The Impact of Motion Pictures on Society

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: TURNING POINTS IN MODERN HISTORY

By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee

What was the impact of motion pictures on society? How did the audience or common people connect with motion pictures? Why was it a turning point in modern history? How did it impact how humans viewed themselves and the world around them? Read on to find answers to these intriguing questions.

Photograph of school boys on their way to watch motion pictures in November 1912.
School boys of all ages on the way to watch motion pictures in November 1912. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The invention of motion pictures in the late 19th century was a revolutionary development that went global. The impact of this medium that captured the imagination of people across the world was tremendous. It had a huge bearing on the way people viewed themselves and the world around them. While the special effects of Méliès inspired people to dream, the waves seen in the Vaudeville theater through the Vitascope by Thomas Edison mirrored reality.

In the early years of its development, cinema was uniquely accessible to the audience worldwide as it was silent. Though the basic reason why movies went global remained the same, each society had its own conventions to watch a film. For instance, in Japan, the narrator was called ‘benshi’ and was an integral part of the movie. He explained to the audience what the movie was all about, and sometimes even offered comments on the movie. In Brazil, a kind of hybrid form evolved where singers, from behind the screen, sang the parts of musicals that were silent.

Learn more about the invention of motion pictures.

Celebrity Cult and the Dream Factory of Hollywood

As cinema gained acceptance worldwide, stars like Mary Pickford, Buster Keaton, Bela Lugosi, and slapstick comedian Charlie Chaplin became recognizable to millions of people across the globe. By 1918, Chaplin, who was already a superstar, earned a salary of a million dollars a year. This was quite different from an earlier era when even kings were not easily recognizable. The influence of motion pictures was so strong that it created the celebrity cult, a global level of fame that was previously unseen.

Eventually, the films produced in the dream factory of Hollywood in southern California were screened around the world. The screening took place in some of the beautiful theaters of the world that were created to resemble Alhambra or Babylonian temples.

Democratizing Impact of Motion Pictures

Photograph of British comedian Charlie Chaplin as Tramp.
Charlie Chaplin became one of the most recognized faces around the world. (Image: P.D Jankens/Public domain)

Charlie Chaplin was the finest example of a star who showed that movies could have a democratizing aspect. Apart from using comedy as an entertainment tool, Chaplin also used it as a social and political tool.

Chaplin’s distinctive character Tramp, with a disheveled and anarchic personality, was embraced by the viewers as they could connect with the character. Another role of Chaplin in 1936, as a little guy who struggled to survive in a fast-paced, inhuman, technological society, in the comic film Modern Times, was also well received by his audience.

Many other comedies also poked fun at authority similarly, like the Keystone Kops series.

This celebration of the common man with theatrical comedy and physical slapstick proved the influence of motion pictures in delivering a democratizing message to the masses.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Motion Pictures as a Medium to Escape

The broad idea of movies in the initial days was to offer people escapism from their day-to-day activities. The theatres of early days made no segregation of seats based on class or price. They were equally accessible to both the rich and the poor.

They also exhibited a wide range of movies as the idea was to provide a medium to immerse oneself in new stories. Movies provided a therapeutic distraction to millions of Americans who looked for escapism during the Great Depression. By 1930, around 90 million Americans were watching at least one movie in a week.

Learn more about the rise of social media.

Speculation about New Ways of Living

Cinema gave people the space to dream and speculate about their future. Several genres of movies, such as comedy, social dramas, westerns, horror films, action pictures, science fiction, and animation mushroomed. Of these, science fiction films were well thought out experiments that used special effects to invoke ideas about the future.

To illustrate with just one example, consider the science fiction of British writer H.G. Wells. The film version of his book The Shape of Things to Come, directed by Cameron Menzies, is considered one of the ten greatest movies ever. In his book, Wells predicted a cataclysmic world war and then imagined a new world order beyond the Westphalian model of sovereignty, a one-world administration. The 1933 film with its powerful images conveyed this idea quite effectively and kindled people’s imagination about new ways of living.

Impact of Motion Pictures as Propaganda Tools

Photograph of Hitler congratulating Nazi propagandist motion picture director Leni Riefenstahl in 1934.
Hitler congratulating Nazi
propagandist motion picture director
Leni Riefenstahl in 1934.
(Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R99035/CC BY-SA 3.0 DE/Public domain)

The Nazis were quite aware of the impact motion pictures could have to further their political agendas. The totalitarian state of the Nazis looked at cinema as a medium for controlling the opinion of the masses. Directors such as Leni Riefenstahl created movies that celebrated the Nazi vision of a racially united Germany, including the wicked propaganda masterpiece of 1935, Triumph of the Will, and a record of the Nazi Olympics in Berlin. The Nazis were adept at using the propagandist power of cinema as a means to achieve their political ambitions.

Similarly, the Bolsheviks, under their leader Vladimir Lenin, used cinema as a medium to unite the huge illiterate masses and spread their revolutionary ideas. Lenin was quick to recognize the power of cinema as a medium of effective propaganda. He declared, “Of all the arts, cinema is the most important for us.”

Learn more about the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Ethics of Motion Pictures

While celebrities were idolized and celebrated, they were also criticized for being a threat to traditional culture. In fact, from the very beginning, films also brought in moral dilemmas with them as people from diverse backgrounds mingled. Further, Edison’s movie on a couple kissing was a really saucy sensation during its times. Blockbusters such as D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation were popular, but at the same time controversial and blatantly racist.

Thus, the role of motion pictures as a medium of communication and its lasting effect on the psyche of commoners is not a recent development but one that has been around since the time movies were set in motion.

Common Questions About The Impact of Motion Pictures on Society

Q: What was social realism of Russia?

Social realism was the portrayal of a perfect society that the Soviet Union was evolving into. When Stalin came to power in 1934, all artists, including filmmakers, had to follow the dictum. As a result, motion pictures were filmed on specific formula of ‘boy meets tractor’, ‘boy falls in love with tractor’, ‘boy and tractor build socialism together’, and so on.

Q: Who was Tramp?

The Tramp was Charlie Chaplin’s most memorable on-screen character. In the era of silent films, Tramp was an icon that the lay people connected to. The Tramp was also the title of the silent movie written and directed by Charlie Chaplin in 1915.

Q: What did H.G.Wells predict in his book The Shape of Things to Come?

In his book The Shape of Things to Come, Wells predicted a cataclysmic world war and then imagined a new world order beyond the Westphalian model of sovereignty, a one-world administration. The 1933 film with its powerful images conveyed this idea quite effectively and kindled people’s imagination about new ways of living.

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