Classical Hollywood cinema

Last updated

Classical Hollywood cinema
Bogart Bergman Casablanca.jpg
Years active1910s–1960s
CountryUnited States
Major figuressee List of people and films from Classical Hollywood cinema

Classical Hollywood cinema is a term used in film criticism to describe both a narrative and visual style of filmmaking which became characteristic of American cinema between the 1910s (rapidly after World War I) and the 1960s. [4] It eventually became the most powerful and pervasive style of filmmaking worldwide. [5] Similar or associated terms include classical Hollywood narrative, the Golden Age of Hollywood, Old Hollywood, and classical continuity. [6]


Development of the classical style

Early narrative film (1894–1913)

For centuries the only visual standard of narrative storytelling art was the theatre. Since the first narrative films in the mid-late 1890s, filmmakers sought to capture the power of live theatre on the cinema screen. Most of these filmmakers started as directors on the late 19th century stage, and likewise most film actors had roots in vaudeville (eg. The Marx Brothers [7] ) or theatrical melodramas. Visually, early narrative films had adapted little from the stage, and their narratives had adapted very little from vaudeville and melodrama. Before the visual style which would become known as "classical continuity", scenes were filmed in full shot and used carefully choreographed staging to portray plot and character relationships. Cutting was extremely limited, and mostly consisted of close-ups of writing on objects for their legibility.

Maturation of the silents (1913–late 1920s)

The Mothering Heart screenshot The Mothering Heart.jpg
The Mothering Heart screenshot
Theatrical release poster for Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) Ben-Hur-1925.jpg
Theatrical release poster for Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)

Though lacking the reality inherent to the stage, film (unlike stage) offers the freedom to manipulate apparent time and space, and thus to create the illusion of realism – that is temporal linearity and spatial continuity. By the early 1910s, filmmaking was beginning to fulfill its artistic potential. In Sweden and Denmark, this period would later be known as a "Golden Age" of film; in America, this artistic change is attributed to filmmakers like D. W. Griffith finally breaking the grip of the Edison Trust to make films independent of the manufacturing monopoly. Films worldwide began to noticeably adopt visual and narrative elements which would be found in classical Hollywood cinema. 1913 was a particularly fruitful year for the medium, as pioneering directors from several countries produced masterpieces such as The Mothering Heart (D. W. Griffith), Ingeborg Holm (Victor Sjöström), and L'enfant de Paris (Léonce Perret) that set new standards for film as a form of storytelling. It was also the year when Yevgeni Bauer (the first true film artist, according to Georges Sadoul [8] ) started his short, but prolific, career. [9]

In the world generally and America specifically, the influence of Griffith on filmmaking was unmatched. Equally influential were his actors in adapting their performances to the new medium. Lillian Gish, the star of The Mothering Heart, is particularly noted for her influence on screen performance techniques. Griffith's 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation was ground-breaking for film as a means of storytelling – a masterpiece of literary narrative with numerous innovative visual techniques. The film initiated so many advances in American cinema that it was rendered obsolete within a few years. [10] Though 1913 was a global landmark for filmmaking, 1917 was primarily an American one; the era of "classical Hollywood cinema" is distinguished by a narrative and visual style which began to dominate the film medium in America by 1917. [11]

Classical Hollywood cinema in the sound era (late 1920s–1960s)

The narrative and visual style of classical Hollywood style developed further after the transition to sound-film production. The primary changes in American filmmaking came from the film industry itself, with the height of the studio system. This mode of production, with its reigning star system promoted by several key studios, [12] had preceded sound by several years. By mid-1920, most of the prominent American directors and actors, who had worked independently since the early 1910s, had to become a part of the new studio system to continue to work.

The beginning of the sound era itself is ambiguously defined. To some, it began with The Jazz Singer , which was released in 1927, and increased box-office profits for films as sound was introduced to feature films. [13] To others, the era began in 1929, when the silent age had definitively ended. [14] Most Hollywood pictures from the late 1920s to 1960s adhered closely to a genre – Western, slapstick comedy, musical, animated cartoon, and biopic (biographical picture) – and the same creative teams often worked on films made by the same studio. For instance, Cedric Gibbons and Herbert Stothart always worked on MGM films; Alfred Newman worked at 20th Century Fox for twenty years; Cecil B. DeMille's films were almost all made at Paramount Pictures; [15] and director Henry King's films were mostly made for Twentieth Century Fox. Similarly, actors were mostly contract players. Film historians and critics note that it took about a decade for films to adapt to sound and return to the level of artistic quality of the silents, which it did in the late 1930s.

Many great works of cinema that emerged from this period were of highly regimented filmmaking. One reason this was possible is that, with so many films being made, not every one had to be a big hit. A studio could gamble on a medium-budget feature with a good script and relatively unknown actors. This was the case with Citizen Kane (1941), directed by Orson Welles and regarded by some as the greatest film of all time. Other strong-willed directors, like Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Frank Capra, battled the studios in order to achieve their artistic visions. The apogee of the studio system may have been the year 1939, which saw the release of such classics as Gone with the Wind , The Wizard of Oz , The Hunchback of Notre Dame , Stagecoach , Mr. Smith Goes to Washington , Destry Rides Again , Young Mr. Lincoln , Wuthering Heights , Only Angels Have Wings , Ninotchka , Beau Geste , Babes in Arms , Gunga Din , The Women , Goodbye, Mr. Chips , and The Roaring Twenties . [16]


The visual-narrative style of classical Hollywood cinema as elaborated by David Bordwell, [17] was heavily influenced by the ideas of the Renaissance and its resurgence of mankind as the focal point. It is distinguished at three general levels: devices, systems, and the relations of systems.


The devices most inherent to classical Hollywood cinema are those of continuity editing. This includes the 180-degree rule, one of the major visual-spatial elements of continuity editing. The 180-degree rule keeps with the "photographed play" style by creating an imaginary 180-degree axis between the viewer and the shot, allowing viewers to clearly orient themselves within the position and direction of action in a scene. According to the 30-degree rule, cuts in the angle that the scene is viewed from must be significant enough for the viewer to understand the purpose of a change in perspective. Cuts that do not adhere to the 30-degree rule, known as jump cuts, are disruptive to the illusion of temporal continuity between shots. The 180-degree and 30-degree rules are elementary guidelines in filmmaking that preceded the official start of the classical era by over a decade, as seen in the pioneering 1902 French film A Trip to the Moon . Cutting techniques in classical continuity editing serve to help establish or maintain continuity, as in the cross cut, which establishes the concurrence of action in different locations. Jump cuts are allowed in the form of the axial cut, which does not change the angle of shooting at all, but has the clear purpose of showing a perspective closer or farther from the subject, and therefore does not interfere with temporal continuity. [18]


Narrative logic

Classical narration progresses always through psychological motivation, i.e., by the will of a human character and its struggle with obstacles towards a defined goal. This narrative element is commonly composed of a primary narrative (e.g. a romance) intertwined with a secondary narrative or narratives. This narrative is structured with an unmistakable beginning, middle and end, and generally there is a distinct resolution. Utilizing actors, events, causal effects, main points, and secondary points are basic characteristics of this type of narrative. The characters in classical Hollywood cinema have clearly definable traits, are active, and very goal oriented. They are causal agents motivated by psychological rather than social concerns. [5] The narrative is a chain of cause and effect with the characters being the causal agents – in classical style, events do not occur randomly.

Cinematic time

Time in classical Hollywood is continuous, linear, and uniform, since non-linearity calls attention to the illusory workings of the medium. The only permissible manipulation of time in this format is the flashback. It is mostly used to introduce a memory sequence of a character, e. g., Casablanca . [19]

Cinematic space

The greatest rule of classical continuity regarding space is object permanence: the viewer must believe that the scene exists outside the shot of the cinematic frame to maintain the picture's realism. The treatment of space in classical Hollywood strives to overcome or conceal the two-dimensionality of film ("invisible style") and is strongly centered upon the human body. The majority of shots in a classical film focus on gestures or facial expressions (medium-long and medium shots). André Bazin once compared classical film to a photographed play in that the events seem to exist objectively and that cameras only give us the best view of the whole play. [20]

This treatment of space consists of four main aspects: centering, balancing, frontality, and depth. Persons or objects of significance are mostly in the center part of the picture frame and never out of focus. Balancing refers to the visual composition, i. e., characters are evenly distributed throughout the frame. The action is subtly addressed towards the spectator (frontality) and set, lighting (mostly three-point lighting, especially high-key lighting), and costumes are designed to separate foreground from the background (depth).

Relations of systems

The aspects of space and time are subordinated to the narrative element.


This style of cinema is not without its critics, ranging from racial stereotypes (especially of African Americans) [21] [22] to the lack of realism which resulted in a more realistic post-WWII cinema. [23] [24] [25]


The New Hollywood of the 1960s–70s was influenced by the romanticism of the classical era, [26] as was the French New Wave. [27]

See also

Related Research Articles

Film editing Creative and technical part of the post-production process of filmmaking

Film editing is both a creative and a technical part of the post-production process of filmmaking. The term is derived from the traditional process of working with film which increasingly involves the use of digital technology.

Mise-en-scène is the stage design and arrangement of actors in scenes for a theatre or film production, both in visual arts through storyboarding, visual theme, and cinematography, and in narrative storytelling through direction. The term is also commonly used to refer to single scenes that are representative of a film. Mise-en-scène has been called film criticism's "grand undefined term".

Italian neorealism National film movement

Italian neorealism, also known as the Golden Age, is a national film movement characterized by stories set amongst the poor and the working class, filmed on location, and frequently using non-professional actors. Italian neorealism films mostly contend with the difficult economic and moral conditions of post-World War II Italy, representing changes in the Italian psyche and conditions of everyday life, including poverty, oppression, injustice, and desperation.

Film Style - Recognizable cinematic techniques are used by filmmakers to create specific value in their work. These techniques can include all aspects of film language, including: sound design, mise-en-scène, dialogue, cinematography, editing, or direction.

Cinema of the United States Filmmaking industry in the United States

The cinema of the United States, often called Hollywood, has had a large effect on the film industry in general since the early 20th century. The dominant style of American cinema is classical Hollywood cinema, which developed from 1913 to 1969 and is still typical of most films made there to this day. While Frenchmen Auguste and Louis Lumière are generally credited with the birth of modern cinema, American cinema soon came to be a dominant force in the emerging industry. It produces the largest number of films of any single-language national cinema, with more than 700 English-language films released on average every year. While the national cinemas of the United Kingdom (299), Canada (206), Australia, and New Zealand also produce films in the same language, they are not considered part of the Hollywood system. That said, Hollywood has also been considered a transnational cinema. It produced multiple language versions of some titles, often in Spanish or French. Contemporary Hollywood often outsources production to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Cinema of Hong Kong Hong Kong film industry

The cinema of Hong Kong is one of the three major threads in the history of Chinese language cinema, alongside the cinema of China, and the cinema of Taiwan. As a former British colony, Hong Kong had a greater degree of political and economic freedom than mainland China and Taiwan, and developed into a filmmaking hub for the Chinese-speaking world.

The New Wave is a French art film movement that emerged in the late 1950s. The movement was characterized by its rejection of traditional filmmaking conventions in favor of experimentation and a spirit of iconoclasm. New Wave filmmakers explored new approaches to editing, visual style, and narrative, as well as engagement with the social and political upheavals of the era, often making use of irony or exploring existential themes. The New Wave is often considered one of the most influential movements in the history of cinema.

Art film Film genre

An art film is typically an independent film, aimed at a niche market rather than a mass market audience. It is "intended to be a serious, artistic work, often experimental and not designed for mass appeal", "made primarily for aesthetic reasons rather than commercial profit", and contains "unconventional or highly symbolic content".

New Hollywood, also referred to as the American New Wave or sometimes called the Hollywood Renaissance, refers to a movement in American film history from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, when a new generation of young filmmakers came to prominence in the United States. They influenced the types of film produced, their production and marketing, and the way major studios approached film-making. In New Hollywood films, the film director, rather than the studio, took on a key authorial role. The definition of New Hollywood varies, depending on the author, with some defining it as a movement and others as a period. The span of the period is also a subject of debate, as well as its integrity, as some authors, such as Thomas Schatz, argue that the New Hollywood consists of several different movements. The films made in this movement are stylistically characterized in that their narrative often strongly deviated from classical norms. After the demise of the studio system and the rise of television, the commercial success of films was diminished.

Experimental film, experimental cinema, or avant-garde cinema is a mode of filmmaking that rigorously re-evaluates cinematic conventions and explores non-narrative forms or alternatives to traditional narratives or methods of working. Many experimental films, particularly early ones, relate to arts in other disciplines: painting, dance, literature and poetry, or arise from research and development of new technical resources.

Narrative film, fictional film or fiction film is a motion picture that tells a fictional or fictionalized story, event or narrative. Commercial narrative films with running times of over an hour are often referred to as feature films, or feature-length films. The earliest narrative films, around the turn of the 20th century, were essentially filmed stage plays and for the first three or four decades these commercial productions drew heavily upon the centuries-old theatrical tradition.

Deep focus

Deep focus is a photographic and cinematographic technique using a large depth of field. Depth of field is the front-to-back range of focus in an image, or how much of it appears sharp and clear. In deep focus, the foreground, middle ground, and background are all in focus.

David Bordwell

David Jay Bordwell is an American film theorist and film historian. Since receiving his PhD from the University of Iowa in 1974, he has written more than fifteen volumes on the subject of cinema including Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (1988), Making Meaning (1989), and On the History of Film Style (1997).

Cinéma du look was a French film movement of the 1980s and 1990s, analysed, for the first time, by French critic Raphaël Bassan in La Revue du Cinéma issue n° 448, May 1989, in which he classified Luc Besson, Jean-Jacques Beineix and Leos Carax as directors of the "look".

Kristin Thompson is an American film theorist and author whose research interests include the close formal analysis of films, the history of film styles, and "quality television," a genre akin to art film. She wrote two scholarly books in the 1980s which used an analytical technique called neoformalism. As well, she has co-authored two widely used film studies textbooks with her husband David Bordwell.

Filming back-to-back is the practice of filming two or more movies as one production, reducing costs and time.

Janet Staiger is the William P. Hobby Centennial Professor Emeritus of Communication in the Department of Radio-Television-Film and Professor Emeritus of Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

<i>Theodora</i> (1921 film) 1921 film

Theodora is a 1921 Italian silent film dramatization of the life of the Byzantine empress Theodora.

Post-classical editing is a style of film editing characterized by shorter shot lengths, faster cuts between shots, and containing more jump shots and close-ups than classical editing characteristic of films prior to the 1960s.

In film studies, historical poetics is a scholarly approach to studying film, which David Bordwell outlined in his book Making Meaning (1989). Poetics studies the text itself rather than its production, reception or cultural significance and it can therefore be seen as a logical first step - though expressly not the last step - in terms of understanding how a narrative text works.


  1. "Classical and Post-Classical Hollywood Cinema Essay – History Hollywo". Archived from the original on November 9, 2018. Retrieved November 9, 2018.
  2. "The Ancient Art of Falling DownVaudeville Cinema between Hollywood and China". MCLC Resource Center. August 29, 2017. Archived from the original on December 15, 2017. Retrieved December 14, 2017.
  3. Archived May 2, 2019, at the Wayback Machine German Expressionist Cinema- The World of Light and Shadow-Columbia University Press
  4. "Music and Cinema, Classical Hollywood". Oxford Bibliographies Online. Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on April 11, 2020. Retrieved December 4, 2019.
  5. 1 2 Goldburg, Michael. "Classical Hollywood Cinema (Internet Archive)". Archived from the original on May 31, 2007. Retrieved May 31, 2007.
  6. The Classic Hollywood Narrative Style at the Department of History, University of San Diego.
  7. "The Marx Brothers - Vaudeville Shows". Archived from the original on June 24, 2021. Retrieved June 18, 2021.
  8. Georges Sadoul. Всеобщая история кино. Moscow, Iskustvo, 1958. Т. 3. p. 178
  9. Archived August 29, 2017, at the Wayback Machine Evgenii Bauer (1865–1917)
  10. Brownlow, Kevin (1968). The Parade's Gone By..., University of California Press, p. 78. ISBN   0-520-03068-0.
  11. "1917: The Year That Changed The Movies — The San Francisco Silent Film Festival". Archived from the original on June 24, 2021. Retrieved June 18, 2021.
  12. "The Star - Annenberg Learner". Archived from the original on June 24, 2021. Retrieved June 18, 2021.
  13. "Golden Age of Hollywood: Movies, Actors and Actresses ***". Archived from the original on July 26, 2018. Retrieved July 26, 2018.
  14. "Expressive Experimentalism in Silent Cinema 1926–1929-Lucia Maria Pier". Archived from the original on July 26, 2018. Retrieved July 26, 2018.
  15. "The Studio System - Annenberg Learner". Archived from the original on June 24, 2021. Retrieved June 18, 2021.
  16. "The Top 25 Films Of 1939: A Look Back At "The Greatest Year In Movies"|Film Inquiry". Archived from the original on June 24, 2021. Retrieved June 18, 2021.
  17. Bordwell, David; Staiger, Janet; Thompson, Kristin (1985): The Classical Hollywood Cinema. Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Press. 1–59
  18. "Continuity Editing in Hitchcock's Rear Window". Archived from the original on June 11, 2010. Retrieved April 7, 2010.
  19. "The Hollywood Style - Annenberg Learner". Archived from the original on June 24, 2021. Retrieved June 18, 2021.
  20. Bordwell: 24
  21. "The Jazz Singer (1927)|UC Berkeley Library". Archived from the original on June 24, 2021. Retrieved June 18, 2021.
  22. "Why You Shouldn't Watch The Birth of a Nation (AND WHY YOU SHOULD)|Brows Held High on YouTube". Archived from the original on June 24, 2021. Retrieved June 18, 2021.
  23. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on August 19, 2019. Retrieved June 30, 2021.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  24. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on April 12, 2019. Retrieved May 27, 2019.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  25. "The idea of "classic Hollywood narration" derives from The Classical Hollywood Cinema (1985), by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson". Archived from the original on May 27, 2019. Retrieved May 27, 2019.
  26. "New Hollywood -JT Esterkamp – Medium". Archived from the original on July 17, 2018. Retrieved January 29, 2020.
  27. "French New Wave: The Influencing of the Influencers – The Film Stage". Archived from the original on January 29, 2020. Retrieved January 29, 2020.

Further reading