned it in when it came to scoring, and John Williams’s iconic theme and variations made everyone sit up and take notice. In addition to punctuating the action, it aided in character development. Try listening to the “Imperial March” and not thinking of Darth Vader. I dare ya. 😉 Star Wars took home seven Oscars, including Best Music, Original Score.
First Widescreen Movie to Use Close-ups: Ben-Hur (1959)
This, in my humble opinion, is the best version of Ben-Hur. Every element came together fabulously. The music and the action soar, the acting is fantastic, and the chariot race is quite a spectacle. However, the other big way Ben-Hur is a game-changer is that, according to film historian Bruce Crawford, it is the first widescreen movie to use close-ups. A lot of Golden Era directors hated widescreen–George Cukor said it was like filming through a coffin–and the prevailing sentiment was that close-ups would be oppressive in that format. William Wyler’s cinematographer, Robert Surteez, decided to show ’em how, and was awarded an Oscar for his work–one of eleven won by the film.
First Movie To Be Shot Digitally: Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002)
Yes, another Star Wars entry. People can say they will about the prequels, but Clones has the distinction of being fully in the Digital Age. Mr. Lucas does have the knack of being a trendsetter…
First Movie to Show Ceilings…And Use Deep Focus…And Extreme Close-ups…And…: Citizen Kane (1941)
Okay, be honest–this pick is a total shock, right? Right? Nah. Seriously though, Citizen Kane is the movie that every film studies student watches in at least one class, and for one excellent reason: It. Kicks. Tail. This movie changed everything about American cinema by combining German expressionism with Orson Welles’s unique vision, and the studios were scared spitless. After all, Welles was the guy who fooled almost the entire nation with a little radio play called War of the Worlds. Plus, the executives didn’t want to incur the wrath of one William Randolph Hearst, who didn’t like that the film seemed to be based on him. That the movie was ever released to the public is amazing, and the fact that it won Best Screenplay is nothing short of a miracle. History has vindicated Welles, though, whose Kane will forever be the compass of American filmmaking.
Which movie would you give a “First” award to? If you could add a category to the Academy Awards, what would it be?
Here’s a sneak peek of what’s coming up in March, and it’s gonna be biz-ee.
Yup. Two blogathons. Six posts. If anyone’s interested in getting in on these, please visit Phyllis Loves Classic Movies and In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, respectively. See you on March third!