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A “short” history on Hollywood

In the first decade of the 20th century, it was obvious to anyone who had seen a film or heard about moving pictures that this new form of entertainment was a blockbuster invention!

The first commercially produced “movie” is cited as a public screening of ten short films by the Lumière brothers in 1895 at the Grand Café in Paris; however, movies didn’t become commercially available to American audiences until 1905, when John P. Harris and Harry Davis opened a five-cents-admission movie theater in a Pittsburgh storefront they called the Nickelodeon, considered the first type of indoor exhibition space dedicated to showing projected motion pictures in the United States and Canada. Usually set up in converted storefronts, these small, simple theaters flourished from about 1905 to 1915. By 1908, there were thousands of storefront Nickelodeons, Gems, and Bijous across North America charging the public five cents to go to the movies.

With new movie houses cropping up across the country, the demand for a continuous stream of new films turned an intriguing invention into a burgeoning industry. By the end of the first decade, American filmmakers, who were mainly operating out of big east coast and central US cities, began a migration to southern California, drawn by cheap land and labor, the ready accessibility of varied scenery, and a climate ideal for year-round outdoor filming. By the early 1920s, Hollywood had become the world’s film capital, producing virtually all films shown in the United States and receiving 80 percent of the revenue from films shown abroad. By the middle of the decade, 50 million people a week went to the movies – the equivalent of half the nation’s population.

While the earliest films were in black and white, under a minute long, without recorded sound, and consisted of a single shot from a steady camera, it did not take long for new inventions to refine and upgrade the motion picture experience with the addition of sound.

For decades, engineers had searched for a practical technology to add synchronized recorded sound to the movies but the film industry showed remarkably little interest in filmmaking with sound, despite the growing popularity of radio. Hollywood feared the high cost of converting its production and exhibition to sound technology, yet Warner Brothers, a struggling industry newcomer established in 1923, thought sound might be just what they needed to compete with their larger rivals.

In 1926, Warner Brothers released the film Don Juan–the first film with a synchronized film score–along with a program of talking shorts. The popularity of The Jazz Singer, which was released the following year, erased any doubts about the popular appeal of sound, and within a year, 300 theaters were wired for sound. As a result, movie attendance jumped from 50 million a week in the mid-20s to 110 million in 1929 when what is known as The Silent Era of Hollywood came to an end.

Synchronized sound and then ‘talkies’ were major disruptors in Hollywood. Silent film stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Lillian Gish, Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, and Mary Pickford that dominated movie screens in the 1910s and 20s were soon displaced in favor of actors and actresses that could not only act but sounded good on screen. Stars like Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn, Loretta Young, and Greta Garbo were now the marquee names driving ticket sales as Hollywood entered the 1930s, known as The Golden Age of Hollywood.

The next technology disruptor in Hollywood was based on the invention of the Technicolor Camera by Danish-American inventor August Plahn in 1932. In the black and white world of life on the big screen, the Technicolor camera added a whole new colorful dimension to the movies.

According to the National Museum of American History, reproducing natural color on film had been an industry goal since the earliest days of motion picture production, but it took several decades to perfect a technology for making movies in color. Plahn’s patented invention was for a camera and projector that split motion picture images through three color lenses using 70mm film. While Plahn had little success marketing his inventions, the Boston-based Technicolor Corporation effectively marketed their similar technology to become the industry standard. With that, color became the norm, and black & white, an artform.

Today, Hollywood is an economic engine that, as an industry, generated $95.45 billion in revenue in 2022 despite the impact of COVID on filmmaking, movie theaters, and a shift in where and how the public gets their movie fix. Through our isolation, movies were one of our few escapes and pleasures, as they were during the Depression and war years.

Our enduring love of the movies is also the catalyst behind a popular and escalating-in-value Hollywood memorabilia market, which encompasses everything from movie posters to signed photos, costumes, props, sketches, film scripts, film reels, and advertising and marketing-related ephemera. Movie lovers are drawn to the prospect of owning or collecting items from their favorite films and Hollywood stars. In this era of “New Hollywood,” our appreciation for the art of filmmaking and the glamour of Hollywood’s Golden Era only shines brighter at auction and keeps us going back to the movies, and re-watching our favorites on video and TV.

And since a picture is worth a thousand words, starting with this issue, our digital issues will now allow you to click through and watch YouTube videos where you can learn more about the feature stories we share. Also with this issue, we introduce two new monthly columns to our pages: “Collector’s Lane” by Ruby Lane, which looks at items and collections of collectible pieces, and “Toys From the Attic” by Doug Kelly, which provides the history and market perspective on collectible toys. We also welcome Wayne Tuiskula (MA License # 2591) of Central Mass Auctions to our pages, who has taken over the “What’s Selling on eBay?” column from Mike McLeod.
See you at the movies!